Liberal Democrat Secretary of State for Scotland Mike Moore has used a speech to a business conference in Edinburgh to talk about the next steps in the preparation for the referendum on independence to be held by the Scottish Government.
He’s repeated the point he made so well in January that a referendum legislated for solely by the Scottish Parliament would be illegal and could be open to challenge in the courts. Apart from the uncertainty it would cause, potentially for years, I’m darned if I want the Government to be spending gazillions in legal fees.
As I wrote then, the SNP know full well that they need the power to be devolved to them by Westminster to make the referendum watertight. What they are saying is that they should just be given the power without any negotiation. Now, if the Westminster Government were being incredibly prescriptive, it could attach all sorts of very narrow conditions. But, no, Mike Moore is way too reasonable for that. All he’s asked for really is that there’s a single question on independence, which is what the SNP say they want, that the electorate should be the same as for a Scottish Parliament election (ie no 16 and 17 year olds getting the vote, which makes sense seeing as the SNP aren’t canvaassing 15 and 16 year olds next year, so it would be a disaster anyway), and that there’s proper scrutiny by the Electoral Commission, reporting to the Scottish Parliament. Apparently, he wants the referendum as soon as possible, but he’s been pretty relaxed about that and has pretty much agreed the SNP’s timetable.
So, I don’t really see any huge barriers to getting the date named and the Section 30 Order sorted. Mike Moore has said that he wants all the detail agreed by the end of October to enable all the legislation to be done in time for the SNP’s own timetable. Again, perfectly reasonable.
In a well crafted speech, he outlined the need for a Section 30 Order:
Even the Scottish Government acknowledge that the Scottish Parliament’s existing power to pass an independence referendum Bill is questionable.
And the Scottish Government itself has said that it is willing to work with us to put that referendum effectively beyond legal challenge. Any Government that introduces a Bill that it knows to be – or that it thinks might be – outwith the Parliament’s competence, must expect a legal challenge to come. “On an issue as crucial as our nation’s future within the United Kingdom, the Scottish Government would have to anticipate that someone would emerge to challenge an independence referendum run on current powers. And a successful challenge would prevent their ballot from taking place. That’s no way to settle this issue. Scotland’s future must be decided at the ballot box, not in the court room. I am confident that on this point of principle also, Scotland’s two governments agree. An attempt to hold a referendum outwith the law would look like an attempt to ensure that there is no referendum at all.
It’s time to crack on. Time is pressing. The sooner we can get the process issues out of the way and get on to the ‘Great Debate’ itself the better for everyone. And the less damaging the uncertainty will be for people and businesses alike. But importantly, if the Scottish Government wants to meet its own timetable for the referendum, the powers must be devolved by next spring. And that means both Governments reaching agreement on a Section 30 Order by late October.
Let’s just hope it’s all dusted so that we have a deal in late October along with the witches, ghouls and pumpkins that appear at that time of year.