There is going to be a referendum in the UK, but not the one Cameron is thinking about today

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

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15 Responses to “There is going to be a referendum in the UK, but not the one Cameron is thinking about today”

  1. Nick says:

    Section 30 relates to Scotland but could affect everyone in the UK

    Typical MPs. We don’t get a vote, even though it affects us.

    The delicious irony of England voting to get rid of the Scots, and the Scots voting for English taxes.

  2. uglyfatbloke says:

    Point of information here…the electoral system for the Scottish parliament was not designed to prevent majority government, it was designed to prevent the gnats from becoming the largest party, which was hardly honourable behaviour.
    As for the referendum – which Labour opposed tooth and nail…..Use your common sense Jim. Suppose there is to be a referendum on EU membership…would you accept that the terms should be set by the European Commission?
    More significantly, would you commit to accepting their advice without actually seeing what that advice consists of?
    Presumably not.. and bear in mind that the electoral commission may have a party balance in terms of UK politics, but it does not have a balance in terms of Scottish politics. It is hardly surprising that the gnats would want to see what they would be buying into before they stumped up!
    Oh..and the gnats have asked the Electoral Commission for their advice, so let’s wait and see.

  3. Dave says:

    Labour’s new team !!!!!! cmon they are hardly new just the usual nonenties waiting for a chance of a westminster seat.

  4. swatantra says:

    Scots will have to be pretty canny and think ahead. Should they vote YES now, knowing full well that Dave’s Referendum on Europe in 2016 is likely to deliver a resounding NO. Most Scots would want to stay in Europe and take full advantage of all the benefits that membership of Europe bestows on small Nations.

  5. bob says:

    At least they are having a referendum about their future, unlike the UK and Europe.

  6. Craig Evans says:

    Mr Murphy,

    This is a diatribe against democracy. The comments made against Scotland and the Scots by your Labour Party colleagues in Westminster earlier today were an affront to your country.

    As for Mr Sarwars comments about dictatorship; shame on him.

    If this is the best you have to combat the Yes vote, then I think you have already lost the argument.

  7. Amber Star says:

    Today I like the SNP. According to Politics Home they are going to vote with Labour & the LibDems against cutting the number of Westminster MPs & changing the boundaries.

    Despite being a staunch ‘Better Together’, Labour Party member, I believe the SNP will be fair in using the powers which they’ve been given by S30. It’s up to us to make a positive case for remaining part of the UK.

  8. David Lee says:

    Does the fact that Holyrood has a majority government despite PR, whilst Westminster could only muster up a coalition despite FPTP not speak volumes about the political mandate of each parliament.

    Articles like this, combined with Anas Sarwar’s comments in yesterday’s debate (does he understand the concept of democratically elected governments) show the Scots Labour MPs to be what they are – power-hungry little men hurtling towards obsolescence.

  9. uglyfatbloke says:

    I’m afraid Craig is right here. The debate was an embarrassment. Thankfully not many people watch the parliament channel.

  10. john p Reid says:

    While there not being a wing of the parliamentary party who are “Defined by their Euro hostility” the trouble with the 75 referndum was taht when half the people on the left voted agiasnt staying in, they couldn’t accept that the public disagreed and kept proposing we leave, resulting in the 83 manifesto,

  11. MellorSJ says:

    @uglyfatbloke: No, they don’t. But a goodly number listen to R4 Today and Salmond’s interview this morning made him out to be the slimy operator I have always believed him to be.

    Damn shame. We need a Yes vote to be rid of all those Scottish Labour MPs.

  12. General Bacardi says:

    I watched footage of this debate and, frankly, I was horrified and appalled by some of the contributions from the Labour benches. Anas Sarwar in particular should hang his head in shame – as Deputy Leader of Labour in Scotland and one who only very recently commented that the tone of the ‘No’ campaign debate required to be raised, his remarks suggesting that Scotland was currently a dictatorship were regrettable in the extreme, not worthy of his position and will have done neither him or his cause much good.

    As for Mr. Davidson, there are no words for this odious and shameless individual.

    Judging by these two it is hardly surprising the depths to which Labour in Scotland has fallen.

    However, all is not lost. Messrs Sarwar and Davidson need look no further than Mark Lazarowicz for an example of how to debate one’s case with skill, dignity and effect.

  13. RevStu says:

    “Opposition to independence increased from 50% in January to 55% in June then 58% in the latest poll.”

    That’s odd. In the “latest poll” (published on Monday), which Labour and the tame Scottish media have been shouting from the rooftops, “opposition to independence” actually FELL from 58% to 48%, below the level Mr Murphy indicates from a year ago.

  14. anne toms says:

    Jim Re getting answers, when are you going to answer the question that I emailed you(as one of your constituents) asking what you have done regarding the safety of the West of Scotland re Trident; in the wake of a damning SEPA report, drunken sailors and MOD feart to move Trident to Devonport due to possibility of many deaths in the event of an accident ( not an impossibility if we look at the number of accidents so far). I look forward to hearing from you very soon Regards Anne Toms

  15. uglyfatbloke says:

    Anne; I fear you will have a long wait for that. Politicians – regardless of party – avoid questions they don’t like, that is why they often answer a different question to the one that was asked.
    Jim Murphy is never going to tell you that the purpose of trident is to make politicians feel important.
    Same with the gnats/tories and libs. Since there are two or three (arguably 4) practical and affordable approaches to defence for an independent Scotland, you have to ask why the SNP have n’t adopted one of them.

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