Covid-19 is not the only malaise

This week the East Lothian Party held our AGM via Zoom and even before the event we knew we had a problem. The Convenor, me as Vice Convenor, our Treasurer and our Secretary had given notice that we were not prepared to stand again.

The three long time office bearers felt they had done their bit but two of them also shared my disillusionment, as a relatively new member, with the policies, direction and leadership of the Scottish Party.

We were aware that with these resignations the East Lothian Party would fold, so I wrote to our membership of over 100 asking for volunteers who might step in to avoid the crisis. No-one stepped forward. I view that fact as evidence of a wider ennui in the membership, requiring the re-invigoration of fresh policies and passion from the top.
Trying to give a lead in a very small way, the East Lothian Executive suggested moderating the party’s outright opposition to a second Scottish Referendum under any circumstances. The amendment we moved at the autumn conference would have done that without actively promoting a referendum and certainly not backing independence. That nod to democracy, we felt, would set us apart from the Tory and Labour positions.

Perhaps predictably, the leadership succeeded in persuading conference to reject the amendment by, we thought, employing a highly misleading portrayal of its intentions. Nonetheless, approximately 18% of attendees backed the amendment

In addressing conference, I had reminded members of the adage usually attributed to Albert Einstein: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” That’s what we think the party is doing and if that isn’t bad enough, it’s not even doing it very well.

A few days ago, Boris Johnson was reported as dismissing devolution as a disaster and Tony Blair’s biggest mistake. The story surfaced overnight on Wednesday but the Scotsman, and many other titles had time to report it. Radio 4’s “Today” programme headlined the story and featured several Tories struggling to defend the PM, making up what they thought he meant. One of them, Malcolm Rifkind, let slip that there is now no doubt that the future of the UK must be a Federal one.

What a gift!

But where were the Liberal Democrats, arch proponents of Devolution and Federalism? Edinburgh issued a press release around 10.30am and I saw Alistair Carmichael on the BBC News channel perhaps as late as 11.45am. It was an excellent contribution but by that time, the news agenda was moving on. Eye off the ball?

When was the last time you heard a Lib Dem praising the achievements of devolution? In August I drew the attention of Scotsman readers to an article in the Economist which identified “left behind Britain” – Boris’s red wall – as inhabiting an area south of Hadrian’s Wall and a line between the Severn estuary and the Wash. It noted that in terms of goods and services (GVA) Scotland is only outperformed by London and a narrow area of the South East; and measured by gross domestic product (GDP) only London and Manchester outperform Scotland.

With these facts, I asked how the Lib Dems, along with Labour and the Tories, have failed to convince Scottish voters that devolution clearly works and allowed the pipe dream of independence to prosper.
That is the other malaise and unfortunately vaccinations will not be forthcoming to fix that – we have to look to Willie Rennie and our MSPs and MPs.

Oh! The East Lothian Party, you ask? To maintain the local party, this arch critic was elected as Convenor. From January, my brief is to keep the party afloat and to reserve the bulk of our funds for when we feel we have a better chance of making electoral progress. On that basis, the Treasurer and Secretary accepted nominations and were elected.

Our motto: This too shall pass.

* Kit Fraser is Convener Elect of East Lothian Liberal Democrats

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13 Comments

  • Stuart Crawford 21st Nov '20 - 5:58pm

    An accurate reflection of how many of us feel in Scotland, well written by a professional ex BBC journalist and producer. Doing more of the same just won’t cut it!

  • Jane Ann Liston 21st Nov '20 - 6:14pm

    The last thing we need is a damaging referendum on separation – have we forgotten the harm the 2014 campaign did to the country? That’s why we have formally adopted the federal model, to avoid the chaos which would ensue after a vote for separation.

  • Peter Martin 21st Nov '20 - 6:19pm

    ” Boris Johnson was reported as dismissing devolution as a disaster…..”

    I don’t like to admit it but he’s probably right! It’s making the mistake of trying to head off a desire for independence by allowing a measure of “Home Rule”. It didn’t work in Ireland so why expect it to work in Scotland?

    “But where were the Liberal Democrats, arch proponents of Devolution and Federalism?”

    The implication is that Devolution and Federalism are similar. This not the case. The creation of devolved governments in Scotland, NI and Wales treated the residents of those countries differently from the rest of the UK. They are considered a stepping stone to full independence by the Nationalists.

    Many countries have Federal Systems but don’t have any significant separatist parties.

    Hardly anyone from outside Australia would know the name of a single State Premier whereas they would perhaps know the name Scott Morrison. This is because he leads the actual government of Australia. The same with the US President and leaders of the individual States. So if we had a Federal System it would likely be the same here. That’s why we should probably do it.

  • Peter Chambers 21st Nov '20 - 8:42pm

    Did Ed Davey recommend an “Adjustment Period” ?
    Where is the media coverage of that?

  • Nigel Jones 21st Nov '20 - 9:41pm

    I hope this article prompts some thinking by the leadership of our party. The criticism that there is a major difference between devolution and federalism is valid, but there is an urgent need for Ed Davey’s listening to go alongside some rethinking about how we engage with people outside the party in Scotland. We need our local parties in Scotland to discover what kind of relationship people there want with the rest of the UK within a United Kingdom. In spite of the polls, i see hints that when it comes to the crunch, many of them are hesitant about their ability to flourish as a completely independent nation, but hate the UK government.
    I know very little about Scotland, but one of our local members in North Staffordshire who spends much time with friends and relatives there, told me a few years ago that many had drifted away from Lib-dem support because they felt our party took too much interest in what goes on in the UK Parliament and not enough about what goes on in their locality and in Scotland generally. Our strong words against independence confirmed that belief, even if this was a misunderstanding.
    With a small Parliamentary team and limited resources, is our leadership spending too much time and effort on parliamentary matters and not enough in Scotland and the regions of England engaging with people’s concerns closer to home ?

  • Well done Kit Fraser for sticking with the party in East Lothian. I’m sure events will prove him right that we should not oppose the inevitable second independence referendum. Instead we should us it as an opportunity to campaign for a federal Britain. And he’s right that devolution has been a valuable step towards full home rule. It’s all about decentralisation. And by the way, we can multi-task ….argue for constitutional change at the same time as advancing our green agenda, our European hopes and all the other things we stand for.

  • Helen Dudden 22nd Nov '20 - 8:10am

    Johnson’s remarks were not constructive. I think this will be his downfall. An unwillingness to listen. Most relationships, are built on the ability to listen.
    We all are entitled to our own opinion on a subject, with the present virus, again very narrow views.
    If Scotland wants to become independent, then I feel a referendum after things settle could do no harm. Johnson’s caustic approach does little to solve the situation.

  • Rif Winfield 22nd Nov '20 - 11:22am

    It is correct to say that federalism and devolution are two very different systems of government. Devotion can always be changed, or even abolished, by whim and dictat of a majority government in Westminster (leaving aside the political uproar which would arise, I’m talking only of the legal constraints). Without the entrenchment of the different powers and responsibilities of different levels of government, anything else is alterable and thus constitutes a temporary “fix”. Our “unwritten” constitution can at any time be re-interpreted to meet the partisan views of a government with a majority of seats in Westminster. That is why a federal system can only be achieved in conjunction with a written constitution.

    The reason why LibDems are as bad as any other ‘unionist’ party is that the party has failed to grasp the nettle about what they mean by federalism, because – frankly – there is little agreement inside the party about what they want to see. Until LibDems can formulate and agree internally on what they want, separatism is bound to advance because it faces no coherent alternative.

  • I wonder if the key point isn’t whether we support or oppose Scotland leaving the UK, but whether we can (strongly) oppose the things that make independence seem attractive? The handling of Brexit is at the top of the list, but also a tendency to treat devolution as if Scotland is somehow second rate. One of the things that screams at me is that the present government’s idea of devolution in England is daft. The last Labour government had it right when it proposed devolution to English regions of comparable size — that means devolved powers can be the same and removes a sense of Scotland being “less” because it has a smaller population than England.

    Reversing Brexit and meaningful devolution are both very consistent with LibDem values, and, taken together, would reduce the need for Scotland to become independent.

  • Nigel Lindsay 22nd Nov '20 - 11:58am

    Of course a federal (or confederal) state is what Liberals want, and we have campaigned for it over many decades. But it is no nearer. If it is not going to be achieved the question in Scotland then becomes, what other structure will best deliver Liberal outcomes? The party leadership here has robustly argued the case for the existing union with all its faults as the default position. Others have argued – equally cogently in my view – that if union with the EU is more important than union with England; that if we want to be free of being ruled most of the time by Conservative governments that we have never elected; and that if we wish the agility of government that seems to be a feature of smallish north European countries, then independence is more likely than unionism to deliver Liberal outcomes.

    I am not taking sides in this argument. I am simply pointing out that if federalism is not available, there are two alternatives, and that people of intelligence and goodwill are to be found on each side of that debate.

    The difficulty that arises is this. If we accept the view that there must not be another referendum, then we automatically revert to the first of these alternatives (union with England). Those who take the opposite view can only achieve what they want if there is another referendum. (Another referendum would of course also lead to continuing union with England, if that is what voters choose.) So a referendum permits either of the default non-federal options to be on the table. Refusing a referendum closes down debate by making one of the alternatives impossible. That is no way to win an argument!

  • Tony Greaves 22nd Nov '20 - 6:06pm

    I would suggest, as an Albaphile but not a Scot, that people look very hard at the “two referendum” issue. If a referendum takes place on (the principle of) independence there would then have to be negotiations. If you think that negotiating with the EU is hard, think about negotiations between the UK government and a Sturgeon-led SNP triumphant from a big victory in the Holyrood elections.

    Surely there is at present no clear idea of what the results of those negotiations would be? Does the SNP actually have a clear blueprint for what they are asking for? And do they realise that the future relationship between Scotland and England – whatever it is to be – has to involve an England in which the issues are hardly ever thought about or discussed by anyone?

    So the case for a second referendum to endorse or reject any negotiated deal seems to me to be unanswerable. (It might also need a referendum in England depending on its contents?) And it would at least be a distinctive LD policy!

  • Peter Martin 23rd Nov '20 - 2:50pm

    @ Tony Greaves,

    ‘I would suggest, as an Albaphile but not a Scot, that people look very hard at the “two referendum” issue.’

    Do you remember that Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty was once described as a “trigger”. Presumably this was to prevent countries doing what you’re suggesting they should. This is to declare they are leaving, negotiate improved terms for themselves and later decide they don’t want to leave after all.

    I have to say this is how it should be. If Scotland wants to leave then the Scots should leave. End of story. There’s no need to take up too much of Mrs Sturgeon’s time fussing about the details of exactly how they’ll leave. Once they have left, or are in the process of leaving, we can negotiate FTA’s and other relationships which are going to be necessary as neighbours.

    We need to get back to the ‘trigger’ principle.

  • @ Peter Martin Not being picky or anything, but just so you know in case you ever get stopped on the M8, Ms Sturgeon is actually Mrs Murrell.

    On the main thread, it’s tough for Lib Dems in Scotland just now given the EU supporting Scottish Greens are ahead in the regional list and likely to get more MSP’s again ……. Kit Fraser makes some valid points.

    In their ideal world the Scottish Lib Dems want to rejoin the EU, but have shackled themselves to a Brexit Union ‘run’ (after a fashion) by Calamity Johnson. All the major penalties of 2010-15 without any of the minor advantages.

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