What is this 'Civic
Scotland' that has suddenly
become a proper name?
We are told that any consultation on the terms of the referendum should be with 'civic Scotland', which has now become, in the Scotsman, 'Civic Scotland', as if it merited a proper name. What this term means is unclear.
All that is offered by way of explanation is that 'civic Scotland' consists of groups such as trades unions, churches and the Scottish Council of Voluntary Organisations. There can be little doubt that the council rather than the ordinary members of the last of these would be consulted. Presumably trades union officers and the clergy, and perhaps elders, would be consulted. There has also been talk of consulting students' organisations – the political students for whom at most 20% of normal students have voted – and 'business leaders'. That leaves one question: what about the rest of us? Don't we have a valid view in this country that is said to hold the sovereignty of the people (rather than of parliament) as pre-eminent?
Why are trades unions to be consulted but not professional associations or organisations of skilled tradesmen or of the self-employed? Why are the churches – with their minority following – to be consulted and not the Humanist Society Scotland? Perhaps I should declare an interest since I am a member of this organisation. There is also the National Secular Society. Are atheists and agnostics not to be consulted (unless they are trade unionists, business leaders, student leaders or council members of the SCVO)?
Consultation of any genuine kind is an unwieldy and labour-intensive business. That is why genuine consultation so rarely happens. Yet nowadays the ease of communication via the internet makes it much easier for those being consulted. For those doing the consulting, it can be too much of a good thing. I am sure that the last thing SNP high command wants is a barrage of emails from ordinary people (like myself), giving their opinion on the wording of the one question that will definitely be on the ballot paper and the other that may or may not be.
When my university's management was contemplating changing the structure of the academic year from three terms to two semesters, some eight or nine years ago, its leaders launched a consultation exercise on the website. This kind of exercise has never been attempted again, partly because there is now no perceived need, on the part of managers, to consult about anything and partly because the volume of response in that one exercise was so vast – and brought into the open so much opinion, from all over the university, that was opposed to the proposed change. It went through anyway.
One need only consult the Scotsman online daily to see the volume (and derisory quality) of the responses to any article on independence/devolution. I am sure that SNP high command does not want to have to face that kind of thing. So consultation will, as usual, be a rather limited exercise. And the results of the consultation will depend on who interprets it and how.
We are also told that the vast majority of us favour 'devo max' – perhaps 68% of us. This seems to have been arrived at most recently by consulting a sample of 1,000 people. Again, what about the rest of us? Most of the people I know don't favour 'devo max', but no-one has asked their opinion. In fact, no political pollster has ever asked my opinion. Perhaps this is because I don't live in Glasgow, or because I don't loiter in Princes Street (Edinburgh). Or perhaps I simply look like the kind of person that no sensible opinion pollster who valued his/her safety would wish to approach.
How have we got ourselves into this difficulty? In the SNP's election manifesto, we were promised (if that's the appropriate word) a referendum on whether Scotland should be an independent country. It was as simple
It's beginning to seem a bit like the business with the trams. I saw Donald Anderson, an early prime mover behind the Edinburgh trams project, saying on television that households had been surveyed to see if they were in favour of the trams – and they seemed happy with the idea. Well, my household was not surveyed, and I have yet to meet anyone whose household was surveyed. It is widely believed here that there was no consultation with the citizens of Edinburgh because the referendum on the congestion charge had resulted in a vote emphatically against its introduction. That is to say, consultation in that case yielded the 'wrong' result, and (it is believed) the citizens of Edinburgh are being punished for giving that result.
Is the consultation about whether there is to be a second question and whether 16-year-olds should be allowed to vote in the referendum going to be as comprehensive and transparent as the 'consultation' on the trams wasn't? For reasons I have given, I am sceptical about the extent to which 'consultation' about the independence referendum will include sounding out and reflecting the opinions of ordinary citizens rather than the leaders of a few interest groups.
How have we got ourselves into this difficulty? In the SNP's election manifesto, we were promised (if that's the appropriate word) a referendum on whether Scotland should be an independent country. It was as simple as that. There was nothing about supplementary questions. There was nothing about 'devo max'. The problems attendant on 'devo max' – mainly regarding how and how far it would affect the other parts of the UK – make it a questionable subject for a referendum in Scotland, particularly one whose main purpose is to ascertain the level of support for independence.
In any case, students of history tend to be suspicious of referenda. The way in which the question is asked is of paramount importance. In March 1938, a referendum (or plebiscite) was held in Germany and Austria, asking whether the voters were in favour of the Anschluss (union of the two countries). On the ballot paper was a very large 'Ja' (yes) and a very small 'Nein' (no), with correspondingly large and small circles for the voter's cross. Napoleon was a great fan of plebiscites which validated his actions. De Gaulle, too, favoured them, to the extent that a magazine published a cartoon portraying him in Louis XIV's clothes and regalia, with a full-bottomed wig consisting of curls formed by the word 'oui' (yes) - over the title 'L'Oui XIV'. The leaders in these cases knew how to get the answer they wanted.
So let us have an utterly clear and transparent referendum, if we must have one – which it seems we must. One question, one simple question that does not lead the respondent or muddy the waters.
Jill Stephenson is former professor of modern German history at the University of Edinburgh