The deadline for submissions to the Westminster government’s consultation on the conduct of the referendum on Scotland’s constitutional future passed on Friday 9 March.
The Holyrood government’s consultation on the referendum has a later submissions deadline of 11 May.
The “model response” to the consultations drawn up by the Scottish Labour Party argues in favour of a single-question referendum: “... in order to give a definitive answer on whether or not Scotland remains part of the UK.”
There is a democratic basis for that position. The referendum is being held because the SNP’s 2011 election manifesto included a commitment to hold a referendum for/against independence.
Calls for the inclusion of a further question — on “devo max”, which has now morphed into “devo plus” — would do nothing to clarify the basic issue at stake in the referendum.
Even so, the proposal that there should be a third option is gaining traction, from sections of “civic Scotland”, some trade unions, and, in a characteristically mealy-mouthed fashion, from the Scottish TUC.
The SNP — or at least its leader Alex Salmond, who now appears to be empowered to make SNP policy on the hoof — has stated that it will support a third question if the consultation process demonstrates support for it.
The SNP wants the ballot paper to ask the leading question: “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?” Some opponents of independence want the question to be along the lines of “Do you support the break-up of the United Kingdom?”
The SNP’s argument on that is they are not proposing to break up the United Kingdom. The independent Scotland they want would still retain the monarchy. They are proposing to annul only the Treaty of Union of 1707, not the earlier Union of the Crowns.
Linked to these issues is the question of which body should oversee the referendum. This question is addressed by both the Westminster and Holyrood consultations.
The Scottish Labour Party — and just about everyone opposed to independence — wants the referendum overseen by the existing Electoral Commission. The SNP wants to create a new, Scottish, electoral commission specifically for the purpose of the referendum.
Support for the referendum being overseen by the Electoral Commission is rooted in the belief that the SNP is not to be trusted with setting up a body to oversee the referendum.
The SNP is, after all, the organisation that argues that if a majority in the referendum votes for independence (say, 51%) but an even bigger majority votes for “devo max” (say, 80%), then this would be a mandate for independence.
Why? Because as independence incorporates “devo max” the bigger majority would still get what they voted for (“devo max” plus a bit more!)
Another issue addressed by the consultations is the timing of the referendum. The SNP wants it to be held in the autumn of 2014. Most opponents of independence want it to be held next year (the soonest it could realistically be staged).
The SNP calculates an October 2014 date will increase their chances of securing a majority for independence.
It is already clear that the SNP will try to run its campaign as a vote of “no confidence” in the Tory Westminster government, rather than around the democratic and national issues posed by the nature of the United Kingdom as it is currently constituted.
The “good” reason why some opponents of independence want the referendum held earlier is an alleged negative impact on the Scottish economy arising from uncertainty about its future constitutional status. The real reason is that they reckon that an early referendum is more likely to produce an anti-independence outcome.
Also subject to consultation is the question of who should be entitled to vote in the referendum. The SNP is proposing that the franchise be extended to 16- and 17-year-olds, who are more likely than not to vote for independence.
Despite the self-serving motivation of the SNP, making the referendum as democratic as possible does require giving the vote to 16- and 17-year-olds.
In fact, if the major Westminster parties had not shown a total lack of interest in extending the franchise for all elections to 16- and 17-year-olds, this would not even be an issue. Their failure to do so is now catching up with them — as the SNP can now posture as the champion of rights for young people.
The SNP/Alex Salmond has stated that it will not launch its pro-independence campaign until May, because it is “so confident about winning the referendum”.
No doubt Salmond’s confidence was boosted by press baron Rupert Murdoch’s recently announced support for independence. (Just another nail in the coffin of the Scottish left’s claim that independence for Scotland would be a blow against British imperialism and the beginning of the socialist revolution!)
The labour movement should cut through all the nonsense now surfacing around the issue of the referendum.
It should back a straightforward yes/no referendum, with the franchise extended to 16- and 17-year-olds. It should also counterpose an “all-round” democratic restructuring of the UK state — in the form of a federal republic — to the SNP’s advocacy of a capitalist, neo-liberal and monarchist independent Scotland.
Labour movement activists should also be demanding that the Scottish Labour Party scrap the unrepresentative commission which it has set up to decide “the party line” on the referendum.
The party’s policy should be democratically decided by a specially convened conference. As a recent press release from the Labour-left Campaign for Socialism puts it:
“The terms of the referendum debate must not be dictated by narrow nationalist interests. The Scottish Labour Party needs a full debate, ranging from full independence through to devo-max, indy-lite, devo-plus, federalism, home rule, etc., concluding with a special conference in the autumn.
“We want a full discussion, and one which exposes the empty nationalist rhetoric of the SNP, which is no more than a cloak for a tartan neo-liberalism. The way to defeat the SNP is from the left, and the way to develop the left ideas necessary to do that is through dialogue and democracy.”