Could Scottish Independence save the Scot Lib Dems?

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There’s no denying that the first 20 years of the 21st Century have hardly been auspicious for the Liberal Democrats in general and the Scot Lib Dems in particular. North of the Border the numbers of our elected representatives has been in rapid decline; in the period 2000 – 2020, numbers of our MSPs in the Scottish Parliament have dropped from 17 in the first Parliament to five now; at Westminster, in roughly the same timeframe, our MPs have reduced from 10 to four; whilst in Scotland’s local authorities the number of Lib Dem councillors has atrophied from 170 in 2003 to 67 today.

That’s an approximate reduction of two thirds overall which, however you might try to dress it up, cannot be celebrated as progress; quite the opposite. The reasons  why this might be so are many and varied and I have written about some of them before, so now is not the time to beat that particular drum again. Suffice to say that continuing to do more of the same, in terms of electioneering and campaigning, and expecting different results falls very neatly into Einstein’s definition of madness. Radical change in strategy and tactics is called for, and it can’t come a moment too soon.

What hope for the future, then? The prospects for the Holyrood elections next May – if Covid-19 allows them to take place – aren’t looking too rosy for the party. Multiple successive polls have put the party at between 6 – 8% or the projected vote, in many cases a lesser proportion than the Scottish Green party. Below the Greens for goodness sake! How are the mighty fallen. Most commentators predict a healthy majority for the SNP and their Green allies, although the only poll that matters is the election vote itself, and politics is a fickle mistress. We may be surprised yet.

However, let us assume that the predictions are right and that SNP victory is quickly followed by demands for a second independence referendum. Our party, as you will no doubt be well aware, confirmed its opposition to this at our recent conference, a decision I consider to be electorally suicidal, but democracy is democracy and we have to live with it. We’ll know in May whether it was the correct decision or not.

The paradox is that it could be that very Scottish independence to which the party is viscerally opposed might be the saviour of the Scot Lib Dems. My hypothesis here is based on the assumption, of course, that the SNP do indeed triumph next May and we remain in the doldrums. The SNP, on the crest of the wave, call for the second independence referendum. And, whether by change of heart by the Westminster government or by coercion through guilt, that plebiscite is granted, what should we do?

Obviously, as a pro-Union party, the natural inclination would likely be to oppose both the holding of the vote and independence per se. But looking more selfishly, perhaps, to the Lib Dems’ future health as a political party we might be better taking the opposite view. If Scotland does become independent I don’t anticipate we will just close up shop and go home, will we? The party will have to adapt to the new political environment.

And that’s where it gets interesting. By winning independence the SNP would have lost its USP and become just another party on the centre/left of centre axis, competing with others in that part of the political spectrum, presumably Labour and the Lib Dems. With the tedious second referendum wrangling over, the Lib Dems would be presented with an opportunity to regain lost ground and win back those voters lost in the independence debate. With the right leadership and sensible policies, the party would sink or swim on its own merits away from the constitutional debate that has dominated Scottish political discourse for the past decades.

I know it’s all speculative, but in such circumstances I think we could do better than our current total of five MSPs, don’t you?

* Stuart Crawford is a freelance journalist of several years (and many publications) standing and a party member.

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20 Comments

  • I cant comment on the details of Scottish Politics but the basics are the same everywhere. If you believe that Independence is right then campaign for it, if you thinks its wrong then oppose it.
    Going along with temporary majorities because it looks easier never works.

  • I suppose if independence were to happen, then when the inevitable devastation to the quality of life sinks in, then people might turn back to us. But only if we are honest about how damaging it would be.

    The idea that we should campaign for something that is objectively damaging in the hope of gaining a few votes, is disgraceful. It’s the kind of party before country stuff we are used to from the Tories with Brexit.

    It’s an angle proposed by nationalists who want us to support nationalism. They are the ones who have been campaigning for and rejoicing in our electoral failings. It’s the kind of policy guaranteed to reduce our MSP count – something the nationalists will celebrate.

  • Stuart Kellett 26th Nov '20 - 1:18pm

    I’m not a big advocate for independence, Scotland has a surge in support for a separation from the UK, we have to offer an alternative and Federalism seems quite acceptable to many I have spoken to, we have to have a reply to the electorate who are asking for a change from Westminster rule, let’s offer Federalism as our alternative and take the fight to the SNP and not continually having knee jerk reactions.

  • The Lib Dems have been suggesting Federalism for a very long time. I’m in favour of it. I don’t see it as being at all likely.

    In the event that independence happens I’ll be able to vote Lib Dem in Scotland again. I’ll look forward to that.

  • @Andrew Ducker
    Our problem with Federalism is that the English Liberal Democrats are not in favour of it.
    They won’t commit to either a single English Parliament or to Regional Parliaments.

  • Jenny Barnes 26th Nov '20 - 2:36pm

    There must be a case for the English or the rUK to have a vote on Scottish Independence as well. There are certainly arguments in favour from the other side. If Scotland no longer wants to be part of the UK, it would be absurd to try to keep them.

  • Stuart makes several telling points in his piece, the most pertinent, 6 months from the Scottish election is, and I paraphrase him and Einstein – If you keep on doing what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you always got. We have to change and look like we’ve changed – but that doesn’t mean abandoning Federalism as a core goal. Stuart was clearly hypothesising an Independent Scotland….not supporting it. But our core principal is going to win few votes in a Scottish election where most people think we already have a version of that here. Standing up for local communities and aiming to devolve power further down from Edinburgh is surely the way to go – it is what we believe in and reflects our belief in greater democracy. Unlike lining up with the Tories and Labour to block a 2nd referendum in any circumstances.

  • George Thomas 26th Nov '20 - 4:15pm

    Three committees within Wales’ Senedd today released a report that confirms that Internal Market Bill imposes UK government’s will on devolved nations and favours the largest member of the UK’s interests over others; and that the devolved nations are being asked to give consent but even if withheld this will likely be disregarded as the case with EU withdrawal act. The Senedd also voted in to affirm their believe that staying part of a reformed UK is in Wales’ best interests earlier this year but at some point the reforms being made by this government means that is no longer true and, given that Greens are also polling equal to Lib Dems as 5th place in Wales, this article may be written about Wales in the near future too unless a different (more responsible) approach is taken at UK level.

  • Daniel Walker 26th Nov '20 - 4:15pm

    @Alan Jelfs “They won’t commit to either a single English Parliament or to Regional Parliaments.

    Interestingly, we in the Y&H Lib Dems did adopt two motions on this topic at our recent AGM (pp31-36)

  • Given the current situation with Covid, I’m curious to know whether Colonel Crawford still advicates the policy of Scotland maintaining ballistic missiles, but with biological warheads, as he did when he was a defence adviser to the SNP Some years ago.

  • Citation The Herald 5 January, 1999.

  • Quite, Mr Raws.

    I read the name and thought, “Two Stuart Crawfords?” I thought he was the retired Army Colonel who used to be the SNP Defence go-to chap until he came up with the biological weapons wheeze that had him cold-shouldered by the Nationalists.
    Well I never!
    A member of the Liberal Democrats! You live and learn, don’t you?

  • Ronald Murray 27th Nov '20 - 8:00am

    Having been a member of the Liberals and now Lib Dems all my adult life. I despair at the present situation. We have lost good members of the party to the SNP and Greens. As has been said we push federalism but only Scots wing of the party seems to agree. Have we lost the way? My late materna highlandl grandfather would be horrified how things have gone he served many years in Birmingham and the highlands as a councillor. We were the party of Home and Local Rule. We must have a tenable position now to survive under this appalling tax dodging Tory government.

  • The Scottish Libdems have declined since the coalition destroyed trust in the party, it has nothing to do with independence.

    However I agree our UK and Scottish strategy of mire is the same is a recipe for the same poor results. I note Starmer has humiliated Corbyn to emphasise that Labour has changed. That is strategic politics.

  • Peter Hirst 27th Nov '20 - 5:13pm

    The Scottish people are entitled to another referendum if the SNP win a majority next May. This is a democratic truth and no manner of political thinking can refute it. It must however be conducted fairly and transparently. I think there should be a mandatory threshold as those not voting can be thought of as supporting the status quo. So if the majority of the electorate or even better those entitled to be on the electoral register want it in a fair election, so be it. I don’t know whether the Scottish Lib Dems would flourish either way though campaigning on other issues would seem beneficial to them.

  • I doubt that Scottish independence will save the Lib Dems.

    I long ago developed a hypothesis that if PR were ever introduced it would lead to a temporary increase in MPs but the longer-term result would be strongly negative for Lib Dems.

    My reasoning was that the advantage of FPTP for the two dominant parties is that it raises the barriers to entry making it very difficult for challenger parties to break through. So, the big parties are effectively protected from competition even if they are pretty incompetent and that, of course, is why they support FPTP.

    But a side effect of the limited competition is that it creates a more or less permanent bloc of ‘none-of-the-above’ votes, perhaps 12-15% of the electorate. And that bloc was always the largest section of Lib Dem support as long as they remained the main challenger party. Add, say, 8% voting for a ragbag of reasons and you get to the low 20s. With a skilful campaign giving a further lift from tactical voting by supporters of one or other of the big parties voting to deny their main rival the seat, and you can win a few seats.

    This constellation of forces delivered enough success for Lib Dems to permit the belief that ‘one more heave’ might work but by the same token it reduced their appetite to lift their game in any really substantive way – it was always just more tactics, never strategy. And, as Sun Tzu said, “Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat”.

    I never imagined that such a scenario would actually play out when I developed this hypothesis but I fact it’s happened twice – once with Scottish elections and once with European election – and each time the result was the same, initial gains followed by big losses.

    So, my conclusion is that if they are to succeed the Lib Dems need a root and branch rethink of how they run themselves and what they are trying to do – organisation and narrative.

    I am encouraged that for the first time in years I detect a substantial body of opinion that does want change. And I know from experience in big business that, once the bullet is bitten, change can happen astonishingly fast and effectively.

  • Leekliberal 28th Nov '20 - 2:52pm

    If Scotland becomes independent and joins the EU, they will presumably be required to have a hard border with England with customs posts and the usual assortment of lorry holding parks. Just when you thought that things couldn’t be worse……..

  • @ Leek Liberal. If it happens watch out for firms such as Nissan upping sticks and moving 100 miles north up the A1to Scotland.

  • Yes, a hard border and also the Euro.

    The former would be a huge economic hit to both sides. The latter would not, AFAIK, be required immediately not least because bank and building society software would likely require substantial upgrades. On the other hand, I suspect the pound will collapse big time so probably Scotland will dump it ASAP.

    Of course, Scotland has the majority of the UK’s fishing EEZ so one of the EU’s conditions would presumably be that fisheries stay as they were when the UK was a member. Oh dear!

    As David says, I suspect some firms from England would consider moving to an independent Scotland, but they might equally well move to France or wherever. With the UK outside the EU there is nothing to stop them offering grants to ease the move. So, no surprise to read that about three years ago Macron was wining and dining the Chairmen of the big car companies with plants in the UK.

    My guess is that if we crash out with no deal, our economy will take such a hit that there will be no option but to come to a deal on whatever terms the EU offers – presumably including the current fishing regime.

    Interesting times.

  • Peter Martin 30th Nov '20 - 8:05pm

    Scottish independence?

    Who is advocating that? Not the SNP! They want to hand the powers that still reside in London over to Brussels. Some would say Frankfurt or Berlin. The UK Tories are far from ideal but, in Thatchertite terms, are a bunch of wets compared with the dry-as-a-bone ordoliberals on the Germanic right.

    Better the devil you know?

    Good luck with the euro and keeping your National Debt down to 60% of GDP and your deficits to below 3% of GDP.

    Scotland wasn’t meeting those targets even before the Covid 19 outbreak.

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