The Scottish Government has announced its suggested question for the forthcoming referendum, ‘Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?’
At the same time it has suggested that ‘civic Scotland’ might like to organise, define itself and the idea of ‘devo max’, and ask a second question.
This sounds attractive on first hearing. Two questions would allow ‘devo max’ to be on the ballot paper reflecting some argue where the majority or the largest group of public opinion, currently sits. It would allow us to more easily avoid a potentially divisive debate on ‘Yes/No’ on independence versus the status quo, and sidestep the pains and pitfalls of the black and white tribalism which still characterises too much of Scotland.
Sadly for advocates of a two-vote referendum their arguments do not convince, and are actually a hinder to proper democratic deliberations.
Take the disadvantages of a two-vote question. First, it does not aid clarity or decision making. People have to know the choices they are voting on and understand them in a way which isn’t the preserve of the political anorak or obsessives. Having two votes does not aid the public coming to a considered decision of the options after a clear debate.
Then there are problems with who defines ‘devo max’ and then implements it. ‘Devo max’ makes the mistake of assuming the Scots can just follow on from the Scotland Act 1998, unilaterally rewriting the British constitution, further unbalancing asymmetrical devolution, and repatriating powers to Scotland. The 1998 Act followed nearly a century of debate and a gradual build-up and head of steam of support, as well as British goodwill. We cannot rely on this forever; the latter in particular cannot be assumed to be a constant.
The case for a one question referendum is much more straightforward. A one-vote ballot enhances debate and clarity. It allows voters to understand the proposition on offer, and makes much more certain a clear, simple decision where one side wins a majority of opinion.
‘Devo max’ implies a pan-UK set of reforms, establishing common ground and objectives across UK reformers, and could take years. It is not a simple path.
Independence (give or take all the known variables) is a known quality. As Alex Salmond constantly cites there were 50 nation states in 1945 and now there are 193; approximately 50 or so of those have emerged from the rubicon of London rule. None have come back.
There have been 12,000 referendums in the world; 98% of these have been straightforward binary choices. Of the 200 plus multi-option referendums most have dealt with local or smaller issues not the big questions of statecraft. One of the most interesting was the 1920 vote which followed the Temperance (Scotland) Act 1913. This was billed in the press as a ‘national vote’, but was made up of over 550 local ballots in the latter half of 1920. The options offered were full licence, restricted licence and no licence, with few areas opting for the latter. This was Scotland’s first and only multi-option referendum run at ward level – an interesting precedent, but about a much less important issue than independence.
There have been ten multi-option referendums; seven of these have failed to record a majority. A salutary example is offered by Puerto Rico and its debates between independence, becoming a US state, and the status quo. It has had three multi-option votes and has yet to reach a conclusive vote.
Comparisons between a two-vote question today and 1997 are spurious. We need to remember that despite the two questions then they were linked and formed a binary choice. The main choice was between a Parliament with tax raising powers and no Parliament; a third, less popular option existed of a Parliament with no tax raising powers.
There were two campaigns and arguments in 1997. Most voters thought of the debate in this way and voted accordingly. That is a very different proposition from ‘devo max’ and independence.
There is a seemingly powerful argument which emphasises that keeping ‘devo max’ off the ballot paper disenfranchises the views of hundreds of thousands of voters. This sounds superficially convincing.
However the opposite is true. Putting ‘devo max’ on the ballot disenfranchises potentially many more, possibly many more voters, by over-complicating matters.
It isn’t an accident that those who have enmeshed themselves in such matters for the common good, public citizens such as Nigel Smith, who set up the ‘Yes, Yes’ 1997 devolution campaign, and Quintin Oliver, organiser of the pro-Good Friday Agreement (GFA), both make the case for a one question vote and are against two votes.
Smith views, from his insider experience of 1997, that Scotland’s referendum then was about devolution and getting the SNP to agree to take independence out of the debate. He now believes that nearly a generation later this is Scotland’s independence vote. And that equally we need to take devolution out of the 2014 equation.
All of the parties and players in this debate are engaging in positioning, posturing and making hard calculations: the Scottish Government, the unionist parties in Scotland, the UK Government, and the self-defined, self-appointed forces of ‘civic Scotland’.
Two vote supporters worry about what happens if Scotland votes against independence and sense a déjà vu feeling with our politics returning to the dark times and long hangover of Scotland post-1979.
Then anti-devolution forces led by Alec Douglas-Hume argued that a ‘No’ vote wasn’t a vote against devolution and that the Tories would come up with a better set of devolution proposals. Once elected in 1979 the Tories turned their backs on this promise which had swayed many votes in the referendum.
This is a false fear. Scotland is a very different place and nation from 1979. The independence debate will change Scotland. The two most probable options are that, firstly and most straightforward, Scotland votes for and becomes independent; secondly, it achieves a high independence vote but loses the referendum.
The most likely outcome of the second would not be a return to some sad echo of 1979 and the end of the debate. Instead, a high independence vote would invite the British political classes and pro-union forces, if they wish to continue the UK to come up with meaningful reforms and substantial devolution.
We need to have simplicity, clarity and debate and have an uncontested, collective decision that we can all recognise and agree to whatever our opinions. It is that simple and important.
This is a historic, defining moment for all Scotland. It is above all most importantly, a democratic moment. Let’s do it right.
This article was first published in the Scotsman.