In the wake of the Japanese earthquake and the danger it posed to the Fukushima nuclear plant, most of Europe has been reconsidering its use of nuclear energy.  In addition to the European states who have never used nuclear power (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain, amongst others) Germany recently has decided to phase out nuclear power.  Poland is due to hold a referendum on the issue at some point soon while Silvio Berlusconi’s intention to re-introduce nuclear as part of Italy’s power supply was thwarted as Italians turned out to defeat the measure in a referendum.

While the previous UK government committed the UK to building new nuclear plants in 2006 but the Scottish Parliament – with a coalition of the SNP, Liberal Democrats and Greens – voted in January 2008 to use planning powers to block the building of nuclear power stations in Scotland, confirming what had been long-held policy positions for each of the parties as the policy of the Scottish Parliament.  While the new Scottish Parliament, given its SNP majority, is likely to maintain its anti-nuclear stance, the UK Government – as recently as October last year – set out plans to build new nuclear plants in the UK, and re-affirmed commitment that in March 2011, post-Japanese earthquake.

However, during discussions on the Calman Commission and contained within its interim report, there was some mention that the Scottish Parliament’s effective veto over new nuclear might be on the table, that the UK Government may be looking for ways of removing this as a means of securing the UK’s nuclear energy future.  Naturally this provoked a heated response from the then-minority SNP government, and the issue was dropped from the final report.

I mention all of the above as the prelude to a fairly radical idea: the Scottish Government should perhaps hold a referendum on the issue of nuclear power in Scotland.

Here’s why:

1)  This is a serious political issue, and one on which the public have a vested interest in deciding.  There are still massive issues with nuclear waste disposal and getting it right is something which extends beyond the 129 MSPs who represent the Scottish public.  It can also be spun as a moral issue – on the same level as divorce or abortion, both of which Ireland has held referendums on in the past.

2)  The Scottish Parliament has signalled its intention to block the building of nuclear sites in Scotland but that block is based only on planning regulations.  Holyrood does not have powers over energy policy, and if the UK Parliament deemed it necessary or prudent to build new nuclear in Scotland, it could over-rule the Scottish Parliament’s decision.  A referendum which showed public support for the Scottish Parliament’s position would give further legitimacy to Holyrood’s decision, a clear mandate from the people on this particular issue.

3)  The fact that energy remains a reserved issue would provide for some conflict with Westminster if it was perceived that the Scottish Parliament were seen to be interfering in an issue which is not within their purview.  However, Holyrood – like Westminster – isn’t bound by any public vote in a referendum.  The referendum, constitutionally speaking, can only be advisory.  If Holyrood were to hold a referendum on this issue it would provide a blueprint for how an independence referendum might be conceived.

4) Finally, such a referendum would bring together elected representatives and activists of all parties and none to support an idea which crossed party lines.  The experience of such a campaign – cross-party, in support of an issue which is bigger than each of their individual goals – would aid preparation for a future referendum… say on independence, where a similar cross-party effort would be required.

Of course, the latter point could (would) be regarded as clear constitutional game-playing – especially as playing politics with a serious political issues such as energy and nuclear power would (rightly) play poorly in public.  But for the first two points above, a referendum may be a good idea – it would provide the public with a say on a key issue which will determine our energy future, and (if the public were opposed to new nuclear) it would strengthen the Scottish Parliament’s hand when dealing with Westminster on the issue.

Anyway, its just an idea.  But it seems like a logical one, since its what has happened in other places.  An idea – like so many of mine – which is unlikely to go anywhere though.