Scotland’s referendum on independence: next steps to September 2014

Scotland is due to vote in a referendum on 18 September 2014. The question will be:

Should Scotland be an independent country?

What does the Scottish Government have in mind for an independent Scotland?

On 26 November 2013 the Scottish Government launched Scotland’s Future: your guide to an independent Scotland. This 650-page White Paper sets out the Scottish Government’s blueprint for what an independent Scotland would look like, should the referendum deliver a “yes” vote. It is presented in five parts, covering the broad case for independence, public finance, social and economic topics, constitutional issues, and a set of questions and answers.

The White Paper follows a series of shorter papers by the Scottish Government presenting aspects of its case. These are available on its webpage, Scotland’s Future.

The UK Government has published a series of papers giving its own view, available on the Scotland Analysis page. There was also a short debate in the House of Lords on 5 December 2013.

What legal process brought this about?

The referendum is being held as a result of a special agreement between the two governments in October 2012, known as the Edinburgh Agreement. The legal basis for a referendum was disputed before this, but the two sides agreed to devolve the power to hold it before the end of 2014. This was done through an order-making process provided for in the Scotland Act 1998. The two Governments undertook to work together and to respect the outcome of the referendum.

The legislation setting out the details of the referendum has been passed by the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Independence Referendum Bill 2013, which at time of writing awaits only Royal Assent, covers matters such as the conduct of the poll, the campaign rules, the voting and the question.

Who can vote?

The franchise will be broadly the same as the local government franchise, also used for elections to the Scottish Parliament, although the voting age will be lowered to 16. This is governed by the Scottish Independence Referendum (Franchise) Act 2013. The White Paper argues that the voting age should also be lowered in parliamentary elections if Scotland becomes independent.

What are the rules on campaigning?

The Electoral Commission will oversee the campaign rules. The regulated period will be the 16 weeks preceding the vote. In this time there are rules on spending by campaigners, the publication of material, and donations.

The Electoral Commission may designate a lead campaign group on either side. Designated groups may spend up to £1.5m, political parties may spend between £150,000 and a percentage of £3m calculated with reference to their votes at the last election, and other registered campaigners may spend up to £150,000. Unregistered campaigners may spend up to £10,000.

Will the Scottish and UK governments be involved?

The Scottish Government will be bound under the legislation to observe purdah, that is, it will avoid publishing material that might have a bearing on the referendum, for the same 28-day period as applies under the UK legislation, the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. The UK Government will not be so bound, but it undertook in the Edinburgh Agreement to observe the same restrictions. The Liberal Democrats moved their party conference to avoid a clash with the referendum campaign. The House of Commons is due to sit for two of the last three weeks before the poll.

Who counts the votes?

The count will be conducted by the Electoral Management Board for Scotland. The Chief Counting Officer-designate, who convenes the Board, is Mary Pitcaithly, chief executive of Falkirk Council.

What happens afterwards?

In the event of a “yes” vote, there would be a period of negotiation between the two governments to sort out the details of Scotland’s exit from the UK. This might cover things like dividing the national debt and assets or reaching new agreements on cooperation in activities that benefit from common action across Great Britain. The Scottish Government also plans negotiations with the EU to secure membership.

The Scottish Government wishes to achieve formal independence on 24 March 2016, so that the next planned elections to the Scottish Parliament in May 2016 would be the first in the newly independent state. It intends that this would be followed by a constitutional convention to develop a written constitution for Scotland.

Where can I find out more?

The House of Commons Library has created a set of webpages, Scotland, the referendum and independence, which gather together the reports of the two governments, those by select committees and papers by the House of Commons Library. They are grouped under broad subject headings for ease of finding, and they include links to the websites of various interested parties.

Author: Paul Bowers