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Everyone has a stake in next year’s referendum

The Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, has urged people in other parts of the UK to speak up for the Union. With the referendum on Scottish independence less than a year away, she said that everyone had a stake in the future of Britain, adding that First Minister, Alex Salmond, did not speak for most Scots and claiming that the majority were against independence.

Ruth Davidson MSP Scottish Conservative Leader

Ruth Davidson MSP
Scottish Conservative Leader

Speaking at the Conservative conference in Manchester, she pointed out that the SNP administration in Edinburgh had made £32bn of uncosted promises, including reversing UK benefit reforms and boosting overseas aid. She drew attention to the opinion polls which consistently showed that the majority of Scots were against independence. Warning against complacency, she stressed that in the months ahead “we have a lot of work to do to hammer home to people just how much Scotland gains from being part of the UK and how much the United Kingdom benefits from Scotland as a member.

“I know that many of you living in other parts of the UK won’t have a vote – but we all have a stake in the result, and we can all play a part in securing our country for the future,” she added

Ms Davidson reminded the conference about what happened in Canada in 1995. There was an independence referendum in Quebec. “The secessionists were ahead until the day itself,” she said. There was just a 1% margin of victory. And the single fact credited with making the difference between staying and going, between uniting the country or dividing the nation – was that the rest of Canada said, ‘we want you to stay’.”

She went of to say that when Alex Salmond took to the airwaves, “saying things designed to get right up your nose, know that he’s doing it on purpose, and that he doesn’t speak for the majority of Scots. Know too, that while this is the most important decision in Scotland’s history – it also affects each and every one you, no matter where you live.”

Posters for the Irish constitutional referendum, October 2009 <em>Picture: infomatique</em>

Posters for the Irish constitutional referendum, October 2009 Picture: infomatique

By John Knox

Like sparkling wine, referendums are good at first taste but the more you drink, and the more you contemplate them, the less satisfying they become.

Take Monday’s vote in the House of Commons, for instance. The 81 Tory MPs who wanted to hold a referendum on the European Union were attracted by the sparkle of freedom from European regulations and from the expense and bother of belonging to a wider union. But did they really want people to vote for withdrawal?

Or were they hoping the people would vote for a renegotiation of our EU membership? If so, how on earth would that be achieved? The other 26 countries would never allow it. And if they wanted a looser union, how would that be negotiated? How would it work?

In any case, could these troublesome Tories please give us an example of which EU regulations they want to abolish? The working time directive, perhaps? So do they want lorry drivers to sit behind the wheel until they fall asleep? Or do they want junior doctors to treat patients at the end of a 100-hour week?

The point of EU regulations is to create a fair market and to force up standards across the continent – standards of manufacture, construction, working conditions, safety, water quality, etc. Do these 81 Tories – and 30 others – think we should go back on all of this? And if they think the Spaniards or the Greeks or the French are cheating on the regulations, do they suppose we can stop them by abolishing the regulations?

Questions, questions, questions… this is what happens if you hold a referendum. We are seeing this here in Scotland with the SNP’s proposed referendum. What exactly is meant by “independence”? Will there be a second question on “devolution max”, and what exactly does that mean?

It is right, of course, that all these questions should be asked. But is a referendum the best way of asking them, let alone answering them? Can most people be bothered with such political detail?

That is why, most of the time, we settle for “representative democracy” in which we elect a party of people we generally agree with or respect, and they look into such details for us while we get on with the rest of our lives. Of course, MPs and parties should take into account our views – but, as one of the founding fathers of British democracy, Edmund Burke, famously said in a letter to his constituents in Bristol: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

In Britain we don’t hold much with referendums. We have only held two across the UK. One was in 1975 when we approved our membership of the European Community (two years after we had already joined, and there are many who still do not accept the result). The other was last year when we voted against the Alternative Vote, a system which no one really wanted and which would have had little effect.

In Scotland, of course, we held a referendum on setting up the devolved parliament. And that brought its own difficulties. The question had to be asked twice (in 1979 and again in 1997) and it looks as if we might be asked to vote again on taxation powers, powers we already approved in the 1997 referendum.

It is true that other countries appear to be happier with referendums. In Switzerland, they hold them three or four times a year and the answer is usually No. In Norway, they have had six referendums and still there are those who want another one on entry to the EU. In New Zealand, they have held ten, plus a series specially devoted to alcohol – again that sparking wine analogy comes to mind.

In Quebec, they still have not resolved the separation question, despite it being asked twice, in 1980 and again in 1995. In Iceland last year, the people voted in a referendum not to pay their debts. If everyone did that, the world would be a sorry place.

In Germany, they don’t talk about referendums after what the Nazis used them for. In France they use them sparingly, after De Gaulle used them too much. In 2005, though, the French ended the prospect of a European constitution with a decisive “Non”.

But in dear old Ireland, they are forever holding referendums, 30 so far. And they are usually on the same two subjects: abortion and the EU. The government just keeps asking the same question until it gets the “Yes” answer it wants.

So, all in all, referendums have not proved to be the great asset to democracy, or good government or sensible decision-making we might like them to be. They appear to be most useful when a big constitutional change needs legitimacy – the overwhelming and settled approval of the people.

The sad fact is that we are fickle citizens: one moment we want one thing, the next something else, depending who was last talking to us. Electing a parliament is a more permanent measure of our true opinions. Just as sparkling wine is fun for special occasions – and a typical drink of choice for Tory MPs – referendums should be used sparingly in a sober society, and only when the answer is going to be an overwhelming Yes.

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A Nimrod  MRA4 "ZJ518". <em>Picture: MilborneOne</em>

A Nimrod MRA4 "ZJ518". Picture: MilborneOne

James Jones was a Nimrod engineering officer, responsible for carrying out flight trials at A&AEE Boscombe Down (now QinetiQ), prior to aircraft entering service in 1968. He flew in XV230 (the aircraft lost over Afghanistan) in 1969. Since the accident in 2006 he has acted as a technical advisor to the families who lost loved ones in the crash and advised their legal counsel during the inquest.

The recent publication of Charles Haddon-Cave QC’s report into the loss of a Nimrod over Afghanistan in 2006 brought much justified acclaim for its condemnation of Government cost-cutting, bad management and the naming of those considered to be responsible.

However, his attack on the coroner, Andrew Walker, was unjustified and unbecoming of a prominent QC. References to the coroner’s findings were inaccurate and selective and seemed to discredit someone, who actually called for the grounding of the Nimrod aircraft. In fact, the attack has raised doubts regarding whether “selective” evidence was used throughout the report in order to protect prominent ministers, at the expense of others.

Two retired military commanders have already hit back at “unsubstantiated vilifying allegations” against them. General Sir Sam Cowan and Air Chief Marshal Sir Malcolm Pledger were among ten people named in the report in October by Haddon-Cave.

General Cowan was accused of ordering logistics cuts that contributed to the lack of maintenance given to the Nimrods and the failure to spot a design flaw in the aircraft. (It is worth pointing out that design flaws should have been picked up by A&AEE Boscombe Down in 1969 and 1982 when they carried out release to service trials).

Speaking for the first time about the accusations, General Gowan said it had been ministers who had “decreed” all the cuts and that it was totally unjustified to single him out. He also denied that the cuts had led to the crash.

“There is not a shred of evidence in Mr Haddon-Cave’s report that anything I did or did not do as CDL [chief of defence logistics] from 1999 up until I retired in August 2002, four years before the accident, contributed to this tragic crash,” General Cowan said.

Air Chief Marshal Pledger, who succeeded General Cowan as chief of defence logistics, said the accusations against him were “totally unfair”. Mr Haddon-Cave had not published any of the evidence he had given. “I’m absolutely furious,” he said.

General Cowan said: “This is a poor message to send to the Armed Forces — that senior officers can be traduced for carrying out ministerial directions.”

He was backed by the Labour peer Baroness Cohen of Pimlico, who said “Two excellent public servants have been traduced in this report. They are both innocent of the specific charge of imposing in any targeted way an extra piece of cost-cutting.”

Baroness Cohen served as a non-executive director on the board of the newly formed Defence Logistics Organisation in 1999 and worked with both General Cowan and Air Chief Marshal Pledger.

General Cowan pointed out that he had repeatedly told Mr Haddon-Cave that all the changes enforced at the Defence Logistics Organisation had been decreed by ministers. The Defence Secretary throughout that period was Geoff Hoon.

Air Commodore Baber is another “named” party in the report and whilst it is evident that he made mistakes in managing his organisation a number of significant points, which came out at the inquest, are “missed” by Haddon-Cave.

Whilst the Nimrod Safety Case, conducted between 2002 and 2004, was not the best that could have been carried out, there was in fact no requirement to undertake such a task for a legacy aircraft with an imminent Out Of Service Date, such as Nimrod. This is made clear in Baber’s inquest statement and is confirmed by Defence Equipment and Support. Furthermore, Baber states that the exercise was carried out in an “economic manner”, and “clearly if we made it far too complicated the whole aircraft would be out of service by the time we finished”. A fair and balance report should have mentioned this fact.

The Haddon-Cave report devotes some 161 pages to the Nimrod Safety Case, and yet fails to mention the fact that two important recommendations were made in 2004 by BAE Systems (another castigated organisation) with regards to fire/explosion assessment:

(a) That the “special use” fire suppression system in the bomb bay should be used in normal operations. Failure to do so could lead to the loss of the aircraft if a fire broke out in that area, and;

(b) That aluminium alloy unions in hydraulic pipes should be replaced with a stainless steel type to avoid heat damage.

Neither recommendation was implemented because of costs and the imminent Out Of Service Date. The Nimrod was lost over Afghanistan, having reported a bomb bay fire and when the pilot lost control as hydraulic couplings failed just 20 miles from Kandahar airport.

It is now becoming, clear from many of the statements made by witnesses at the Iraq Inquiry that during the time that Geoff Hoon held the senior defence position tight financial constraints were being imposed by the Treasury, at the time headed by Gordon Brown.

So why didn’t Haddon-Cave name ministers in his report, or at least interview them? Well seeing as the review/report was commission by the Defence Secretary, and cost £3.5 million, is it just a simple case of “He who pays the piper calls the tune”? No wonder Bob Ainsworth was so happy to accept it rather than the Coroner’s “legal” findings. It named people, which is what the families wanted, it protected ministers and it brought closure to an unfortunate accident.