Tavish vetoes SNP independence referendum hopes

by Stephen Tall on February 26, 2009

Despite Lord (Paddy) Ashdown’s public declaration last week that the Lib Dems should support a referendum on Scottish independence, Tavis Scott has made it clear he won’t budge – here’s today’s Daily Telegraph:

Tavish Scott, the Scottish Lib Dem leader told the Daily Telegraph he would rebuff any offers made by the First Minister because he did not want to be drawn into a constitutional “trap” that could threaten the Union. … The rejection leaves Mr Salmond with an almost impossible task to win the parliamentary majority he requires at Holyrood to get his Referendum Bill passed. Without the Lib Dems, the First Minister needs to win over the Conservatives or Labour, but both have made clear their virulent opposition to staging a vote.

I’ve been one of those who (observing from afar) has been surprised that the Lib Dems have not adopted a ‘bring it on’ stance. But, to give him his due, Tavish has mounted a strong and eminently rational defence of the Scottish party’s anti-referendum stance, reflected in the Telegraph’s story:

Mr Salmond’s preferred referendum question is whether his administration should negotiate a settlement with the British Government so that Scotland becomes an independent state. Because constitutional issues are reserved to Westminster, this convoluted wording, asking for permission merely to negotiate, is the only one legally allowed for a vote organised at Holyrood.

But Mr Scott is understood to oppose such ambiguous wording, with voters confused over whether they were voting for secession from the Union or merely talks. Mr Salmond’s desire to use a system of single transferable votes (STVs) to decide a three-option referendum could also lead to independence through the back door.

This would see Scots number the choices of status quo, more powers for the Scottish Parliament and a separate Scotland in order of preference. The least popular option would then be discarded, and the second preference votes of those who backed it distributed among the remaining two choices. But this system could mean that even if a third or fewer Scots named independence as their first choice, it could still win through thanks to the second preference votes.

The Scottish Lib Dems’ fears seem to me to be reasonable. I have no problems with the principle of referenda to decide such issues, certainly ones which relate to where power resides. But there are two essential pre-requisites to any referendum: (i) the question posed must be crystal clear; and (ii) the options must produce a clear-cut majority result.

But, in this instance, it appears the question could be open to interpretation – it’s easy to imagine a doorstep conversation in which a nationalist canvasser assures a voter that their pro-independence vote will simply give the SNP a stronger negotiating hand when talking to the Westminster government to deliver a better deal for Scotland.

And while I’m a fan of STV voting for elected representation at all levels – to ensure all votes count, and to gain councils/governments which reflect the popular vote – I am not convinced it’s a system well-suited to referenda, where every single vote will carry equal weight in any case.

I’ll leave the last words to Tavish, as quoted by the Telegraph:

People in Scotland are fed up with endless speculation about independence as they worry about having a job tomorrow. Speculation that the Scottish government is moving towards a multi-option referendum is an attempt to woo the Liberal Democrats is inevitable, if a little tiresome. But, unfortunately for the SNP, I will not fall into this trap. Liberal Democrats do not support independence and we will not support a referendum that could let independence in through the backdoor.”