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.