Cabinet Secretary for Parliamentary Business and Government Strategy
A Question of Independence: How the Referendum Will Work
The Scotsman Conference
March 8, 2012
Have your say in the referendum consultation
Today I will talk about the Scottish Government’s plans for a fair, open and clear referendum.
You can find a lot more detail in our consultation document. I will return to some of the major issues later and look forward to your questions.
The debate on Scotland’s future
The pace of change in Scotland is accelerating. Devolution took a century to be delivered. The last decade has embedded the Scottish Parliament as the focal point of public life.
We now see a Scotland Bill which has been overtaken by events before it even reaches the statute book. The momentum and direction of change are unmistakable.
Our discussions today are part of a much wider debate on Scotland’s constitutional future. That debate will continue over the next two and a half years.
The debate must be thorough, thoughtful and constructive.
The decision facing the people of Scotland is, after all, the most important in 300 years – whether to become an independent nation.
History and context
My starting point is that the population of Scotland is sovereign.
Before the Act of Union in 1707, Scotland was both a nation and a state. Within the United Kingdom, sovereignty still lies with the people of Scotland.
That principle has its origins in the Declaration of Arbroath of 1320. It was refined by George Buchanan in the late 16th century. It was restated in Scotland’s first Claim of Right in 1689.
Three hundred years later, in 1989, a new Claim of Right was proclaimed by the Scottish Constitutional Convention.
And on 26 January this year, the Scottish Parliament debated the following motion tabled by the Deputy First Minister:
“This Parliament acknowledges the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of Government best suited to their needs, and declares and pledges that in all its actions and deliberations their interests shall be paramount.”
It is telling that this motion was passed with the support of all parties except one – the Scottish Conservatives.
The people of Scotland – alone – have the right to decide how we are governed. That is what should mean to live in a democracy.
Yet look at the make-up of the Scottish Parliament. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats make up about 15% of the membership.
You can see from that the lack of appetite of Scotland to be governed by the current coalition in the UK Parliament.
Democracy and Unionist confusion
The most important principle for the referendum is democracy. The vote must be free and fair. It must be recognised as legitimate by everyone in this land.
And it must not artificially exclude options that command significant support. The Scottish Government has a clear preference for a question on independence.
But if there a groundswell of support for more powers within the union then that should be put to the people too.
In these circumstances if you leave off the ballot the paper an option that many people want you play fast and loose with democracy.
It is not for one party, nor all the parties, to dictate to the people what they can and cannot vote for. This referendum must be by and for the people – not the concerns of political fixers.
The people must also have the time and information to make a proper, informed choice. There are those in the pro-Union parties who would cut down both the time and information.
In fact it is far from clear what the pro-Union parties are now proposing. They seem particularly uncommunicative, even unreflective, at the moment.
Had we had this debate a year ago I would have made the positive case for independence. Three others would have united in shouting me down.
But now there are more varieties of unionism than ever before. A new one seems to emerge every day.
To quote Iain MacWhirter in the Sunday Herald:
“Suddenly you can't move for commissions on fiscal devolution. It makes the unionist demands for an early referendum on independence look oddly premature. If there were an early ballot, what on earth would Scots be voting for? Independence is clear … But on the other side there is now a shifting kaleidoscope of constitutional formulas occupying the unionist space. “
In October, David Cameron said: “barring minor adjustments, I expect the Scotland Bill to settle the issue for a generation or longer”.
Now he’s suggesting he’ll be looking to devolve further powers following the referendum. No wonder Alex Fergusson said the PM had blurred Ruth Davidson's “line in the sand”.
Alistair Darling says that the Scottish Parliament should raise what it spends and income tax is an obvious choice for devolution.
But Johann Lamont will not even go that far, saying: “I will not be seduced into the place where which powers you demand is a test of political virility”.
The position of the Lib Dems is no clearer and no more consistent.
Nick Clegg says: “We need to settle the independence question first. But if the Scottish people decide they want to remain in the United Kingdom, then we can get on with the business of giving Scotland more power.”
But Willie Rennie tells his conference: “I think our strategy for the referendum should be simple. We should set out the potential for Scotland, a powerful force within the United Kingdom, with domestic control through home rule.”
I welcome all this. Debate is healthy. But let me be clear about two things. First, it means that the status quo is finished.
The idea that there is a simple debate of the union versus independence is unsustainable.
Everyone can see there is a range of options about the how the people of Scotland can be governed.
We know that at one end of this range is independence. What we don’t know is what exists at the other end. What is the union?
Second, it is simply unacceptable to go into a referendum on the greatest question our nation has faced in over 300 years without telling the people what they are voting for.
“Only when you vote No can we work out what happens next” - is the only position that the pro-union parties seem to share.
This proposition is everything our referendum must not be. It is unfair to the people. It is not open with the people. It is not clear for the people. It is profoundly undemocratic.
So the question of where the pro-Union parties are is of great importance – not least to the process of the referendum.
The Scottish Government believes that the people should have the decision on whether to vote on more powers or independence in the Referendum.
The anti -independence camp do not think their plans should be put to the vote and only after the people have said no to independence.
It seems to me that until the anti-independence parties have the courage to put their ever-changing plans to proper democratic scrutiny, they will not – and do not deserve – to be taken seriously.
Jeremy Purvis has suggested that a “no” vote in the referendum could be interpreted as support for devolution of tax-raising powers.
That is not good enough. We must seek the explicit consent of the Scottish people to this kind of change if we are to respect their sovereignty.
The Scottish Government's consultation is encouraging a wide debate on these issues, involving all of Scotland's political parties.
Crucially that must also involve civic Scotland - the organisations and communities which make up the fabric of the community of the realm of Scotland.
Turning to the detail of our proposals. During the 2011 Holyrood election campaign my party made two key commitments on the constitution.
We promised that in the first half of any new SNP administration, we would work to strengthen the Scotland Bill to give it economic teeth.
We said that we would then hold a referendum on independence in the second half of the Scottish Parliament's five-year term.
These commitments were endorsed overwhelmingly by the Scottish people. I consider them binding.
The argument currently being adopted by people who have always opposed a referendum is that that because independence is such an important issue, the referendum should be rushed.
That cannot be right.
It is precisely because independence is important that all stages of the process leading up to a referendum take place over a timescale which allows the Scottish people to reach an informed decision.
We have scheduled the referendum for autumn 2014. This timing is based on a timetable set out in Your Scotland Your Referendum. It allows for full public and parliamentary consideration of the proposals.
It also ensures compliance with the Gould Report into the 2007 Scottish elections, which recommended that the regulations governing a poll should be in place at least six months before polling day.
We have heard suggestions that Scotland's economy is being damaged by a supposed delay.
But look at the facts. In recent months Amazon, Michelin, Dell, Gamesa, and Aveloq, among others, have all announce major investments in Scotland.
As the Financial Times has said, Westminster's "pretext for accelerating the poll – that uncertainty is damaging the economy – looks disingenuous at best. As threats go, the risks posed are as a fleabite compared with the all-devouring Eurozone crisis."
Those with good memories will notice that there’s something very familiar about such scare tactics. The Conservatives took exactly the same line in the run up to the 1997 referendum.
They predicted that devolution would be a disaster for Scottish jobs, that overseas investment would dry up. Ian Lang said at the 1994 Conservative Party Conference:
“A key part of our attraction to overseas investors is our stability and our full and equal participation in the United Kingdom. Those who would upset either of those things should be conscious of the price thousands of Scots would pay with their jobs.”
Baroness Thatcher claimed in an article in The Scotsman that devolution could “only deter foreign investors and drive talent south of the Border or beyond our shores.”
They were wrong then and they are wrong now. Scotland has benefited from its devolved government. Business investment is strong. Our fiscal position is stronger that that of the UK's.
In addition to dictating timescales and restricting options, the UK Government and the other parties want to close off discussion about other key elements of the referendum.
Our consultation paper makes crystal clear that the referendum will meet the highest standards of fairness, transparency and propriety.
The most important decision by the people of Scotland in 300 years must be beyond reproach.
That is why we have proposed a referendum question which even the leader of the Scottish Conservatives has acknowledged is a "fair and decisive legal question".
It is why we have proposed appointing the Electoral Commission to regulate the referendum.
It is why we have committed ourselves to publishing a white paper next year setting out the detailed proposals for independence.
The Electoral Commission has issued a public response to our consultation. It has confirmed that it is willing to take on the oversight of the referendum.
We will consider the Commission’s points fully as we develop our proposals. It has drawn particular attention to the need to allow proper time to prepare for the referendum.
We agree. The Commission's comments on our proposed timetable are in stark contrast with the attempt by the UK Government to rush through the referendum by Autumn 2013.
This difference is particularly stark over the time needed for the testing and assessment of the referendum question.
The UK Government has suggested that the question testing could run in parallel with the Parliamentary stages of the legislation.
The UK Government’s proposals would be no way to ensure either the fairness of the question, or proper parliamentary scrutiny.
The Electoral Commission's response agrees with our view that the process should be completed before the Referendum Bill is introduced in the Scottish Parliament.
That will enable the committee considering the bill to be fully informed of all the facts.
The Scottish Government and the Electoral Commission are also agreed that the question should be properly and independently tested.
We are happy to work with the Commission to put the role that the Commission will play in that on an appropriate statutory basis.
The UK Government has raised legal and technical concerns about the Scottish Government’s right to hold a referendum.
A wide range of opinion has been expressed about whether or not the Scottish Parliament has the power to hold a referendum consulting the Scottish people about independence.
We have set out our position in the consultation paper.
As the First Minister said in his statement to the Scottish Parliament in January, we share with the UK Government a wish that this referendum should be decided by the views of the electorate, not on the basis of technical disputes about parliamentary competence.
We have set out in the past how the Scottish Parliament could hold a referendum which we are satisfied would be within its competence.
Much independent legal opinion supports the Scottish Government's view.
However, we have absolutely no objection to Westminster passing a Section 30 order if they believe this to be necessary or desirable to put the referendum effectively beyond legal challenge.
That is within their power. What we object to is any attempt to use such an order as a means of dictating the format of the referendum.
A fundamental point in all of this is that the Scottish Parliament has the mandate to determine the referendum process.
As Canon Kenyon Wright has said, the referendum on Scotland's future must be made here in Scotland.
Even the Prime Minister has agreed that it is a matter for the Scottish people to decide.
Westminster legislation which dictates rather than enables would not just be unacceptable to the Scottish Government. It would be contrary to the rights of the people of Scotland.
Independence as a means to an end
I believe that when the people of Scotland are given the opportunity to make a decision that is well-informed, decisive and authoritative, then they will do just that.
Scotland is on a journey. There is historical continuity to this debate, and a sense of purpose. Scotland is going forward towards a more prosperous and fairer society
The Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh already takes a range of key decisions on running our schools, hospitals, police and much else besides.
In those areas, we have been able to do things differently. Differently - and better - for Scotland.
Independence will give Scotland the opportunity to make different decisions and to implement policies designed for its own needs in every area.
That means we will be able to make Scotland the country that we all know it can be: a wealthier and fairer nation.
And a country that speaks with its own voice, that is responsible for raising its own money and takes responsibility for its own future.
We can be both independent and interdependent: we can stand on our own two feet while working closely with other nations, our friends and our neighbours.
Independence will create a new, more modern relationship between the nations of these islands - a partnership of equals.
And it will make Scotland an equal and responsible member of the community of nations, in Europe and internationally.
We want Scotland to be independent not because we think that we are better than any other country, but because we know that we are just as good as any other country.
I believe that it would be fundamentally better for us all if decisions about Scotland’s future are taken by the people who care most about Scotland – that is the people of Scotland.
They have the greatest stake in making Scotland a success.
The Scottish Government is seeking independence not just as an end in itself.
Our purpose is to reform the relationship between the people and the state, and to have a state which better reflects the will of the people.
Independence will enable the Scottish economy to grow more strongly and sustainably.
It will allow Scotland to take its rightful place as a responsible member of the world community.
And it will provide the means by which the Scottish people can best fulfil their potential and realise their aspirations.
In conclusion, the Scottish Government has set out the proposed process for a referendum on independence in Your Scotland Your Referendum. This consultation will continue until 11 May.
We have already had more than three thousand responses, and they continue to flood in. I urge you to read the consultation document and have your say.
The people of Scotland are a sovereign people who have the right to decide how they are governed.
Independence is the best means by which people in Scotland can shape their own future.
Our plans for the referendum will give the people of Scotland the opportunity to make a clear and informed decision on our constitutional future.
The alternative – as things stand today – is unknown, and, if the pro-Union parties have their way, unknowable until after we have chosen. An absurd position.
But the status quo is over and done with, and the future is about change fairness and democracy.
Once those in the anti-independence parties join us to debate these issues properly, then things will get interesting.
Have your say in the referendum consultation