Welcome to my Blog

It mostly covers my work as UNISON Scotland's Head of Policy and Public Affairs although views are my own. For full coverage of UNISON Scotland's policy and campaigns please visit our web site. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Independence referendum

At the risk of adding to the many column inches on this subject, I will offer a few of my own thoughts on the immediate process issues having finished a briefing, discussion paper and presentation for UNISON branches.

I can't get very excited about the wording of the question. Yes, the SNP version is obviously a leading question, but by the end of this very long debate everyone in Scotland should know what they are voting for. The simple solution with these matters is that they should be set by an independent Commission as suggested by the STUC.

On timing, I understand the SNP's tactical considerations. The Autumn of 2014 follows lots of positive events including the Commonwealth Games, Bannockburn anniversary and the Ryder Cup. Plus at least the prospect of a Tory election victory in 2016. It has hard to think of a more propitious date. For the rest of us 30 more months of this is a tough shift and more importantly a distraction from the big issues facing Scotland. It will be seven years from the first consultation paper to the referendum. It took Labour a year to deliver the devolution referendum.

This long delay is not entirely risk free from an SNP perspective. Apart from voter fatigue a long campaign gives much more time to expose the detail of the case for independence. If the SNP strategy is keep the debate high level and emotional, a long campaign could be tricky. And there is also the First Minister problem. Can he keep to the script for for that length of time? Early evidence on issues like defence would suggest that he will find that challenging.

On the franchise there appears to be a surprising degree on agreement between the UK and Scottish governments. The main difference is 16 and 17 year old voting. UNISON has long supported extending the vote to this group and I agree with that. If you are old enough to pay taxes you are old enough to vote in my book. Of course if you move from the current franchise on this you open up the debate in other areas.

One of those areas is the ex-pat vote. I suspect SNP strategists believe 16/17 year olds are a plus for them and ex-pats are not. I am not so sure. Polling and voting are not the same thing and some studies show that giving young people the vote doesn't necessarily make much difference. I come from an ex-pat family and my experience is that Scots outwith the country can often have a romantic view of Scotland that might play well with an emotional campaign theme.

Then we have the thorny issue of a third option on extended devolution, devo-max etc.

While it is rarely articulated in public many SNP members are furious at the idea. Here we are with the best chance of achieving independence for a generation and a watered down option appears. Give people three options, the middle way is always going to be attractive, particularly when opinion polls show that this is the long standing preference of most Scots. Jim Sillars clearly articulates the strategy behind the First Minister's support for this approach. Whatever the final option it will cause plenty of internal party friction.

So what of Labour's options. The leadership preference, particularly at Westminster, appears to be for a straightforward yes/no option. While most Scottish Labour MPs have moved on from their negative approach to devolution, getting agreement on the next stage is still tricky. I speak from personal experience as the person who chaired Scottish Labour's Calman Working Group. Not one of my easier jobs!

The strategy would be to defeat the referendum making a weakened SNP that much easier to defeat in the 2016 election.The problem with this approach is that the very voters Labour need to attract are generally in favour of greater devolution and may well punish a party that blocks their favoured option. Promises like Cameron gave this week for another look simply are not credible when you consider the timescales and political factors required to deliver that approach. In addition much of the SNP support last year had little or nothing to do with independence. Voters can still make a judgement on which party is best placed to protect Scotland from the Tories at Westminster and Holyrood and run the country in the most effective way, in tune with their values. It is also a high risk option forcing home rulers to choose between nationalist and unionist options.

Of course an extended devolution option requires a broad consensus on a credible plan. No one can be under any illusion as to how difficult that will be to achieve. Getting agreement on the principle of devolution was challenging, the next stage is much more contentious. The current grouping of Civic Scotland organisations taking this forward include some strange bedfellows. Right wing think tanks like Reform Scotland have a vision for Scotland that is not shared by many outwith the Thatcherite fringe, let alone the trade unions. Even if a consensus can be achieved, the question to be asked and how it relates to the other options is far from straightforward.

None the less it it right that we make an effort to develop a consensus on extended devolution. A constitutional debate on Scotland's future without the current majority option on the table would be wrong.

Finally, interesting and important though these issues are they are not the only consideration. Once we get past process we should be more concerned to develop a vision of the sort of Scotland we want to live in. Then we can measure the constitutional options against that vision.


  1. Largely agree with this analysis. I think Labour should grasp the nettle and promote a devolution option. They would then be able to promote a positive campaign rather than a negative one. As that is likely to be the winning option they can go into the 2016 elections on a high.

  2. I support greater devolution of powers to Scotland. But can a consensus really be achieved with the ex Tory research department at Reform Scotland? Not to mention the IoD!

  3. Just read Mcleish's interview in Holyrood Magazine. Labour should say "Most Scots want to stay in the union, but would also like the union transformed, so let's not waste a lot of time, lets defeat independence by offering an alternative"

    Critical judgement call for new Scottish Labour leadership. I think they should ignore siren voices from some at Westminster and go with this strategy.