‘Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?’

Well, the essential question proposed by Alex Salmond in his consultation paper is surely good enough to satisfy the UK government’s requirement for a clear question on independence. That’s one stumbling block out of the way, I reckon.  But Westminster ‘s rival paper is clearly opposed  to a second question on anything like devo max.

These are two different issues, and should be considered separately. If these two questions were asked together, there would be four possible outcomes, and potentially four different campaigns, each arguing for a different result. On an issue as important as whether Scotland remains part of the UK, the arguments must be presented clearly, to allow people in Scotland to make an informed decision. Having four different campaigns would not help to generate clarity.

The questionnaire in the UK consultation does not include a specific question on devo max, asking only:   “What are your views on the question or questions to be asked in a referendum?”

In his consultation paper, Salmond tiptoes round devo max:

 The Scottish Government has consistently made it clear in … its 2010 consultation paper on a draft referendum Bill that it is willing to include a question on further devolution in the referendum. That remains the Scottish Government’s position. It will listen carefully to the views and arguments put forward on this issue in response to this consultation.

No insistence there then on devo max as a hedged bet in the referendum, even if it might be the preferred option of a Scottish majority. Salmond seems also to have  conceded Westminster’s authority to delegate referendum powers to Holyrood under Section 30 of the Scotland Act – ( see this discussion), provided they are given “ without conditions” – whatever that may mean. On the other hand, while the UK coalition wants a referendum “sooner rather than later “ it looks as if their objections to Salmond ‘s timetable have eased for it to be held in the autumn of 2014:

 We have not set out a view on a specific date for a referendum in this paper and we welcome views on the date by which a referendum should be held.

  This would in any case give the “devo more ” ( not max)  forces time  to group and hone their arguments.  The Westminster consultation ends on 9 March, Holyrood’s on 11 May. Westminster then will get in the first blow, armed with the some assessment of public opinion.

Will they play hard ball and tell Salmond; it’s one question, for or against independence; do you want your referendum or not?


Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London