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The Scottish Referendum: Who won the first battle?

    Referendums expert Matt Qvortrup of Cranfield University looks at the agreement for a Scottish independence referendum and questions which side has secured the advantage. 

    All might be fair in love and war, but the same is not true in referendums. And the referendum in Scotland will be fought as much in the details of the regulation as it will be fought on the battlefield of political ideas.

    One of the most striking aspects of the deal struck a couple of days ago was – and I am sorry to say this – was the degree to which Salmond and his cabal were able to out-smart the hapless Scotland Secretary Michael Moore.

    The most striking outcome of the negotiations was that ex-pat Scots will not be allowed to vote. The issue was not raised at all, it seems, although it was raised by the Scotland Select Committee in the House of Commons as important. Salmond feared – reasonably enough – that ex-pat Scots would be likely to vote no, so he was determined to restrict the franchise to people living in Scotland. In other referendums, for example in Montenegro and South Sudan, ex-pats were allowed to vote but not in Bonnie Scotland. 1-0 to the SNP.

    The English media made a lot of how Michael Moore was able to ensure that there would only be one question on the ballot. The truth of the matter is that the idea of several questions never was one of Salmond’s key ideas. There is not – to my knowledge – a single quote or utterance of Salmond advocating a two question referendum.

    The only possible victory for the Coalition – and for Michael Moore – is that the referendum will be fought using the laws and regulations that apply for referendums in the whole of the UK. This is important. Since 2000, when the Westminster parliament passed the Political Parties, Elections and Referendum Act, Britain has had some of the tightest and most regulated procedures in the world.

    The original legislation was designed for a referendum on membership of the euro and with the aim of limiting spending by rich opponents of the EU.

    The most important task for the Electoral Commission is to monitor campaign spending. Each side will be allowed to spend about £5 million. At a time when the political parties are struggling for money, the limits may well be a boost for the No side. Anecdotal evidence suggests that it would be easier for the Yes side to raise money and to campaign effectively.

    As something comparatively unique, 16- to 17-year-olds will be allowed to vote. Very few other countries - Iran and Brazil being the two biggest - have previously allowed voters under the age of 18. It has been assumed that the inclusion of this demographic would favour the Yes vote. But there is little solid evidence for this. Polling indicates the youngest voters reflect the national average. The only demographic  that favours independence are those who grew up while Mel Gibson’s Brave Heart was in the cinemas. Despite the commission acting as umpire, there is plenty of scope for rough bare knuckle fight with plenty of dirty-tricks. Don’t expect a gentlemanly fight. The gloves are already off.

    Matt Qvortrup teaches British politics and Constitution at UCL. He has previously been a visiting Professor at University of Sydney and a fellow at the London School of Economics.

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