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Referendums (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 7th November 2019.

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Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in the debate.

I joined the Finance and Constitution Committee after the summer, shortly after it had commenced its work on the bill. Although it is quite a technical piece of legislation, it has created a lot of interest, and it deals with many factors in addition to the wording of any question.

I think that there is widespread agreement that there should be such framework legislation so that we do not need to keep reinventing the wheel every time we have a referendum. In the past, I have felt that we should move towards having more referenda on more topics, as happens in countries such as Switzerland and the United States.

We have tended to have referenda on major constitutional questions—for example, the first time that I voted was in 1975, in the European Communities referendum—but some people have believed that we should also have referenda on major moral questions, as has happened on abortion in Ireland. Potentially, we could also use them for local issues, as I think happened for the 1996 decision on Rutherglen leaving Glasgow.

However, I have to say that the 2016 referendum has made me a little more wary of this form of decision making. If a Government gets a big majority of the kind that was obtained in 1975 and 1997, I believe that a referendum can give public endorsement to politicians’ proposals, but a close or disputed referendum, such as those in 1979, 2014 and 2016, clearly does not lead to widespread acceptance and might just lead to demands for a further opportunity to vote.