Malcolm's thoughts on the Scottish Referndum
Debate on The Claim Of Right Malcolm Chisholm (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab):
I and everybody in Labour fully support the “right of the Scottish people to determine the form of Government best suited to their needs”.

We have supported that for a long time. I know that the cabinet secretary will think that this is a trivial point, but she must understand how galling we found it when the First Minister asked us a few weeks ago to reaffirm a commitment that he had never affirmed in the first place. Setting that aside, I say for the avoidance of doubt that we reaffirm that commitment.

At the heart of the debate is a gigantic step by the Scottish Government from that commitment to saying that the Scottish Government should determine all the processes of a referendum. In a way, we really need to focus on that.

Among the many interesting articles on the subject in the past week or two, the most interesting that I have found was by the former leader of the Liberal Party of Canada - members can find it in the Financial Times of 18 January. He started the article with the stark statement that “how the rules” in a referendum “get made will determine who wins.”

That might be a slight overstatement, but it makes us realise how important the process is.

He also said: “For the Scottish referendum result to have legitimacy, both nationally and internationally, both sides will have to compromise and agree on language, timing and process.”

In the context of what we are talking about, perhaps we should refer to “all sides” rather than “both sides”. We are talking not about Edinburgh and London but about all sides of Scottish opinion. I probably agree with much that the Scottish Government said in the two days before Michael Moore’s statement in the House of Commons, because the UK Government’s approach before that statement was incredibly cack-handed, although Michael Moore made a much better shot of it in his statement. We are talking not about Edinburgh and London, but about how we ensure that all sides of Scottish opinion have a say in this vital decision on the referendum process.

As Patricia Ferguson did, I welcome the commitment that the First Minister made during questions today. We will have to see how that works out. However, it is really important that the quotation from Michael Ignatieff that I read out be taken on board. We must have a process that is acceptable to all sides: we cannot have someone saying at the end of it all that the referendum was not fair or not clear and so on. That is why the Labour amendment - in which the words “clear”, “unambiguous” and “decisive” are central to our argument - is so important.

I will home in on what is perhaps the most contentious area of all with regard to process: whether there should be one or two questions. I expressed a view on that matter a few months ago, but I have thought about it a great deal in the past three or four months, and I have come to the conclusion that it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to have a multi-option referendum on the issue. That does not mean that I go back in any way on what I have written about the need for this Parliament to have greatly increased powers, but I see two fundamental problems with a multi-option referendum.


First, we do not have a clear third option. I know that the Scottish Government has in its head a clear third option, and I was rather concerned to read on page 15 of the document yesterday that the Scottish Government’s position remains that it is “willing to include a question about further ... devolution on the lines of ‘devolution max’”.

In other words, the Scottish Government is prejudging and deciding what the third option should be. However, the third option of the Scottish people may well fall far short of devolution max in its pure and absolute sense.

Jamie Hepburn (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth) (SNP):

I thank Malcolm Chisholm for giving way; he is one of the Labour members whom I respect more on this subject and many other subjects. However, I am a little disappointed to hear him backing away from the idea of a multi-option referendum.

Let us be clear: the claim of right asserts “the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of government best suited to their needs”.

Why would Malcolm Chisholm seek to narrow that option? Surely it would allow “the Scottish people to determine the form of Government that is best suited to their needs”.

Malcolm Chisholm:

I am describing the practical difficulties; the first difficulty is that we do not have a third option worked out in detail.

Christine Grahame:

Will the member give way?

Nicola Sturgeon:
Will the member give way?

Malcolm Chisholm:
I will give way in a minute, but I know that I will be cut short. I will just make my points and then I will give way.

The second point concerns the practicalities. Peter Kellner has written very interestingly about a second question: he comes up with four different voting methods that get four different results. Willie Rennie has expressed the dilemma in terms of what happens if we get 80 per cent for devo max and 51 per cent for independence. The public would not accept that independence had won that poll.

I will let Nicola Sturgeon intervene after I have made this point. I saw her tweeting this morning - I do not know whether she said this last night, because I did not see the programme - that her favoured option is to ask the people whether they want a change from the status quo and then to ask a question that offers a choice between independence and devo max. The problem with that is that many of the people who do not want a change - and who would answer the first question to that effect - would abstain on the second question. We could therefore get 50 per cent voting for independence on the second question, but it may well be that 40 per cent or less of those taking part in the referendum actually voted on that question.

I give way to Nicola Sturgeon.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:
Very briefly, please, Ms Sturgeon.

Nicola Sturgeon (The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Health, Wellbeing and Cities Strategy):
Just to clarify, I was not tweeting from the chamber last night -

Hugh Henry:

No, but Mike Russell is.

Michael Russell:

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. Perhaps you would ask Mr Henry to withdraw that remark. That was not what was taking place.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

That is not a point of order. Ms Sturgeon, please continue.

Michael Russell:

It is complete nonsense.

Hugh Henry:
Can I reply to that, Presiding Officer? Mike Russell was using an electronic device, which is not allowed under the rules of this Parliament.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

That is not a point of order. Ms Sturgeon, please continue.

Nicola Sturgeon:
I was going to say, as Jamie Hepburn did, that Malcolm Chisholm is one of the Labour members whom I listen to. On the evidence of what we have just heard, he will be one of the very few Labour members whom I listen to.

My question is a serious question. Is Labour not abdicating its responsibility? Labour says that it does not support independence, and it is entitled to that view, but it does not think that the Scottish Government should define the devolution option. Should not Labour bring forward that option to allow the Scottish people to have their say on it?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:
I regret that Malcolm Chisholm is much over time.

Malcolm Chisholm:
I am certainly interested in developing such an option. The point that I am making today is that such an option cannot be on that ballot paper. We must have a clear, decisive and unambiguous question on independence.
January 26th 2012