Who do we trust?

So, Patrick Harvie thinks it’s a good idea for the Scottish Government to trust the British Electoral Commission. But Patrick Harvie also thinks it a wizard wheeze to stand candidates in constituencies such as Perth & North Perthshire where the SNP’s Pete Wishart is defending a majority of less than two dozen votes. All things considered, I’m not inclined to put much faith in Mr Harvie’s judgement.

That is not to say that the British Electoral Commission is untrustworthy. It is only to say that it may not be entirely wise to take Patrick Harvie’s word for it. We should make our own assessment based on what we know, or can learn, about the British Electoral Commission and how it operates.

On paper, the British Electoral Commission looks to be sound. The organisation, which was set up in 2000, describes itself as

“The independent body which oversees elections and regulates political finance in the UK. We work to promote public confidence in the democratic process and ensure its integrity.”

A trawl through the British Electoral Commission’s website is very reassuring. If one takes everything at face value. The way commissioners are appointed, the decision-making processes, the expertise all appear totally satisfactory. One might be impressed by the fact that there is a dedicated commissioner for Scotland (and Wales) and, as the third largest party in the House of Commons, the SNP gets to nominate a commissioner. On the face of it, there seems no reason to disagree with Patrick Harvie’s assessment.

But there’s another organisation which, on paper, looks every bit as independent, fair and impartial – the BBC. And we all know how different the reality is from slick presentation.

But it’s not actually about trust. Whether or not the Scottish electorate can have confidence in the British Electoral Commission is not the point. It is a question of appropriateness. Regardless of whether or not we consider the British Electoral Commission trustworthy, we have to ask whether it is appropriate for an agency of the British state to have oversight of a referendum in which the people of Scotland exercise their right of self-determination. We have to wonder about the propriety of an agency of the British state having significant authority over a referendum in which the British state itself has a massive stake.

Much fuss is made about ensuring that the new independence referendum is ‘legal and constitutional’ in order that there should be no impediment to Scotland gaining international recognition once the nation’s independence is restored. We hear rather less about the fact that what the international community is most concerned about is that the process by which independence is restored should be impeccably democratic. Nor do we hear very much about how important it is that the people of Scotland have total confidence in the process.

We are entitled to question whether the democratic validity of Scotland’s referendum – actual and perceived – is served by the involvement of the British Electoral Commission. Or whether this is likely to be regarded as external interference such as would tend to undermine the democratic legitimacy of the referendum in the eyes of the international community and the Scottish electorate.

Ask yourself this, would you trust the BBC with a formal role in the referendum process? Would you think it appropriate?



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