NConway kindly referred me to Stephen Noon’s explanation of how the independence referendum would work. Stephen Noon is the SNP strategist who played a huge part in the Party’s stunning success in the 2011 election, and he is very much a party insider. Although this comes from his blog, it can be safely taken to reflect Party policy and it is dated 26th October, the same date as my blogs, so it is bang up to date.
It asks the key question – what if devo max (and Stephen does use the term, which the SNP have rather tried to distance themselves from in recent statements) gets more yes votes than independence in the referendum ballot?
Stephen equates the Party’s favoured approach with the 1997 referendum, which was also a two-question referendum. I would make the point that it was not, however, an independence referendum.
Here’s what Stephen says – I hope he doesn’t mind me quoting him in full -
“In the model proposed in the draft referendum bill in the last session, the choice would not be framed as an either/or. This is where the misunderstanding (or refusal to understand) arises.
Instead, the consultation paper sets out that voters would be asked, first, whether they want the Scottish Parliament to have responsibility for all matters except defence and foreign affairs. Then, they would be asked whether they want the additional powers that would take us to independence.
This is the same approach as in 1997. Scots were first asked whether they wanted a Scottish Parliament with responsibility for health, education, justice etc. Then, as the second question, whether they - in addition - wanted that parliament to have tax-varying powers. The two options weren't competing.
So if there is a 2 question referendum on independence the approach, based on the 2010 consultation paper, would, in broad terms, be as follows. First, people are asked whether they want the parliament to have responsibility for the economy, welfare, energy etc. (i.e. devo max). Then they are asked if they want the parliament - in addition - to have responsibility for the other policy areas that mean Scotland would become independent.
Going back to 1997, three-quarters of Scots voted for the Parliament and just less than two-thirds for the additional tax varying powers. On the argument being presented by the Lib Dems and others, this result should mean that because the 'parliament only' option had more votes than the 'parliament plus tax-varying powers' option then the 'parliament only' option won. That is patently nonsense.
I've heard some say that in the independence referendum the two options wouldn't be linked. If you look back at the draft bill, that's clearly not the case. And, given that many of these same people are describing the middle option as 'independence-lite', the obvious point is, you can't have it both ways. “
The kernel of Stephen’s argument is the assertion that the two questions are not competing, but in some way he seems to regard the sequence of the questions as significant, e.g.
“First the people are asked …. Then they are asked …” with the first question being devo max and the second independence, then later “ ..the two options wouldn't be linked” .
Two questions on a ballot paper are rarely linked by intent. To do so would require the placing of some form of explicit conditionality on the sequence and validity of answering them, e.g. If you answer YES to QI then ignore Q2, to take a random example.
Then, and only then would the sequence of answering them be relevant. Technically, a multi-option ballot paper usually offers stand alone choice, i.e. the ballot paper to elect an MP to a constituency. This should not be confused with electing more than one person on the same ballot paper, or second choice votes, single transferrable vote etc.
But the ballot paper that Stephen envisages is on the model – as I understand his blog – of my Option Two on my first blog of 26th October The Referendum and the Question(s)
Let’s look at what Stephen says specifically about the two questions the Scottish Government will ask in the forthcoming referendum (the red highlighting is mine, not Stephen’s) -
“First, people are asked whether they want the parliament to have responsibility for the economy, welfare, energy etc. (i.e. devo max). “
This will presumably be the question at the top of the ballot paper (assuming a single ballot paper) but presumably the ballot paper will not prefix it by QUESTION ONE, which would imply a sequence and linking, in contradiction of “ ..the two options wouldn't be linked”.
On the second question, Stephen says -
“Then they are asked if they want the parliament - in addition - to have responsibility for the other policy areas that mean Scotland would become independent.”)
This is certainly a sequence as presented, and this matters, to me, at least - but will it be presented as such by numbering the questions?
Of course, Stephen does not present the actual proposed precise wording of the questions, and he is right not to do so, primarily because the wording will be hotly contested, and perhaps not only by the unionist opposition, but also by supporters of independence who are not SNP, and some party members and supporters. But he does suggest what the content of the questions will be, and their import -
On the ‘first’ question, the people will be asked to answer YES/NO to “ … whether they want the parliament to have responsibility for the economy, welfare, energy etc. (i.e. devo max). “
Does Stephen envisage a check list of these questions, or an itemisation of them, or wrapping them up under a single term, e.g. “devo max, etc..” Is it going to be a long, single sentence question including every power within the definition of full fiscal autonomy, or is a single term going to be used on the assumption that the voters know in advance what full fiscal autonomy, devo max or indy lite actually means?
Will this ‘first’ question include anything like the words ”while remaining part of the UK, with the UK continuing to control foreign policy, defence and retaining the sovereignty of Westminster.”
“Then they are asked if they want the parliament - in addition - to have responsibility for the other policy areas that mean Scotland would become independent.”
Does that this mean that instead of a simple question like “Do you want Scotland to be completely independent and leave the UK?” that the other “key policy areas” will be defined in detail?
AM I NIT-PICKING, AND DOES ANY OF THIS MATTER?
I can answer for no one but myself, as an eligible voter in the referendum, and claim to speak for no one but myself, and all I can say is that it matters to me. I do not want one – or maybe two – of the most important questions that have been asked in my lifetime, questions that will affect the future of Scotland and the rest of the UK (where I have friends, colleagues and close relatives) for a generation, to be inadequate to their primary purpose of determining the democratic will of the Scottish people – and that includes the Scottish voters who don’t agree with me, and who may be members of different parties, or no party.
There is an old saying, one done to death by glib management consultants, but nonetheless true, that perception is reality. This critical referendum will be completed by eligible Scottish voters from diverse backgrounds, with a huge range of demographic variations of age and educational attainment and intellect. Few will be political anoraks, but rather will be in the midst of busy, demanding lives. A question or questions must be posed with great clarity, and making no unwarranted assumptions about what voters know.
What I think every voter has is a very clear idea of what the independence of a nation means, despite the frantic attempts of some of those opposed to the independence of Scotland to muddy the water and obscure the definition.
The difficulties arise with a second question – I purposely avoid calling it the second question, because for some, it is the primary question, if the opinion polls are accurate. It may well be necessary to ask it in the name of democracy, but let’s not pretend it makes the Great Game simpler – it is fraught with difficulties that are not present in a single YES/NO question on full independence.
Each question has two possible outcomes, YES or NO. That gives the following possible outcomes
YES to full fiscal powers, YES to independence
NO to full fiscal powers, NO to independence
YES to full fiscal powers, NO to independence
NO to full fiscal powers, YES to independence
The first answers will be given by those totally committed to independence
The second answers will be given by those committed to the status quo and anti-independence
The third answers will be given by those committed to the UK but wanting devo ma
But with the fourth possibility – and it is a possibility, despite its apparent illogicality – we enter the perception-is-reality area, and even a tactical voting area.
There are many reasons for this combination of answers, among them -
Since full fiscal powers is automatic under the independence option, I don’t need to say yes to it, so I’ll say no …
I don’t think this question (FFP) should have been asked, so I’ll indicate my disagreement by saying no …
I want independence, I’ll get FFP under independence, but I don’t want to add to the vote for FFP as an alternative to independence, in case that vote is high …
The NO/NO option contains a possibility, admittedly of low probability, that some voters, committed to independence but deeply unhappy about the inclusion of another question on FFP, will see this as a way of rejecting the ballot format, without realising that they are effectively voting for the status quo.
The YES/NO option contains the possibility that a voter, committed to independence, but not to the SNP, will see this as a holding option till political power shifts, without realising the risk of placing independence out of reach for a generation.
These is are additional possibilities that may not affect the count, but will affect the political arguments that inevitably arise after a ballot which do not invalidate the result, but weaken the perceived mandate. This process has been observable after every general election and local government election. whether it is over the turnout or the percentage of total votes cast. (In the case of the 2011 landslide SNP win, the unionist parties came close to denying the SNP mandate, a ludicrous and indefensible argument, but one that is repeatedly deployed.)
This argument not only will be deployed after successful referendum outcome for independence, it is already being advanced hypothetically at the moment. Why does it matter? Because it will be crucial to the climate and dynamic of the negotiations with the UK Government that will follow a win for independence.
There is an additional possibility in the above voting outcomes that may be relevant to this aspect, e.g. some voters may elect to answer only one question. Dependent on the rules, this will either be acceptable or it will nullify the ballot paper. For example, a ballot paper that requires a YES/NO, strike-out-as-inapplicable response requires a voter response, and a failure to answer the question cannot be reasonably taken as a NO, and conceivably could spoil the ballot paper. On the other, a voting paper that requires that a box be ticked or left blank, as in a vote for a candidate for MP in a general election must be left blank if the option is rejected.
The motivation of voters for answering only one question may be varied, but it undoubtedly contributes not only to the result but to the analysis of the voting pattern.
There is a pattern of response that I have encountered and observed all my working life, in management and in management consulting work. It is endemic in the political arena, and it runs as follows -
Before the Plan is implemented …
That’s detail – we must keep our eye on the big policy picture …
That’s nit-picking – it will either never happen, or it won’t matter if it does …
After the plan has gone disastrously wrong …
No one could have foreseen that this would happen …
This was the result of unpredictable events – chance rather than risk assessment …
Oh, no it wasn’t , mate – it was clearly foreseeable, it was seen, it was predictable and was predicted – it was an entirely foreseeable possibility on any proper risk assessment, but the possibilities and predictions were ignored.
I don’t want that to happen to this referendum ballot. But I’m nine parts sure all this thinking has already been done by the backrooms boys and girls in Holyrood – maybe they just have good tactical and strategic reasons not to share their thoughts with the rest of us. Or maybe it hasn’t …