Asking the important questions

7 Feb 2012


The likelihood of Scotland voting in a referendum on independence was something most Scots had accepted would occur at some stage before the next Scottish Parliament election in 2016. We talked about it in passing, but we didn’t really know how or when it would happen.


Suddenly then, in January this year, the debate became all about details. Could a referendum be legally binding? Could an advisory referendum even be called by the Scottish Parliament? Who would supervise the poll? When would it be? Who would be eligible to vote? And of course, what would the question be? Or could there be two?


At the Electoral Reform Society Scotland we’ve spent time poring over legislation, talking to experts, taking on board opinions and mulling over the options that would best respect democracy. To that end, we are recommending that the Scottish Parliament be provided with a no strings attached legal mandate to call a referendum at a time, and with a question (or questions) of their choosing. We also believe that the Scottish Electoral Commission is best placed to monitor the referendum, but they should be accountable not to the Westminster Government but to all members of the Scottish Parliament.


The Society supports votes for 16 and 17 year olds, and given the importance of this vote, we see no reason why this opportunity shouldn’t be taken to extend the franchise. That said, this should be as a beginning not as a one off. We think the franchise should be the same as for elections to the Scottish Parliament. We appreciate that Scots in England, Wales and elsewhere will be interested in the referendum and keen to participate, but the residency requirement is the one that best reflects democracy. As a comparison we would suggest that decisions made by the London mayor affect those who work but do not live in London, visitors to London, and have an impact on the UK more widely, but only residents of London are eligible to vote in the mayoral elections.


Having thought through these technical details, ERS Scotland is planning to hold a series of roundtables and public debates to open up the discussion. If we are thinking about amending our constitution, we should surely be thinking about what route will best deliver a good Scottish democracy. We have an opportunity to think about where power lies in Scotland, how it is used (and abused), and what further changes might benefit democracy. We believe that if our future democracy is the best it can be,  then all the other decisions faced by Scottish society will be thought about more fairly.


We hope to engage major thinkers and opinion formers, from think tanks to journalists, academics to campaigners, and to have a thoughtful conversation about how we can work together towards Scotland’s Good Democracy. For information about how you can get involved in the Electoral Reform Society Scotland’s good democracy project- watch this space! Futher details will be coming soon.


Find out more about Electoral Reform Society Scotland.


6 Responses to Asking the important questions

fossn 9 Feb 2012

As it is a union of the UK all residents of the UK should be asked their opinion. The English parliament should be able to put questions on the ballot paper to guage response rates and depth of feeling within the entire union to certain, possible, future actions affecting all peoples of said union.
It should be made clear that non voters are making their feelings clear in a specific pre agreed way so that anyone with a strong enough opinion will be motivated to vote. The percentage workings out for and against any question should also be made clear beforehand so that a free, fair and open process as possible can take place.

Francis McGonigal 13 Feb 2012

There is no English parliament, but English devolution is an issue that needs to be addressed. Whether there shoule be a parliament for England, or regional assemblies or both is a matter for voters in England. It is however a separate issue from the Scottish referendum.

Acanthium 11 Feb 2012

If 30% chose independence, 30% chose devo-max, and 40% chose continued UK rule, what would happen? The clear majority would have chosen more power to Scotland, but the biggest single choice would have been status quo. The answer to this question is essential before a choice can be made between a one-question referendum and a two-question one.

Francis McGonigal 21 Feb 2012

In reply to Acanthium:
If the majority would choose devo-max to either of the other options (in a head-to-head contest), then it should be the winner. Whether they actually do could be determined by asking voters to state their 1st 2nd and 3rd preferences on the ballot paper.
An alternative would be to have two questions:
1. Should Scotland be independent?
2. If Scotland does not become independent, should there be devo-max?

Asking for preferences could allow for more than three options. Separate questions would get complicated if there were more than three.

Douglas K Moffat 9 Feb 2012

Australia has compulsory voting and records regular 93+% turnouts which give any result a resounding no argument answer to the vote,although this vote may show very high numbers and with the possibility of a dead/heat or very close vote the more eligible voters who do turnout the better, if it were compulsory! even a ONE vote majority could provide the answer unlikely you may think but POSSIBLE. What percentage would be the minimum for a decisive result and how could this be workable if no percent is set and as it would not be compulsory to vote anyway, apathy may reign not democracy

Francis McGonigal 9 Feb 2012

It is feasible and desirable that three or even more options are available in the Scottish referendum.
At one end of the scale is full independence and at the opposite end the status quo. Along the scale there can be various levels of ‘devo-plus’ or ‘devo-max’.
An appropriate voting system would ensure that whichever option (if any) is preferred by the majority to all others would be the winner.
The danger of insisting on a binary "IN-OUT" question is that opportunities for acceptable compromise are lost, people are forced into taking sides and whatever the result an embittered minority is created.