IF you're feeling a bit zonked by the ongoing row over an independent Scotland's membership of the EU console yourself with this thought: if MSPs weren't battling over Brussels they would be in the middle of an equally abstruse argument about referendum campaign funding.
Nicola Sturgeon used her speech to the SNP conference a couple of weeks ago to warn that the Government may not accept the advice of the impartial Electoral Commission watchdog on how much campaign organisations, political parties, interested groups and individuals should be allowed to spend in the immediate run-up to the vote.The Government would take the final decision, she stressed – "a decision that guarantees a level playing field".
Her threat to overrule the Commission begs two questions. Firstly, is she bluffing? And secondly, what is a "level playing field"? The first is more tantalising so I'll leave it to last. As for the second, well, it's a lot more complicated than simply saying both the Yes and No camps should be allowed to spend exactly the same amount of money.
Loading article content
Yes Scotland, the cross-party pro-independence campaign, argues that because the referendum involves a single Yes or No question spending limits "should apply equally to both sides in the independence debate".That might sound fair but it fails to allow for the breadth of the debate. Whilst it's true there are two choices in the referendum there are lots of different reasons for supporting either one and political parties should be able to make their particular case. Labour's reasons for staying in the UK will be different from the Tories', for example. The Greens have a different vision of an independent Scotland from the SNP.
Despite Ms Sturgeon's conference-fiery rhetoric, the Scottish Government accepts this principle. Under its own plans the two main organisations, Yes Scotland and Better Together, would each be allowed to spend up to £750,000 in the 16 weeks before the vote. On top of that political parties represented at Holyrood would be limited to £250,000 while smaller caps would apply to other groups and individuals. A quick tot-up shows the pro-UK parties would be able to outspend their pro-independence rivals. Ministers, in other words, would put up with a slightly sloping pitch.
What they are not happy about is the playing surface tentatively proposed by the Electoral Commission. The watchdog believes spending by the two main organisations should be capped at a figure nearer to £1.5million and under a formula based on the parties' share of the vote at the last election the SNP could be allowed to spend a further £1.5million, Labour £1.2million, the Tories £900,000, the LibDems £600,000 and the Greens £150,000. If those figures are confirmed the pro-independence parties could be outspent by £1million.
The Electoral Commission believes spending limits should be high enough to allow everyone to get their message across, otherwise there is a risk of dodgy accounting and funds being channelled through a myriad small, obscure organisations. The lack of transparency could undermine the credibility of the process, the watchdog fears.
So is Ms Sturgeon bluffing? In this high-stakes fight the temptation to disregard the Electoral Commission, if the SNP feels it has been seriously disadvantaged, will be real enough. But the political damage would be huge.
The commission, I'm told, is prepared to be "robust" in its response if it feels it has been ignored. The SNP's opponents would be apoplectic. SNP strategists are aware of this and fervently hope a compromise will be found. That's why my bet is the threat, the talk of not allowing the vote to be "bought or sold for anyone's gold" is part of a softening-up exercise. If the Electoral Commission bow to the pressure, great, it helps the cause. If it fails, the Nationalists will present themselves as underdogs –kicking uphill all the way to 2014.