15 Sep 2014

Scots referendum: how democratic is the process?

It nearly happened to Canada in 1995 – Quebec failed to go independent by about 1 per cent in a referendum.

But then Canada had been bequeathed the same strange constitutional settlement by which we have lived down the centuries – unwritten and often even uncertain.

So it is that Britain itself faces a reality that a simple majority in this referendum will decide whether the country breaks up or not.


Without that written constitution, it’s not easy to see how all this came about. In most democracies major constitutional changes require a significant majority in the legislature.

Our legislature – beyond calling the referendum itself – will have had no say whatever in what would inescapably be a major constitutional change.

In fact they also had precious little consultation should there be a no vote. The all-party agreed “devo max”, or what Gordon Brown, who announced it, termed “home rule”, has never in its present form been agreed by the legislature.

Read more: #Indyref quiz: so you think you’re a YES/NO voter?

Parliament was not recalled to discuss it. The party hierarchies agreed it and that was that. Parliament will of course discuss the elements, but the principle has been announced – albeit with just a fortnight before the vote this Thursday.

Above all, the whole process has revealed what would appear to be an extraordinary level of Westminster incompetence. The very idea of announcing “devo max” after postal voting had begun might suggest extraordinary cynicism.

With 97 per cent of the electorate registered to vote, let’s imagine a consequent very high turnout of around 85 per cent.

Read more: nearly all Scots registered to vote – a boost for the yes vote?

If for example, 52 per cent vote yes and 48 per cent vote no – that would represent just over 2.5 per cent of the UK electorate deciding upon the break-up of the United Kingdom.

That’s on the basis of roughly 46 million people registered to vote in the UK, and some 4 million of those registered in Scotland.

The Lib Dems and Labour have already reacted to the Scottish “home rule” promise, by demanding more devolution for Greater Manchester, the South Yorkshire conurbation, and other entities with similar sized populations to that in Scotland.

As much of Scotland yearns for greater democracy, how democratic is the process by which they gain it?

Whatever happens in the Scottish vote the pressure for a written constitution to rationalise events like this is likely to grow considerably.

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