On reviewing coverage of yesterday's announcement by Michael Moore about the the proposed referendum on Scottish independence, there seems to be a view propagating that a referendum carried out in accordance with his proposals, by means of an order under section 30 of the Scotland Act 1998, would be "binding" in a way that a referendum carried out by the Scottish government without such an order would not, so that the section 30 order approach is to be preferred.
In my view that is wrong. Neither approach would be "binding" in any legal sense; and each would be "binding" in the real world of politics.
It is possible to have legally binding referenda. To be legally binding, once the referendum result is known there has to be an answer to the question "What next?" which has ascertainable legal consequences which are capable (if need be) of enforcement in a court of law. Last year's referendum on whether the Welsh Assembly should obtain legislative powers under Part 4 of the Government of Wales Act 2006, similar to those of the Scottish parliament, was binding for example. By contrast the pre-legislative referendum on the Scottish parliament held in 1997 was not. The successful outcome in that referendum placed a political commitment on the incoming Labour government to consult on and prepare legislation for such a parliament, which it duly did in the form of the Scotland Act 1998. It conferred a political mandate, and imposed a political duty, to prepare something (a Bill) which would if and when enacted have a legal effect.
The same is true of the proposed referendum on independence. If successful it would impose a political but not legal commitment on the UK government to negotiate terms for independence with the Scottish government. The terms, once negotiated, would require a further enactment by the UK parliament dissolving the union in accordance with the agreed terms. The sanction, were the UK government to fail to enter into such negotiations, would be for the Scottish government to make a unilateral declaration of independence.
A section 30 order does not therefore make the referendum any more or less binding. What an order would do is remove any doubt about whether the Scottish parliament and government are within their powers to hold this (politically but not legally binding) referendum.