UK Govt must talk to Scottish Govt before referendum to ‘help voters’ says Electoral Commission


   By a Newsnet reporter

Following evidence given by John McCormick, Electoral Commissioner for Scotland, at the Referendum Bill Committee on Thursday, the SNP is making a fresh call for the UK government to engage in pre-referendum talks.

When it signed the Edinburgh Agreement, the UK Government pledged to co-operate fully with the Scottish Government in the run up to next year’s independence referendum, but since then various UK Government ministers have pointedly refused to hold talks with the Scottish Government.

Earlier this year the Electoral Commission urged the the Scottish and UK Governments to agree a “joint position” before the referendum, “so that voters have access to agreed information about what would follow the referendum”, whether it is a Yes or No.

However in January this year Scotland Secretary Michael Moore insisted that the UK Government would not enter into any negotiations over the terms of Scottish independence before the referendum. 

Mr Moore’s refusal came despite the terms of the Edinburgh Agreement between Holyrood and Westminster which calls on both 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”.

Mr Moore said: 

“We will not be negotiating in advance, which in fact the Scottish government support us on because, for one thing, we are UK ministers who have responsibility to the whole of the country.”

In April, the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee, made up exclusively of representatives of anti-independence parties, also called on the UK Government to enter into pre-referendum talks with Holyrood and warned it against “sleepwalking into independence”.

However Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander MP again refused to enter into any talks with the Scottish Government, saying:

“We have been clear we will not ‘pre- negotiate’ the terms of independence before people in Scotland have had their say in the referendum.  To do so would require the Government to act on behalf of only part of the UK.”

Speaking to Holyrood’s Referendum Committee on Thursday, John McCormack repeated the call previously made by the Electoral Commission for the UK Government to engage in talks with the Scottish Government. 

Mr McCormick said:

“We do believe that clarity about how the terms of independence will be decided would help voters understand how the competing claims of the campaigns will be resolved… the more information the governments can agree on, the better we feel it would be for the voter.”

Mr McCormick’s call for clarity is backed-up by a YouGov poll earlier in May that shows that shows over two-thirds of people in Scotland support talks between the UK government and Scottish Government before the independence referendum to help pave the way for negotiations should there be a Yes vote – which would assist in informing the referendum debate between now and next September.

Welcoming the comments, Linda Fabiani MSP, a member of the Referendum Bill Committee said:

“Mr McCormick’s evidence at the Referendum Bill Committee today is very sensible and reflects Scottish public opinion. It indicates that the reasonable and constructive approach the Scottish Government are taking in the referendum debate is in tune with the vast majority of people in Scotland. By contrast, Westminster’s refusal to enter into pre-referendum discussions to help inform the debate is out of touch with the people.

“For months, Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish Government have been calling for the UK government to enter discussions to allow the voters to be better informed, but so far Westminster has refused – preferring instead to indulge in scaremongering about Scotland.

“Having discussions now to develop an understanding of the issues that would require negotiation after a Yes vote, what factual information would underpin that, and what attitude each government would take to negotiations in the event of a Yes vote, is not to pre-empt the referendum result – it is simply to ensure that if there is a Yes vote we can get to work quickly on implementing the democratic decision of the people of Scotland.

“The entire Westminster machine is focused on the referendum – producing a whole series of scare stories for the No campaign – and the people of Scotland clearly want some of that effort directed to constructive engagement with the government of Scotland.

“The UK government should heed public opinion in Scotland, and U-turn on their current intransigent position. Pre-referendum discussions would help ensure that the debate is as informed as possible, and that is surely in the interests of people in Scotland and indeed the rest of the UK.”