David Steel should know what he’s talking about when it comes to constitutional politics. As a co-chair of the Scottish Constitutional Convention and subsequently as the chair of the Steel Commission that examined post devolution policy options for the Liberal Democrats, his experience and knowledge is unparallelled.
We should, therefore listen to what he has to say.
He has stepped into the debate, instigated by Willie Rennie, on the subject of a two question referendum, saying that it could lead to an unclear outcome. He, of course, has had direct experience of politicians with an agenda seeking to manipulate the results of a referendum. In 1979, a majority of Scots voted in favour of a Scottish Assembly, but a requirement that 40% of the electorate should vote in favour had been inserted by anti-devolution Labour dinosaurs. Unfortunately, this threshold was not reached despite a turnout of nearly 64%. Such a blatant attempt tosall the wishes of the Scottish people has cast a long shadow.
Lord Steel said:
I made my maiden speech in the House of Lords on the 1997 referendum to establish the Scottish Parliament which followed seven years as co-chair of the Constitutional Convention. In the House of Lords I also reflected on the situation at the 1979 referendum.
“Back in 1979, changes were made to the referendum to put a qualifying quota for support for devolution. That meant that, even though a majority of Scots voted for devolution, it didn’t happen in 1979. In fact, people on the electoral register who had died or were simply on holiday were counted as if they had voted ‘No’.
“As I told the House of Lords, ‘that left a sense of real bitterness and frustration which one does not want to see repeated in any form on a future occasion’. So, it is astonishing to see, more than thirty years later, proposals that could make the result of the next referendum unclear.
“The ‘bitterness’ and ‘frustration’ will been seen again in Scotland if a landslide of voters choose further devolution but they get defeated by a less popular option of independence.
“Willie Rennie is right to draw our attention to the potential problem. Professor John Curtice has said it is an ‘obvious problem’.
“The analogy with the 1997 referendum is false. The second vote back then was a simple add-on to the first. As Willie Rennie has already pointed out, Independence and Devolution Max are two, separate, stand-alone propositions. One is within the United Kingdom and one outwith. They are mutually exclusive.
“The Scottish Government now have to set out far more clearly the answers to the challenges people are posing them.
“The last thing we want is for the Scottish Government to make the same mistakes that were made in 1979 and have a referendum where there is no clarity or justice to the result.
“I make no secret of the fact that I have always favoured the maximum common sense amount of devolution possible to the Scottish Parliament without unnecessary expense or the break-up of valued UK institutions such as our social security system.
“To achieve this we need calm constructive dialogue between Ministers in Edinburgh and London. Instead at the moment we have to tolerate megaphone diplomacy and extravagant public posturing which does nothing except spread confusion in the public mind”.
I don’t always agree with David Steel but his track record of credibility on Scotland’s governance is indisputable.
The SNP need to let go of the massive chip on their shoulder and work with others to ensure that the referendum result is unambiguous. Their “my way or the high way” approach could poentially be extremely damaging.
Scotland deserves a quality debate on its future. Otherwise we may find ourselves in a place where we really don’t want to be.