Scottish independence: Westminster's hostility is transparent

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Edinburgh - a future capital? Not if Westminster has its way
Edinburgh - a future capital? Not if Westminster has its way

You don't have to delve very deeply into the Scottish affairs committee's latest report on devolution to get a sense of their position. Sub-headings like 'the changing position of the Scottish government' and 'is there demand for a further devolution question on the ballot paper?' (the answer is 'no', obviously) make clear that this is not a report by supporters of independence.

Cross-party unity is often hard to come across in select committees, but on the issue of Scottish independence the main Westminster parties stand shoulder to shoulder. We're still not yet at the stage of the debate where the actual pros and cons of the demise of the Union are being considered: this year is all about wrangling over the rules of the game, with both sides striving to set up as favourable conditions as possible to get their way.

The Scottish Nationalist party is particularly interested in the idea of a 'devo-max' option, somewhere between independence and the current status quo. So the Commons' Scottish affairs committee has examined the idea carefully and concluded that it is a non-starter. "It is important that any referendum on Scotland's future is clear and decisive," chair Ian Davidson says. "The committee is of the view that a three-option choice would be neither."

Pages and pages follow which deconstruct the devo-max option entirely. It's too complicated, it won't work, the Scottish government doesn't have a mandate to offer it. Most revealing is a direct acknowledgement that the rules of the game are currently being contested. "We were surprised how complex the process of a three sided referendum would be; in particular how the wording and layout of the question, and the method of counting, could affect the result," Davidson adds.

This is not rocket science. We're slowly learning, following the rejected referenda on elected mayors and the electoral voting system, that when you give the public a choice on a specific issue the decisive battleground is never the actual issues. In referenda, more even than in general elections, the framing of the question is critical.

Still, politicians on both sides are careful not to actually acknowledge this is the case. As this paragraph from the report's conclusion reveals:

"There are a number of potential ways in which the results could be calculated and aggregated, and it is deeply disturbing to discover that the choice of voting and counting mechanism could well determine the outcome. That is not acceptable."

Politicians might call this suggestion deeply disturbing, but they have always known that this is the case. It's the seamier side of politics, the cold calculating strategising side which is as unpalatable as it is important.

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