By David Nairn
So the Westminster Parliament has chosen to grant the Government of Scotland a ‘Section 30 order’ legally entitling it to hold a referendum on Scotland’s constitutional future - a referendum that was, of course, a core policy of the Scottish National Party, elected by a landslide in this country’s election in 2011.
In the end the decision to bestow this entitlement on the Government of Scotland was passed unanimously, although not before two ‘debates’ in both the elected and unelected chambers of the Westminster Parliament that were, even by the shabby standards of that institution, a disgraceful affront to democracy - reaching their nadir with the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party in Scotland, Anas Sarwar, describing Scotland’s Parliament (democratically elected on a proportional basis) as "not a democratic place", in fact "a dictatorship".
The vilification heaped on the Scottish Parliament, the Government of Scotland, the Scottish National Party and, above all, the First Minister of Scotland during these travesties of debates, was in telling contrast to the approach taken towards another institution: the United Kingdom’s Electoral Commission.
Unionist MPs and noble Lords were firmly united in their resolve that this - as they would have it – august, independent and impartial authority in all things electoral should have the pre-eminent role in determining key aspects of Scotland’s independence referendum.
The recent ‘report’ from the laughably partisan Scottish Affairs Select Committee, chaired by the ever-more preposterous Labour MP Ian Davidson, took an identical line.
Conservative peer, Baron Forsyth of Drumlean, a man who has devoted his entire political career to the maintenance of Scotland’s subordinate status in the United Kingdom (and been handsomely rewarded for doing so), has even threatened that should the Government of Scotland dare to disregard the ‘advice’ of the Electoral Commission then the matter could be taken to the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court.
So what is this exalted body, about which the general public knows almost nothing? And how impartial as regards the key issue of Scotland’s independence referendum can we expect the people who make decisions on its behalf to be?
The Electoral Commission reports directly to the UK Parliament - specifically to the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, which also provides its very generous funding. (For her services, the Commission Chair, Jenny Watson, receives £100,000 for a three-day week – pro rata more than double the salary of the First Minister of Scotland.)
The Speaker’s Committee is constituted as follows:
These are the people who appoint the 10 commissioners who ‘lead [the] strategy and set [the] priorities” of the Electoral Commission. Notice anything not completely unpartisan yet?
And the 10 unelected commissioners whom the Unionist MPs and unelected Lords are so keen to have the decisive say in key aspects of Scotland’s referendum?
Well, the aforementioned Chair, Jenny Watson, has worked for a number of human rights organisations, is a board member of the charity Money Advice Trust and was the last Chair of the now-defunct Equal Opportunities Commission. She has nothing obvious in her CV that renders her any better equipped to pass judgment on election and referendum issues than, say, Lady Gaga, but on paper she looks like the kind of politically neutral, experienced committee person you might expect to be represented on a quango such as the Electoral Commission. And the Daily Mail doesn’t like her, so she must have something going for her.
Then we have Max Caller, seemingly the only one of the 10 with any experience in the kind of areas you might expect a representative of the Electoral Commission to have. Caller was a returning officer and has served as an elections’ observer abroad. He is also a Commander of the British Empire, which suggests a less than rigorously anti-Establishment outlook, but we’ll let that go. Blair Jenkins, Chief Executive of Yes Scotland, has an OBE, after all.
Next up, however, and things take a sharp downturn. The Commission, which we are asked to believe will take a scrupulously impartial approach to Scotland’s referendum on whether to end its Union with England, actually contains not one, not two, but three long-serving MPs for parties that support the Union:
The next two of the 10 commissioners, Anna Carragher and John McCormick, are former controllers for the UK state broadcaster, the British Broadcasting Corporation, the self-proclaimed “glue that holds Britain together”. In a previous role, Carragher was producer of such famously impartial political programmes as Newsnight, Question Time and Any Questions. True, Blair Jenkins was once Head of News and Current Affairs at BBC Scotland but there’s nothing in the CV of either Carragher or McCormick that suggests any such irregularity.
Next up we have Ian Kelsall, who for almost three decades was Director of the Welsh division of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI Wales), an organisation that has consistently championed the cause of the Union in Scotland. Kelsall’s Scottish counterpart, Iain McMillan of CBI Scotland, is a renowned rent-a-quote, shoring up a wide range of Unionist attacks on the Government of Scotland.
In a similar vein, there is Anthony Hugh Burton Hobman, an English banker, who resigned last year as Chief Executive of the Money Advice Service following damning criticism by the Financial Services Authority of his grossly inflated salary. While, unlike other commissioners, Hobman has nothing explicitly pro-Unionist in his CV, it is fair to say that fat-cat bankers are hardly renowned for their impartiality as regards the prospect of the dissolution of a United Kingdom that has rewarded and continues to reward them so handsomely.
Finally, just as Ian Davidson’s Scottish Affairs Select Committee includes one token Scottish Nationalist MP (at least it did until said MP, Dr Eilidh Whiteford refused to attend after credible accusations that Davidson bullied and intimidated her), so the Electoral Commission contains George Reid, a former SNP MP and MSP.
These, then, are the 10 commissioners of the Electoral Commission: handpicked by, and reporting to a committee of Unionist party MPs at the UK Parliament, and containing three former Unionist MPs and a number of other pillars of the British Establishment with - to put it no stronger - apparent Unionist leanings.
As an independent arbiter in the matter of Scotland’s referendum on its constitutional future the Commission has – or rather should have - not a shred of credibility.
Even on the more fundamental issue of basic effectiveness, the Electoral Commission’s credibility is decidedly compromised. This is a quango whose stated aim is to ‘instill integrity and public confidence in the democratic process.’
Set that against the May 2010 Westminster election when, in scenes reminiscent of a banana republic, queues developed outside some polling stations, preventing many voters from casting their votes.
Or the persuasive accusations of postal ballot fraud in the 2009 Glasgow North East bi-election, which Labour won following a stunning increase in postal votes, with almost 2,000 applications submitted less than three days before the registration deadline.
Or the similar accusations at the 2008 Glenrothes bi-election, which Labour again unexpectedly won after a fourfold increase in postal ballots and a marked official register (which shows whether individuals have voted or not) that went (and stayed) ‘missing’.
Or the shambles of the election for the Scottish Parliament in 2007, where the counting process was plagued by delays and some 140,000 ballot papers were rejected...
Scant integrity, scant confidence, scant democracy.
The Unionists are, of course, propagandising for the Electoral Commission at every opportunity for one simple reason: it is the tool by which the UK state can potentially manipulate the rules of Scotland’s referendum. And this goes beyond simply the wording of the question (which in this contributor’s opinion should be rendered as: ‘Do you agree that Scotland should become an independent country again?’)
What the Unionists want above everything else is to leverage control over campaign funding.
The position of the Government of Scotland is that there should be a level playing field on campaign funding, with both Yes and No camps limited to the same amount. Unassailably fair, you might think. But the Unionists have already tried to portray this as stifling the debate – and argued for a central role for the Electoral Commission to resolve this ‘shameless manipulation’ on the part of the Government of Scotland.
Despite the media fiction of a huge pro-Independence war chest, the sums that the Unionists could amass from powerful vested interests would dwarf the funding that the Yes campaign could ever hope to raise. In pushing for a leading role for the Commission in the referendum, the ultimate goal of those noble Lords and Unionist MPs and their allies is to free the No campaign to decisively out-gun the opposition.
You might think that with all the mainstream media - most significantly the state broadcaster - enthusiastically signed up to the cause of prolonging the Union, plus a £50 million Great War centenary Brit Fest lined up for the eve of the referendum in 2014, that the Unionists might be relaxed about a referendum campaign in which both sides are evenly funded. But there is too much at stake to be relaxed. And, as the Section 30 ‘debates’ illustrated, these are people with a huge sense of entitlement and profoundly undemocratic instincts.
The British Establishment has generations of experience of waiving the rules and fighting dirty to deny colonised peoples self-determination. The attempts to leverage the Electoral Commission into a position to determine the conditions for Scotland’s referendum are just the latest manifestation of this.
All of which makes Blair Jenkins’ remarks last weekend on the Electoral Commission seriously worrying. Lavishing praise on the Commission as ‘an extremely expert and professional body’, Jenkins argued that the Government of Scotland should not challenge whatever position the Commission takes on the referendum question or on campaign funding. Depending on what that position turns out to be, this could represent an absolutely fatal tactical blunder.
To date, the approach of the Government of Scotland towards the Electoral Commission - as with its approach to the BBC, and for similar reasons – has been to tread respectfully, understandably wary of the pitfalls of challenging a body presented by the British state, and widely if mistakenly perceived by the British public, as impartial and independent.
As regards the state broadcaster, there are signs that that softly-softly stance is subtly changing. Health Secretary Alex Neil’s robust handling last week of the latest BBC scaremongering about NHS waiting lists was welcome and effective. The BBC is not going to change but what can shift, with the Government of Scotland taking a more assertive line that exposes the state broadcaster’s Unionist bias and shoddy journalism, are public perceptions. The sooner this approach gets underway, the greater the opportunity to change public perceptions sufficiently in time.
The same approach needs to be taken with the Electoral Commission. Of course, a key plank of the Unionists’ strategy of propagandising for the Commission is to enable the Unionists to paint the Government of Scotland as outrageously undemocratic should they refuse to accede to the Commission’s 'advice': "They [the Government of Scotland] cannot overrule the independent and impartial Electoral Commission," a spokesperson for the pro-dependence Better Together campaign is reported in last week’s Sunday Herald as saying. "The Scottish public would never forgive them if they did."
But should the rules for Scotland’s referendum be determined by this unelected and skewed Westminster body, there is a clear possibility of a funding free-for-all being sanctioned, allowing a lavishly funded pro-dependence campaign to overwhelm that of Yes Scotland.
And that is something the Scottish public really would never forgive.
For more on the Electoral Commission: