The SNP has performed a u-turn over its consultation on an independence referendum after a row erupted over claims it was fundamentally flawed.
Alex Salmond’s SNP have performed a screeching u-turn over the conduct of its consultation on an independence referendum after a row erupted over claims the way it was being run was fundamentally flawed.
Having published the “Your Scotland, Your Referendum” (pdf) consultation document in January, the Scottish government had over the weekend admitted members of the public could submit multiple anonymous responses, leading to accusations over the validity of the process.
In a written parliamentary answer, the Cabinet Secretary for Parliamentary Business and Government Strategy, Bruce Crawford, explained that “all responses will be accepted” from those who keep their identity secret.
“Respondents can indicate on the respondent information form if they wish to remain anonymous. Any response submitted without a respondent information form will also be treated as anonymous.”
With Scottish Labour’s deputy leader, Anas Sarwar MP, having called on the Scottish government to scrap the consultation and start again, Patricia Ferguson, Labour’s constitutional spokesperson at Holyrood, argued:
“The Scottish government’s answer suggests anyone can put in as many responses to their consultation as many times as they like. This makes this most important consultation completely and utterly meaningless. It is not just open to abuse but appears to be inviting abuse.”
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Turning her attention to the problems the SNP has had with cybernats, web-users who hide behind anonymity to promote independence online – often in abusive terms – Ferguson continued:
“Considering the problem the SNP have with their cybernats, the likelihood of this consultation being distorted for the SNP’s own ends is enormous. This will add to the feeling Salmond is trying to rig the referendum. All along we have argued the running of this referendum must be independent and must be, and be seen to be, above reproach.
“Instead, even the Scottish government’s consultation looks more like something from a banana republic than the 21st century democracy that Scotland is.”
Under such pressure, Ministers at Holyrood have now announced responses will only be accepted and included in the analysis of responses if they provide personal identification details.
Seeking to emphasise that just 414 responses out of a total of 11,986 were anonymous, Bruce Crawford explained:
“The Scottish government’s referendum consultation is gathering huge levels of public interest as we debate and discuss Scotland’s future – and the robustness of the process is demonstrated by the fact that the consultation will be subject to independent analysis. This stands in stark contrast to the much smaller UK government consultation, which was not put to independent analysis.
“As the figures we have published demonstrate, there is absolutely no evidence of anonymous responses skewing the process – quite the reverse – but we can and will make the process stronger still by requiring all submissions to have personal identification details before they are taken into account. While anonymous contributions would always have been separately identified, we will now ensure that no anonymous submissions are included in the analysis at all.
“And while there is no evidence of duplicate identical responses from the same person, we can and will ensure that any received are also excluded from the independent analysis so that their view is only represented once.”
With Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont having called for the Scottish Parliament to be recalled to enable MSPs to question Alex Slamond over the fiasco, a spokesperson for the party responded last night to the latest developments by declaring:
“This is a humiliating climb-down for the SNP government, which appears to have lost control over its own consultation and now appears to be making it up as it goes along. Just 24 hours ago, the SNP government was claiming this was identical to previous consultations – this embarrassing u-turn shows they have been caught bang to rights.
“We are also keen to see this independently verified.”
In an editorial, meanwhile, the Herald has argued Holyrood and Westminster each have something to learn about the consultations they either have or are undertaking.
The paper today argues:
There is… a far more important issue at stake here than political point-scoring between the SNP and Labour.
The SNP has said that previous consultations under the joint Labour-Liberal Democrat administration accepted anonymous contributions. There is a significant difference in relation to the consultation on the referendum. Its outcome will be used to shape the most important vote to be cast by the people of Scotland. Any allegation that it has been skewed or hijacked by one side or the other risks suspicion of political manipulation.
By yesterday morning, 11,986 responses had been submitted to the consultation. That is an encouraging indication of the level of public involvement. While only 3.5% were anonymous and, according to Mr Crawford, there was no evidence of multiple identical responses from the same person, the possibility of organised duplicate submissions, whether from the SNP’s army of technologically-adept “cybernats” or from the Unionist parties, has left a question over the impartiality of the responses.
In this regard, compared with the UK government’s consultation on the referendum, which allowed respondents to request anonymity only if they provided details of their identity which would be available for inspection to an overseeing body such as the Electoral Commission, the Scottish consultation looks flawed.
The SNP was keen not to look as if it had been caught on the back foot by David Cameron but the announcement of a separate Scottish consultation would have benefited by being more rigorously tested for neutrality.
The Scottish process, however, has the considerable advantage of responses being analysed by an external body, which will exclude any duplicates which appear to be from the same computer as well as anonymous submissions. This is a vital first step in regaining the transparency which Mr Salmond said would be an integral part of the process. It is also essential that the analysis is made public if it is to satisfy demand for accountability.
Unless there is complete confidence that every aspect of the referendum is as unbiased as can possibly be achieved, it will be open to suspicion of political influence. It must also be remembered that the landslide vote which produced the unexpected outright majority for the SNP at Holyrood does not mean voters have suspended their critical faculties. Quite the reverse. A feeling that in some areas the Labour Party was taking support for granted was a significant factor in the swing to the SNP. Mr Salmond should not forget that the boot could just as easily be transferred to the other foot.
The lesson from this consultation is that every aspect of the referendum process must be overseen, from the beginning, by a politically neutral and independent body such as the Electoral Commission.
Elsewhere, following a series of questions over the way the SNP and Alex Salmond have handled donations and donors to the party, it has emerged the first minister has now written to Dame Elish Angiolini, one of the independent advisers on the Scottish ministerial code, to ask her to investigate whether a breach of the Code has occurred.
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