The Constitution Unit


Scottish Independence Referendum: Cameron wins first round

27 September 2012

Commenting on the historic agreement between the two governments to be signed in Edinburgh today, the Director of the Constitution Unit Prof Robert Hazell said: "The UK government has won the first round, in particular through insisting on a single question. Of all the issues being negotiated, Salmond wanted most a second question on Devo Max. But the UK government had the upper hand, through controlling access to Westminster to authorise the referendum. They had to be seen to offer Salmond something, and it was worth conceding on the timing of the referendum, and votes for 16-17 year olds, in order to ensure a single question".

There were five main issues being negotiated:

  • One question or two. The SNP wanted a fallback question, on Devolution Max, which polls suggest commands more support than independence. The UK government has been adamant in insisting on a single question on independence.
  • The wording of the question. The Scottish government will need to await advice from the Electoral Commission on this. The UK government will expect (but has not required) the Scottish Government to accept the Electoral Commission's advice on this. But it will point to the precedent that it accepted the Commission's changed wording on the AV referendum in May and the Welsh Assembly referendum in March 2011 (on the AV referendum, the UK government accepted significant changes).
  • The conduct of the referendum. The SNP originally proposed that the referendum should be supervised by a separate Scottish referendum commission. It has since accepted that the UK Electoral Commission should be the supervisory body.
  • The timing. Cameron wanted the referendum to be held as soon as possible, in 2013; but has conceded to the date Salmond has long desired, of autumn 2014.
  • The franchise. Here too Cameron has conceded to the SNP's wish, for the franchise to be extended to 16-17 year olds.

"Just on points, Cameron has won this first round 3:2" Prof Hazell said. "But the first point is worth more than the rest, because of the importance to the UK government of having a single question. And extending the franchise to 16-17 year olds may prove a Pyrrhic victory for the Scottish government. It will be a big challenge logistically to register these additional voters; and if their turnout is as low as that of 18-24 year olds in the last general election, it may prove to have been largely a waste of time".

"On one issue Cameron may be disappointed", Prof Hazell concluded. "The UK government had hoped that the referendum might decide the issue of Scottish independence once and for all. But these issues cannot be resolved for all time. The issue of how much independence and autonomy Scotland should have will always be with us, just like the never ending debate about Quebec in Canada, or Catalonia and the Basque country in Spain. There is nothing wrong in that, so long as these issues are debated and decided peacefully.

"Foreign observers from Canada and Spain have expressed to me their amazement and admiration that the UK government has been willing to facilitate this referendum. They say that could not happen back home. So the UK and Scottish governments can be proud of the agreement they have signed today, as part of the ongoing debate about Scotland's future, in or out of the UK".

Notes for Editors

  • The Constitution Unit produced a book, Scottish Independence: A Practical Guide, by Jo Murkens and Peter Jones (Edinburgh University Press, 2002).
  • Prof Robert Hazell is available for interview: phone the Constitution Unit on 020 7679 4977, or the Unit's press office Brian Walker 07802 146 347.