Westminster, Referendums and Whatever Happened to ‘Respect’?
The Scotsman, July 9th 2010
The Scottish Parliament along with the Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies will be beginning to think that they are unloved and uncared for by the Westminster Parliament.
Plans to establish five year fixed term UK Parliaments meant that May 7th 2015 would be a day when voters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland voted in two sets of elections at the same time: devolved and UK contests. Now they have gone and done it again, proposing that the AV referendum is held on May 5th 2011 – the same day as the devolved elections.
Michael Moore, Scottish Secretary of State, has written to the Scottish Government, ‘recognises the concern that exists’ and promised to ‘engage’ with the relevant parties. One option is to move the 2015 Scottish vote, but he has said nothing about 2011.
The central question here isn’t about the process of the vote, vote counting or organisation, but what it would do to the respective campaigns and the democratic process, and what it says British politics, devolution and power, and how Westminster sees all of these.
All UK referendums of which there have been nine significant votes (one UK, two each for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, one in the North East, one in London) have never been combined with an election and the practice is rare around the world.
There are only two major examples: the New Zealand second PR referendum and Ireland combining one with a Presidential contest. The Scotland Act 1978 lay down that the devolution referendum could not be held within three months of a general election. Lord Ross in a Scottish Court of Session ruling in 1979 in a case brought by Brian Wilson and Tam Dalyell stated that the devolution referendum of that year should be kept apart from the party political context.
Any combined referendum and election would pose huge challenges to the mostly Londoncentric media making it near-nye impossible to disentangle the different contests. This would be even more problematic for broadcasters, who are required to be ‘balanced’ during elections.
In general elections this is achieved by well-established agreements on party proportional balance. At the same time referendums have evolved a set of conventions which involve a 50:50 split in coverage between both sides.
We have been down this tricky road before when the Electoral Commission faced the prospect of a 2003 euro referendum being held on the same day as the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish votes.
They issued a ruling on combining a referendum and devolved votes on the same day which stated that they had serious ‘concerns’ driven by protecting ‘the interests of the voters’. They commented that while ‘there might be a beneficial effect on turnout’ of having the two votes together, there were ‘a number of disadvantages’.
These include the consideration that ‘cross-party campaigning on a fundamental referendum’ could cause voter confusion if combined with normal party electioneering. Then there was the risk that ‘the dominance of the referendum issue would influence other polls’ and do so ‘to an extent that may compromise the electorate’s will in those other polls’.
A major concern of the Commission was that ‘not all of the electorate would experience the same conditions for considering a major referendum issue’. Taking all of this into account the Commission decided that ‘a referendum on the single European currency should not be held at the same time’ as the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish votes. That is a powerfully unambiguous ruling which still carries resonance today.
This creates a significant precedent which should be listened to in today’s circumstances. Any move to hold the AV vote and devolved contests on the same day would put Britain into a unique and isolated position in the world. Alone among the world’s democracies it would say this was an appropriate way of doing things.
It would provide yet another example of the entrenched Westminster way of going about things, which has a limited understanding of the nature of the UK and devolution. This would point towards Westminster viewing the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish contests as second-order elections and not really that important.
Already a pattern has built of submerging Scottish contests in wider UK and international issues. The first Scottish Parliament elections were shaped by the Kosovo conflict. The 2003 elections were dominated by the Blair-Bush invasion of Iraq which had started weeks before the poll, and the 2007 contest by Blair’s long, drawn out, goodbye – where Frank Sinatra like – he seemed unwilling to leave the stage and limelight.
Are we really saying it is all right for the 2011 and 2015 Scottish Parliament elections to be overshadowed by British wide debates and polls? What this would mean in total is that the first five Scottish contests would be submerged in British issues.
That cant be a satisfactory situation, yet we should ask what kind of British politics and government is it that is content to preside over this state of affairs? The Blair era had little understanding, sympathy or vision of devolution, and saw it as a historic pledge it could not get out of and had to fulfil; after that it was back to the serious business of HMS Great Britain and proper statecraft.
The Cameron-Clegg administration, just like Blair have come in promising a fresh start with much of the same rhetoric, ‘a new politics’, ‘modernisation’, ‘overhauling our discredited political system’. However, already the limits of these intentions are being shown and the reality that more and more Westminster doesn’t really understand the complex, hybrid nature of the union.
One would hoped for a little humility from the Westminster political classes and village considering the low stock of MPs and our entire political system which has presided over the biggest economic, social and democratic crisis our country has seen since the Second World War. But that would require some self-reflection which is entirely lacking from the Westminster way of doing things; far easier to just keep the whole show on the road.
The AV referendum vote is a fascinating issue which says a lot about what passes for business as usual in Westminster. To allow the AV referendum and devolved contests to go ahead on the same day will show how deep is the rot in Westminster and the hollowness of the Con-Lib Dem ‘new politics’. It will signal the end of the brief flowering and hope of any ‘respect’ agenda between the two Parliaments.
Will the UK Government listen and act with carefulness and consideration? I have my doubts, but whichever way they go will reveal a lot about the nature of this government, devolution and where power sits in the UK.