Haggis, Neeps and Liberalism special: Dramatic independence referendum duel in London and Edinburgh

It’s been a torrid few days in Scottish politics.

Since the SNP won an overall majority in the Holyrood elections last year, there has been much talk of the independence referendum they pledged to have in the second half of their term. They have been tight-lipped on their plans.

There has been uncertainty on the legality of such a referendum. Even respected legal blogger Lallands Peat Worrier, himself an SNP supporter, has expressed that the terms of the Scotland Act may not allow it. And amid all the bluster of this blog post from senior SNP strategist Stephen Noon is a recognition that a referendum run on the current arrangements would be open to challenge.

It is very difficult to imagine a Labour Secretary of State for Scotland offering to help the SNP out by giving them the power to hold the referendum. Relations between the two Governments between 2007 and 2010 ranged between hostile and toxic. In contrast, the Coalition Government and Liberal Democrat Secretary of State for Scotland Michael Moore have sought to meet regularly with Holyrood counterparts.

It’s with this background that  Nick Clegg visited Scotland last Friday and upset the SNP who, according to the Scotsman,  complained he’d called them “extremist”. In fact, he positioned the Liberal Democrat position as mainstream, and the positions held by both Conservative Party and SNP at opposite extremes:

All the evidence suggests that is the mainstream of opinion and the extremists are those who either think that we need to yank Scotland out of the United Kingdom tomorrow, or those who say there should be no further change at all.

Then the next day, David Cameron told Andrew Marr that he was going to “settle” the confusion around the referendum on independence. It is difficult to overstate the incendiary effect of an English Tory Prime Minister making these sorts of comments in Scotland, especially when his advisers then brief about imposing an 18 month time limit for the Scottish Government to hold the Referendum. The Guardian reported that  Nick Clegg  intervened to make sure that this time limit idea never actually saw the light of day.

Michael Moore made a statement to the Commons yesterday outlining the UK Government’s belief that the Scottish Government did not have the power to hold the referendum. Rather than dictate terms, he launched a consultation, open to all Scots to have their say on how they felt the referendum should be run. His tone was conciliatory, as Hansard tells us:

Given the clear legal problem that exists, we want to work with the Scottish Government to provide the answer. This is not about the mandates of Scotland’s two Governments, or about who calls the shots. It is about empowering the people of Scotland to participate in a legal referendum. That means that the UK Government are willing to give the Scottish Parliament the powers to hold a referendum, which it cannot otherwise do legally. As well as being legal, however, a referendum must be fair and decisive.

Alex Massie in the Spectator described Moore’s statement as “clear, composed, sensible and modest”. Further praise came from Alan Cochrane in the Telegraph:

Mr Moore made a good fist of things yesterday. His tone was conciliatory, measured, reasonable and, above all, it presented what looked like a cast-iron legal case for allowing Mr Salmond to conduct a binding referendum

There was more drama to come, though.

While Moore was still in the Commons, in what can only be seen as a deliberate attempt at upstaging him, Alex Salmond appeared on various news outlets to announce that he intended to hold the referendum in the Autumn of 2014. This seems to have caught the SNP MPs still in the Commons by surprise and showed little regard for the Parliament to which he is accountable and who might have expected to hear such news first.

Timing is one of three main differences of opinion on the running of the referendum which will need to be resolved. The UK Government fears lack of inward investment into Scotland if the poll is delayed. And a cynic might argue that if it were held next year, the rosy Britishness from the Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics will still be hanging around. That same cynic might argue that in 2014, Scottishness would be at its premium following the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn and the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.

Second is the oversight of the Referendum. Every other election in the UK is overseen by the Electoral Commission. The SNP want to set up their own body for this poll, because it questions the neutrality of a body set up by Westminster. Of course, the neutrality of a new body could also doubted.

Thirdly, the SNP want to give 16 and 17 year olds the vote in this referendum.  Moore said yesterday that he wanted the franchise to be the same that elected the Scottish Government.

Less controversial appears to be nature and number of questions. All four main parties now seem agreed on a straight yes/no to independence question. There is concern that this may kill off any further devolution of powers if there is no so called “devo max” option which would allow Scotland to be entirely responsible for raising and spending its own money while remaining part of the Union.

There is a long way to go on the road to the referendum. It will require all parties to conduct themselves with civility and mutual respect, but I expect an agreement to be reached. I certaily don’t want to see my taxes being used to fight legal challenges when it’s so clearly unnecessary. It’s clear, though, that events of the last few days showcase both the good sense and influence of the Liberal Democrats within the Coalition.

* Caron Lindsay is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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17 Comments

  • “Thirdly, the SNP want to give 16 and 17 year olds the vote in this referendum. Moore said yesterday that he wanted the franchise to be the same that elected the Scottish Government.”

    Isn’t it official Lib Dem policy to lower the voting age to 16?

    If so, what’s Moore playing at? Is he toeing a Tory line that contradicts that of his own party out of loyalty to the coalition, or is he simply being hypocritical off his own back because he fears the cohort in question might be more likely to favour independence and so he’d rather they didn’t get a say?

  • Andrew Suffield 11th Jan '12 - 5:45pm

    Isn’t it official Lib Dem policy to lower the voting age to 16?

    There is no inconsistency between “lower the voting age to 16″ and “make the franchise for the referendum the same as for an election”.

  • If the Scottish want independence then the Scottish should be independent. Devo max should also be an option on the ballot paper, I get the impression that many Scots want further devolution without actual independence.

    To be honest, I think that the Scottish Lib Dems should probably adopt a neutral position on independence, that they will not actively promote unionism or independence but will be happy to support a future SNP government in getting an independence referendum. (This obviously assumes that Scotland remains in the union after this one!)

  • Ivan,

    “If so, what’s Moore playing at?”

    He is insisting that voting in Scotland be subject to the same rules as it is in the rest of the United Kingdom. As Liberal Democrats, we would like those rules to be different, but we believe in a universal playing field.

    Now, here are a couple of awkward questions:

    (1) What exactly is “devo max”? We are told that it refers to Holyrood having control over everything except foreign affairs and defence. But is that possible? Could Scotland have a different economic policy from the rest of the UK, while sharing the same currency? Would Scottish MPs still sit at Westminster (you bet the Tories wouldn’t want that). Would Scotland be allowed to become a tax haven, like the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man?

    (2) What if a referendum showed a majority for independence, but large majorities against it in certain regions (say Shetland and the Borders). Would those regions be allowed to remain within the United Kingdom, in much the same way that Northern Ireland was?

  • This isn’t difficult, genuine liberals would support the right of small nations to self determine. Personally,if I were in Scotland I would be for independence, and then work to ensure that the new state was a liberal one, as in fairness, it certainy will be. The previous LD stance, of opposing even a referenum was as illiberal frankly, as it was inept, and the wipe out almost deserved. For England and Wales, there’s nothing to fear from change here.

  • Richard Swales 12th Jan '12 - 12:13pm

    We are told that it is difficult to state the incendiary effect of an English Tory UK prime minister telling Scots what to do. Fine and understandable if Scottish people say they don’t feel UK-ish, but then please don’t claim you can make a viable nation state including them then. If the strategy for making them feel comfortable in the UK is that all thhe English people have to hide or be quiet then your union is holed beneath the waterline anyway.

    In reply to the poster in the comments to the previous Scotland article, it is exactly by feeling like that and talking like that, yet telling pollsters and perhaps later voting to keep the union because they think 5 million is too few people that seem embarrassing to me sitting here in Slovakia, also with 5 million people.

    In reply to this suggestion that everything except defence and foreign policy should be the different, you can do that after independence. Czech Rep and Slovakia share embassies and suggestions to remerge the air force surface from time to time.

  • For what it’s worth I believe that the timing of the vote (within this parliament) is for the Scots. However, I also believe that there should be one question “Independence yes or no”….

    If Scotland decides yes, then good luck to them; if, no things stay as they are with no further concessions. The worst of all worlds will be the extra options which will result in the final death of the Union by “a thousand cuts”…The extra questions of ‘more devolution, etc” are only to ensure Alex Salmon a ‘heads I win,Tails you lose’ situation.

  • Richard, if Slovakia is a good proxy for Scotland, and in terms of population it is, then the Independence referendum is also a referendum on whether to switch from the British Pound to the Euro. The Slovaks found that they didn’t have the scale to operate their own currency.

  • Richard Swales 12th Jan '12 - 11:24pm

    @Alastair, but Slovakia exports the same share of it’s GDP to just one country, Germany, than the UK does to the entire EEA. Getting plugged in to German companies’ (particularly in the car industry) supply chains is a major part of economic strategy for companies here and removing exchange rate risks is a significant advantage for Slovakia over other rivals for that kind of investment.

    I haven’t seen the figures but I suspect that for a newly independent Scotland, the only country with which they would have such comparably close trade ties would be the rest of the UK, which would be a reason to keep a 1 to 1 rate with the UK pound, not join the euro. Also the pound is generally more stable against the dollar than the euro is against the dollar, so it’s a better currency for Scotland for the high-comparative-advantage trade it does with the rest of the world rather than its low-comparative-advantage trade with Europe.

    Of course it is up to them.

  • @Richard – you are right about currency risks but Czechs still run the Koruna and there are plenty of manufacturers there, and 2nd and 3rd tier suppliers. Plenty of this activity in Hungary too. Its not just German companies either, when I was there 10 years ago Japanese and French auto suppliers were building new plants. The question I would have is what kind of economic boost of this nature can Scotland expect? Throwing off English shackles isn’t exactly the same as emerging from the shadow Soviet communism. If Scotland is going to try to get more inward investment by doing an Ireland, cutting various taxes, then England should have the right to tell the Scots to go use their own currency. In this respect – its not just “up to them”. If Salmond intends to keep the British Pound but surrender Scottish influence over it then to me that is not independence.

  • Richard Swales 13th Jan '12 - 11:05am

    If you have a free currency* you can’t really stop other people from using it. Montenegro uses the euro as it’s currency, for example, without direct permission from Brussels and Scotland would be able to keep the pound, or issue and back it’s own pound at a 1 to 1 rate. The UK (of England, Wales and NI) would be entitled to take no account of Scottish needs when determining economic policy however.

    If we were to go with DevoMax would there also be a referendum in England about the consitutional change?

    *There exist or existed currencies which are not meant to be taken in or out of the originating country in any significant amounts, the pound is not like that.

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