Michael Moore MP writes: I am not your average unionist

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

* Michael Moore is the Liberal Democrat MP for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk.

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15 Comments

  • Its very important that somebody in Scotland offers a positive vision of the future for a united Britain. Home Rule is the best outcome possible and its good that we’re arguing for it.

    I would prefer if we went further, though, and applied that logic to the whole of Britain. Home Rule is the way to answer the West Lothian Question, if it were rolled out over Wales and the English Regions. It seems to me that arguing for a locally accountable, efficient federal solution against the opaque, inefficient unitary state that the UK (and England within the UK) currently is, would deliver the greatest benefits to the country.

  • Allan Heron 21st Dec '11 - 4:28pm

    I’d strongly echo T-J’s comments. It’s all good and well promoting Home Rule for Scotland, but that needs to be done in the context of a reformed United Kingdom. As such, England, Wales and Northern Ireland cannot be excluded from this debate and it’s conclusions.

    The worst of all worlds will be if we continue to seek and get greater powers for Scotland without making also ensuring that reforms also take place in the rest of the United Kingdom to provide stable and longer term governance for the United Kingdom. If this does not happen, then the UK will ultimately break up owing to the absence of this.

    I want to have the prospect of a choice between independences and a reformed United Kingdom. If the latter is foreseeable then that gets my vote. If not, then independence becomes a more attractive and feasible option that an increasingly fractious relationship with the other nations that make up the United Kingdom

  • cynicalHighlander 21st Dec '11 - 6:19pm

    Michael Moore MP writes: I am not your average unionist

    No an underhand Imperialist in having covert meetings with other right wing authoritarian parties paid for out of the Scottish budget.

    FOI request reveals Labour secret meetings with coalition Ministers after SNP victory

    As to the Scotland bill which is designed to harm the Scottish economy anyone proposing this shows that self interest comes before the Scots.

  • Tony Greaves 21st Dec '11 - 7:06pm

    Observing from south of the Border I have been alarmed in recent years by the way that Scottish LDs have allowed themselves to be lumped in with Tories and Labour as “Unionists”. Unionist is the old name for the Tories in Scotland (I remember the banner across the main street in Galashiels during the 1965 by-election which just read “Vote Unionist” – how it came to be cut down one evening is a tale probably still best not told in a public forum! The result of the by-election was of course correctly described as Liberal gain from Unionist).

    The Liberal Party stood for Home Rule within a Federal UK (in the correct meaning of the word Federal). I am delighted that Home Rule and federalism seem to be coming back into vogue. The Claim of Right which Liberals signed was not a Unionist document.

    Tony Greaves

  • Actually Michael, if you believe in Home Rule for Scotland then the term Unionist as applied to you is entirely consistent. Nationalists want an independent Scotland, Unionists want to retain a single UK state. Devolution and Home Rule are just internal rearrangements of local Government within that intact UK.

    The Lib-Dems have been a party for 23 years and only now as the Scottish independence referendum looms is there any movement from the Lib-Dems towards working out what the Lib-Dems actually mean by Home Rule for Scotland beyond following Labour’s lead. The Willie Rennie Commission is hopelessly out of time and will only look at Scotland and not at the rest of the UK. As a matter of interest as the party of Home Rule with 23 years to think about it, have you worked out whether you want a single English Parliament or multiple regional English Parliaments yet?

    If you actually believe that the Scotland Bill, “…heralds the largest transfer of tax powers and accountability from London since the creation of the UK.”, then you should read it. In fiscal terms what it does is keep Scotland’s funding at the Barnett Formula level but changes the 3p in the pound Scottish Variable Rate to a 10p in the pound SVR. If this is what the Lib-Dems think is cutting edge fiscal devolution then it’s no wonder that the idea of the Lib-Dems as anything different from the Labour and Conservative parties is laughable. Have you written that Devo-Max/Home Rule/Independence Lite option for the Scottish independence ballot paper yet? You’ve had 23 years and time is growing short.

    Unionist as a term applied to those in the Labour party, the Conservatives and the Lib-Dems and all others who want to retain a single UK state is entirely accurate and descriptive just as nationalist accurately describes those who want an independent Scotland. What is interesting is that you are trying to avoid the labels and trappings of the cause you are committed to which is the retention of the UK as a single state. You don’t appear to have the courage to proudly call yourself a Unionist.

  • The party that calls itself Unionist, the DUP, are more Ulster nationalist than unionist.
    Anyway I always thought it was the Scottish NATIONAL Party not the Scottish NationalIST Party.
    It commitment to nationalism is somewhat dilute.

  • You can describe yourself with whatever adjective you like, Michael, but until you come up with a concrete proposal for a workable, stable version of “home rule” your chosen adjective will remain meaningless. And you can’t do that, because there isn’t a stable constitutional settlement in between the pre-devolution one and full independence, and I suspect you know it.

    What I find baffling is that, as a liberal, I can see no slam-dunk reason for the Lib Dems’ automatically-assumed, knee-jerk and deeply visceral opposition to Scottish independence. I accept that there are specific arguments or principles that might sway individuals and that they might constitute a majority within the party, but for the whole party to be so completely monolithic in its opposition can only be down to party tribalism. It’s a shame too, because when independence comes (and it is “when” rather than “if”. The SNP only have to win the argument once, the Unionists have to carry on winning it forever), Scotland will need a strong liberal party, and at the moment the behaviour of senior Scottish Lib Dems is doing at least as much to poison the very concept of liberalism north of the border as the coalition with the Tories, which is saying something.

    As an aside, I must say it’s a strange mix of depressing and funny to see two LDs – Michael Moore and Danny Alexander – being the last two people in the country still trying to defend the Scotland Bill, long after everyone else who ever had any association with it realised it had been rumbled for the shady, disingenuous, ugly bit of politiking that it was, and have raced to disown it.

    I just hope the ermine is worth it, Governor General.

  • The time has come for liberals to embrace independence. It has become increasingly clear over the last decade that a federal UK is not on the cards. The English simply aren’t up for it. Why should Scotland wait for its southern neighbours to catch up?

    We have seen over the last year why Scotland needs to have the confidence to make its own way within europe and the world. Scotland needs to have the freedom to exploit its own innovation and skills to drive growth. It needs to be free to develop its own international relations to promote trade and security. The last thing in David Cameron’s mind when he wielded the veto last week would have been Scotland’s interests. Only by having our own seat at the negotiating table will Scotland’s interests be represented. We cannot bring that about within the UK.

    The time has come for liberals to seize the historic opportunity the next few years offer to shape a new independent Scotland. A new nation born with freedom as its watchword. A Scotland whose historic liberal traditions are preserved. A Scotland where freedom from poverty, ignorance and conformity can become reality and not just a slogan.

    The alternative is to, like Michael Moore, cling to the unionism of the past and concede the future to Alex Salmond and his populist and too often, authoritarian form of independence. Sorry Michael, but I know what sort of Scotland I would prefer!

  • @Al

    “The English simply aren’t up for it.”

    Ah, ‘The English’ again.

    Point one, ‘The English’ aren’t a monolithic bloc. They in fact have a lot of internal divisions across regions, rifts that won’t be healed by the centralised unitary state. Devolution to the regions is the answer to much of the economic inequality and social division here, and also answers the West Lothian Question.

    And for a second point, they also haven’t really ever been asked. In 2004 the North East Assembly was rejected by 70-30 against. But then, in 1979, the Welsh Assembly was rejected by 80-20 against. No reason why the questions can’t be revisited. Campaigning well, under someone slightly more charismatic than John Prescott, with a name for the region possibly a bit more rooted in local history and identity, would return a different result.

  • Al
    “The English simply aren’t up for it.”
    And the Welsh and Northern Irish?
    Just how much clout would the Republic of Scotland have in the EU as much as Estonia (no offence to the people of Estonia)?

  • The one thing that has always concerned me is not so much that the “English aren’t up for it” but that Liberal Democrats in England don’t give much indication that they are up for it. This is something we need to embrace as a party throughout the United Kingdom and not just in Scotland. I don’t get the sense there’s any great desire for this.

    Indeed, there was an article recently in Liberator which highlighted some internal party issues which spoke to the same issue. In considering any issues between the role of the English party and the Federal Party, the conclusion was that the English party should be scrapped. That’s a depressing example of the point being missed.

    Unless this happens then the situation outlined by Al then becomes my preference as well.

  • Manfarang
    Posted 22nd December 2011 at 3:44 am | Permalink

    Just how much clout would the Republic of Scotland have in the EU as much as Estonia (no offence to the people of Estonia

    By what stretch of the imagination does Scotland, who has to rely on English Tories to negotiate on her behalf, have more clout in the EU than Estonia, who is a full member in her own right?

  • @Allen

    I think there’s an argument in favour of scrapping the English Party and replacing it with a network of regional parties covering the main English regions. It’d help sort out the campaigning for the MEP’s seats and would provide an obvious vehicle for driving devolution to those regions. As it is, the English Party sits as an uncomfortable middle step between the full Federal Party and the local parties, not really having anything to add that the Federal one doesn’t already.

    @Ivan

    I’ve always found it somewhat comical when you nationalists use language like that. It reads as if you’re regarding clumsy geographic and socio-economic umbrella-terms almost as people, with rights and feelings and so on.

  • Sorry, what sort of language? Using ‘she’ to refer to a country? I do that for ships too, so what? It might be slightly archaic in English, but it’s grammatically useful and since the two other languages I have to speak regularly both feature grammatical gender it feels comfortable to me. There’s certainly nothing Fruedian going on, if that’s what you’re getting at.

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