Against comfort blanket constitutionalism

At Scottish Liberal Democrat Conference, I committed a cardinal liberal offence. I voted against a pro-federalism motion, moved by Robert Brown and Lord Purvis. I opposed in sorrow and anger at the Party’s stasis on the constitutional question. I was also annoyed that attempts some of us made to secure a more robust debate at Conference on federalism, were rebuffed by Conference Committee. We were made to feel that the party bureaucracy did not want a real clash of ideas for Conference to resolve democratically.

The motion didn’t take practical steps towards advancing federalism any further than the Party already had. Its tone, if anything, made federalism more difficult to advance. Siobhan Mathers was right when she said in the debate that Lib Dems are excessively high-minded, believing they had more influence than was the reality on further devolution. Though the Campbell Commission reported first, it was outflanked by the Tory proposals on critical areas like welfare. The Party seems reluctant just to admit that, whatever the proximate cause, we lost our radical edge. We did not adapt to the shifting constitutional landscape even before the independence referendum.

On restructuring the Union towards federalism, the motion merely calls for a UK-wide Constitutional Convention. We already endorsed the need for this at Autumn Conference in 2012. Lord Purvis has already acted upon that at Westminster. Re-iteration requires no Conference motion. The only new “action” was to “seek a mandate” for federalism at Holyrood’s Elections. This means nothing. Unless we win May’s elections, something not even the most delusional Scottish Lib Dem believes, surely the result is the electorate rejecting a “mandate for federalism”?

We are at a T-junction. Fail to choose a path and the result is perpetual irrelevance. The first path? Grasp federalism by both hands: agitate furiously with leadership and attention to detail to put it seriously on the UK constitutional agenda. The second path? Conclude that federalism has no serious prospect of advancing irrespective of our actions. We must then adapt to the new Scotland, jettisoning federalism in favour of a relationship of near full autonomy for Scotland, possibly sharing characteristics of the Basque Country or the Quebec proposal for “sovereignty association”. Any middle ground, to believe in federalism but do nothing to advance it, is purgatory. The electoral and constitutional result is death by a thousand cuts.

One amendment we submitted attempted to give the motion specific practical steps. They would help our leadership to build on the Campbell Commission. That Commission proposed a new “Treaty of Union” but didn’t explain what this new federal settlement would actually look like. It lacked a draft federal constitution, spelling out the relationship envisaged between the different nations of the United Kingdom and the Westminster institutions.

Other political parties, whether opponents or federal and sister organisations, won’t take federalism seriously unless we have concrete proposals with which they can reasonably be expected to engage. We proposed a working group to draft a codified federal constitution for the UK. We could then present it to other Holyrood parties, major civic society groups, and the Welsh and Federal Lib Dems for real and robust debate. Such a draft would need to explain how we overcome the common structural obstacles pled against a federal United Kingdom.

Some obstacles are obvious. We need a way of “quarantining” English domestic governance from UK-wide constitutional reform until there is meaningful consensus from the English as to whether they want a Parliament of their own, regional assemblies, or something else. What is plainly clear is that federalism cannot work for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland if the English situation is unresolved. How we engage England and English Lib Dems is critical.

Fiscal devolution is, in many respects, antithetical to fiscal federalism. Scotland’s block-grant still depends-on English departmental spending. The structure of tax devolution, even under the new Smith proposals, is no more “federalism friendly” than its predecessors. The Campbell Commission recognised this problem, saying some sort of needs-based formula might be a solution. Alas, we have precious little indication what that formula would look like. We need detailed principles for how it assesses “need” for the respective nations. The working-group needed to develop this, expanding on the Holtham and Silk Reports on Welsh devolution. They examined precisely this question in more detail than Calman or Smith ever did.

For federalism to have “one last push” the Lib Dems must go at it whole-heartedly in action, not just in words. This motion was a comfort blanket.

Our second amendment related to more subtle problems: how to be taken seriously on the constitutional question and in Scottish politics more generally. This motion was terse, almost passive aggressive, in describing the SNP. It called them a “threat”, showing little effort to empathise with or understand the SNP’s liberal fellow-travellers. It was precisely how not to do diplomacy. If you want to make friends and win influence, you don’t start with a hostile dismissal of opposing negotiators.

Polling between 5-7% in Scotland inevitably means we must work with other parties, even those with whom we have historically found difficult to work. The motion fell into a classic trap: failing seriously to contemplate engagement with the Scottish National Party in attempting to build a “movement” or demand for federalism in Scotland. The SNP are the most effectively marshalled political movement against the inequities of the British constitution in a generation. They are the main show in town right now.

Yet the movers still seemed to think the way to win-over Scottish voters to liberalism and federalism was to identify first and foremost as a Unionist party preferring to work with Labour or the Tories rather than “the Nats”. The electoral maths, if nothing else, demonstrates how misguided this approach is.

Liberals in Scotland didn’t start voting Labour or Tory out of discontent at the constitutional predicament. They vote SNP. They see cumbersome, out-of-touch, unresponsive, and unreformable political institutions. They think the only way for a fresh start is independence and/or to vote SNP. Despite the SNP’s record at Holyrood, they see politics through the prism of that question. To them, Liberal Democrats are Unionist first and liberal second. We failed to show them we share their concerns about how Britain is governed. We have more in common with “liberal Nats” than authoritarian or conservative Unionists. Yet we seem totally unwilling to engage with them emotionally out of a belief that they are unpersuadable.

Unless we engage these people soon, and I think there are still “soft” SNP supporters, their support will harden. It will be nearly impossible in 2020-21 to win them back. We’ll find ourselves fighting over an ever-diminishing pool of Unionist voters, who see us as the third-wheel in their movement. We won’t just fail to build mass-support in Scotland for federalism. We’ll be ignored on domestic matters like education, healthcare and justice. Willie Rennie’s appeal to independence voters risks appearing hollow: it doesn’t seem to involve any give on our part to bridge the empathy gap.

Scotland isn’t crying out for another political party to say the SNP is bad. They want a party that empathises with the concerns of those across Scotland, regardless of how they voted last September. They want a party that knows how to engage them with the heart and the head: it needs a clear reform agenda as an alternative to the SNP. This means more than just “not doing what the SNP are doing”.

Look to the recent success of Canada’s Liberals. They didn’t beat Stephen Harper’s Conservatives by simply saying he did a bad job. Trudeau had distinctive alternatives, detailed policies, and radical ideas for how to change Canada. Ask yourself honestly, what are the Scottish Liberal Democrats’ alternative big ideas? We are increasingly talking amongst ourselves, and the constitutional question is but one of many examples on this. I want us to change Scotland, not just to talk about it.

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  • Andrew Chamberlain 30th Oct '15 - 1:20pm

    To my mind, our main constitutional focus should be on the fact that the Scottish Parliament is far too powerful. We should produce radical proposals on devolving power to councils and attempt to shift the terms of debate.

    From the point of view of the Scottish party (and Scottish voters), federalism is almost irrelevant now. We already have a huge amount of devolved power and have barely used it. The only reason that Scotland is still stuck on the constitutional question is that the unionist parties haven’t advanced any kind of alternative to the SNP’s policy agenda for voters to grapple with.

    As soon as the terms of debate move on, the SNP’s vote share will collapse, just as it did in the 2014 Euros. At the moment we’re handing them victories by being too timid on our domestic policy agenda and allowing them to keep the focus on the constitution.

  • Graeme, please note that the East of England regional conference passed an Emergency Motion – written by me – calling specifically for the party to begin developing proposals for a federal constitution. One that can be put as part of a general election manifesto and one that calls for a regional devolution within England as federal units alongside the celtic nations. It calls for symmetric devolution (although acknowledges that the historic legal system in Scotland is not likely to be mirrored by various devolved legal systems across England and so pragmatically accepts that a federal settlement will never by *fully* symmetric). The motion also calls for City Regions and Devolution On Demand to be overseen and made accountable such that unilateral decisions by some areas to form devolved bodies does not prejudice the future abilities of other regions to do likewise. The motion also calls for the party to develop either a preferred regional model for England or a set of regional models to be debated, or for a clear roadmap of the process (e.g. referendums etc) by which the boundaries and sizes of the regions should be determined.

    Also note that the North West England region passed a similar motion last weekend – thanks to Bill Winlow of Lancashire – based on my wording (but shorter).

    Both motions were passed almost unanimously.

    Clearly there is an appetite in party for us to GET A MOVE ON and develop something concrete rather than just calling for a Convention but having nothing actually to put on the table at such a convention. The Lib Dems must have a vision for the UK and have something to show for their decades of apparently believing in federalism.

    I’ve said a number of times in different places on LibDemVoice that it beggars belief the Lib Dems have not got any real policies on federalism so it seems that us ordinary members have got to do the work and get on with it. This is precisely what I intend to do.

    I will be rewritting my motion in order to present it at the first available federal conference. I ask all Lib Dem members who would like to support it and help me write it to get in touch with me, whether they have specific ideas for how England should be structured, or as to what scope of detail should be included in a policy motion on such a substantial topic.

  • Just to add to my above comment and to follow on from the comments about the Unionist parties’ responses to the SNP:

    It is clear that none of the Unionist parties had *any* sort of response to the Scottish Referendum or the SNP’s meteoric success. They were left scrabbling for solutions in the form of a “vow” made at the eleventh hour and written on the back of an envelope by Gordon Brown. Where was the pre-emptive policy that would have shown the way forward had their been either a Yes or No result? Where were the carefully considered solutions to the West Lothian Question in the face of increasing Scottish devolution?

    There were none. It beggars belief that all the Unionist parties were left standing around contemplating their navels whilst the SNP capitalised on everything. It beggars belief that the Tories’ only answer is to bodge the House of Commons with EVEL through Standing Orders – a move of the most intransigent stupidity it could hasten the end of the Union. It beggars the belief that pro-feredal parties did not have a model for a new UK constitution to throw back at the Tories in the face of this outrageous manouevre….

    Blimey, how worse can it get?

  • Robin Bennett 31st Oct '15 - 1:55am

    A lack of realism continues to pervade the Scottish party hierarchy..

    The party promotes a federal structure, knowing this is an impossible dream while there is a Tory government at Westminster. Enthusiasm in any Labour government after 2020 is unlikely, and worthy motions passed at Lib Dem meetings in England will not set the heather on fire..

    The party has lost most of its former supporters to the SNP. It must win them back if it is to play a part in Holyrood and in the political life of the nation. Instead, the party’s leadership just wants the paramount issue in Scottish politics – the constitution – to go away. By refusing to define Home Rule in a federal structure, it is sending its activists naked into the Holyrood election campaign.

    . By refusing to define Home Rule in a federal structure it is sending its activists naked into the Holyrood election campaign

  • Robin Bennett 31st Oct '15 - 2:02am

    Sorry, delete last paragraph. Didn’t have to say it twice.

  • Robin, you’re being a little inconsistent in that you say that it’s an impossible dream to promote federalism but also that the party is mad to bury its head in the sand over the issue of the constitution, especially in Scotland. I think “realism” should be defined as “giving your ideals real policies to back them up” because we can never really know whether the British electorate would be inspired by a political party which had a thorough forward-looking vision for a new UK until there is actually such a policy. Realism dictates that you simply have to stir the pot if you want to know what the soup tastes like.

    You appear to be agreeing that we need to get on and have firm federal policies but say it’s pointless for the regional parties to give a strong message to the federal party that we need to get a move on???

  • Andrew Chamberlain 31st Oct '15 - 1:22pm

    Banging on about the constitution will not win us back supporters from the SNP. Look at Canada – In Quebec they voted Liberal this time, whereas two elections ago the province was completely dominated by Quebec separatists. This didn’t happen because pro-independence Quebecers were suddenly convinced by federalism, it happened because the Liberals managed to present themselves as the best way to get the Conservative government out and that was the basis on which people in Quebec voted.

    Concentrating on the constitution is at best a waste of our time and at worst actively unhelpful as it puts focus on an issue where about a third of otherwise liberal-minded voters in Scotland disagree with the Lib Dems.

  • Robin Bennett 31st Oct '15 - 4:03pm


    From here in Scotland, the problem is timing. Far be it from me to pour cold water on the federalist movement elsewhere, but we will not win votes from our former supporters in the 2016 Holyrood election if all we can offer constitution-wise is “Federalism”, a term which prompts limited interest or indeed comprehension in the electorate. In itself, it implies no more powers for Holyrood than those contained in the Smith Commission report.

    Past polling indicates that devo max – defined in Grimondian terms as devolving everything except defence, foreign affairs and the wider issues of economic policy linked to a common currency and common trade policies – would be the winning option if it were offered in a Referendum. I hesitate to follow George Robertson, who is the subject of eternal derision for having once declared that a Scottish Assembly would “kill Nationalism stone dead”, but dare to think that there would then be a loss of appetite for Independence.

    Therein would lie the seeds of a Lib Dem revival, without which Scottish public life will be the poorer. Lib Dems should go for it or, as Graeme points out, we’ll find ourselves fighting over an ever-diminishing pool of Unionist voters.

  • I’m not sure which policy attracts Scottish voters more – independence or anti-austerity. It could well be anti-austerity. The debate on independence can go on for years but anti-austerity positioning must be paramount and ‘right now’. The best way to fight anti-austerity is with the SNP and [now] with Labour too. I wouldn’t bet on winning votes by standing against the anti-austerity proposals of a combined SNP/Labour drive against the Tories.

    We were on this drive before the coalition years and must be back on the drive against austerity. Sorry Nick, but sitting behind Dave in the HoC, appearing to support him, has finished you in every part of UK. To be back, LDs must be open to make the running against Tory austerity. Everything the Tories are trying to do, to force all the payments to the deficit on to the poor, must be stopped. We must join the anti-austerity drive with other parties or we will never recover.

  • Robin, if you can’t inspire people by the term federalism and explain how this provides a better, more symmetric United Kingdom with proper devolved powers then you’ve got a problem. What you’re saying, though, is that people want “devo-max”. We all understand that. Yet this is not mutually exclusive with federalism. Quite the opposite. It would be entirely up to us to define what powers are reserved for Westminster and what is devolved to the regions or celtic nations. A Federal UK could allow for devo-max for Scotland and would, if it were tackled with a common-sense approach, allow exactly the same for every other federal unit, the result of which would be a symmetrically devolved UK which would survive much more happily as a unit than any bodge considered by the Tories – the pime example being EVEL which is creating two classes of MPs and creates division, not symmetry, within the Union.

    It’s actually our job to persuade all UK voters that we need a federal UK and that it is precisely the only sensible solution that will (a) keep the Scots with the rest of the UK (b) treat us all as equals (c) take powers away from Westminster and put them where they should be.

  • The article is correct. The Scottish Conference was broadly good, but every time the agenda drifted on to SNP-facing issues it did become very passive aggressive. Willie Rennie’s move towards persuading liberal-minded Yes voters to lend us their votes next year was a start, but it fell flat because it didn’t really make much of an effort to engage with these people.

    How to get around the SNP is one of the hardest questions in politics right now, and I don’t pretend to have the answer to it. They make me angry and that will always cloud judgement and impede communication. I can only imagine how much more of an effect they have on people who are actually trying to run rival political organisations right now. My sense is that this anger is coming through in every attempt to reach out. From inside the room, even as someone who is clearly not still (or ever was) in orbit of the SNP, I didn’t feel reached out to as a liberal minded yes voter, I felt talked down at.

    Tim Farron’s speech to the same conference later in the day struck a very different tone. In refusing to join in with the attacks on Mr Corbyn, describing the man as ‘a gent’. Farron took some of the poison out of that whole situation. In laying out specific problems with the SNP’s record but at the same time calling on Sturgeon to join the pro-European Union campaign, the message seemed to be that we as a party don’t agree with the SNP on a lot of things and actually don’t think much of them by and large, but that we can still be relied on to sit down around a table and work it out.

    As for the constitutional question itself, I honestly do not see the appeal in the incredibly complex bill that resulted from the Smith Commission, reserving this and that power, delegating that tax save for the exception of such-and-such condition and so on… I gave the thing a read last night, and my conclusion is that the Scottish electorate will have a hard time telling whether the SNP’s record is rubbish because they’re rubbish, or because they weren’t allowed to be anything but rubbish.

    We need to turn the idea of devolution upside down. Power shouldn’t exist in a heap at Westminster and trickle down at the whim of the UK government. It should exist at the community level wherever possible, and be passed upwards where necessary. Robin mentioned Grimond – he had it right. And if that means an asymmetric UK, so be it.

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