You could not make it up. Ever since the New Year our politicians have been arguing furiously about how an independence referendum should be conducted, while claiming what they really wanted to do was to debate the merits and demerits of independence. So what has happened – well, a row has broken out about how the public has been consulted and about how the referendum should be held. In short, politicians have now been arguing about the process by which people have been asked about the process! At this rate, one must wonder who will manage to be ready for the referendum in 2014, let alone earlier!
At the heart of this row has been a preoccupation with numbers. The UK Government’s rather hasty consultation secured a little under 3,000 responses, far short of the near 12,000 responses that the Scottish Government’s still continuing consultation has received. So to overcome the perception that bigger might be thought to be better, Labour sought to undermine the credibility of the Scottish Government’s exercise by raising questions about the ease with which people – and especially perhaps a whole host of cybernats – could respond anonymously to the Scottish Government’s consultation.
In practice, if the figures produced by the two governments are to be believed, both exercises seem to have attracted more or less the same proportion of anonymous responses. But Labour got its attack in first, and the SNP, unusually finding itself on the back foot, soon moved to make it impossible for any more submissions to be made anonymously.
Numbers too were at the forefront when a few days later the Scottish Secretary, Michael Moore, proudly brandished the ‘results’ of the UK Government’s consultation. He declared that as many as 75 per cent of respondents said that the referendum should only include a single question about independence, and not one about ‘devo max’ as well. At the same time, he noted that 70 per cent felt the referendum should be held sooner rather than later. The Scotland Office duly declared game, set and match to itself on the big questions in the referendum debate.
But the row about anonymous submissions had already served to point up the weakness of such numerical claims. For who indeed can ever be sure that those who take the trouble to respond to a consultation, be it run by the UK Government or its Scottish counterpart, are in any sense representative of public opinion? The answer of course is that they cannot.
To focus on the total number of responses or how many of them expressed one view rather than another is to misrepresent the point of such exercises. Their aim is to secure the wisdom of the crowd rather than ascertain the balance of opinion amongst its members.
Can those with expertise on a subject – or even those without – bring to bear on the matter in hand considerations or arguments either for or against a particular course of action that neither ministers nor their officials had taken into account in developing their policy?
In truth, in this respect it is far from clear that the UK consultation did take matters forward. As summarised by the Scotland Office, at least, the arguments were largely ones with which we are already very familiar. But then the Government seems to have been primarily concerned to highlight how far its existing arguments were echoed by those who had taken the trouble to write to them rather than to learn anything new.
Above all, however, any consultation, however analysed and reported, can only be as good as the questions that it asks. And it is perhaps in this respect that the value of the UK Government’s consultation is most open to doubt.
Consider, first of all that 70 per cent of respondents state that the referendum should be held ‘sooner rather than later’. You might presume this means there was a clarion call for the referendum to be held in 2013, as proposed by the UK Government, rather than in 2014, as suggested by the Scottish Government.
However, the consultation failed to define what it meant by ‘sooner’, while a glance at the five responses that are quoted as examples of responses arguing for sooner rather than later reveals that three of them failed to name any date at all. Exactly what the 70 per cent want is not necessarily clear at all.
Equally, the discovery that 75 per cent think there should only be a single question needs to be evaluated carefully too. In presenting the possibility that there might be two questions rather than one on the referendum ballot paper, the UK consultation focused in particular on the proposal for a two-question referendum put by the Scottish Government in February 2010.
However, that proposal, which could have led to independence being declared the winner even though many more people had voted in favour of ‘devo max’, had long been widely criticised and was effectively dropped by the Scottish Government when it launched its referendum consultation earlier this year. Whether alternative ways of holding such a multi-option referendum could prove more acceptable still remains unclear.
Still, the UK consultation has helped take matters forward in one respect. When it launched the exercise the Coalition raised the possibility that clauses might be added to the Scotland Bill or to another piece of legislation that would empower the UK Government to hold its own referendum on Scottish independence. After having received very little support amongst respondents to the UK consultation, that option has now effectively been ruled out.
Instead the UK Government is firmly set on using the existing powers under Schedule 30 of the Scotland Act to grant Holyrood the legal power to hold an independence referendum.
But such a measure can only be passed into law if both Westminster and Holyrood give their consent. And there seems little reason to anticipate that harmony will break out any time soon.