FEARS have been raised Michael Gove's new "supervisory" role over the elections watchdog poses a barrier to indyref2 being held on time. 

An arch-Unionist, Gove now has the power to “ride roughshod” over the Electoral Commission which regulates how the UK’s democracy functions.

The National:

To give an idea of the power of the body, in 2014, its preferred question for the independence referendum was the one which eventually went on the ballot.

READ MORE: ‘Dark day for democracy’ as Tories make ‘authoritarian' grab of Electoral Commission

As First Minister, Alex Salmond wanted it to read: “Do you agree Scotland should be an independent country?”

Officials ruled this to be a leading question and it was replaced with: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”

This is known as “testing the question” and is a standard part of planning a referendum.

The SNP-Greens government in Edinburgh now faces the prospect of dealing with an elections watchdog that is not independent of UK ministers.

Concerns have now been raised within the SNP that this could pose yet more obstacles to the Scottish Government’s stated timetable of holding a referendum before the end of 2023.

A party source told The National: “If [Gove] can then say to the Electoral Commission, if the Scottish Government approaches you to test the question: don’t do it.

“He would be going against the Scottish Government. I think that would be serious.

“This has the potential to lead to lots of disputes that end up in the courts.”

Gove could be inclined to do so. In his current roles, he has been much criticised for disregarding the devolution settlement. And he is expected to be involved with any campaign to keep the UK together in the event of another referendum.

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Though he has said in the past he does not want the question of holding indyref2 to end up before a judge, he may have little option given the Tory government’s staunch opposition and the Scottish Government’s insistence that the pro-indy majority of parliamentarians (both in Holyrood and Westminster), as well as the Brexit factor, make the question a radically different one to that posed in 2014.

The National:

Dennis Canavan, a senior figure in Yes Scotland during the 2014 independence debate, warned that the Elections Act “could lead to political interference by the UK Government” with particular implications for indyref2.

He told The National: “The Electoral Commission has responsibility for or influence on various aspects of a referendum, including the wording of the question, the appointment of the chief counting officer, ensuring that the poll is conducted fairly and that political parties and other campaigners adhere to the spending limits.

“If a Unionist minister like Michael Gove is given some supervisory role over the Electoral Commission, it would potentially undermine the credibility of the result and many people would have no confidence in the outcome.”

The National:

While Gove’s department insists the Electoral Commission will remain “operationally independent”, the Scottish Government has said the act “risks interference” with the body’s independence.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government recommended the Scottish Parliament withheld consent from devolved areas of the UK Government’s Elections Bill and on February 1, 2022, the Scottish Parliament agreed not to consent to the Elections Bill.

“The Scottish Government expressed particular concerns over the bill’s powers to set policy for the Electoral Commission, which we believe risks interference with its independence.

“People in Scotland voted last May to elect a Scottish Parliament which has a clear majority in favour of holding an independence referendum.”

A UK Government spokesperson said: “The Electoral Commission will remain operationally independent. The Elections Act will make the Commission more effective and accountable to the UK Parliament.”