When Prime Minister David Cameron and First Minister Alex Salmond signed the Edinburgh Agreement last week, control of the referendum process passed to the Scottish Parliament.
Some issues, such as whether there should be one or two questions on the ballot paper and if 16 and 17-year-olds should be allowed to vote, were settled by the agreement but the detail of the poll, including the exact wording of the question, is still to be decided.
It is right the Parliament in Edinburgh will decide these matters but the agreement includes a commitment by the Scottish Government to consult the Electoral Commission on important issues such as the wording and how much the campaigns can spend. This is how it should be. The commission is politically neutral and respected, and its involvement is preferable to the suggestion that the SNP should be allowed to set up its own body to oversee the referendum.
What the commission cannot do is dictate what will happen – its role is advisory – but the SNP deviates from what the commission suggests at its peril.
The UK Government, for example, has never ignored the commission's advice and yet there were indications yesterday from Nicola Sturgeon that this is exactly what the SNP is preparing to do on the issue of campaign spending. The party would listen to the commission, said Ms Sturgeon, but she added there had never been a suggestion that abiding by the body's advice was guaranteed.
This is a worrying development. The SNP's case is that the commission's proposal on spending in the 16 weeks leading up to the vote – a £1.5 million cap for both the Yes and No campaigns plus extra proportional amounts for the parties – will leave the SNP with a £1m disadvantage. However, the commission has used a well-established formula based on the parties' share of the votes at the last Holyrood election – an entirely fair way of resolving the issue. If the SNP does deviate from this, claiming it will be put at a political disadvantage, it risks being accused of manipulating the system in its favour. Indeed, it already has been in The Herald today, with the Conservative's deputy leader Jackson Carlaw claiming the SNP is trying to rig the system.
It may be that the Nationalists are genuinely seeking a fair fight but they should tread carefully for there must be no room for anyone to question the legitimacy of the result in 2014; there must be no grey areas in which resentment or suspicion can flourish and the commission's involvement is one of the ways to ensure this. Mr Salmond and Ms Sturgeon are clearly in a bullish mood after the signing of the Edinburgh Agreement but they must not allow this to lead them into a confrontation with the commission. It is vital to ensure everyone has confidence in this process and the SNP should listen and act on what the commission says. This respected body is the proper referee and must be allowed to do its work.
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