Scottish Government publishes consultation on independence referendum

The Scottish Government published a consultation paper on its proposed Referendum (Scotland) Bill on 25 February 2010.  Under the Bill, the Scottish people will be asked to vote on whether Scotland should become an independent nation or if the Scottish Parliament should have wider powers than at present.

Whatever the outcome of the consultation, it seems unlikely that any subsequent Bill will pass the Scottish Parliament, because the three main opposition parties are unanimous in their opposition.  Only the Green Party supports the SNP Government's wish to hold the referendum.

The heart of the proposal is summarised thus in the consultation paper:

The Scottish Government plans to introduce the Bill in 2010 and will be seeking the agreement of the Scottish Parliament that the referendum should be held as soon as possible.  The Scottish Government believes that Scotland’s future interests would be best served by it assuming all of the responsibilities and rights of a normal European state.  Independence would give the Scottish Parliament and Government full responsibility for those matters currently reserved to the United Kingdom Parliament and Government, including key economic and political powers and the right of representation for Scotland in the European Union.  Other aspects of an independent Scotland would remain the same.  Her Majesty The Queen would remain as Head of State and the social union with the remainder of the UK would be maintained, with the nations continuing to co-operate on a range of matters.

However, the Scottish Government acknowledges that there is also support for extending the powers of the Scottish Parliament in more limited ways. The draft Bill would provide the people of Scotland with the opportunity to vote on two questions:

• the first about an extension of the powers and responsibilities of the Scottish Parliament, short of independence;
• the second about whether the Scottish Parliament should also have its powers extended to enable independence to be achieved.

The Scottish Government invites views on two possible options for the first question, one of which would be included on the referendum ballot paper. The first option, full devolution (sometimes called “devolution max”), would give the Scottish Parliament and Government responsibility for almost all domestic matters and most revenues and public spending in Scotland. The UK Parliament and Government would continue to have responsibility for defence, foreign affairs, financial regulation, monetary policy and the currency.

The second option for the first question would involve a more limited extension of devolution based on the financial recommendations made by the Commission on Scottish Devolution (the “Calman Commission”) in June 2009. The Scottish Parliament would have the following additional responsibilities:

• responsibility to set a Scottish rate of Income Tax, which could vary by up to 10p in the pound from the rate in the rest of the UK;
• power to set the rates of Stamp Duty Land Tax and other minor taxes, and to introduce new taxes in Scotland with the agreement of the UK Parliament; and
• limited power to borrow money.

The Scottish Government believes that these Calman Commission proposals for financial devolution are seriously flawed and fall far short of the fiscal responsibilities which the Scottish Parliament requires. It believes that they also fall short of what would normally be seen as requiring a referendum. Indeed, those parties who took part in the Calman Commission have made clear their view that a referendum on these proposals is not necessary. However, the Income Tax proposal goes further than the tax-varying power which resulted from the vote in the second question in the 1997 Scottish devolution referendum. Therefore the Scottish Government can see that there is an argument for including the Calman financial recommendations within a multi-option referendum and that approach is put forward here for consideration.

[The consultation] also considers possible voting methods for a multi-option referendum. The method proposed – two questions with yes/no answers – is simple, provides a definitive result and is the same as that used in the 1997 referendum on Scottish devolution. A “yes” result for either question would be on the basis of a simple majority (more than 50%) of votes cast.

The referendum will be advisory, in that it will have no legislative effect. However, the Scottish Government would expect the UK and Scottish Parliaments and the respective Governments to listen to the views of the Scottish people and act on them.