Friday, January 27, 2012

The Scottish secession referendum question

Isn't this a light Friday afternoon blog post? Well, we can't help what we are interested in and when.

Yes, the Scots are having one, in case you have missed this development. It's a few years away, incredibly, but things are taking shape now. Polly Curtis at the Guardian does a blog post checking in with various experts on the Scottish National Party's favoured wording for the referendum question on independence. Here is what they propose to ask:
Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?
While it may appear straightforward on first glance, what possible harm could there be in that, etc., there is much more to it. There is the presumptive framing, done by the Scottish National Party, that leads to a yes vote of agreement with the statement, for starters. People generally are predisposed to be agreeable so there is an issue of the yes side being favoured. That's what self-interested framers of referendum questions tend to do.

A second issue is that people may want a degree of greater independence but not necessarily full independence from the UK, so there is an issue of vagueness with what the term "independent country" means. Yet they must say "yes" or "no" in response to the question. There are other procedural issues too, in terms of whether an independent electoral body will have a final say over the choice of question. The Scottish National Party leader is playing nice, at this point, but we know how heated these things can get.

While secession rumblings in Canada have significantly waned, such a referendum is still something of interest to Canadians given the familiarity of the issues as a result of our own experience. Thankfully though, in contrast to the developing Scottish process, we have a Clarity Act that addresses how a secession referendum would be treated by the federal government. So while it's a compelling comparative exercise, the comparison only goes so far.

The Scots have a lot of time to deal with the procedure and wrangle over referendum details, the referendum is being held in the fall of 2014. Which is novel timing. The movement could dissipate or become old hat by then. Or, it could allow for a sustained building of support. I find this two year period interesting and, separate and apart from secession referendums, possibly a useful way to focus a country on a single major constitutional issue. Maybe a partial remedy for the complaint here.

Referendum fans, there you go, one to watch.