Let the referendum bandwagon roll

Devolution, independence or European union: Margo MacDonald says the people must decide
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Are your next-door neighbours too stupid to make a mark on two ballot papers, each concerning separate but related questions about who should govern the people of these islands? Are they incapable of stating their preference as to whether the mone y we use should be separate from, or part of, a single European currency?

No? Good. Your answers leave John Major and Tony Blair without a leg to stand on in the constitutional corner into which they are painting themselves. If people are able and willing, there can be no excuse for denying them the right to decide which constitutional changes will have their approval and co-operation.

I confess that my primary motivation in suggesting this notion of a rolling series of referendums is my interest in my part of the United Kingdom: Scotland. But I am not uninterested in Northern Ireland, Wales or London. And I have an enduring attachmentto the idea of a European Union of nations that diminishes racism and elevates the quality of life of its members.

Just because I am an old softy Liberal-Leftie Euro-Celt does not mean my idea of a comprehensive constitutional consultation will not play south of the Solway. Would it not be good to find out what people in Lancashire, Norfolk and London would like in terms of constitutional reform? Isn't it sensible to consider the whole picture of European and domestic sovereignty, devolution to elected and appointed bodies, power-sharing and, if Paddy Ashdown insists, federalism?

It is one of the shortcomings of the British way of doing things that our adversarial tradition leaves little room for variations on the parties' themes. Those who sing along with Kenneth Clarke's economic strategy have no choice but to join in the chorus of John Major's "no surrender" on the Scottish question and "que ser ser" on Ulster.

Tam Dalyell could tell you that in the safety of backrooms that used to be filled with smoke and blue collars, Labour supporters confess unease at having to swallow half-baked constitutional policies along with the good Dr Brown's medicine for manufacturing (I have not checked with Tam, but I will bet they also query their party's policy on a single Euro-currency).

I am convinced, however, that circumstances have conspired to create the conditions necessary for voters to be consulted on constitutional matters, yet still be able to vote, at a general election, for the party they prefer to be governed by, even thoughits MPs are not all agreed on every aspect of constitutional change currently under consideration.

Mr Major can govern up to spring 1997 if he chooses. Maastricht mark 2 will be hammered out next year at the Inter-Governmental Conference. Until the French elect their new president later this year, the Euro-Federalists, through the EU, will keep a diplomatically low profile. So now is the right time for a constitutional debate to take place. It can be followed by a multi-question consultative referendum at the end of this year or the beginning of next, before pre-election campaigning makes non-partisan debate impossible.

Any referendum on a constitutional question must be disentangled from the normal electioneering in the run-up to a general election. Partisan politics was one of the factors that bedevilled the '79 referendum in Scotland and Wales: the Tories, sensing they had Labour on the ropes, campaigned for a "no" vote to deliver the knock-out to the Callaghan government. That many Tory devolvers were able to do so in relatively good conscience was due in no small part to the Scotland and Wales Bill being potential ly unworkable legislation.

The poor quality of the Bill offered for endorsement in that referendum was, I believe, the result of the Wilson-Callaghan government's refusal properly to inform, and then consult on, the powers that people north and south of the border wished to be exercised by legislators in Edinburgh and London.

There were two main reasons for this: the UK economy was in deep trouble and therefore claimed the lion's share of the politicians' attention; and the Labour leadership only adopted their devolution policy to stop the haemorrhage of their Scottish vote to the Scottish Nationalists.

The situation is now quite different. There is time and space for everyone to consider how we are to be best governed. Citizens throughout the UK should have their say on which further powers, if any, they wish to cede to the EU; whether or not they wishto devolve legislative powers to regional assemblies; and if so, powers over which policy portfolios and to which geographical areas.

I believe that to have options understood and debated by as many people as possible is the best way to ensure the maintenance of both a socially harmonious UK and a viable EU. A genuine, searching debate in the UK on Europe's future will do great servicenot only to people here but those in France, Germany, Portugal, Denmark and the rest who are fast growing apart from their enthusiastic Europhile elites.

The same is true of the division of power inside the UK. The better people understand devolution, the less likely is an insoluble anomaly like the West Lothian question. It is somewhat unlikely that English and Welsh electors will knowingly adopt a system that allows MPs elected in Scotland to determine their education policies, while English and Welsh MPs would have no say whatsoever on Scottish education, including universities. And Scots are unlikely to endorse a devolution policy that allows Westminster to collect the taxes and dispose of income from the oil and gas fields as it does at present.

If a consultative referendum were held in advance of a UK election, the political parties could respond in their manifestos to the outcome or, if the majority in the House of Commons agreed, further questions might be asked, and/or binding answers soughtat the same time as the general election. If this were to happen in advance of the IGC Conference, Mr Major and his ministers would be in a much stronger position at home, and across the table from Helmut Kohl, as to whether or not people in the UK had advised the Government to advance to a single currency, common foreign and defence policies and all majority voting.

Such consultation would probably produce a range of answers reflecting the diverse needs and cultures within the UK, from Ulster to the Isle of Wight: it could free the constitutional question from party divisions and loyalties. Given that chance, I think we would make decisions we could all live with.

Margo MacDonald is a journalist and broadcaster and former MP for the Scottish National Party.