ONE of the things that bothered me most about the pre-referendum Unionist Vow in 2014 was the promise that the Scottish Parliament was “permanent”.
What was that intended to mean? What did the public interpret it as meaning, and was there a gap between interpretation and reality?
A generous person, assuming good faith, might have thought that the existing powers of the Parliament were being guaranteed for all-time, but in the literal sense that wasn’t necessarily true – in theory the UK Government could strip Holyrood of all its powers, leave it as a talking-shop, and yet still claim “the Scottish Parliament” was there as a permanent feature.
This is no longer an academic question, because for the first time since the indyref – indeed for the first time since the start of devolution – the UK Government are in the process of removing substantial powers from the Scottish Parliament, including powers that were approved by the Scottish people by a landslide in the 1997 devolution referendum.
I decided to use the new Scot Goes Pop/Panelbase poll to test whether the public feel that the power-grab contained in the Internal Market Bill constitutes a betrayal of the “permanent” promise in The Vow, or whether we’re a nation of literalists who think The Vow will have been kept as long as a Scottish Parliament still exists in some form.
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Unsurprisingly, it’s the former – 63% think The Vow will have been broken if the changes of the Internal Market Bill take effect without being explicitly approved by the Scottish electorate.
To a considerable extent, this verdict cuts across traditional loyalties – an outright majority of Labour and LibDem voters, and No voters from 2014, plus even 38% of people who would vote No in a second indyref, believe that the UK Government are in the process of breaking The Vow.
I also wanted to discover whether, as a matter of principle, people think there should be a new devolution referendum to determine whether the Internal Market Bill will be allowed to partially reverse the decision of the people from the 1997 referendum.
The response was even more emphatic – 66% of respondents demand a referendum on the power grab, including 87% of SNP voters, 67% of Labour voters, 50% of No voters from 2014, and even 33% of Conservative voters.
While the poll was under way, a number of Unionist ultras took screenshots of the question wording and then complained on social media about how supposedly “biased” it was.
To be frank, there was a genuine dilemma here, because most of the mainstream media have spared no effort (or spared no lack of effort, I should say) in keeping the public in total ignorance of the impact of the Internal Market Bill on devolution.
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So to get a meaningful sense of the public’s wishes, there was no real option but to include a brief summary in one of the questions of the powers that are actually being removed.
That opened the poll up to the bogus accusations of bias, because of course Unionists would argue (dishonestly) that the Internal Market Bill also grants some new powers to Holyrood.
However, to make the questions as fair as possible, I simply set out the changes to the devolution settlement that the House of Lords Constitution Committee (hardly a hotbed of Scottish nationalism) have identified in the bill.
For brevity, I even left out the fact that the UK Government is giving itself the power to spend on hitherto exclusively devolved matters.
It’s somewhat ironic that our British nationalist friends regard a poll question as biased simply because it brings the scrutinising work of their beloved unelected chamber to greater public attention.