In politics, as in other walks of life, labels matter. By accident or design, for good or for ill, they shape our identity — sometimes in our own eyes, but just as importantly in the eyes of others.
For all of us, our identity starts with where we belong. For my part I am a Borderer; a Scot; and British. Perhaps less fashionably but a long-held principle, I am comfortable that I am a European, too.
Beyond that, I am unashamedly a democrat, a liberal and an internationalist. But last week there was a stir in some parts of the media when it was reported that “Unionist” is not a term that I use to describe myself.
The reaction was a little surprising.
Not only because it was not a new statement or one that sets me apart from others in my party; but also because it is a statement utterly consistent with the “Home Rule” philosophy that the Liberals and now the Liberal Democrats have championed for well over a century.
Whatever the reasons, the heightened interest provides a good opportunity to explain just why “Unionism” is a term with which Liberal Democrats and other Scots opposed to independence increasingly do not identify.
Like every label, “Unionism” has ingrained connotations and invokes particular associations. In a modern context, the term can sound somewhat old-fashioned, a commitment to the status quo and strongly associated with a view of Scotland’s constitution that is not mine or my party’s.
Regardless of those shortcomings, “Unionist” is applied, as easy shorthand, to everyone who wishes Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom. And I am absolutely committed to that remaining the case: as a country, our economy, security and cultural links will be much stronger within the UK, rather than outside.
But beyond the shorthand, the label serves nobody’s purpose other than for those who wish to see no further devolution (or perhaps harbour a desire for less) and those who favour independence and like to use it in the pejorative. For me the concept of “Unionism” does not capture the devolution journey on which we have travelled in recent years.
Those of us who cut our political teeth in the 1980s and 1990s remember the long, cross-party struggle to establish a Scottish Parliament, which was blocked by the avowedly “Unionist” governments of the day. That “Unionism” was a brake on constitutional change and, for many, the association between that word and the top-down, directly ruled, unitary state of yesteryear remains.
You can be sure that the SNP understands this. That’s why Nationalists go out of their way to slap the “Unionist” label on Scotland’s pro-UK parties. They know it brings few upsides for those who wear it. They also hope that since they are, by definition, at one extreme of the constitutional debate, they can mitigate this by neatly, never mind erroneously, lumping everybody else at the other end.
Liberal Democrats want to see a liberal Scotland within a modern UK — a Scotland where power is devolved and authority is dispersed but which is part of a modern Britain where we work together to deal with the fast-changing uncertainties of a globalised world.
As Liberal Democrats we are not alone in arguing for a new blueprint for the UK.
Throughout the country’s constitutional development we have worked with other parties, and those outside politics, to create the Scottish Parliament and develop its powers.
The rich debate about devolution has followed a discernible pattern. First, political parties and others develop their thinking; then they come together to find common ground and purpose. Finally, on the basis of that consensus, legislation creates a new constitutional reality.
So it was with the Constitutional Convention into which we, as Liberals and Liberal Democrats, contributed our thinking on “Home Rule”; similarly with the Calman Commission on tax powers and much else; and now with the Home Rule Commission established by Willie Rennie and led by Sir Menzies Campbell, we are creating the debate about a 21st-century interpretation of Home Rule. But in none of these debates does the term “Unionist” feature — we are beyond that and most opinion in Scotland is, too.
I am proud to be taking through Parliament a Scotland Bill that heralds the largest transfer of tax powers and accountability from London since the creation of the UK. Our vision of Scotland’s future stands between two extremes, separatism and old-fashioned “Unionism”. That centre ground is exactly where the majority of Scots see themselves.
The Scottish Social Attitudes Survey shows that in 2011 support for independence remains at less than a third of voters (despite the SNP’s big election win this year), while poll after poll has shown the number in favour of going back to direct rule from London is a lowly one in ten.
Most people want a devolved Parliament with more powers but within the UK. Liberal Democrats want that and are making that happen.
This article originally appeared in the Times on 14 December 2011