by a special correspondent
THE SNP Government has tried to persuade us that if the UK Government does not grant their demands to hold another independence referendum they are going to organise one themselves, before the end of 2023.
This claim is now being persistently repeated, presumably to enthuse their supporters in the run-up to the local government elections taking place on May 5.. But it is a “pledge” that does not stand up to examination.
The SNP’s demand to be granted permission for a Section 30 authorised referendum is certain to be rejected by Westminster, no matter who the Prime Minister is.
Why would the Conservatives – or Labour – open themselves up for criticism by their members (and allegations from their opponents across the dispatch box) that they were willing to risk destroying the Union against the democratic wishes of the Scottish electorate as expressed in the referendum of 2014? It makes no political sense whatsoever and the reality is that both Labour and the Conservatives know that they have nothing to gain from permitting another referendum and they will act accordingly.
Which leads us to the fundamental reason why the SNP’s promise of an unauthorised referendum can be dismissed as being entirely devoid of substance.
Here in the Highlands, as elsewhere, elections, by-elections and referendums are administered by the Returning Officer (the Highland Council’s Chief Executive Donna Manson) who is supported by the Highland Council’s Elections Office and hundreds of council staff.
By way of background information at this point it is worth noting that all Scottish councils are legally required to be politically neutral at all times, and that in the run-up to the local elections in May the council will be prohibited by Section 2 of the Local Government Act 1986 from publishing any material which appears to be designed to affect public support for any political party.
Publicity is very widely defined by the Act and includes “any communication, in whatever form, addressed to the public at large or to a section of the public”. The council also has duties to taxpayers prohibiting the use of public funds, resources and council offices, where the council is not fulfilling its statutory duties.
So during the upcoming elections the council’s managers will ensure that there is no use of council stationery/equipment/transport or any other resources for party political issues; and that no display of party political material appears on in council premises, websites or in or on council vehicles. It will also not publish any of its own material or stage any of its own events which appear to be designed to support any one political party or candidate. In other words, if something could even look vaguely political the council and its staff will play no part in it.
Like many of the senior management team at the Highland Council and other Scottish councils, Donna Manson is in a politically restricted post, which means that she and her colleagues are effectively prevented from having an active political life either inside or outside the workplace. Employees in politically restricted posts are automatically disqualified from standing for or holding elected office or from participating in any political activities.
The Highland Council’s Code of Conduct for the rest of its employees also states that: “The public expects you to carry out your duties in a politically neutral way”. Officers are politically neutral professionals, specialists in their own fields, with a duty to give councillors impartial advice to help councillors make the right decisions. Those of us with the relevant career knowledge are fully aware of the restrictions which apply and the way they are strictly interpreted.
For obvious reasons, this neutrality is one of the cornerstones of local democracy and despite any claims to the contrary the SNP Scottish Government may make in the future, any Scottish referendum which had not been authorised by the UK Government could and would not be regarded as “politically neutral”.
The SNP Government could of course attempt to try to remove the legal requirement for Scotland’s councils to be “politically neutral”. But that would drag the entire system into the murkiest water imaginable.
Given the guaranteed absence of participation of everybody in a politically restricted post, it would be interesting to hear how the SNP Government intends to organise an unauthorised referendum without the support of Scotland’s Returning Officers and their thousands of staff.
It is being said that any unauthorised referendum would be boycotted by those who are not of SNP/nationalist persuasion. The reality is that there could and will be no such referendum, and talk of “boycotts” will never be put to the test.