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The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Donald Dewar): Five?

Mr. Salmond: I am coming to all five.

In the 1992 general election, when we debated as the two party leaders in Scotland, the right hon. Gentleman was against any referendum. After the election, he moved, as I have already said, to support a multi-option referendum. Last year, when he was the Labour party Chief Whip, the proposal for a two-question referendum was first put forward and he adopted joint authorship of it. Some of us think that he was just covering fire for the

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right hon. Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Robertson); none the less, he was willing to accept responsibility for that notion. When the Labour party's Scottish executive decided to have two referendums with three questions, that was described by the Labour party hierarchy as a mature and sensible decision. No doubt the right hon. Gentleman, as the then Chief Whip, also shared that opinion.

That takes us to the fifth change of heart--the two-question referendum proposed in the Bill. All I am saying is that, having taken five positions in the past five years, surely it is not too much to expect the right hon. Gentleman to move back to his 1992 position by accepting our amendment. I am sure that he will when he replies.

Mr. Dewar: Wait breathlessly.

Mr. Salmond: I shall do so. I am hoping for a sixth change of position because I know that, in his heart, the right hon. Gentleman knows that the amendment represents the right course to take.

There are a number of international examples of referendums that have been put before people in a range of countries where three or more clear constitutional positions have been offered. However, perhaps the example that is of most interest to the Committee is the decision of the Attlee Privy Council of the United Kingdom in 1946.

There was to be a ballot in Newfoundland on its democratic status. Originally, a constitutional convention suggested that only two options should be allowed, but the Attlee Privy Council decided otherwise. Preecing's Contemporary Archive for 6 to 13 November 1946 states:

The Attlee Privy Council--a Labour Government with a landslide majority--had the democratic common sense to see that it would be unfair to exclude from a referendum ballot paper an option that was supported by many people in Newfoundland. As we know, it was that option that eventually, albeit narrowly, carried the day in Newfoundland. That is why it entered the Canadian Confederation. That example is both international and pertaining to the United Kingdom.

I suggest that a multi-option referendum--a fair referendum--is the one that carries public support in Scotland. One opinion poll, which tested whether people wanted the option of independence to be included on the ballot paper of any referendum in Scotland, was published in The Sunday Times on 11 August 1996. It showed not only overwhelming support from the Scottish people--73 per cent.--for that idea, but majority support in every party for all the options of independence, devolution and the status quo to be included on the ballot paper. Of Labour supporters in Scotland, 81 per cent. suggested that that was the right thing to do. So there is public support for a fair ballot, but another factor should be recognised by the Committee and it is an argument that is not often put clearly.

According to my memory and experience, there has not been a single recent public opinion poll that presented the three options of independence, devolution or the status

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quo and showed a majority in favour of devolution. In the vast majority of polls, devolution has been the preferred option, but, as far as I am aware, not a single opinion poll citing those three options has shown 50 per cent. or more in favour of devolution. One opinion poll during the general election campaign suggested that independence and devolution were tied with 35 per cent. support, with support for the status quo at 24 per cent. The ICM poll in The Scotsman suggested that there was substantial support for the status quo--that was more than the other polls suggested.

5 pm

Mr. Dewar: I apologise for indulging my curiosity, but is the logic of the hon. Gentleman's position that any multi-choice referendum would be invalid unless one of the options received 50 per cent. support? Does it follow that the hon. Gentleman is suggesting a transferable vote multi-choice option?

Mr. Salmond: As I said in my introduction, and as the amendments state, people would mark 1, 2 or 3 in a preferential system. The option receiving the lowest number of votes in the first count would be knocked out and the votes redistributed, giving a winner with a substantial majority.

It is often said by Labour Members that devolution is supported by the overwhelming majority of the Scottish people. As today's opinion poll showed, that claim would be justified only if the independence option were not offered. As far as I know, of recent polls that have offered independence, devolution and the preservation of the status quo, not one has shown a majority in favour of devolution.

I think that The Sunday Times poll that I mentioned has the figures about right--it is a close thing between devolution and independence. The Conservative party would no doubt like to hang on to the ICM poll that showed substantial support--almost 30 per cent.--for the status quo. The truth is, we do not know what the result would be and the only way to find out is by putting the options fairly and squarely before the people of Scotland and allowing them to decide.

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East): We have discussed this before. Will the hon. Gentleman explain why he would not choose to have a referendum with three options in which people could answer yes or no? One option could be: "Do you wish Scotland to remain a part of the Union or the United Kingdom?" Is he afraid that because the question is so clear, people may choose to say yes?

Mr. Salmond: I do not think that anything could be clearer than the options that we propose in the amendments--whether people want no change to the constitutional arrangements, whether they want an independent Scottish Parliament or whether they want a devolved Scottish Parliament. Each option is given parity on the ballot paper and people are asked to judge. I would argue that that is a fair way to put the questions. But if the amendments are carried, if the Government want to address the issue of a multi-option referendum and if we

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want to reach agreement on a fair representation on the ballot paper, I am sure that that can be negotiated and arranged. The hon. Gentleman should look at what we have suggested and tell me why that is not a fair representation of the positions.

Mr. Connarty: Having taught modern studies in schools for a long time and having seen the problems faced by people at all levels--right up to those learning about government and political systems at A-level--in understanding a system where the votes are ranked between the first, second and third choices, with the consequential results of the single transferable vote, I think that the complexity involved is more likely to confuse than clarify.

Mr. Salmond: Australia and southern Ireland managed to cope with the complex system of voting. Most people would argue that over the years they have managed to produce reasonable results in terms of forming Governments. To argue against a system of preferential voting that is used in many countries and say that people in Scotland would be unable to cope shows me that when the hon. Gentleman was a modern studies teacher he should have had more faith in his pupils and that he should now have more faith in the people of Scotland.

Mr. Cash: Has the hon. Gentleman addressed the question of the threshold majority that should be required? Does he agree that in 1978 the number of people who voted amounted to only, I think, 32 per cent.? Does he agree that that showed such a low interest that some threshold is required in relation to the present arrangements?

Mr. Salmond: Not only have I addressed that issue, but I managed to devote a large part of my speech on the guillotine motion yesterday to that point. I told the hon. Gentleman's colleagues--he was not in the Chamber at the time--that I did not think it was a very powerful argument to advance when, on the basis of the total number of the electorate, the Conservative party received 12.5 per cent. of the votes at the election. On the basis of today's opinion poll, the Conservative party's percentage of the total electorate likely to vote in Scotland would be more like 6 per cent. The threshold argument is weak when advanced from the dizzy heights of 6 or 12.5 per cent. of the total electorate. The argument for a threshold--for a fancy franchise and a rigged ballot--is a poor one. It would be far better to allow, if I may use the Scottish parlance, a square go between the various constitutional options--far, far better to put them on the ballot paper in an honest and fair manner and let the people of Scotland decide. The people of Scotland should have the right to decide this matter.

I have shared the irritation of many hon. Members at the nature of some of the contributions to this debate from Conservative Members, especially the argument that the people of England are going have to pay for this constitutional exercise in Scotland. If those hon. Members had been involved in the general election campaign in Scotland, perhaps they would have been surprised that one of the matters on which all the parties were agreed was the figures showing a substantial fiscal surplus in Scotland between 1979 and 1995. Those figures were first revealed

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in a Treasury answer on 13 January this year and all the political parties confirmed them, including the then Secretary of State for Scotland at a press conference.

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