Scottish independence: Referendum wrangling

Union Jack and Scottish Saltire The UK government wants a single question referendum on Scottish independence

The Scottish government's referendum consultation has ended, marking the latest phase in the programmed push towards the ballot in the autumn of 2014.

Before the deadline the Scotland Office came forward with demands for talks with Mr Salmond, seeking agreement on the legality, the oversight and the question.

You may think the Westminster government is taking a very close interest in a Holyrood policy with which it disagrees and which will have no direct impact on Westminster whatsoever if, as the secretary of state tell us, the people vote No.

Presumably Michael Moore and David Cameron are determined to cooperate with Mr Salmond to make sure his plans are properly implemented. Or something like that.

But are they following the right path in involving themselves - or is the word interfering?

The theory is that without Westminster endorsement, the referendum has little authority and is open to legal challenge.

So, by giving it statutory power, London underwrites the credibility of the result and uses this as a tool to lever its way into influencing the question (a single Yes-No) and denying the SNP sole oversight. So far so clear.

Widespread apathy

However, in the interests of throwing a spanner in the works, here is an alternative view from 2014.

The referendum falls in the run-up to a British General Election and the Scots are less than enamoured of the choices on view and disengaged from politics.

They are also bored with the endless referendum debate and when voting starts there is widespread apathy. The turnout is down between 35 to 40% with a differential pro SNP vote. The result is a wafer thin Yes at below 51%. It barely looks like a mandate for major irreversible constitutional change.

If the referendum is purely advisory with no obvious legal authority and indeed legal challenges are fired into the courts, David Cameron can shake his head solemnly and declare it inadequate.

He will not discuss independence on such a tiny majority on such a small turnout. He is supported by all the other parties and Mr Salmond is left to fume.

Ballot boxes The Scottish government wants to hold the referendum in the autumn of 2014

But if, on the other hand, Mr Cameron has conferred the full weight of British legality on the referendum he removes all of his wriggle room.

He is committed to honouring his agreement and opening immediate talks on disaggregation. The stamp of Her Majesty's Government is already marked on the result.

You can see the smirk on Mr Salmond's face. He has Cameron in his fly trap, especially so if he has already agreed to the British demand for a single question.

A second option for more devolution could have clouded the issue and given the Prime Minister breathing space.

Involving itself directly in the referendum can rebound on the British Government.

It could have effectively ignored the whole process and, on the long-shot possibility that there is a Yes in an SNP-run vote, it could have introduced the legality question retrospectively, denouncing the Holyrood referendum as a mere advisory plebiscite, a kind of government opinion poll.

Instead it is relying on the epic assumption that it knows, two and a half years ahead, how the Scots will vote.

Mr Cameron may well be right but if the government is wrong, it cannot argue its way out. It will be too late.

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