Henry Hill is a British Conservative and Unionist
activist, and author of the blog Dilettante. Follow Henry on Twitter. He is also
editor of the non-party website Open
Unionism, which can be followed on Twitter here.
The Electoral Commission yesterday passed its
judgement on the question to be used in the Scottish independence referendum.
For those unaware of this particular battle,
Alex Salmond has for some time been touting his preferred formulation: “Do you agree that Scotland should be an
independent country?” One hardly needs a degree in psychology to see how
such a question might tilt the playing field rather.
Thus the unionist campaign has been doing
what it can to highlight the issue and bring pressure to bear on the SNP.
Better Together launched the amusing Referendum
Fix website and mobilised their supporters to put their names to an open
letter by Alistair Darling. They maintained that the question should be set
by the neutral Electoral Commission, rather than a separatist administration
that was seeking both to referee the referendum and campaign on one side of it,
which seemed reasonable enough.
Yet the SNP posture for a long while has been
that it might defy the advice of the Commission, which was widely expected to –
and has – proposed a less leading alternative: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” Much was made of the
fact that the final say rested with the Scottish Parliament (with its
nationalist majority), which will have to pass a bill on the referendum.
Of course, the desire to frame a debate in a
favourable fashion is perfectly understandable. I have no doubt that some
reading this would like Cameron’s In/Out referendum on the EU to be on a
question like “Do you agree that our
Kingdom should stand tall as a sovereign nation once more?” Yet such is
hardly fair, and Salmond’s refusal to promise to abide by the EC ruling opened
up the possibility of a prolonged and ugly political battle over the wording.
However, when the EC made its announcement
yesterday Nicola Sturgeon immediately declared that the SNP administration
would abide by the recommendation. Cue back-patting
and sighs of relief from the unionist campaign, who were undoubtedly worried by
the prospect of facing a Scottish rerun of the 1995
Quebec sovereignty referendum, whose legendarily leading question took
Canada to the brink of breakup. Indeed, the separatist Quebecois premier has
offered the SNP unspecified ‘data’ from the province’s last two secession
attempts, alongside a broader offer of assistance to the anger of Quebec’s federalist
So this might be a great triumph for the
pro-union side. Alternatively, there’s the case to be made that it is instead
shrewd manoeuvring by the nationalists. Personally, I think the question ought
to have made some reference to leaving the UK, along the lines of “Should Scotland leave the United Kingdom
and become an independent country?” It is scarcely more complicated than
the present proposal and, unlike some
wordings, allows the referendum to remain Yes/No.
For the nationalist commenters who claim not
to see the merit in such a suggestion (‘leaving the UK’ being implied by
‘independent’, etc.), consider whether the Scottish government would have been
likely to accept “Should Scotland leave
the United Kingdom?” Independence is after all implied by ‘leave the United
Kingdom’. But I don’t think so, somehow. Yet none of the four questions tested
by the Commission (see page 11 here)
deviate much from the model proposed by the SNP.
As Mr Thompson implies, it is readily
believable that the Nats are ‘conceding’ to the Electoral Commission in no
small part because the Electoral Commission still ended up giving them a
favourable question. If so, it was very cleverly done. With all the hullaballoo
Better Together has made of abiding by the EC, the British government –
although technically distinct still a part of the unionist camp – has no room
left for further objection.
the pro-union side to suddenly turn on the EC, especially in light of today’s
triumphal press releases, would not only be farcical but would undo and even
reverse whatever political capital has been gained from the SNP’s apparent
retreat. So for better or worse, that is the question we’re running with.
The Commission also recommended doubling the
SNP’s proposed spending limit of £750,000 per side and rejected the proposed
ban on business and civil society organisations involving themselves in the
campaign – a ruling that will doubtless be welcomed by the openly pro-union CBI
Scotland. The SNP have declared they will abide by both. So that’s
Whilst all that drama is unfolding north of
the border, a constitutional/political milestone is also being passed in Wales.
The Labour Welsh Assembly administration has elected to exercise its devolved
powers and reject Michael Gove’s new EBacc examinations. As the Independent reports that “The move signals an end to the common
examination system between the countries which has existed since the birth of
This sort of thing is the inevitable and
indeed intended result of Labour’s approach to devolution, whereby its
heartlands can be protected from the ravages of Tory rule – and even from those
pseudo-Tories in Tony Blair’s New Labour governments. For this isn’t the first
time Wales has opted out of new education policies. It previously decided that
league tables were ‘un-Welsh’, whilst retaining the English examination system.
The result was close to a controlled
experiment in the impact of league tables and, as spelled out brilliantly in this
Bagehot column, “in education and public sector reform circles, the
self-inflicted Welsh education debacle is famous, the stuff of dinner-table
conversation.” Welsh Labour is no friend to public sector innovation.
I’m a big supporter of the ‘Gove
if not of devolution and its attendant divisions. Yet if devolution allows
Labour to hold at bay Conservative reforms, the corollary is surely that it
allows the Conservatives to throw that back in Labour’s face if the reforms
Is there something in that idea? A big part
of the party’s coming to terms with devolution has been attempts to make its
local wings more ‘Welsh/Scottish/Northern Irish’ without ceasing to be
conservative or unionist. In many analyses, the connexion to the main party
hangs around the necks of Ruth Davidson et al like an albatross, and the
temptation is simply for local Conservatives to start to ape the political
consensus they operate in rather than challenging it.
But if we believe that our reforms, when
applied, will work – as we surely must – then is there not the prospect of
turning that connexion into a source of strength? Of course, such a policy
would have to be clearly and consistently pursued, lest you end up again in the
situation recounted by Bagehot, where a compelling case for league tables gets
lost in a convenient myth about public ‘under-spending’, but it could work.
For example, if Gove does significantly
improve education results, and especially if there continues to be a gap
between English and Welsh attainment, it will surely provide the Welsh
Conservatives with the ammunition they need to take on the current political
consensus surrounding education in Wales and the vested interests propping it
up. They’ll have proven reforms to offer.
They’ll also have a clear line of attack on
those who view devolution simply as a means of preserving a series of balkanised
political fiefs against the pressures of political competition. Such a
contrasting approach could stress the benefits of devolution, conservatism and
union all at once.