We note with interest the article in the National today featuring Ian Blackford, that asserts that we are going to have a referendum in 2021. We lay out, without comment, the timetable that this would have to follow under the PPERA 2000 (Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000) and the Referendums (Scotland) Act 2020.
Firstly, there is meant to be an election happening next year in May. Holyrood will dissolve at the end of March and will not re-convene until the 13th May (seven days after the election). We presume that this would be Ian Blackford’s starting point, unless they are proposing to start the referendum bill in the parliamentary time left. But there’s a reason they can’t do that just now, as we will explain later.
Secondly a specific piece of legislation would have to be passed in Holyrood to enable this to happen. This is the referendum bill that has been promised. This legislation would, amongst other things, contain the question to be put in the referendum . Under both PPERA 2000 and the RSA 2020, this question would have to be tested by the Electoral Commission for ‘intelligibility’ – how clear the question is. This is a process that normally takes 12 weeks, unless the government jumps the gun and decides to pass the bill before verification of the question is given by the EC. Of course, that is also assuming that the bill doesn’t run into significant opposition in the Holyrood chamber. But let’s be optimistic. 12 weeks to cover verification and legislation.
Thirdly, there is a designated 10 week campaign period. This is to allow groups participating in the referendum to sign up with the EC. So 10 weeks for that.
Finally, Holyrood has two recess periods from May; the summer holidays and the Christmas holidays. That’s usually July and August and two weeks from the 24th Dec to 7th/8th Jan. 10 weeks for holidays. Some of the wait on the EC may happen over that period, but the bill has still to be put through while Holyrood is sitting. Let’s split that down the middle and call it another month. The EC will not allow a referendum vote to be held during a holiday period so Christmas/New Year has to be added on as well; another 2 weeks.
That gives us 12 +10+ 4+2 = 28 weeks or seven months.
In other words, given the very best case scenario, the earliest that this referendum could be held with the starting point from mid- May, is mid- January. The referendum is not going to happen next year ; it’s too late.
Now let’s factor in a couple of other things.
The EC recommends a period of six months from the day that the legislation is passed, to the actual referendum. This would take us into March 2022.
This bill is going to run into fierce opposition in Holyrood. It’s going to have a bumpy ride and it’s going to be obstructed at every turn. It is not going to clear the hurdles of legislation easily.
We are in the middle of a pandemic and the Coronavirus Act allows elections to be postponed.
Finally and perhaps the most crucial point of all. The SNP have indicated that they are not going to proceed without a section 30 order. That has not changed as far as we can ascertain. The problem with taking that stance is that they cannot then even begin the process of legislating for the referendum without that section 30. That is why they have not already started to put the legislation through Holyrood, because they don’t have one. The starting gun for the whole process has been placed in the hands of Westminster and Boris is showing no signs of firing it.
Of course, the Martin Keatings’ case is due to be heard in January 2021. But he could be waiting months for a decision on it and regardless of whether it’s aye or naw from the Court of Session, it will then be appealed by either party to the Supreme Court. That could take until the end of 2021 or even into 2022.
Which brings us all the way back to square one. Of course, the Holyrood 2021 election could be declared a plebiscitary election. Or if there was a majority of two thirds of Indy supporting MSPs in Holyrood, a snap election could be called on the issue after the general one. But if a plebiscite is not declared and if a policy of ‘both votes SNP’ is pursued then none of that is going to be possible.
We lay these facts before you. We leave it to you, the reader to judge whether your particular party has been honest with you and if it has used the parliamentary time it had to pursue the legislative programme for a referendum, in the way that you would have expected. But we can tell you that every party is aware of this schedule and whatever else they might plead, they cannot plead ignorance. That is all.