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Thumbs up for the question

IT could have been a rammy; instead it was sweetness and light, on the surface at least.

The reaction yesterday to the Electoral Commission's referendum proposals, from both the pro-independence and pro-UK lobbies, was uncharacteristically harmonious. Both welcomed the recommendations; both accepted them without demurring, in spite of the SNP's rumbling threats since summer that it might reject them if it did not approve. In short, the Electoral Commission played a blinder, outpoliticking the politicians and coralling them into consensus with a set of deftly devised recommendations they could not be seen to oppose.

The report has three main proposals. The first – that the referendum question should read "Should Scotland be an independent country?" – is eminently sensible. It is clear, unambiguous and, crucially, neutral. The Scottish Government's preferred wording - "Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?" - was judged by the Electoral Commission to be potentially biased, which is embarrassing for ministers, who stand accused by opponents of having tried to rig the question. Crucially, however, the Scottish Government has accepted the revised wording, which should help ensure widespread acceptance of the outcome of the referendum.

The second proposal, giving the two main campaign groups Yes Scotland and Better Together a £1.5m spending limit and allocating further spending limits to the political parties in such a way as to give the two sides near-parity of funding, will also help to put the result of the vote beyond reproach.

The Commission's most important intervention, however, might prove to be its third proposal, putting both the UK and Scottish Governments on the spot with a call for them to co-operate in setting out what the next steps would be, both in the event of a Yes and a No vote.

This is essential. Faced with the biggest decision in Scotland's modern history, voters must have as much information as possible on the implications of each choice on the ballot paper. This does not mean second guessing the outcome of independence negotiations, in the event of a Yes vote, but it could mean laying out a timetable for those negotiations and discussing what issues they will cover.

The Scottish Government is ready and willing to discuss such a scenario. It is liable to be less enthusiastic, however, about what would happen in the wake of a No vote. The short answer, of course, is nothing, but the Westminister Government and pro-UK parties will probably wish to signal their commitment to a scheme of enhanced devolution that could be put to voters in the 2015 General Election. With the pro-independence lobby keen to focus exclusively on securing a Yes vote to independence, especially among undecideds and soft pro-independence supporters, such talk will be unwelcome. Nevertheless, voters have a right to see the roadmap before deciding which path to take.

With the referendum on independence now little more than a year and a half away, it is time to settle the terms of the vote itself so that the real debate can begin in earnest. The Electoral Commission's recommendations, and the positive reception they have had, go some way to helping achieve that. It might prove short-lived, but the people of Scotland can only gain from this brief outbreak of consensus.

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