Humiliation for No campaign as referendum hijack bid blocked

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By G.A.Ponsonby 
 
An attempt by anti-independence parties to hijack the referendum process has ended in embarrassment after the bid was rejected by the Electoral Commission.
 
Just a day after the three Unionist parties announced plans to draft their own question for the independence referendum and submit it to the Electoral Commission for testing, the Commission has said it is not prepared to look at such a question – confirming that it is for the Scottish Government to make proposals.

By G.A.Ponsonby 
 
An attempt by anti-independence parties to hijack the referendum process has ended in embarrassment after the bid was rejected by the Electoral Commission.
 
Just a day after the three Unionist parties announced plans to draft their own question for the independence referendum and submit it to the Electoral Commission for testing, the Commission has said it is not prepared to look at such a question – confirming that it is for the Scottish Government to make proposals.

Speaking yesterday Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont, who was joined by Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson and Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie had claimed that they would deliver their own “balanced and fair” referendum question.

Ms Lamont had even bizarrely asked First Minister Alex Salmond to join the attempt, and added: “This is an opportunity to agree on one of the fundamental parts of the referendum process in a way that is above party politics and partisan views, and the door is still open for Alex Salmond to join with us and take this forward on a cross-party basis.”
 
Today’s rejection was described as an “utter humiliation” for the No campaign parties by SNP Campaigns Director Angus Robertson.
 
Mr Robertson called the bid a “ham-fisted” attempt that had fallen at the first hurdle, and added:
 
“The Electoral Commission has made clear that it is for the Scottish Government to propose the question and the Scottish Parliament to approve it, which is exactly what is happening.
 
“It was embarrassing enough to see Ruth Davidson trying to back out of describing the Scottish Government’s proposed question as ‘fair and decisive’ but now we see her attempts to propose another question completely discredited.
 
“This is a boomerang for the anti-independence parties who tried to narrow people’s options in the referendum before we’ve even seen the outcome of the Scottish Government’s consultation.
 
“The Tory-led cabal which Labour and the Lib Dems have signed up to will not hijack Scotland’s referendum.  It will be the people of Scotland who will decide Scotland’s future and will not be fooled by this Tory-led campaign.”

Yesterday’s announcement by the Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems of a panel of experts including Dr Matt Qvortrup, Lord Sutherland, and elections expert Ron Gould, who would come up with a question was widely reported in the Scottish media.

According to reports, the three Unionists parties were planning to draft their own referendum question and submit it to the Electoral Commission for approval.

Lord Sutherland said: “The most important political question for over three centuries which now faces the Scottish people, concerns our constitutional relationship with other parts of the United Kingdom.

“A referendum which proposes such a choice requires a clear, understandable, and unbiased question.

“To produce and vote upon such a question is the ultimate test of a mature democracy. For this to be done and seen to be done, it is essential to seek the help of the Electoral Commission. I enter this arena with a sense of humility and openness of mind.”

However the plans now lie in ruins following the decision by the Electoral Commission, who have confirmed that the question can only be posed by the “relevant government”.

John McCormick, Electoral Commissioner, said:
 
“As we said in our consultation response it’s for the relevant Government to propose a question.  This should be independently and transparently assessed before it is put to Parliament for approval as part of a clear, statutory process.  We would not expect to undertake any question assessment that was not part of this process.
 
“The Commission’s process for assessing questions includes asking voters, experts, campaigners and politicians for their views.”

The Scottish government announced last week that constitutional expert Prof Stephen Tierney would be offering advice on how to ensure the independence referendum meets international standards.  The director of the Edinburgh Centre for Constitutional Law at Edinburgh University said he would “provide independent, objective and publicly-available advice on international best practice in the conduct of referendums”.

The bid to set the referendum question was widely reported yesterday and BBC Scotland correspondent Tim Reid, speaking on Reporting Scotland, described the move by the pro-Union parties as “piling the pressure on” the SNP.

The bid by Unionists to set the question follows an increasing belief amongst many analysts that Scots may be offered a second option on the ballot paper.  A poll published this week suggested that only 29% of the Scottish electorate would opt for the status-quo if the so-called Devo Max was to be included on the ballot.

Devo-Max would see the return of all powers to Scotland, with the exception of defence and foreign affairs.  The Scottish government have said they remain open on the inclusion of a second question, but Unionists parties remain resolutely opposed to voters being offered anything other than a straight yes or no.