The referendum ballot is the most significant choice the Scottish electorate will have made for over 300 years. It cannot and must not be viewed as just another election, because it is not an election like a council election, a Scottish Parliamentary election or a general election.
It can only be compared to other referendums, and the only ones remotely comparable in scale and significance were the 1975 referendum on the UK remaining in Europe and the referendum on Scottish devolution in 1997 that led to the establishment of the Scottish Parliament.
But the 2014 Scottish independence referendum dwarfs both of these in its ramifications and its implications for Scotland, the UK, the Republic of Ireland, Europe, Scandinavia and in a wider sense, the entire world, in its nuclear and defence ramifications.
Autumn 2014 starts on the 23rd of September. The earliest date for the referendum is 23rd September 2014, and the latest date before the winter solstice is 20th December 2014. We have between 32 months and 35 months to go until the most important decision facing Scots since 1707 arrives.
It will also be the most important event facing the United Kingdom, a highly significant event for the Republic of Ireland, an event of vital interest for the European Union, and an event major interest for the rest of the world. It may spell the end of Britain as a nuclear power, and therefore the end of the US/Britain links on the so-called ‘independent’ nuclear deterrent, it will have a fundamental and incalculable effect on NATO, and on the perception of the rest of the world of ‘Britain’, in the sense that it still exists, as a world power.
It matters profoundly to the future of the people of Scotland, and will determine the nature of Scottish society for at least a generation, and almost certainly for far, far longer. For everyone alive today in Scotland, this will be the most significant determinant of their future.
VOTING IN THE REFERENDUM
The first choice facing those eligible to vote is to vote or not to vote. A failure to vote can result from many causes – apathy, failure to establish eligibility to vote, factors beyond the control of someone who wished to vote and couldn’t (this happened to large numbers of voters in the last general election), absence, illness, disability, etc. A conscious decision not to vote is usually based on one of two factors – a view that the vote doesn’t matter, or that the voting process is less important than other priorities, or a decision to boycott a ballot.
For those who do vote – the ones who will determine the outcome – the exact nature of the choice or choices they will have to make at the ballot box has not yet been finalised.
It is therefore essential that there is consensus or near consensus that the framing of the question or questions is fair: only then will the ballot outcome be seen as just and equitable.
The higher the turnout, the greater the legitimacy of the ultimate choice – a low turnout would result in a referendum outcome that would be challenged by those opposed to the decision as being unrepresentative of the will of the Scottish people.
(It is desirable, but not essential, that the outcome should not be subject to legal challenge. The reality is that however constructed, any ballot can be the subject of legal challenge, the only question being how valid the challenge is.)
THE KEY FACTORS
1. Clarity on who is eligible to vote. Because this referendum is different from anything that preceded it, eligibility to vote is a contentious issue and has not yet been fully resolved. None of the arguments being advanced or the criteria being offered are wholly objective, since those advancing them have a political view on the outcome. There will be clarity before the referendum, and the criteria of eligibility will be fixed, but they are likely remain contentious. Just how contentious will affect views of the validity of the outcome of the referendum.
2. The question or questions. How the question(s) is/are worded, the mode of response to it/them (e.g. YES/NO, tick for agreement, etc.) how the ballot paper is structured, the sequence of questions (if more than one), conditionality between questions, and a range of other issues remain to be determined. All are contentious, and again, the method adopted must be seen to be fair for the ballot outcome to be perceived as just and equitable.
3. The information electors require to make an informed choice. Ballot questions and ballot papers must be a simple and straightforward as possible, and must be readily understandable to ensure that choices are clear and easily and accurately recorded.
Traditionally, they have been – voters make choices of great significance on simple questions because they believe they understand the import of the question or questions. The reason they believe this is because they have been exposed to a campaign prior to the ballot, setting out issues and policies, and also information that is intended to be objective. An informed electorate is the pre-requisite of a successful democracy. The media play a crucial role in this information process, especially the public service broadcaster, which in Britain is the BBC.
Impartiality can only be an ideal that information providers strive towards – the very nature of democratic politics is the espousing of a political viewpoint, and a sophisticated electorate knows that it is being asked to choose between conflicting arguments and different perspectives of facts, and that the perspective and interpretation of a fact is not the same thing as the fact itself.
Our political system is adversarial in its nature, as is our legal system. Expert and qualified people will argue widely differing interpretations of the same facts and events, and then a judge and/or jury will decide which version it chooses to accept. In democratic politics, the people are both judge and jury, and are sovereign in their choices and wishes.
THE REFERENDUM CAMPAIGN
To date, the referendum debate has been characterised by acrimony, ultimatum, negativity, and a great deal of misinformation. Because of what I want to say here, it would be counter-productive to say where most of that was emanating from. Suffice to say that it has not helped the vitally necessary process of open, rational debate, nor has it served to make electors better informed.
In a real sense, it has been a phoney war, and the debate proper should now have started with the naming of the referendum date – Autumn 2014 – and the identification of the Scottish Government’s preferred question – “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?”
It is essential that the great debate from now on is conducted in a more civilised and structured manner. It will be political, it will be partisan, and debate will – and must be – vigorous and energised, but it must be placed on a calmer, more objective footing. The electorate must be given the information necessary to make an informed choice. To facilitate the provision of such information, and to enable them to weigh the relative merits of the arguments, the electorate must become more aware and more involved than they have been in any previous election in their lifetimes.
I have some ideas on how that might be done …
CREATING AN INFORMED ELECTORATE
The political parties will campaign using a range of traditional techniques – leafleting, door-to-door, public meetings and road shows, press releases and media interviews – and specialised focused approaches developed uniquely and specifically for the referendum.
Both the Westminster Government and the Scottish Government will make pronouncements, engage in debates: both will use the law and the services of experts and advisors, and in so doing will be theoretically constrained from using public resources, public servants and public money for overtly political campaigning. Both will claim to be governing and acting in the interests of the entire nation and not the interests of the governing party. The Westminster government will define the nation as the United Kingdom, including Scotland, and the Scottish Government will define the nation as Scotland.
Various bodies and organisations will claim to speak for their members, e.g. businesses, the professions, the churches, the representatives of ethnic and national groups, individual trades unions, bodies such as the STUC, representing a group of trades unions, bodies such as the Scottish Council of Voluntary Organisations (SCVO), thinks tanks, campaigning groups, etc. Civic Scotland has emerged as a coalition claiming to represent many of these groups.
Few, if any of these organisations will be fully democratic in their structures, although some may have elements of democratic procedures. None will have a true right to claim to speak on behalf of all of their members.
For example, the CBI cannot claim to speak for all businesses in Scotland (there are other business organisations), it cannot claim to speak authoritatively for all members of the CBI, and it most certainly cannot claim to speak for all employees of its member businesses. The think tanks are self-appointed groups: some are funded by special interests, some are openly political in their views and objectives. The churches are not democratic in their structures, although some have strong elements of democratic structures.
This is not to say that the above bodies and organisations should not have a voice, or that they do not have a place in a democracy – they should and do, providing the limitations of their mandates are recognised, and that the sovereign, democratic voice is that of the people at the ballot box.
The electorate are involved in all of the above, but they have the trump card, which is their individual, unique democratic vote.
MY IDEA – THE VOTER IN THE VILLAGE
I intend to launch an initiative in my own village – Kirkliston, in West Lothian – an ancient village with a proud place in Scottish history. Kirkliston was the location of the first recorded Parliament in Scottish history. The Estates of Scotland met there in 1235, during the reign of Alexander II of Scotland. We can also claim that the The West Lothian Question, a fundamental question in Scotland/Westminster relations, has given the UK and the world a wider recognition of our region.
Kirkliston has a strong and active sense of community, with two churches, a bowling club, and a community centre playing a central role. It has a number of small businesses located in the village.
My initiative is in its infancy, and may come to nothing, but I am breaching – with considerable trepidation - the old taboo of not talking politics or religion with my neighbours in an an attempt to get something going. The Voter in the Village initiative will focus solely on the independence referendum, with the following objectives and constraints -
1. To create a wider awareness of the purpose of the referendum, its significance to Scotland, its wider significance, and its possible outcomes and their implications.
2. To create opportunities to discuss the referendum and its implications for anyone in the village, focusing on those who believe they will be eligible to vote at the time of the referendum, or who believe they should be eligible to vote at the time of the referendum.
3. To offer an initial forum in a village venue for that purpose, which will take the form of a facilitated workshop discussion.
4. No elected politician, e.g. councillor, MSP or MP will be permitted to attend the initial meeting or meetings. No one may act as representative of the views of any specific political party or organisations at the initial meetings, although it is hoped that those attending will represent the widest range of personal political and social views possible.
There will be no platform speakers, no speeches, no defence of, or attack on political beliefs – the format will be that of a facilitated workshop, with the emphasis being on discussion in small groups, followed by feedback and comment. Some will be familiar with this structure and approach from industry and commercial experience, many will not.
I will facilitate the initial meeting and workshop, supported, I hope by one other person. Both of us are highly experienced in this type of workshop, but not in a political context. There will be no committee, no elected officers, and no minutes. There will be no agenda in advance, other than the broad purpose and framework.
I will meet all initial costs, to get the initiative started. If it continues, some way of meeting what I hope will be very low costs will have to be considered. No funds will be accepted from political parties, nor from any organisation that has a specific political agenda.
I have strong views on the independence of Scotland, available to anyone to read on my blog, I am a member of a political party, but hold no office in that party, but I will not be advocating my personal viewpoint in this Voters in the Village initiative.
It is vital to the success of the approach that I get people who hold very different views to myself at the initial and subsequent meetings, and the widest possible sample of views in the village, including those who have not yet formed an opinion on the referendum.
I have already been filmed by a BBC reporter for The Sunday Politics Scotland for a possible, but by no means guaranteed 30 second clip inclusion in a feature on the show on Sunday, 12th of February. The BBC has indicated that if we do get the initiative going in Kirkliston, they would be interested in covering it.
FINAL THOUGHT …
I leave you with this thought – the 2014 referendum will take place, with or without your participation and involvement, and even without your vote, and there will be an outcome that will radically affect your future, that of your family, friends and colleagues for a least a generation, and this will happen during very challenging social and economic times for Scotland.
Ask yourself if you need to know more, and want to contribute to this momentous decision with a clear idea of the issues and arguments involved. If your answer is yes, come along when the date is fixed.
And can I emphasise again that this is for residents of Kirkliston only, is not for elected politicians even if they live in Kirkliston, nor is it a platform for those acting on behalf of a political party. However, members of political parties who do not hold elected office are welcome. In other words, you represent only yourself …
If these initial constraints don’t suit you, then arrange your own initiative, find your own venue and set your own rules - it’s a free country.
Who knows, I might like your approach better than mine and come and join you!