Electoral Commission advice leaves Unionists under pressure to define ‘No’

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  By Bob Duncan
 
Anti-independence parties have been urged to agree a “joint position” with the Scottish government on what will happen after the independence referendum, following a key recommendation by the Electoral Commission.
 
After ten weeks of interviews, testing and analysis, the EC commissioners have today released their report which makes three key recommendations.

The first two concern the question to be asked on the ballot paper and the spending limits for the opposing campaigns in the 16 weeks before the referendum takes place.

The two main campaigns – Yes Scotland and Better Together – will each be allowed to spend £1.5m, there will also also be changes in the cap for political parties, which will see both sides allowed to spend broadly equal amounts.

The original question put forward by the Scottish government has been amended to remove the phrase ‘Do you agree’.  Scottish voters will now be asked “Should Scotland be an independent country”.

Those two recommendations impact areas which are the sole responsibility of the Scottish government, who have committed to implement them in full. This decision has already been welcomed by each of the unionist parties.

In official responses issued today, both the Scottish government and its UK counterpart agreed to stand by all of the recommendations put forward by the Commission.

However, commissioners have also urged the two governments to hold talks leading to the publication of a  “joint position” on what will take place after the Autumn of 2014 “so that voters have access to agreed information about what would follow the referendum”, whether it is a Yes or No.

In making this recommendation, the Electoral Commission report specifically draws a link with last October’s Edinburgh Agreement between Holyrood and Westminster, which commits the two governments “to continue to work together constructively in the light of the outcome, whatever it is, in the best interests of the people of Scotland and of the rest of the United Kingdom.”

The recommendation effectively calls on the pro-Union Better Together campaign to outline what voting ‘No’ will mean in terms of Scotland’s constitutional future.  It also puts pressure on the UK government to enter into pre-referendum talks with the Scottish government in order to lay the ground work should the referendum result in a ‘Yes’ vote.

The recommendation has already highlighted potential clashes within the Better Together alliance, with the Labour party calling for all sides to adhere to the commission’s advice in full.  However, the UK government has recently refused to engage with Holyrood on key areas, insisting that talks will not take place until after the vote.

This EC recommendation echoes recent calls by Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon for pre-referendum discussions between the two governments about the issues which would require to be negotiated after a Yes vote.

The Scottish National Party has warmly welcomed this recommendation, committing to implement it in full, and has pressed the UK government to agree to such talks taking place before the 2014 referendum.

Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon

The coalition, however, is still refusing to commit to holding talks, despite the UK Government and opposition parties previously saying that the Electoral Commission recommendations and “judgement” must be implemented in full. 

In October 2012 Scottish Secretary Michael Moore said of the commission:

“To over-rule its judgement would invite the charge of rigging and bias – tainting the process. So while every UK government has had the power to do so, none ever has.”

SNP MSP Bruce Crawford – who chairs the Referendum Bill Committee – said:

“This is a landmark recommendation by the Electoral Commission – which they base on the Edinburgh Agreement – and one which the UK Government must immediately commit to. 

“The Tory-led government at Westminster and the No campaign have said time and again that the Electoral Commission recommendations must be implemented in full – therefore they must abandon their obstructionist stance of rejecting pre-referendum talks to prepare for a possible Yes result, in line with the Commission’s recommendation at paragraph 5.43.

“Unless they accept this recommendation without equivocation, and agree to pre-referendum talks with the Scottish Government, the Tory-led government will stand accused of tainting the process.”

Immediately after publication of the EC report, Westminster SNP leader Angus Robertson pressed UK Prime Minister David Cameron to confirm whether his government would implement the recommendations, which included spelling out exactly what a ‘No’ vote would mean:

“The Scottish Government has today accepted the very welcome proposals of the Electoral Commission in relation to the Independence referendum in full. Amongst those recommendations is that the UK Government and the Scottish Government should jointly agree to clarify what process will follow the referendum for either outcome.

“Given that the UK Government and indeed the Labour party have called for the full acceptance of the Electoral Commission recommendations will the Prime Minister today give a commitment that he will work with the Scottish Government in advance of the referendum to come up with this joint position?”

However, Mr Cameron refused to confirm if his government would indeed heed the advice from the commission.

He replied: “Well first of all can I welcome the fact that the SNP  have accepted what the Electoral Commission found because they were worried that frankly it was a biased question, and so I think it is good they have accepted that.

“Of course we will work with the Scottish Government in providing information, but let me be clear about what we won’t do – we will not  pre-negotiate Scotland’s exit from the United Kingdom. It is frankly his party that wants to break up the United Kingdom and it is for his party to make the case”

There was confusing messages from the coalition with Scottish Secretary Michael Moore insisting that publications planned over the next few months will ensure that Westminster’s position would be “easily clarified”.

Scottish Electoral Commissioner John McCormick said: “People had a clear understanding that ‘independent country’ meant being separate from the UK.

“But they did want factual information in advance about what will happen after the referendum.”

Scottish Electoral Commissioner John McCormick

The report states in detail:

  • 5.41 In the event of a ‘Yes’ vote, there would be a range of issues to be resolved within the UK and internationally about the terms of independence. Although we would not expect the terms of independence to be agreed between the two governments before the vote, clarity about how the terms of independence will be decided would help voters understand how the competing claims made by referendum campaigners before the referendum will be resolved.
  • 5.42 We recommend that the UK and Scottish Governments should clarify what process will follow the referendum in sufficient detail to inform people what will happen if most voters vote ‘Yes’ and what will happen if most voters vote ‘No’.
  • 5.43 We recommend that both Governments should agree a joint position, if possible, so that voters have access to agreed information about what would follow the referendum. The alternative – two different explanations – could cause confusion for voters rather than make things clearer.
  • 5.44 This information would help voters understand what would happen after the referendum, whatever the outcome, and how any competing claims made about independence during the campaigns would be resolved.

Electoral Commission spending recommendations:

  • Yes Scotland and Better Together: £1,500,000
  • Scottish National Party: £1,344,000
  • Scottish Green Party: £150,000
  • Scottish Labour: £834,000
  • Scottish Conservatives: £396,000
  • Scottish Liberal Democrats: £201,000
  • Other registered campaigners: £150,000
  • Campaigns spending below £10,000 are not required to register