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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:

  • The Speaker, Rt Hon John Bercow (elected as Conservative)
  • Mr Graham Allen MP (Labour), as Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee
  • Rt Hon Nick Clegg MP (Liberal Democrat), as Lord President of the Council
  • Mr Mark Prisk MP (Conservative) Minister of State for Housing and Local Government
  • Rt Hon Sir Gerald Kaufman MP (Labour)
  • Mr Gary Streeter MP (Conservative)
  • Mr Sam Gyimah MP (Conservative)
  • Mrs Naomi Long MP (Alliance)
  • Ms Bridget Phillipson MP (Labour)

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:

  • John Horam, who represented, at different times, Labour, the SDP, and the Conservatives;
  • David Howarth, a Liberal Democrat;
  • and Roy Kennedy (Labour), now a life peer having been ‘elevated’ to the House of Lords in 2010.

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:
http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/about-us/how-we-are-run/the-commissioners

Comments  

 
# bringiton 2013-01-28 21:04
The Scottish people elected an SNP government in 2011 with a democratic mandate to hold a referendum on Scottish independence before 2016.
As far as I am aware,the Edinburgh agreement was a legally binding agreement betweeh Holyrood and Westminster that the Scottish Government had complete control over the timing (provided before 2015),wording and franchise of that referendum.
Scots will not take kindly to an unelected Westminster appointed body then trying to ride roughshod over democratic and "legally" binding decisions taken by and on their behalf.
This also goes for the massed ranks of English media currently embedded in Scottish society.
 
 
# fynesider 2013-01-28 22:16
"which in this contributor’s opinion should be rendered as: ‘Do you agree that Scotland should become an independent county again?’)"

I hope this is a typo...!
 
 
# call me dave 2013-01-28 22:43
Aye! I hope that's not the question.

But as a Fifer it does have appeal.

The commission is the last hurdle and I would be surprised if they were to let the question go through unchallenged.

However there is a risk that if they were too strong in their condemnation of the question it would add some support to the yes campaign.

I am sure that AS already has a strategy to be put into play in any event. The SG have called all the shots pretty well so far.
 
 
# maisiedotts 2013-01-28 22:53
When Westminster considers the advice of the Electoral Commission to be legally binding they MAY have a point, but the advice given to Westminster by EC with regards to the recent elections for Police Commissioners was ignored.

Is this not a case of "don't do what we do do what we tell you?" Hypocrites!
 
 
# Marian 2013-01-28 23:06
We haven't yet had sight of the Scottish Government's White Paper on independence and the actual campaign won't start until 4 months before referendum day during which time we trust there will be draconian rules with severe penalties set by Holyrood applied to the conduct of the campaign to ensure fairness and honesty by all and especially by all the TV channels seen in Scotland and all the newspapers which are sold in Scotland.

Only once we get a level playing field will the job of communicating the obvious benefits of independence to the people of Scotland overthrow the present unionist inspired negativity and enable the YES vote to win the referendum.
 
 
# Peter A Bell 2013-01-29 00:04
The anti-independence campaign is seeking to usurp the authority of the Scottish Parliament by forcing it to accept rules for the independence referendum dictated by the unelected Electoral Commission.

Let's send a clear message that this is Scotland's referendum. We demand that the UK Government honour the terms of the Edinburgh Agreement and urge the Scottish Government to ensure that the referendum remains under the control of Scotland's democratically elected representatives . - bit.ly/UP7RgM
 
 
# CharlieObrien 2013-01-29 00:10
According to several newspapers letters page there are many nice English folk who would like Scotland to be independent,alt hough some don't put quite so nicely.We could ask them for donations to secure Scotland's independence,wo rth a try I think.
 
 
# redcliffe62 2013-01-29 05:43
Charlie, they think England subsidises Scotland and not the other way around.
As sadly does half of Scotland who never read the facts.
 
 
# Breeks 2013-01-29 08:27
Back when the Edinburgh Agreement was signed, I had faith in what an Electoral Commission was, and noted that it would especially monitor broadcasting of the referendum. Silly me.
At the time, forgive me if i'm not word perfect, but Alex Salmond said the Scottish Government would listen to and respect the Commission, but ultimately decisions would be made by the Scottish Government.
There was some Unionist condemnation that the First Minister should respect the Electoral Commission's word as final, but Mr Salmond didn't budge.

Now seeing the line up for the Commission, which nevermind political imbalance, boasts twice as many BBC acolytes as it does Nationists.

These situations remind me why we shouldn't trust Westminster or the BBC to do anything to protect Scottish interests, and why I have faith in Alex Salmond and the competence of our home grown Scottish Government.
 
 
# fergie73 2013-01-29 09:27
If the electoral commission rejects spending limits, especially those from outside Scotland, surely the Yes campaign should simply go international and harness financial support from wherever it can get it. In UK terms the establishment can out-gun yes. If it goes international...?
 
 
# pictic-1 2013-01-29 09:37
I don't think the electoral comm. should be the last word. The SG has the mandate through election and the Section 30-Edinburgh agreement so it's their right to steer the process and take the decisions.

They would be greatly advised hoever not to leave it there, but to seek a more open international control by observers from the OECD who really do have a good record in this field.

Make no mistake about it, the unionist are going to play every imaginal dirty trick in the book to sabotage the referendum which is why they need somebody breathing down the necks of the electoral comm. Of course the unionist will scream blue murder but are you going to stand back and let them simply walk over you.

You won't win by just being nice, sometimes you have to push back and make it clear - this time we WANT independence and they're not gonna take it from us.
 
 
# Leswil 2013-01-29 09:49
Another devious attempt to thwart the people of Scotland.
It has to be somehow publicised just who these people are, and are hardly likely to be impartial.
Of course they actually do want us to moan about them so they can say SG is being undemocratic and all the MSM will focus on that. It is a trap, something we should expect from such an establishment under Westminster.
However, is there is somehow a way to get this out there and it could be an online poll, then Scots will understand the message loud and clear!
 
 
# maisiedotts 2013-01-29 10:51
The Electoral Commission "leaking" its findings to the unionist press? Well I never did! *rolls eyes*

express.co.uk/.../...
 
 
# viking_celt_428 2013-01-29 15:44
I can remember watching the westminster committee with the rival campaign directors (both called Blair!) and when Blair Jenkins replied, in response to a question about accepting the advice of the electoral commission said, that he would be very surprised if he didn't feel the advice was right and would almost certainly accept the advice. This wasn't enough for Ian Davidson et al who seem clearly to want the advice of the election commission to be the word of God! Such bullying ignores the fact that the electoral commission are a public body funded by taxpayers so are no less accountable than any other public body government or otherwise. If we don't like the advice of the electoral commission we have every right to say so.
 
 
# GrassyKnollington 2013-01-29 17:19
Very good article David. The forcefulness with which the British nationalists insisted that the Electoral Commission's advice should be adhered to should have set the alarm bells ringing anyway.

If it was a truly independent advice giving body, they'd have surely been terrified of any advice it might give.

Instead they were so confident it's conclusions would fit their own agenda that they felt able to insist they were accepted in full before they had even been announced.
 
 
# spagan 2013-01-29 18:38
The Electoral Commission will shortly give their "advice" regarding the question to be asked in 2014.
There is a lot of "grumbling" from the Unionist camp - see Brian Taylor's latest monologue on BBC website, that the question asked should allow "agree" or "disagree" checkboxes for a so-called neutral statement.
Worth bearing in mind that in the past they have been completely happy with a YES or NO question as currently proposed by the Scottish Government.
Most recently, the referendum Q used for "2 Jags" Baron Prescott's North of England assemblies was:
Should there be an elected assembly for the North East region? YES or NO.
Couldn't be simpler to understand.
If that kind of question was simple enough for the Geordies to understand, then it will do for us in 2014.
Anything else just illustrates the Westminster bias on the Commission.
 
 
# gfaetheblock 2013-01-29 20:52
If the EC ask for a change in question, I would be amazed if the SNP don't change it.

If they don't, there will be a clear narrative that they are trying to rig the question haunting over them for 18 months. If they do, Salmond can highlight how he is doing everything he can do to be fair.

I believe the former would be more damaging to the Yes campaign than accepting a change to a more neutral question would be.
 
 
# Am Fògarrach 2013-01-30 01:16
On the 21st November, from the Strasbourg office of the Secretary general of the Council of Europe, the SDA received the following letter:

"Thank you for your letter of the 20 October 2012 on the forthcoming referendum. This is an issue of interest to the Council of Europe, and will therefore be closely followed by the Organisation and its various institutions.

Yours sincerely,

Bjorn Berge

The Director
 
 
# graememcallan 2013-01-30 06:55
So, all members of the committee are Unionist better together types? Not difficult to wonder on the outcome - how dare those difficult Scots defy Mother England:(
 
 
# Galen10 2013-01-30 07:50
It's interesting that Labour and LibDem's insist that the unelected and partial UK Electoral Commission's advice MUST be slavishly followed by the elected Scottish Government with relation to the indyref question, but are quite happy to vote against the advice of the Boundary Commission when it suits their political purposes!
 
 
# Blanco 2013-01-30 08:51
The yes campaign should raise as much money as it can (I would expect the unionists to do the same). If they are found to have broken some funding rules afterwards, so what? We will be independent and there will be nothing that can be done about it. 

Anyway, George Reid is worth any 10 unionists on his day, he's a fixer and nobody is going to push him around. 
 
 
# Leswil 2013-01-30 09:19
An excellent article which shows how underhand Westminster can be.
They cheated us before, so there is every chance they will try to do so again.
The "un biased Electoral Commission " is one way they can continue with their aims.
If the Commission changes the wording, and the Scottish Government does not take their advice ( which the Tories have done in the past ) just watch the MSM fly!
A.S. will be deemed to be trying to cheat ( instead of them!) they will have a field day.
However, up until now the public has not known the composition of the commission, as we can see through this article, it is hardly impartial.
Scots really need to know this, they will take it as I do, which is indignation of their once more trying to cheat us.
A.S. has time to reverse the MSM negatives.
So my hope would be that it will badly bounce back on them, and secure a YES vote.
Well done Newsnet team!
 
 
# call me dave 2013-01-30 09:26
To be free or not to be free!

That is the question.

Now what is the question?

Either way I'm for independence.

Roll on 2014.
 
 
# bringiton 2013-01-30 12:28
Now that the EC have decided that the words "Do you agree" are biased and leading voters to favour one answer over the other,they should not appear on any future UK rerendum ballot paper.
We shall see!
 
 
# amfraeembro 2013-01-30 17:11
They didn't actually say that.
 
 
# Tappietourrie 2013-01-30 17:59
I think the question recommended is OK. What concerns me having read the above article given the weight of establishment figures on the commission’s decision making body relates to items in the report –
2.13 There can be a place in referendums for public information from a
trusted source separate from the referendum campaigns. Question-Who decides?
5.43 We recommend that both Governments should agree a joint position, if possible, so that voters have access to agreed information about what would follow the referendum. Question – How do you persuade the UK government to tell us when they have already discounted this suggestion.
5.46 and 5.48 Question – are they impartial enough?
 

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