When is an e-consultation not a consultation?

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By Jamie Murray

A curious question, the answer it seems is when it is held by a Lib Dem MP.  I received an email today from my MP, Jo Swinson, about the independence referendum.   She is, it tells me, keen to “engage her constituents and find out what East Dunbartonshire thinks right now”.  It is a very important decision for Scotland where the Scottish Government currently has devolved powers which “include autonomy over issues such as agriculture, criminal justice, education, health and police and fire services.”

By Jamie Murray

A curious question, the answer it seems is when it is held by a Lib Dem MP.  I received an email today from my MP, Jo Swinson, about the independence referendum.   She is, it tells me, keen to “engage her constituents and find out what East Dunbartonshire thinks right now”.  It is a very important decision for Scotland where the Scottish Government currently has devolved powers which “include autonomy over issues such as agriculture, criminal justice, education, health and police and fire services.”

The email then links to the Scottish Government Consultation Document before asking the question: “Do you support or oppose Scotland becoming a country independent from the rest of the United Kingdom?”  

There is no explanation as to why Ms Swinson asks a different question to the one being proposed for the referendum, but since the wording of the question has not yet been finalised, it would be pedantic to quibble.  We are then asked to send emails to one address for ‘no’ and another address for ‘yes’.

So far so good.

In order to help us make up our minds Ms Swinson then links to some articles with background information. The first is a BBC Q&A of Scottish Independence which was last updated on the 25th of January 2012.  It’s not the piece I would have chosen but again I won’t quibble, perhaps my view of the BBC is jaundiced.

The next piece of ‘background information’ is where myself and Ms Swinson part company.  This is where I become prepared to quibble.  It is an article from the Telegraph, that great bastion of impartiality concerning Scottish independence. The article is entitled ‘Britain Divided Over Scottish Independence’ and was written by Patrick Hennessy on the 14th of January 2012.

In the article Mr Hennessy discusses an ICM survey for the Sunday Telegraph.  He uses language such as “calling Mr Salmond’s bluff” and “a series of setbacks for Mr Salmond”.   We are then reliably informed that, in this poll, “Most Scots admit their nation would be worse off after independence.”

Just to recap this article is presented to the reader as “background information”.  So for your information, here it is, make of it what you will.  

With the reader now better informed Ms Swinson widens the debate by presenting links to articles for and against independence.

We start with articles in favour, perhaps it wouldn’t do to give the pro argument the last word.  There are links to two articles, one from the Guardian.  Before we cry foul, it was written by Angus Robertson MP and is a very good article though not particularly current – and one from an American publication named FP.  This is a long and thoughtful article from Gerry Hassan.

Regular visitors to NewsnetScotland will be familiar with Gerry’s work and while I find it extremely interesting and thought provoking, I’m not sure I would single him out as a cheer leader for independence.  He concludes that if politicians in London “can respond to the increasingly pragmatic and flexible approach of the Scottish Nationalists… it is likely that Scottish aspirations can be accommodated in a much looser union that falls short of conventional independence.”  If not, he feels a “fully independent, self governing Scotland” will emerge.  Gerry’s article is worth a look so here is the link.

These appear to be the only articles which Ms Swinson could find in support of independence.  Perhaps she has not heard of NewsnetScotland though it has a strong presence on Twitter, and it is hard to imagine that she has not tripped across at least some articles.

We then move on to the links to articles against independence of which there are three.  One from Eddie Barnes discussing how according to CPPR, Scotland could not afford an oil fund.  

The next link is to the Huffington Post and an opinion piece by Francis Hoar who is a  Barrister who writes his own blog and occasionally contributes to ConservativeHome. It is a strange article which dwells on our shared history, shared language and some halcyon image of Britain in a bygone era.  

Finally we have Sky News telling us how ‘Parties Unite Against Independence‘ which has a short video clip of Alex Salmond speaking about the referendum and a longer video clip of Prime Minister’s Questions showing a rare moment of agreement between Ed Milliband and David Cameron while Michael Moore and Nick Clegg nod emphatically in the background.  I didn’t think it showed the Lib Dems in the best light so, again, a curious choice.

So, is this an impartial consultation? Was it ever meant to be an impartial consultation? I haven’t quite decided whether to engage with this process or not. By contributing would I be endorsing a poll which I believe to be flawed? What are the implications of not contributing and allowing local people to believe that Independence is unattainable? I’m not sure.

Answers on a postcard to Ms Swinson’s consultation.