Scotland politics

Scottish independence: MPs grill campaign bosses Jenkins and McDougall

MPs at Westminster have heard the two Scottish independence referendum campaign chiefs disagree over the wording of the 2014 question.

Blair Jenkins, who heads up Yes Scotland, said he believed the "do you agree to Scotland becoming an independent country" to be fair.

The Better Together Campaign boss, Blair McDougall, said it was not.

The pair were before members of the Scottish Affairs Committee which is examining the issue of independence.

Mr Jenkins told the politicians that he did not think the use of the word "agree" in the SNP's preferred question represented, what Mr McDougall insisted, was a "push" towards backing independence.

He said: "As someone whose degree is in language and literature, I don't think there is a predisposition because there is 'agree' in the question."

But Mr McDougall said: "I think the process needs to be beyond question in case we are dealing with a marginal situation. There should not be turmoil in the event of a marginal result, either way."

Both men agreed that the Electoral Commission, which is analysing and testing the Scottish government's preferred question, could be trusted to do a good job.

Mr Jenkins said he could not at the present time give unqualified backing to the commission's conclusions, but he said he would be "astonished" if the body came back with "something not acceptable".

Mr McDougall was optimistic that the judgement of the commission, which has an advisory role on the question, would be acceptable to all.

The Electoral Commission is currently scrutinising the question: "Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?"

Critics of the wording said it encouraged a "yes" vote by not mentioning an end to the Union.

Scottish ministers first announced their preferred wording for the question in January.

The Scottish independence referendum is due to take place in autumn 2014.

The two campaign chiefs also answered questions on referendum campaign funding and the duration of the campaign.

Mr Jenkins told the committee that the Yes Scotland movement would accept foreign donations of up to £500.

He added: "We will not accept a sum of more than £500 from an individual who is not on the electoral register in Scotland. We will accept foreign donations of up to £500 because there are many Scots around the world who want to signal their support."

Mr McDougall said the Better Together campaign would carry out checks on those who donate and no donations outside the UK would be accepted.

He later complained about the spending limits proposed for the last 16 weeks of the campaign, claiming they were intended to "handcuff" and "stifle" debate.

Mr Jenkins said he was content with the last four months spending limits.

Both campaign bosses welcomed moves to give 16 and 17-year-olds the vote in the referendum, the date of which has yet to be decided.

During the two-and-a-half-hour question and answer session, Mr Jenkins and Mr McDougall were asked about media bias in the reporting of the debate.

Mr Jenkins said the broadcast media had an important role to play. He added that as a former BBC Scotland news boss, he very rarely saw "deliberate bias" and he did not believe there was "systematic bias" at the BBC.

He told the committee: "You see mistakes being made and mistakes are being made because resources are being cut, particularly at BBC Scotland.

"As someone who held a senior role in BBC Scotland I am very aware of the strength of feeling in the journalistic community that they are over stretched.

"I am more aware of opportunities being missed, programmes not being done and issues not being treated with enough depth."

Mr Jenkins added: "The press in this country are to a very large extent unregulated who will largely report as they see fit and without impartiality."

Mr Dougall said the confidence "we take from the BBC" was that there was a written "rule book" and someone would always take responsibility.

Scrutiny crucial

He added that market research showed that the importance of the BBC to people "cannot be overstated".

Mr McDougall said: "People will take their opinions from the BBC much more than other sources."

In his concluding remarks to the committee, which is chaired by Labour MP Ian Davidson, Mr Jenkins said: "I think the eyes of the world are on us over the next two years, not just in Scotland, but in the UK as a whole.

"I think it is important that all of us conduct ourselves in a very open and courteous and tolerant and civilised way. Because at the end of the day I hope and am confident that the people of Scotland will vote yes to an independent Scotland in two years' time. But whatever the outcome of that referendum we move on as a society and both sides have to be accepting of the result."

Mr McDougall believed scrutiny was crucial as the debate moves on. He added that now was the time to take a "big long look" at Scotland and where it was going.

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