Today’s ‘Edinburgh Agreement’ between the Westminster and Scottish Governments over the detail of the referendum is a milestone for all concerned with the minutiae of how the vote will work. Yet anyone who thinks the ‘phoney war’ that has largely replaced substantive debate over the key arguments for and against independence is over may be disappointed.
The deal between David Cameron and Alex Salmond only establishes the grounds for the passage of a statutory order by Westminster that will authorise the Scottish Parliament to bring forward and pass legislation that will lead to a referendum act. So, we come to the start of another process of negotiation about process, not substance. The forthcoming Section 30 Order from Westminster will not be passed until next February, meaning that the Referendum Bill will only go before MSPs in the Spring and receive assent in late Autumn 2013.
At least we know the broad terms of the agreement, from the involvement of the Electoral Commission, to the number of questions on the ballot paper. What we are unlikely to know for some time are the details of either side’s rationale for arguing for or against separation. The Scottish Government is still likely to publish its White Paper on independence in November 2013 and the ‘No’ campaign will respond accordingly.
So, the expectations expressed by many today that a real policy debate over the effects of this momentous constitutional change will materialise quickly are perhaps a little optimistic; expect the Phoney War to go on for some time.
That said, perhaps in the absence of real engagement with key topics by politicians, the forthcoming release of responses to the Scottish Government’s consultation on the referendum (remember that?) will inject a little passion into the debate. It would be interesting to hear what the 21,000 respondents thought on the questions decided upon today.
Until those views are published (and assuming they haven’t simply been misplaced by a forgetful civil servant), quite how those views informed the Edinburgh Agreement remains a puzzle.