Rows over the transparency of the independence consultations dominate the discussion
With the independence referendum still two years away, the debate has shown little sign of slowing down. Last week the two consultations, one run by Westminster and the other, Edinburgh, hit the headlines.
As MSPs entered the Easter recess period, Labour leader Johann Lamont called for the Parliament to be recalled to discuss concerns that allowing comments in the Scottish Government consultation from unnamed people would permit the process to be rigged.
This consultation is set to run until May and has already attracted around 12,000 responses.
Lamont said: “Everyone agrees that Scotland must have a referendum process that we can all have confidence in and I am sure I am not the only one who harbours serious doubts about the way this is being handled.
“It is in no one’s interests for this referendum process to be rigged, whether real or perceived, and that is why Alex Salmond must come to Parliament to answer for this farce at the first opportunity or meet with me and the other party leaders.” Initially Bruce Crawford, Cabinet Secretary for Parliamentary Business, said respondents to the consultation could indicate their wish to remain anonymous, while responses which did not include personal information would also be treated anonymously. However, the Government then said the anonymous responses, which made up 3.5 per cent of the total received, would not form part of the final analysis of the consultation.
In a statement, the Scottish Government said it always intended that anonymous responses would be separately identified in the independent analysis and now, in order to prevent significant numbers of such responses – given the media coverage generated about the issue – responses would only be accepted and included in the analysis if respondents provide personal identification details. The Government’s online portal has already been amended to introduce this further procedure.
It added that while there was no evidence of multiple identical responses from the same person, any duplicate identical responses which appear to be from the same computer will be excluded from the analysis so that their view is only represented once. Labour grudgingly accepted this but insisted that questions remain to be answered on the issue.
Meanwhile, the UK consultation, which closed last month, also attracted criticism over its transparency with the SNP Government writing to the Coalition asking for detail of how it dealt with its anonymous responses.
Releasing detail of the consultation, the UK Government said there was “overwhelming” support for Scottish voters being asked a single, clear question on independence, a position backed by 75 per cent of respondents to their consultation. Westminster also said 70 per cent agreed the referendum should take place sooner rather than later, while 86 per cent said the Electoral Commission should have a role in overseeing a referendum. Other key results included 71 per cent expressing the view that those resident in Scotland should be entitled to vote in a referendum. A 26-page summary of the 2,857 responses is set to be published.
Scottish Secretary Michael Moore said his government’s proposals to deliver a “legal, fair and decisive referendum” had been “strongly endorsed”.
He said: “Putting the independence referendum on a sound legal footing was at the heart of our proposals and there is strong support in the consultation for the UK and Scottish governments agreeing an order to provide Holyrood with the legal power to hold the referendum.
“The consultation has also produced a resounding endorsement for the referendum having a single, clear question on independence.
The reasons given are compelling. The Scottish Government was elected on a manifesto commitment to hold an independence referendum – it is not at all clear what a second question would be about. There must be a clear and decisive outcome to this referendum and a multi-option referendum will confuse matters.” However, following the release of the UK consultation, Bruce Crawford claimed the document lacked basic detail.
He added: “Michael Moore admitted under questioning on the BBC that 740 of the responses – over a quarter – are ‘the same as the Labour Party text on their website’. But this figure doesn’t appear anywhere in the report, and it begs the question of whether more of the responses came via the Labour Party website, with an amended text.
“We encourage such participation in consultations by political parties and other organisations and individuals; that isn’t the issue. But without these responses being independently analysed, properly detailed and broken down by categories, it is absurd for Mr Moore to draw general conclusions on the basis of a Labour Party bloc vote.” Also in the past fortnight, two groups on either side of the debate made themselves known. The Scottish Independence Convention (SIC) relaunched itself with a new website and programme to contribute to the referendum debate. SIC believes the independence movement is broader and deeper than one party and includes the great sweep of people who want to transform Scotland, not just tinker with its governance. SIC has said it is the place for those who back independence but who are not a member of any party, or who support any of the pro-independence parties to collaborate.
Elaine C Smith, chairwoman of SIC, said: “The role of the Scottish Independence Convention has changed. We were founded to deliver a referendum. That battle’s now been won. Our role now is to be creative and engage as wide an audience as possible in the discussion about the future of our country and what we mean by sovereignty.” SIC was formed in 2005 to promote independence and its affiliated parties are the SNP, the Scottish Greens, the Scottish Socialist Party and Solidarity. Following the relaunch, SIC intends to publish a programme of events.
On the other side of the argument, the Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson launched a new group aimed at keeping Scotland in the Union. The Conservative Friends of the Union (CFU) campaign was announced at the party’s conference in Troon.
CFU will be a grassroots organisation and is open to anyone with an interest in keeping the Union intact, regardless of political allegiance. Prime Minister David Cameron said he and his party would fight for the United Kingdom with “everything we’ve got” and the CFU would be a sign that Scotland is better off within the UK.
However, the SNP hit back at the move and claimed no one would be “fooled” by the group. MSP Kenneth Gibson said: “The more the anti-independence campaign in Scotland is seen to be Tory-led, the stronger support for independence and a new relationship of equality between Scotland and England will become.
The people of Scotland know far better than to be duped by a party that has continually failed this country, and been comprehensively rejected.
Labour have fallen into the background on the debate on Scotland’s future, while the Lib Dems are increasingly irrelevant.
“When the people of Scotland are given the choice in 2014 between home rule with independence or Tory rule from Westminster, I am confident they will trust themselves and vote Yes for independence.”