by Jim Murphy
The politics of a referendum is centre stage in parliament today. No, not as you may think. It’s not David Cameron’s continuing journey beyond Major’s euro-weakness and Mrs Thatcher’s Euroscepticism. Rather, it’s a Section 30 Order which, despite its anodyne-sounding title, will have a profound effect on our politics.
Section 30 relates to Scotland but could affect everyone in the UK. It focuses on the rules of the game for Scotland’s referendum on independence. Today the House of Commons will give a different parliament powers over the UK government regarding the 2014 vote. And because the SNP controls the Scottish parliament in a way that Cameron could only dream of in Westminster, we are transferring the powers to a political party as much as a parliament.
So what’s it all about? In short, Section 30 gives the Scottish parliament powers over how much can be spent by both sides, who gets to vote, what the question is and much more. This is part of the compromise agreed by the government – the Scottish government accepted the vote would take place by the end of 2014 and there would be a single question in return for which the Section 30 order was granted.
This has come at a terrible time for the SNP. Labour’s new team north of the border and the Scottish public have pursued the Nats’ unanswered questions on an independent Scotland’s economy and role in the world and any other subject you care to mention. But the Nats also share the blame for their current predicament. Opposition to independence increased from 50% in January to 55% in June then 58% in the latest poll. At the moment, the nearer we get to the vote the further away the SNP look like winning it.
All the hard yards lie ahead for both sides in the debate. One of the beauties of politics is its sheer unpredictability. The SNP were never the all-conquering geniuses imagined by parts of the London media and nor are they now the accident prone, momentum-free outfit hoped for by some. They are what they are – a group of passionate people armed with a cause from the 19th Century entirely unsuited to the complexities of influence in the 21st Century.
What the SNP do have is an absolute majority in the Scottish parliament. Our electoral systems have provided the opposite of what was intended: the first-past-the-post system produced a minority government at Westminster and a proportional system produced a majority government at Holyrood.
Therein lies the importance of today’s debate. The UK government is passing powers to a parliament controlled by a party who are protagonists in the contest. The Electoral Commission will make recommendations on funding of the campaigns and the precise wording of an objective referendum question but the SNP have already said that they won’t be bound by the Commission’s recommendations.
The sporting analogy on the referendum isn’t perfect but it is good enough: can you imagine Roberto Mancini saying to Alex Ferguson “you set the rules to your advantage and in the event of a dispute act as the referee”? While some claim Fergie sometimes thinks he is the ref no-one would ever actually grant him that power.
All of this is a sign of the SNP’s weakness. Out has gone any sense of the high politics of 2011, replaced by the attempted fixes of a party who know that Scotland is moving away from them on independence. An example of their under-confidence is that they wish to cap campaign spending at prohibitive levels – not to avoid a US style spending spree but to gain advantage.
The pro-independence campaigners know that they can rely upon taxpayers’ money being spent by the SNP government to make and pay for their argument. They don’t want a level playing field on funding. That is why the shadow secretary of state for Scotland Margaret Curran has argued for a “fair, legal and decisive,” referendum. Her sentiment is supported by Alistair Darling who is heading up the cross-party Better Together campaign, who has insisted the vote “must be fair and seen to be fair”.
All this is essential. On our side of the argument we will be working for as big a majority as possible and I’m confident we can achieve it. Ours is a positive patriotic case for Scotland as part of the UK; it’s Scotland’s patriotism versus the SNP’s nationalism.
Think back to the AV referendum no-one really thought Nick Clegg should get to pick the date, set the spending limits and write the referendum question himself. Without wishing to upset anyone, the referendum on the continued existence of the United Kingdom is of a different magnitude to the AV vote. The rules governing it should reflect that fact. Once the Electoral Commission has been asked to come up with the question then the SNP have the chance to come up with some answers.
Jim Murphy is the Labour MP for East Renfrewshire and shadow secretary of state for defence