Two important milestones have now come and gone as the clock keeps ticking, bringing Scotland ever closer towards autumn 2014 and a referendum on independence
Firstly, the Scottish Government’s attempt to ask the public how they best think the questions over the country’s constitutional future should be settled has now closed.
And second, with the local government election campaigns over, regardless of which party feels it emerged victorious, the road is now clear for the SNP to start its ‘yes’ campaign in earnest.
Thousands of people responded to the Government’s ‘Your Scotland, Your Referendum’ consultation document, launched by First Minister Alex Salmond in the grand surroundings of Edinburgh Castle on Burns Night. But what exactly they said will not be known until after the summer, when the results are published.
It is the second, and larger, of two separate consultations on the issue, asking people their views on vital aspects of the poll.
These have set up the ‘how?’ of the referendum; when it will take place, who will be given a vote, what the question will be – and even how many questions they should be asked.
All of this before the debate into the ‘why?’ can really begin and those on both sides of the argument for and against Scotland staying in the Union, can concentrate on setting out their reasons.
The SNP have so far stuck to their guns of an autumn 2014 referendum, saying that the process of moving through parliament and then avoiding clashes with the Ryder Cup and Commonwealth Games – both of which are being held in Scotland – mean that this is the earliest the poll can happen.
Indeed, the first ever edition of the Sun on Sunday even claimed to have an exclusive, naming the exact day of the referendum as 18 October.
The UK consultation closed in March and the responses were published in April. Of the 2,857 people who responded, 75 per cent agreed with the UK Government assertion that the eventual ballot paper should pose a single question on independence.
On another sticking point, when the poll should be held, 70 per cent agreed with the UK Government that it should be held sooner rather than later, as opposed to the Scottish Government plans of autumn 2014.
A lot more people have responded to the Scottish consultation, at least 19,000 at the last count, and the Government plans to delay the publication of responses until after the summer – giving the chance to have the responses checked independently.
Both consultations, though, have come in for criticism. Opposition parties in Scotland accused the SNP Government’s exercise as being open to “rigging” because contributors did not have to leave their name or address on submissions – in theory, this means that multiple representations could be made.
Scottish Labour deputy leader Anas Sarwar told The Telegraph last month that Alex Salmond had “left the door open for his army of cyber Nats to deliver the response he wants.” Regardless of whether it is for local or national government, any party’s election campaign which, by definition, is calling for an independent Scotland, will perhaps inevitably involve discussion of independence – whether it is raised by its own members or opposition parties.
The campaign for local councils was no different, with talk of local government being a “stepping stone” to independence for SNP candidates, but the party itself was at pains to point out it was campaigning for issues like jobs and families.
After the consultation responses have been analysed and published, there are still several stages to go before people can even think about writing ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on a ballot slip.
But the UK’s consultation also faced criticism from the SNP after claims that more than 700 of them had the same wording as text on a Labour Party website.
The SNP has had to constantly defend itself against calls from all sides to hold the referendum earlier than its planned date.
In autumn this year, practical preparations are due, including testing of the ballot paper, the Government’s legislative programme statement is expected around the same time and according to the timetable already set out, the referendum bill will be finalised by the end of the year and introduced to Parliament in early 2013.
It is expected to pass the first two stages before the summer recess and pass the final stage in October next year, with Royal Assent the month after – which will be accompanied by a White Paper on independence at around the same time.
Under the present proposals, there will be a year’s gap until the referendum, delayed because of European elections in June 2014 and the Commonwealth Games the following month.
Although the majority of SNP ministers, backbenchers, and indeed activists, will have been waiting for the chance to get a vote on independence for a lifetime, Brian Adam, Minister for Parliamentary Business and Chief Whip, said there was no arguments over waiting until 2014 within the party for “the most important question that people in Scotland have had to answer for 300 years.”
He said: “The fulfilment of many dreams and wishes is close enough to touch now, and the question will be asked in autumn 2014.
“What is important is we know it will happen. The fact that it isn’t happening in 2012 isn’t a matter of concern.”
Paul Cairney, senior lecturer in politics at the University of Aberdeen, said: “My opinion has always been that any government in this position has to hold a referendum towards the end of their term. They need a referendum quite close to that election period so they are not sitting on a dead duck.
“This referendum is the issue that they are associated most with, if that doesn’t go right then it would be very difficult to carry on after that.
“A lot of academic work is being carried out and will be completed in time for the referendum.
“If they had gone with Cameron’s snap referendum, that would have been quite a dirty, emotional decision, but this way, it can really be a long term and informed decision.”
The debate is sure to continue on this timetable – even as the Bill reaches Parliament – but there are other big aspects still up for debate. The SNP wants to see the voting age lowered for the referendum to include 16 year olds and has so far resisted any calls from other parties to also include Scots living outside the country at the time of the poll.
Each and every aspect of the referendum is being placed under the microscope. Even the proposed question, “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?” which the SNP must have hoped would be uncontroversial, has been put under rigorous scrutiny.
The most recent example of this was analysis from Westminster’s Scottish Affairs Committee, which said the question was biased.
In an interim report, the committee’s Labour chairman, Ian Davidson, said a more neutral question should be used, without the word ‘agree’.
But the Scottish Government has insisted its proposed question is fair and the Scottish Affairs Committee’s claims it is “devoid of credibility”.