The Week Outside Westminster – Leading questions and questioning leaders

Ed Jacobs presents his weekly round up of what's been going on in the rest of the British Isles. This week, Alex Salmond continues to dominate.


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The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) published research (pdf) this week pointing to a growing sense of grievance in England to the devolved nations.

Summing up the results, IPPR director Nick Pearce concluded:

“English identity is on the rise and it is increasingly expressed in terms that are resentful of the devolution settlement… Our mainstream political parties need to embrace Englishness.”


Another week and the same issue continued to dominate Scottish politics, as the Alex Salmond independence band wagon continued at speed.

Having used the Hugo Young Lecture on Tuesday to argue that an independent Scotland would provide a “beacon of progressive opinion” for the rest of the UK, Burns Night saw the Scottish government publish its consultation on a referendum.

With polling for the New Statesman pointing to those in favour of independence being just one per cent behind those against, the Herald’s editorial on Thursday concluded:

“This consultation document and its Westminster cousin offer a vital opportunity to test public opinion on this most compelling of matters: the future of the United Kingdom and Scotland’s relationship with its constituent parts.

“It has suited the Westminster government to cast doubt on the credibility of a plebiscite organised by the Scottish government.

“The true test of that credibility, however, now lies with Mr Salmond. Having opened his proposals to public consultation, he and his Government must take on board the comments and criticisms and heed the will of the Scottish people whose interests he holds so dear.

“Scottish Labour’s new leader Johann Lamont made the point yesterday that the first minister does not speak for all the Scottish people. It is a valid point, given that he does not miss an opportunity to assert that the SNP expresses the will of Scots. Yet, until today’s New Statesman survey, the polls had continued to show that a minority favour independence.

“Mr Salmond has had his first big say. The opposition parties at Holyrood must now engage in making a positive case for the Union. There is a will to make sure that the referendum is legal, fair and decisive.

“It can be so as long as many people as possible make their views during the consultation period. The opportunity must be seized so that there is no room for dubiety or dispute when the people of Scotland take part in the most momentous vote in 300 years.”

At the Guardian, meanwhile, the paper’s Whitehall correspondent, Polly Curtis sought to establish how fair the SNP’s proposed question (Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?) was.

She explained:

“The experts I heard from don’t believe that the SNP’s question is the fairest phrasing on the question.

“Asking people to agree with something is more likely to elicit a positive response than asking them to disagree. The emerging “no” campaign would prefer to campaign on a question that asks people whether they would like Scotland to remain in the union – their favoured outcome. For the same reasons, this also wouldn’t be the fairest option.

“The fairest way would be to give the two options – independence or remaining in the union – and let people decide.

“However, John Curtice said that the phrasing of the question in this referendum is unlikely to have a very profound impact. Phrasing is far more important on issues that people don’t understand the ins and outs of, such as the AV referendum. With the Scottish referendum on independence people are likely to be well versed in the debate.”

Elsewhere, independent MSP Margo MacDonland reignited the debate over assisted suicide by reintroducing a bill on Tuesday to allow it in Scotland.

Summing up the difficulties the proposals will cause, the Herald wrote on Wednesday:

“With the exception of abortion, it is hard to think of a more emotive and contentious area of public debate and medical ethics than assisted dying.The rest of life demands of us few more agonising choices than those surrounding birth and death.

“In late 2010 Margo MacDonald’s end of life assistance bill was rejected by 85 votes to 16 at Holyrood. Yet yesterday the Independent MSP was back in the chamber with a new bid to legalise assisted suicide.

“Her return to this issue, so soon after her first bill was so decisively rejected, testifies to her impressive campaigning zeal on this issue, a zeal intensified by her own Parkinson’s diagnosis.

“It is also a reflection of the way the ground is shifting in this debate. With new members making up one-third of the Scottish Parliament and opinion polls suggesting growing support for the right to be helped to die, it would be a mistake to write off her chances of success this time around.”


First minister Carwyn Jones used a press conference to distance himself from Ed Miliband’s support for a cap on public sector workers pay.

Arguing that such a policy would be fundamentally unfair, he told journalists:

“I think it’s absolutely crucial that people see that those who are paid the most in financial services, those who the public believe were responsible for our current economic difficulties, pay their fair share as well.

“I don’t believe that this is being done and as a result I think it’s very difficult to say to those who work in the public sector, who didn’t cause the economic difficulties, that we have to bear the brunt of pay cuts when it isn’t happening in those sectors which are more appropriate.”

As the Scottish parliament grappled with the issue of assisted suicide, in Wales leaders of the main Christian denominations made clear their objections to the government’s proposals for a system of presumed consent for organ donation.

Outlining their fears, the Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan, George Stack, the Catholic Archbishop of Cardiff, and The Very Reverend Archimandrite Father Deiniol, of the Wales Eastern Orthodox Mission, argued:

“Pastors, theologians and church leaders of all denominations agree that offering organs for donation is a significant act of charity, and a reflection of God’s freely-given love and care for us, including the gift of life.

“The positive ethos of donation as a free gift is endangered by an ill-judged if well intentioned proposal to move from voluntary donation to presumed consent.

“It is of extreme concern that while responses are being invited on the proposals in the white paper, the central proposal, which is the shift from donation to presumed consent, is presented as a fait accompli.

“There is a real danger that a change in the law would alienate a significant proportion of the public and undermine the positive image of organ donation and the reputation of Wales.”

Responding to the concerns, health minister Lesley Griffiths argued:

“We have made great progress in Wales in increasing the number of actual donors. However, there is still a shortage of organs and this is something the Welsh government wants to change by introducing a new way of making a person’s wishes known.

“International evidence shows organ donation has risen in other countries which have opt-out systems. I believe introducing a soft opt-out system in Wales, together with an ongoing public awareness campaign, will help increase the number of organs available.”

Northern Ireland

After it was claimed that the UUP and DUP had held secret meetings over a possible merger, one DUP strategist and blogger argued for a debate about the potential for such a move.

Writing in the Newsletter, Lee Reynolds, a councillor for north Belfast, concluded:

“Unionism has two electoral challenges – falling turnout and the need to expand its electoral base beyond its traditional community (without alienating the existing base).

“There is the political challenge of making Northern Ireland a beacon of political, social and economic success within the Union and regaining the global presence it once enjoyed. None of these tasks are easy.

“There are also shifts in voter attitude going on among the electorate that unionism needs to be conscious of.

“The present structures, relationships and attitudes among the unionist parties have been shaped by the peace process. Northern Ireland’s politics has begun to move on from the politics of the peace process.

“As we look forward to the centenary of Northern Ireland in 2021, would focusing our efforts on these challenges and changes not produce greater benefits for the Union and unionism than finding arguments for the sake of them?

“Unionist unity could be an opportunity to create something new and better. This is its litmus test. If after a thorough, intense and constructive debate the conclusion is that we can create something better then we should proceed.

“If it doesn’t then we shouldn’t. The debate itself is something no unionist or anyone else in Northern Ireland should be fearful of.”

In a sign of further progress meanwhile, Sinn Fein deputy first minister Martin McGuinness declared that he still hadn’t ruled out the possibility of meeting the Queen.

Reflecting on her visit to Dublin last year, he told BBC Ulster’s “Inside Politics” programme:

“I’ve made it clear that the visit of Queen Elizabeth of Britain to the south, was something that we looked at with considerable interest.

“And I think the fact that she was prepared to recognise the importance of the Irish language; that she was prepared to stand in a very dignified way to honour those patriots who struggled in 1916 to bring about a free and independent 32-county Irish Republic, that made an impact upon me.

“So that’s an issue that I will ponder and I wouldn’t rule anything out.”

Also this week:

Sign up to receive our weekly summary of the news from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, The Week Outside Westminster

Regressive of the week: Alex SalmondShamik Das

Salmond’s Scottish referendum is a textbook example of a leading questionAlex Hern

Progressives need a positive vision for ScotlandEd Jacobs

Déjà vu as Scottish referendum campaign turns nastyMike Morgan-Giles

Salmond has questions to answer, because the evidence doesn’t support himWilliam Bain MP

Hughes makes the case for an English Parliament as Salmond faces fresh scrutinyEd Jacobs

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