Today’s much-trailed deal on the referendum is a good one, and it deserves a broadly non-partisan response today. Alex Salmond has persuaded David Cameron to give Holyrood the power to let the over-16s vote: this is a good thing. David Cameron has persuaded Alex Salmond to give up on the second question: this is a good thing too.
Remember also the progress on the wording? It seems a long time ago, but even last year the talk was still about ”open negotiations” rather than a clear question, and when that changed at Holyrood, UK Ministers spoiled for a fight. That fight is quite rightly off.
A sunset clause for 2014 is also a sensible move. I originally argued that the best timeline would be a public and relatively quick process to set a draft constitution, followed by as early a question as possible. That open public process has not been agreed, but now there are two years to try and secure it: that time may be necessary. On the flipside, although it would hardly be credible for the Scottish Government to delay if the polling looked bad, it’s best for that not to be an option.
The spending limits remain the last major element of uncertainty, with the SNP position set out here looking a bit like a low-ball: do they really want a limit below the donations their campaign’s already received? The limits do need to be tight enough to prevent Brian Souter or Lord Ashcroft from buying it, as the First Minister argues, but big enough that the campaigns can do what they need to do to get the message out, as the Electoral Commission are apparently arguing: all sides need to motivate their supporters and drive a substantial turnout.
Importantly, though, there is ( or “will be”, if you believe the press offices’ conceit) an agreement. No matter what your position on the outcome, no-one except the lawyers should want a referendum to be derailed afterwards by wrangling in the courts. And this means that there will be a vote, and barring reports of electoral misconduct or wafer-thin margins, we should get a nice clean result. Relatedly, it’s also one in the eye for Ian Smart’s long-term conspiracy theory that there simply will not be a vote. Oh yes there will, as they say.
It’s also good for the collective reputation of politics and politicians for two governments with two very starting points on this issue to have come to an agreement rather than it being collapsed into a blamestorming session. It’s genuinely impressive on both sides, which is why it’s a shame some refugee from The Thick of It had to tell the Guardian that they planned to “bomb [Salmond] with reasonableness“.
Now it appears we have a honourable process and a good outcome with a clear question, an outcome that’s neither too Nat-tastic nor one where the Yoonyonisht Conshpirashy has its thumb on the scales. Both governments have mandates, and there was no responsible alternative to this real compromise, done in the national interest, whether you see that nation as Scotland or Britain.
Don’t believe the myth that Salmond never wanted his devo max insurance policy – but also don’t believe that Cameron’s comfortable with the timing, nor the extension of the franchise and the precedent it sets, despite the polling evidence that younger voters may favour his team.
The referendum can now go ahead on a fair basis. The phoney war is over. The long campaign proper is beginning, and it will take a bit more of this spirit to ensure the public aren’t turned off by it. Both sides need to try inspiring the public rather than scaring them, and keeping the focus on the genuine choice that’s to be made rather than slipping into the politics of fear. Bring it on.