Votes at 16, but just this once?

Tomorrow morning, the papers will announce that the Scottish Government will allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote in the independence referendum in 2014. This has caused dismay amongst the most unlikely of people: the pro-votes-at-16 group!

Last Spring, the Scottish Liberal Democrats debated the issue and, as I said to Conference on the day, I am hugely in favour of extending the vote to 16 and 17 year olds for the referendum, whether or not the right is extended to all elections in Scotland. My reasons for this are three-fold:

Firstly, I strongly believe in votes at 16. I don’t want to focus too much on that debate because that could take all day and may over-shadow my point. So, let’s just take it as read that I think the voting age should be extended to include 16 and 17 year olds. I share this view with many people (particularly fellow Liberal Democrats), yet I feel quite alone in my support of the Scottish Government’s decision with regards this particular vote. It seems odd to me that anybody who supports the rights of 16+ year olds to vote could campaign against the decision, simply to serve their own political agenda (eg. “I will only support this if it will apply to all elections”.)

Secondly, I don’t care what reason the SNP has for allowing this.I do not care that the SNP are hoping that 16 and 17 year olds will be more likely to vote for independence (something that is disputed anyway) because, at the end of the day, the motive is irrelevant if the result is desirable.

Finally, I think that it is imperative that 16 and 17 year olds get a say on this issue. Scotland’s relationship with the UK (and potentially even with all of Europe and, indeed, the rest of the world) hangs on the results of this referendum and that will affect the way the country works for a long, long time. It is Scotland’s youth that will grow up with the decision made in 2014 and they should get a say. I don’t want their voice taken from them because of party politics.

Me addressing Scottish Conference in support of votes from 16 at the referendum

Me addressing Scottish Conference in support of votes from 16 at the referendum

The truth is that we cannot achieve votes from 16 if we hold out for an ‘all or nothing’ agreement. By supporting their right to vote in 2014, we have an opportunity to extend that right to more elections. For a start, the Scottish Government don’t even have the power to change the voting age for Holyrood, Westminster or European elections. Should we pressure them to change the voting age for council elections? Yes, we should. Let’s do that in time for 2017! As for Scottish, General and European elections; let’s use 2014 as a precedent for those.

SNP let us down on Equal Marriage… again!

Yesterday we were hoping to hear the SNP announce their support for Equal Marriage following the consultation.

Instead, they let us down by delaying once again.

Willie Rennie has commented on the issue, saying that SNP are risking their credibility, and I agree!

The definition of marriage has evolved over many years and I think it’s up to each couple to definie it for themselves as no two couples will take the same thing from their union. Some people marry for religious reasons and want to feel that they’re doing right in the eyes of their diety. Some people marry for the ceremony, they may consider themselves already married but want to make a statement of commitment in front of their friends and family. Some couples marry so they can share a name (with eachother and/or with their children). Some people marry for the security it offers in terms of property ownership etc.

Whatever the reason for marriage, it boils down to this: it is the union of two people who love eachother.

That should be ANY two people in love.

There’s no reason to delay a decision on such an important issue of Civil Liberties and Human Rights, especially when it seems that most of Scotland are in favour. I wrote to my own MSPs recently about the issue and most of them (including SNP’s Derek Mackay) got back to me to confirm that they are in favour of equal marriage legislation. So come on, First Minister, it’s up to you to make this happen!

The Independence Debate Explained

Yesterday I posted a blog about ‘The Second Question’ and a lot of people told me that they were very confused by the whole thing. The independence debate is likely to get very interesting very quickly; it will be picking up speed for the next two years and it’ll no doubt continue long-past the referendum. I’ve asked around and there are a lot of people, particularly in England, who are interested in the debate but have no idea how to follow it so here’s a guide to what’s going on. I’m not an expert on this but I’ve tried to be concise, informative and unbiased. I hope it’s helpful to anyone struggling to follow the debate and if you’ve any suggestions for something you’d like me to add then please get in touch!

A Very Brief History: In 1707, The Acts of Union brought Scotland and England together to form the Government of Great Britain at Westminster. Since then there have been arguments for devolution or independence but it wasn’t until 1979 that the Scottish electorate were given a chance to vote on the matter. The referendum resulted in a very narrow victory for the ‘yes’ side but it had previously been decided that the Scottish Parliament would not be established without support from at least 40% of the electorate. The ‘yes’ votes accounted for only 32.9% and, as such, devolution was not introduced to Scotland.

In 1997, Labour came to power and upheld their manifesto promise to hold another referendum. This time the referendum was won by the ‘yes’ side and resulted in the Scotland Act 1998, following which the Scottish Parliament was established at Holyrood in Edinburgh and first met in 1999.

The establishment of the Scottish Parliament was not independence for Scotland, it was a devolution of powers from Westminster to Scotland. This meant that Westminster was still in charge of ‘reserved’ issues for the whole of the UK (constitutional matters, foreign policy, defence, immigration and social security amongst others) while Scotland now had power over devolved issues (health, education, local government and the environment amongst others).

This year, The Scotland Bill passed into law and became The Scotland Act 2012 which transferred even more powers to Scotland but not enough for those who support independence over further devolution. The Scottish National Party (SNP) got enough votes to form a minority government in 2007 but at last year’s election they gained even more support and became the first party to form a majority government since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. The SNP’s main priority has always been independence for Scotland and they now plan to hold a referendum in 2014. This time Scotland will be asked to decide whether or not they want independence from the UK, rather than devolution of powers.

The Referendum: In January of this year, Alex Salmond (leader of the SNP and Scotland’s First Minister) announced that the referendum would take place in autumn of 2014. The Scottish Government ran a public consultation between January and May of this year, the results of which will be used to draft a Referendum Bill which will be debated at Holyrood in 2013 ahead of the 2014 vote. Included in the consultation were questions about the format of the ballot (including the controversial ‘Second Question’) and who should be allowed to vote. Since constitutional matters are reserved to Westminster, the Scottish and Westminster Parliaments will have to agree on the terms of Independence before it happens.

For and Against: I’m quite strongly against Scottish independence so I don’t think I could explain the arguments on each side without being a little bit biased but Liberal Youth’s blog, The Libertine, recently published posts for and against which are worth reading if you’ve yet to make up your mind.

Terms: Below is a list of potentially unfamiliar terms that are frequently used throughout the independence debate. If you know of any others that you want me to add, please get in touch.

Devolution: Devolution is moving power from central government (in this case, Westminster) to subnational government.

Unionism: Belief in ‘the union’. In this case, Unionists believe that Scotland and England are better off as part of the UK.

Devo+: A proposed alternative to independence and a form of increased devolution. It is a system proposed by some that involves both Westminster and Holyrood raising what they spend in Scotland themselves. It would hand more tax powers to Scotland.

Devo Max: Another proposed alternative to independence. This system would involve Holyrood raising its entire budget itself but passing a grant back to Westminster for spending on reserved matters.

Indy Lite: This is the term given to what most people consider to be independence. With Indy Lite, Scotland would be a constitutionally separate state but would keep the Queen as head of state and other unions may be maintained (for example, Scotland may keep the pound under Indy Lite).

‘Full’ Independence: This is independence ‘to the extreme’, if you will. This isn’t what the SNP seem to be proposing. If Scotland became fully independent it would be a completely separate state and would not share a currency or head of state with the UK.

The West Lothian Question: This question points to some holes in the current system of devolved government. There is a town called Blackburn in West Lothian, Scotland and there’s another town called Blackburn (where I was born, if anyone’s interested!) in Lancashire, England. The MP for West Lothian can vote on all issues relating to the Blackburn in England (because it is governed by the UK Parliament) but is unable to vote on some issues for the Blackburn in his own constituency because some of the matters are devolved to the Scottish Parliament.

A Case Against The Second Question

I’m English. I thought I was European until I spent a few years at an International College in Spain where I had classmates from all over Europe and where I learnt a lot about cultural differences. I thought I was British for a while but then I moved to Scotland and found that the histories and cultures of England and Scotland were so different that I had to conclude that I am, in fact, English.

Although I see myself as an English person, I think of Scotland as my home. I’ve lived here for about 3 years (longer than I’ve spent in England since I was 11 years old) and I spend Scottish banknotes, study at Scottish institutions and live with a Scottish man (he says ‘the noo’, and everything). Along with the many other English people in Scotland and Scottish people in England, I love the freedom that the Union brings and when it comes to the question of independence, I can go through the pros and cons, the economics, the logistics and the legalities all day long but in the end, for me, it boils down to this: I’m not ready to be an expat in the country that I see as home.

Following the launch of the Yes to Independence and the Better Together campaigns, there’s a lot of talk about the independence debate and about the vote itself; ‘should 16-18 year olds be allowed to vote?’, ‘Should Westminster allow a referendum at all?’ and, most interestingly to me, ‘should there be a second question?’

I hadn’t given an awful lot of thought to the issue of the The Second Question until I went to a fringe at the Scottish Liberal Democrat Spring Conference this year in Inverness. The discussion was about the alternatives to independence and I got very interested in the comparisons between The Scotland Act, Devo+ and independence, amongst others. I won’t go into these different options now but I found myself completely convinced that there must be a 3rd option in the referendum. I was determined that the Liberal Democrats must jump at this opportunity to campaign hard for a second question and not to let this chance for home rule fly by after so many years of fighting for it. As Nicola Prigg said when addressing the conference floor; with a two question ballot, “a vote against independence is a vote for the status quo” and, again, I was excited to join the campaign against a Yes/No ballot.

I completely changed my mind later that weekend and after reading Graeme Cowies’s criticism of Willie Rennie’s stance against The Second Question today, I thought I had better explain why.

Graeme’s post on The Libertine is an excellent argument against the status quo and is well worth a read for anybody who hasn’t yet understood the reasoning behind the appetite for change but it hasn’t convinced me that independence is the answer or, indeed, that having a second question is something we should support.

Firstly, those of us that are interested in politics are likely to have strong opinions on Home Rule, Federalism, Unionism and Devolution but the general public are significantly less interested, on the whole. I don’t know many people outside of the ‘activism bubble’ who understand or care about the difference between Devo+ and DevoMax, for example, and therefore there would need to be a consensus on what the 3rd option would be, a scenario that I don’t believe is very likely. If it was decided that several alternatives should be offered, where would we draw the line? There are far too many and trying to explain them all would detract attention from the overall debate.

A popular argument against a second question is the 51% / 98% scenario in which 51% of the electorate vote for independence and 98% of the electorate indicate a preference for one of the alternatives. In this scenario it would be up to Holyrood to decide which would ‘win’ and, unfortunately, our SNP-majority government is likely to be slightly bias towards independence in that instance. It would be very bad for a new nation to start off with that level of confusion over the legitimacy of the referendum result.

Finally, the SNP love the argument we’re having about introducing a second question; they would love us to split the No vote and they’ve already made attempts to confuse the debate by focusing on other issues (including votes for 16 and 17 year olds). This debate needs to be completely focused on whether or not independence from the UK is the best option for Scotland. We need to challenge the SNP to be completely open with their definition of independence and everything that it would entail. The No campaign needs to unite against the Nationalists in the fight for the Union and, when the referendum is won in our favour, it will then be time to continue the pursuit for further powers to Scotland.