The Scottish government has confirmed the question to be put to the people of Scotland in the independence referendum in the autumn of 2014. Those eligible to vote will be asked to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the question: Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country? The Electoral Commission, an independent body will test the Scottish government’s preferred wording in focus groups to see whether it is fair and easily understood. Getting the question right and unambiguous is important to all those with an interest in the outcome of the referendum.
The proposed question is essentially divided into two parts: ‘do you agree’ and ‘that Scotland should be an independent country’. There are problems with the proposed wording but also problems with what is not included in the question. What is blatantly omitted from the question is any reference to leaving the Union. You might agree that Scotland should be an independent country but that might not include leaving the Union but independence within the Union. The critical word is ‘independence’ and what that actually means in practice. The SNP understand independence to mean that Scotland should become a sovereign nation over which the rest of the Union have no control at all. However, if Scotland retains the pound sterling as its currency, highly likely given the present instability in the euro-zone, decisions about interest rates, for instance, would be retained in London. Untangling a union of three hundred years duration will inevitably be messy so that any notion of sovereign independence will inevitably be diluted because of the realities of the existing union and the problems in making a clear, unambiguous divorce. The problem with not including ‘independence’ by using a question such as ‘should Scotland be governed as a separate country’ is also replete with problems.
I have always thought that the solution to the Scottish question and the Welsh question lies best in the development of a federal structure in which domestic policy is decided by the constituent countries while those areas that affect the four countries, such as foreign policy, relations with the European Union, terrorism and so on are decided by the Union parliament. Since the introduction of devolution, the old constitutional notion of a unitary state has become increasingly redundant yet there has been little discussion of the ways in which the nature of the union could be changed to accommodate nationalist aspirations in its constituent parts. The alternatives appear to be either retaining a unitary union or independence for countries that vote for it. There has been little debate over the merits of a federal system that maintains union but with a more devolved constitutional framework. To move in this direction would require a changed mind-set among English politicians who are the most rabid advocates of the existing union and would give the population of the United Kingdom as a whole the opportunity to vote for a changed structure. In practical terms, this would give Scotland independence especially if linked to fiscal independence to decide those issues that affect Scotland and come up with different policy decisions from England, Wales or Northern Ireland: an evolution of the existing devolved systems. Independence within an overarching federal union has advantages over complete sovereign independence.
Arguably, the question proposed is the wrong question not because Scotland is likely to vote for the status quo (if polling is accurate) but because it does not address the question that really needs to be asked: should the United Kingdom be a federal rather than a unitary union?