A sensible strategy for the Scottish election

The Liberal Democrats should be able to prosper mightily in the Scottish parliamentary election on 6th May. But only if we stop attacking the SNP.

The SNP are unassailable. They are riding at over 55 per cent in the opinion polls, boosted by Nicola Sturgeon’s impressive performance in the Covid-19 emergency. And by next spring, they will be able to surf the wave of anger over Brexit and the expected surge in unemployment.

The Nationalists will blame the Johnson government for all the problems and the lack of resources to tackle them. In that they are quite right and it would be counter-productive for the Lib Dems to take a different tack. It’s misleading and dishonest to suggest the Scottish government can fix our schools and hospitals, and the potholes in the roads, with the austerity budgets they’ve been given by Westminster. Yes, the SNP could put up taxes to raise more funds but not by a significant amount.

The Liberal Democrats should try to become the positive alternative to the SNP. The Conservatives and Labour will find it difficult to do that, the Conservatives because of Brexit and the appalling behaviour of the Johnson government. Labour are still finding their feet after the disastrous Corbyn years.

We need to differentiate ourselves from these Unionist parties. And the way to do that is to change our stance on a second independence referendum. Brexit has been so outrageous that Scots deserve a second chance to re-consider their future. So I think that if the Scottish parliament votes to hold a second referendum (which it probably will) we should welcome it and argue the case for a federal Britain.

So far our leaders have said a second referendum would be a distraction from the vital issues of jobs and the public services. But it need not be, if we can turn it into a debate on the kind of Scotland we want to live in.

Moreover, if we get over our obsession with opposing a second referendum – and neutralise the issue – we can get on with offering an alternative programme for government. We need to out-green the Greens with a radical environmental policy, for example: no more road building, taxes on flying, tax breaks on insulation, laws against plastic, electrification of energy and travel.
We should become the party of de-centralisation, giving powers to local authorities to, for example: raise taxes, make charges, run their local health services and universities and colleges.

And finally, we should be the party that comes up with a solution to our broken elderly care services: for example, a retirement charge.

A lot can happen between now and next May, most of it dependent on the course of the Covid pandemic and its economic fallout. But if we are to remake our world, we need to start thinking about it now.

* John Knox is a member of Edinburgh South Liberal Democrats a retired journalist and a recent council candidate.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • John David Raw 8th Sep '20 - 7:48pm

    That is one of the most constructive articles I have read on the Scottish issue on LDV for a very long time. Thank you, John.

  • Nigel Jones 8th Sep '20 - 8:47pm

    This is in line with what a Lib-dem member told me in the lead up to the 2019 election. She has many friends and relatives in Scotland and herself spent much time there last summer. She predicted Jo would lose her seat because people believed not only were we against a second referendum but fully supportive of the status quo in relation to the union; i.e. that we were too conservative and also lacking sympathy for the many other changes the people in Scotland want to see.

  • John Barrett 8th Sep '20 - 9:14pm

    Well said John.

    I actually submitted a very similar article to Lib-Dem Voice a month or so ago, arguing for the party to change its stance and to support the call for a second referendum, saying that our candidates going into next May’s elections with a policy of denying people a say on their future would be a disaster. People could then campaign for a Federal UK or anything else in the referendum, but if a second referendum happens and we have opposed people having their say, why should anyone listen to our views when the vote comes?

    The article was not published as I was told at the time it would undermine party policy.

  • @ Nigel Jones Interesting to get your take on this Nigel. I’ve lived in Scotland (formerly in Yorkshire & Cumbria) now for 16 years, served in a Council Cabinet (Social Care) and come to the same conclusion.

    Boris Johnson is currently on minus 50% approval and Nicola Sturgeon on plus 83% approval. Nicola is a very different person to Salmond and well respected for her hard work and competence……. a real contrast to the Westminster shambles.

    The Lib Dem penny never dropped that supporting a re-run of one referendum but opposing the re-run of another is illogica. It put off much of the electorate. Add the austerity inflicted in 2010-15 on a society with strong radical egalitarian traditions (some inherited from the old Liberal Party) and the Lib Dems are now a tarnished brand outshone by the Greens at Holyrood. The Scottish Greens are what the Scottish Lib Dems could and should have been.

    I’m almost certain Scotland will go its own way and apply to rejoin the EU…… and then just watch the Nissans of this world shift north. Johnson is a gift that keeps on giving and the Lib Dems appear to have nothing creative or of relevance to say.

  • Good article, John.
    The APNI prospered in the general election by appealing across the nationalist/unionist divide. Maybe we should do the same?

  • @ John Barrett Just seen your post, John. You deserve much better than that.

  • Agree with the two Johns – Knox and Barrett. Such a stance would help to differentiate the Lib Dems from the stale unionism on offer from the Tories and Labour – acknowledging that, due to the changed circumstances arising from Brexit, the Scottish people deserve a further opportunity to determine their own constitutional future – whilst providing a greener, fairer, more liberal and decentralised alternative to the SNP Government at Holyrood. As Alan also observes, perhaps the Scottish Lib Dems could learn a few lessons from the broadly successful strategy adopted by our sister party, the APNI.

  • John Barrett 8th Sep '20 - 10:55pm

    David Raw – the article I wrote ended with,

    “When the party was demanding a second vote on any EU deal, following the Brexit result, and at the same time denying Scots any second vote, it was clearly an unsustainable position then and it is unsustainable into the future.

    It would be much better to support a second referendum in the run up to next May, but to demand that any negotiated deal also be subject to a second vote, to allow the people of Scotland the final say, should they choose Independence in the first vote.

    We could campaign for a Federal UK, or anything else, during that referendum, but if it happens and we have stood firmly against it taking place, what we will say during the referendum campaign will be ridiculed.

    The SNP will then have to negotiate a deal from a very weak position, especially over trade, currency, defence, the economy and border issues.

    We need to reconnect with the Scottish voters again. Denying them a voice is not the way to do it.

  • John Barrett 8th Sep '20 - 10:59pm

    Davied Raw – And it started with,

    “The present position of the Scottish Liberal Democrats is to say ‘No’ to any demand for a second referendum on independence. There is an alternative position that they should consider as a policy in the run up to the next set of Scottish Parliamentary elections.

    As someone who voted Yes to independence (along with an estimated 30% of Lib-Dem supporters) last time, but who thinks that I would likely vote No next time if there was another indyref. I cannot feel anything other than that there needs to be a better policy developed, before next May’s Scottish Parliamentary elections, or the Scottish Lib-Dems will struggle to hold on to their existing few seats at Holyrood.

    Entering a campaign with the message that we will not allow people to have a say on their own future is a political suicide note and it will place all candidates in a no win position, when asked the question, “Why will you not allow Scottish voters a say on their future?” Any answer will be a poor answer and will leave candidates struggling to appeal to voters on other issues.

  • @John Barrett – glad that you’ve managed to get your article published on this LDV thread in the end … and it makes eminent good sense to me. It’s just a pity that I’m not a Scottish elector, but a person of mixed Anglo-Irish and Welsh heritage, currently living in North Yorkshire.

  • To John Barrett.
    Hi John. I find it very interesting that you voted Yes last time but would probably vote No this time. Can you explain why that is? (Full disclosure: I was No and will be again).

  • Simon McGrath 9th Sep '20 - 9:08am

    “Yes, the SNP could put up taxes to raise more funds but not by a significant amount.”
    So how in an independent school would the SNP fund all the extra spending they want ?

  • “So how in an independent school would the SNP fund all the extra spending they want ?”

    And stay within Euro spending constraints or do the usual socialist trick of printing extra money and see the Scottish pound massively devalued (Gordon Brown could pop up as a consultant on how to wreck a currency)… but as Brexit has shown, tales about fiscal ruin are overcome by dreams of taking back power, even if it is only our politicians who are getting the extra power.

    Will the SNP be banning people from holding funds in Sterling or Euros whilst living in Scotland, otherwise as soon as the Scottish pound is issued it will be devalued.

    Do agree that it is odd for the LibDems to support another EU referendum but not a Scot independence referendum.

  • Rif Winfield 9th Sep '20 - 10:11am

    Yes, John is correct. Attacking the SNP is not going to help the LibDems; in fact, it might cost seats. What is needed is a referendum which includes a third option – that of enhanced devolution, leading to a federal (or confederal) structure. The SNP’s campaign for complete independence is vulnerable because even they need to retain some links with the rest of the UK – notably on monetary policy (they want to retain the pound); the LibDems can argue for a structure which keeps Scotland within a loose federal structure but gives the Scottish government full control of everything else.
    What exactly should those remaining links be? I suggest it is:
    (1) common currency (the SNP’s weak point) including Scottish government representation on the Bank of England,
    (2) foreign policy and defence (with the proviso that the Scottish government can ban nuclear weapons from Scottish soil),
    (3) the monarchy (this shouldn’t be an issue, in spite of the SNP’s small but vocal republican minority, as voters as well as all major parties including the SNP see this as easily retainable – as with Canada, New Zealand and Australia).
    A common currency includes some joint working over monetary policy, as well as defined Scottish contribution towards common defence and foreign policy. By giving Scotlnd control over everything else, they become responsible for their own economic policies, and for all shortfalls in their budgets.
    The above will certainly distinguish the LibDem position from the strictly Unionist parties (so please drop the word “Unionist” from SLP policies and substitute “federal”), and will meet the halfway house that most voters seem to espouse.

  • Good to hear some common sense from John Barrett and Rif Winfield instead of the usual SNP knocking stuff churned out by Clifton Terrace.

    Knocking the SNP achieves nothing other than to remind the Scottish electorate of five Coalition austerity years cosying up to the Tories which, believe me, have not been forgotten or forgiven.

    Cheers, Rif, ….. any chance of getting Hornblower on our side ?

  • Regarding another ‘Independence vote’…Such a refendum requires the assent of Westminster but as the SNP would only be breaking the agreement ‘in a very specific and limited way’, if it unilaterally called such a referendum, Sturgeon should go for it…

  • Peter Martin 9th Sep '20 - 11:53am

    “The SNP are unassailable.”

    No, they aren’t. They are a broad based coalition at the moment. If the SNP did achieve independence they’d immediately split into left and right factions with possibly a centrist Lib Dem style party also emerging from that.

    The current strength of the SNP is based on a desire on the part of a large percentage of the Scottish population for independence. But there is no clear majority for any one particular version of what independence would look like. There is a lot of fuzzy thinking. For many, it means Scotland remains a member of the EU under the same terms and conditions the UK enjoyed before Brexit. Somehow Scotland will carry on using the pound, rather than the euro, so that the EU can’t intervene and impose draconian measures of economic austerity.

    In other words a totally unrealistic and contradictory list of requirements. The SNP should be challenged to help dispel such notions and say just what it does want and what it considers realistic.

    A more promising line would be to propose a UK Federation with the Westminster Govt to be replaced by a Federal Government which is as regionally devolved as possible. Belfast, Edinburgh and Cardiff should be just as important centres of Govt as London in this respect.

  • John Marriott 9th Sep '20 - 11:58am

    Wasn’t there another John Knox north of the border?! This one appears to be less fierce. Indeed, he talks a great deal of sense, especially about supporting a second Independence Referendum.

    However, from where I am (and still being married to a lady who is half Scots after 51 years makes me choose my words carefully) you have to hand it to the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon in particular for the way they have conducted themselves during the current pandemic. As I said in an earlier thread, I am very impressed by how the country appears to have changed since I have been visiting it, starting in 1970. I put this down to devolution rather than necessarily the SNP. After all both Labour and the Lib Dems initially had a hand in the project. So, if this is what devolution can do, can we here in Lincolnshire and the East Midlands please have some of it?

  • Sue Sutherland 9th Sep '20 - 12:49pm

    I don’t normally comment on anything to do with Scotland because, despite my married surname, none of my family is Scottish and I don’t live in Scotland so I am in a position of almost total ignorance.
    However, I find it outrageous that John Barrett’s article was banned on the grounds that it undermines party policy. If we can’t have discussions on LDV on those grounds we might as well all pack up and retire from politics. How on earth does policy ever get changed if ideas can’t be expressed?
    Secondly, I believe Johnson has said he won’t agree to holding another referendum. If I were Scots I would be furious that someone like Johnson could deny me the opportunity of a vote. If I were Sturgeon I’d do as Expats says and hold an illegal election, crowdfunding if necessary.
    Surely our Scots friends can’t want to be in the same rat infested camp as Johnson on this?

  • Peter Martin 9th Sep '20 - 1:05pm

    Presumably Lib Dems are dragging their feet on supporting another Scottish referendum because you aren’t too sure you’ll win your essentially Unionist case.

    So how about adopting a more nuanced argument? Say you will support a referendum but only if the precise meaning of independence is clarified and well defined in advance. That way you’ll turn enough Leavers (in the Scottish context) into Remainers to tip the balance. For some, whatever is proposed will go too far. For others, it won’t go far enough.

    It’s what you should have done in the EU referendum except it’s too late for that now.

  • Laurence Cox 9th Sep '20 - 1:35pm

    However, I find it outrageous that John Barrett’s article was banned on the grounds that it undermines party policy. If we can’t have discussions on LDV on those grounds we might as well all pack up and retire from politics. How on earth does policy ever get changed if ideas can’t be expressed?

    I entirely agree with Sue Sutherland here. While Scottish members must lead on issues that relate specifically to Scotland, we should not limit discussion unless the State Party has recently (i.e. since Brexit) come to a considered decision on it; John Barrett’s reason for refusal by LDV does not suggest this.

    I also want to expand on Peter Martin’s point; there wasn’t a clear majority for any specific form of Brexit either, but the Brexiteers were able to be all things to all men so some could emphasise freedom from Brussels, while others talked about a close relationship as if there was no possible tradeoff between them. If they had been forced to specify their form of Brexit before the vote, it would probably been lost. We don’t want to offer the SNP a blank cheque to do whatever they want if there is a ‘Yes’ vote.

  • Paul Barker 9th Sep '20 - 2:58pm

    I have to disagree strongly with this article, the idea that we should not criticise The Scottish Government in a Scottish Election campaign seems to me to be complete surrender. Why not just dissolve The party & have done with it ?

    We oppose The SNP & a second Referendum because we oppose Nationalism; the Scottish version is no better than The English one.

  • @simon mcgrath

    ““Yes, the SNP could put up taxes to raise more funds but not by a significant amount.”
    So how in an independent school would the SNP fund all the extra spending they want ?”

    Well control over taxation and economic policy would be a start, wouldn’t it?

    At the moment all that is devolved is income tax on earned income (excluding the personal allowance and crucially not on savings and dividends), property transaction tax ( stamp duty), air passenger duty, and landfill tax. So no control over wealth taxes ( inheritance tax and capital gains tax), corporation tax, VAT, excise duties and everything else.

    This already limits what any Scottish Government could do for example in setting up and funding a National Care Service.

    And Scotland currently has no macro economic powers and is currently in an economic system which prioritises growth and investment in London and SE England. Even so it manages to be the third most productive part of the UK per capita; imagine what it could if it was fully in control? Instead, the Internal Market Bill is aiming to centralise control more in Westminster.

    @rif winfield

    “(they want to retain the pound)”

    That is not SNP policy.

  • @paul barker

    “We oppose The SNP & a second Referendum because we oppose Nationalism; the Scottish version is no better than The English one.”

    Really? As I see it, Scottish nationalists want Scotland to govern itself, rejoin the EU, increase immigration, ensure that the ECHR remains enshrined in Scots law, incorporate the UN declaration on the rights of the child into Scots law and so on . Is that the programme of English nationalists or indeed British nationalists?

  • John Barrett 9th Sep '20 - 4:56pm

    Tony H – Just before the Scottish referendum I wrote this article which confirmed (at that time) I had not yet made up my mind either way as to how to vote.


    It included this, “As a Liberal Democrat, my natural position favours a federal solution, with Scotland remaining as part of the UK, sharing the same currency, monarchy, defence forces and our international obligations on aid and peace-keeping. However, this is not an option on offer next September. The independence now being offered includes many of my federal preferences, such as sharing the same pension arrangements and currency as the rest of the UK and remaining in the EU, which could well be put at risk by a strong UKIP vote south of the Border in May and an in/out referendum in the following parliament.

    The position is further confused by the fact that the party I joined over 30 years ago bears little resemblance in policy terms to the Liberal Democrats now in government at Westminster. I have not changed my views on opposition to university tuition fees, Trident nuclear missiles and the construction of new nuclear power stations. More recently (and as one who voted with Alistair Carmichael and Alex Salmond against the war in Iraq), the defeat of the government over military action in Syria was something I welcomed. I was stunned to see those party grandees who were at the heart of opposing going to war in Iraq now advocating military action – before inspectors had completed their work. My, how times have changed.

    Unfortunately neither side in the referendum debate has convinced me so far. Many people like me are now undecided on the referendum issue and are waiting for an honest vision for the future of Scotland from both sides.

    My vote is not up for sale – it is there to be won by those who can spell out their vision of a Scotland my grandchildren will want to grow up in.”

    In the end, at that time, and I did not believe the SNP forecasts on the economy, but overall I thought it was worth the risk to vote Yes. Since then, following the EU vote, the Covid pandemic, the economic outlook and more, I think that the risk has increased to the point that it is not worth taking.

  • @john knox

    This looks like the start of a sensible strategy but I expect it is a long way from being accepted:

    A. the recent thread on here on federalism shows how far the party at federal level has any coherent and operable policy on federalism which could actually be advanced in the near future as practical proposition let alone appeal in Scotland. e.g. I could not get any clear answer on what powers the federal government would have or how it would be constituted!

    B. the Scottish Lib Dems at the moment are even refusing to engage in budget discussions with the Scottish Government or to take part in the deliberative democracy exercise of Scottish Citizens Assembly until the SNP renounce their commitment to independence which doesn’t seem very sensible, liberal or democratic!

    C. as I understand it the Lib Dems now accept Brexit and have ruled out any commitment to rejoining the EU which may be sensible politics in England to woo back current Tory voters in leafy England but isn’t in Scotland.

  • @ John Barrett John, I just want to thank you and to say how moved I was when I read your article just now. It expresses exactly my own feelings post 2010 after (at that time) fifty years membership of the party. I especially agree with :

    “The position is further confused by the fact that the party I joined over 30 years ago bears little resemblance in policy terms to the Liberal Democrats now in government at Westminster. I have not changed my views on opposition to university tuition fees, Trident nuclear missiles and the construction of new nuclear power stations”.

    It’s a tough question to ask, but what should we do next ? Politics shouldn’t be a spectator sport.

  • So Lib Dems are in favour of supporting a referendum in Scotland in order to become more popular to the Scots, who are very likely to leave the Union. This policy is likely to be very unpopular in the rest of the UK as they will be seen as a party who are happy to see the UK split apart.

    So, you lose votes in Scotland, as they leave the UK and you lose votes in the rest of the UK due to your policy in Scotland. I really marvel at the Lib Dems sometimes. You really haven’t thought this one out.

  • Clive Sneddon 13th Sep '20 - 10:39pm

    At the moment the UK’s position in the world is not looking good. Those advocating independence for Scotland will have to show the position of an independent Scotland will be better than that of the UK. Meantime those who prefer to work with others will have to show how the UK can be reformed to deliver what Scots and English want. Taking power away from the Westminster Executive is a must. A Federal UK would do that, by having US-style an elected upper house of the four nations where each nation has the same number of seats and an elected lower house where the number of seats was based on population. That implies that the House of Commons would not get its way all the time, restoring the position of the 1689 English Bill of Rights in England, and reversing the Liberal 1911 Parliament Act which has made the dictatorship of the Executive possible, as it was before 1689. Each nation would be free to devolve as much day to day decision making as it saw fit to local authorities, preferably ones able to group together in French-style ‘associations des communes’ for issues which needed to be dealt with over a larger area than that of the individual authorities. If the Scottish Party goes into the 2021 Holyrood elections offering a Federal UK and supporting an Independence referendum on the basis that it would also give Scots the option of choosing a Federal UK, it should also be proposing a full raft of green policies and the Right to Basic Services policies (Right to food, water, warm homes, internet access) which were approved as federal Lib Dem policy in Bournemouth 2019. That would mean we were offering Scots a vision of practical ways of addressing the need to rebuild our economy and avoid climate extinction in the process, while also offering a practical vision of the Union. The most obvious fly in the ointment is that our opponents would quote English Liberal Democrat voices at us who seem to think English Regions should be on the same footing as the four nations purely to balance populations. For me, the prime purpose of a Parliament is to legislate, and I for one do not want different laws in the South of England from those in the North of England, so there has to be an English Parliament to continue to legislate for England.

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