Former Liberal Democrat MP John Barrett says he’s voting Yes in the Independence Referendum

imageWay back in January, former Edinburgh West Liberal Democrat MP John Barrett made a very intelligent contribution to the debate on independence in an article for the Scotsman. He said his vote was still up for grabs. He was fed up with the banality of the official campaigns and highly critical of the Liberal Democrats for participating in Better Together.

Well, his vote isn’t up for grabs any more as he’s decided that he’s voting yes on 18th September and explains why in today’s Edinburgh Evening News.  Even though I reach a different conclusion on the question of independence, I can’t find much to disagree with in what he has to say about the quality of the two official campaigns:

I believe neither side is telling the whole truth and that the facts about the future of an independent Scotland, or one remaining in the UK, are not as clear as either side likes to make out. There are risks with either option and if either, or at least one side, would admit to this, they would gain more credibility in the public’s eyes.

Alex Salmond claiming he will get everything he wants in every single set of complex negotiations after a Yes vote is something I am sure that even he does not believe.

On the other side, the No campaign claiming that Scotland’s future use of the pound or membership of the EU will be something they will not support is equally hard to believe.

Not much, but there is something I find puzzling. It’s not the No campaign who will be making the decisions about whether the rest of the UK enters into a currency union with an independent Scotland. And recent research shows that almost 2/3 of English voters oppose it. To dismiss that risk would be reckless to say the least. As for the EU, the issue isn’t whether Scotland would get in, but on what terms. We just don’t know if we’d have the opt-outs that we have now and it may well cost us more.

As well as the failings in the official campaign, he talked about the shortcomings of the SNP’s assertions on independence and attacked the record of the Coalition Government:

I am no fan of the SNP and their many un-costed proposals in their white paper. Sadly for me, I have equally been less than impressed by the Better Together campaign and the actions of the coalition government on a range of issues, from tuition fees to welfare reform proposals and tax cuts for the very wealthy. I have not changed where I stand on a number of issues, such as opposition to the Trident missile system or nuclear power stations. I continue to support free access to higher education and the NHS and believe we must work for a fairer, more just society. The question for me is how best to get there.

Something’s missing from the cast, here, though. While he slates the coalition’s record (without mentioning some of the good things it’s done such as a fairer pensions system, better consumer rights and shared parental leave, he leaves out the record of the Scottish Government. These are the people who have turned a blind eye to armed police being put on the streets of the Highlands as well as children and many adults being subject to indiscriminate and unregulated stop and search powers. Yes, they have done some good stuff as well, like equal marriage and (after much Liberal Democrat campaigning), extended childcare and extended entitlement to free school meals) but they have become increasingly illiberal and comfortable with power. If the coalition’s record is relevant, so, surely,  is the SNP Government’s.

He then goes on to look at the sort of Scotland he wants to see and argues that only a Yes vote will deliver it:

A Yes vote may still be the unlikely result, but it will give us what we need – the opportunity to deliver the change that would be ­forever lost with a No vote.I am now less concerned with the future electoral prospects of my own party and more concerned about the country I would like to see future generations grow up in. I want to see a fairer country at home, with access to a high-quality health and education system for all, a compassionate and considerate country which cares for those less able; a greener country and an internationalist country.

I now see the only chance of that Scotland being delivered if the people of Scotland are prepared to work together to deliver it. I am.

The thing is, I want all of these things for the whole of the UK and I see Scotland’s future participation in the UK as an important factor in delivering them. I don’t want fairness and compassion to stop at Gretna. I care as much about poverty in Manchester or Southampton as I do in Glasgow. As for free education for all, voting for the SNP’s independence plans means free university tuition in Scotland but, almost certainly illegally, charging students from other parts of the UK. The implication in his article that free access to the NHS is somehow under threat south of the border is also inaccurate.

He clearly thinks that independence will create the sort of country he wants to see, but he hasn’t actually explained why. He acknowledges that it’s a massive risk. The thing is, if we take that risk and he’s wrong, there’s no way back. If we vote no, there’s the immediate prospect of the new powers in the Scotland Act of 2012 which come into force over the next few years and additional commitment from all 3 pro-UK parties to further powers. And, let’s face it, if we don’t get them, there will be another independence referendum at some point in the future.

I have always had a lot of time for John and I will continue to agree with him on lots of things, especially welfare reform and Trident, which I consider to be an outrageous waste of money. On independence, though, we will have to respectfully go our separate ways.  The UK may not be perfect, but for me it’s the safest option for Scotland by a long way. Scotland also makes the UK better, too.  The SNP’s vision of independence is to me like pushing Humpty Dumpty off the wall, sticking him back together again and thinking he’d be as strong.

In just 4 weeks’ time, we’ll find out which one of us the Scottish people agree with.




* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Sounds like he’s indulging in a heady mix of wishful thinking and opportunism on a wide range of issues.

    The risks and unknowns for iScotland are there, whether he wants to see them or not, and they are much greater than those of remaining inside the Union.

  • Alex Dingwall 21st Aug '14 - 7:42pm

    I think John, like many others, has not come to his decision lightly and should be respected for the judgement he has reached just as I respect those who have decided to vote no.

    However I would have preferred if the story of his decision and reasons had just been laid out on its own on this site and the comments section used for views rather than the line by line rebuttal of John’s position by an editor.

  • John Barrett 21st Aug '14 - 7:58pm

    Alex – One of the reasons I did not submit the article to Lib-Dem voice was exactly because I feared that might happen.

  • Liberal Neil 21st Aug '14 - 8:05pm

    I think John’s argument is a reasonable one, and more honest and coherent than the Yes campaign’s.

  • I hardly put it past the English population to support a whole raft of regressive, vengeful anti-Scottish measures if the Yes vote should win (which, I need hardly repeat, is extremely unlikely). But it is the task of politicians to restrain the people from rash and hasty decisions which will ultimately harm them. The real question in that case would be whether we have such politicians, or if they are all determined to dance to the UKIP tune for short-term popularity gain. We have already seen that the English appear more interested in keeping the Scots in the Union with threats and bullying than by offering them something of value that would prove that they are better off in than out.

    I am beginning to think that the best possible result might come about if the Scots were to vote Yes, then immediately kick the SNP out of government, and come back to the bargaining table to negotiate, not a disunion but a New Union based on democratic principles, which could benefit all of its members.

  • Norman Fraser 21st Aug '14 - 8:50pm

    I actually think it’s pretty clear why John has decided to vote Yes. Like many Scots he has looked at what the current coalition government has done and has seen that much of it is not in the interest of Scots or, at the very least, represents a direction in which few Scots would spontaneously wish to travel. I myself cannot stomach the attack on the welfare state which the coalition has pursued.

    Back in 1997 we voted for devolution to counter such unwelcome attentions from the predominantly English Government that foisted the poll tax on us. However, now we see that the Barnett Formula is the weapon of choice. On issues such as legal aid, policing, the court service and the NHS decisions are forced on us automatically by spending decisions made on domestic policy for England and Wales over which we have no control.

    A federal solution might have been a way forward, however that is not an option on the ballot paper and a No vote is no guarantee of a future fix.

    It is clear that John has looked at the options and, like I have, concluded that the only definite likelihood of effecting suitable change is to vote Yes.

  • Perhaps John thinks that iScotland may give him a better chance of being elected, I sincerely hope the Scottish remain with us not because they could not go alone but because I would miss them

    I do feel however if they divorce us that the joint bank account and key to the front door should be handed back I.e no currency union and a border control

    I would loose a Border if they got accepted into the EU before the separation date.

    It seems that rUL is blamed for bullying but who is saying they may not take their share of debt and holds a gun to our heads with trident I am not a fan of trident but it’s not something for only 5 million of us to decide

    Good luck John with your political stance

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 21st Aug '14 - 9:06pm

    John, if you had written the article for LDV, it would have been a standalone piece:-). But I suspect you wrote it for the Evening News to reach an audience of voters who know you well.

  • Lin Macmillan 21st Aug '14 - 9:41pm

    I too have a great deal of respect for John Barrett, and I know that he has thought long and hard before he has come to his decision. I have gone through the same process, and come to the same conclusion, partly for many of the same reasons as John. I have to confess also, that there is a bit of me that is letting my heart rule my head. I make no apologies for this – there’s a lot of baggage involved which would be boring to post. Suffice to say I too will be “breaking ranks” and voting Yes, and I hope that those that know me, and John Barrett, and others who have taken this decision will respect our views, as we will respect the views of those who continue to support the No campaign.

  • John Barrett 21st Aug '14 - 9:48pm

    Allan – you have got it completely wrong. If I had wanted to be elected anywhere I would have remained at Westminster where I had the second largest Lib-Dem majority in the UK after Charles Kennedy and suspect that (like my successor did) I would have held on to the seat. It is only a pity that in many other seats where MPs stood down that very few were held on to by our party. I have no wish to stand for election in Scotland.

    Caron – The Evening News article published was a much edited down version of a far longer article which they asked me to write and many of the issues you mentioned were included in the longer version.

    I accept there are some positive things the coalition has done, like raising tax thresholds, which were not included in the article – but you must also accept there are also many other things that have happened under the coalition which have not been what either of us would like to see our party supporting.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 21st Aug '14 - 10:02pm

    John, you just need to read anything I’ve written on welfare reform or immigration to know that I agree with you on that. But what about my point about the Scottish Government’s record? They have done stuff that makes my liberal collies wobble.

    I’d really love to have read that longer article.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 21st Aug '14 - 10:06pm

    Lin, I respect you and John both. We’re all liberals and we have to come to our own conclusions on this very important vote. Because I have so much respect for you, I would really love to hear more about your reasoning. I can’t for a second imagine I would consider any of it boring.

  • Norman Fraser 21st Aug '14 - 10:46pm

    Caron, the Liberal Democrats in government have done a good number of things that make my “liberal collies wobble”. In fact, they’ve done a considerable amount of downright evil.

  • I don’t respect Alex Salmond and I abhor nationalism as a narrow minded credentials that across the world has wrecked misery and havoc wherever its ugly head has reared. So accept my thinly veiled apologies in advance to all those who believe that Scottish separation is a good idea but for me you have crossed the DIVIDE that I for one cannot respect.

  • Here we are within “touching distance” of getting Home Rule with the prospect of a federal UK to follow when ultimately England will eventuality “see the light” and we have to put up with this kind of nonsense from those who should know better. I’m fed up of those who exercise their own version of liberal democracy that continues to undermine those charged with helping deliver out avowed aims. No wonder Nick Clegg looks like a defeated man with support like that. Shame on all who throw the first stone!

  • Galen, I’m as ‘no’ as they come when it comes to this referendum but you’re simply not on.

    People like John, Lin and Denis are good liberals and people of the highest integrity. They haven’t “crossed a divide”, there is no “shame”. They have simply come to a different conclusion to us. You’re allowed to do that in a democracy.

    I’ve read John’s article. Personally, I didn’t find it at all convincing but I know he has wrestled with this, will have given it a huge amount of thought and will have reached his decision in good faith.

    Mercifully, we have less than four weeks of this left. Whatever happens, we all need to move on and do so together with mutual respect.

  • John Barrett 22nd Aug '14 - 10:59am

    I agree with Kevin

  • Denis Mollison 22nd Aug '14 - 11:00am

    Galen –

    We were “within touching distance of Home Rule” in 1913 and we’re not there yet.

    If there’s a No vote it will an interesting and difficult struggle to get anywhere near federalism. The Unionist parties, and sadly I include ourselves, are not offering anything like that much. Trying to be optimistic, we may find allies in the English backlash who very reasonably do not want Scottish MPs voting on English issues.

  • John Barrett 22nd Aug '14 - 11:22am

    It’s worth adding that I have had a number of phone calls, texts and emails from Lib-Dem friends, including one former Edinburgh City Council colleague, who is leafleting for the Yes campaign. They have all said they are voting Yes.

    So whatever the result on the 18th, there will be a number of Liberal Democrats who will have voted different ways and who will need to work together after that. I have been told that Willie Rennie accepts that this is the case and if it is good enough for Willie, it should not be too difficult for the rest of us.

    As Kevin says, whatever way each one of us votes on this issue, we should respect the fact that everyone has the right to vote for what they believe is right.

    There are also many other Lib-Dem policy issues and areas where party members have had differences and healthy debates over many years. This one maybe more important than some, but there is no line that people have crossed which makes then any less Liberal.

  • ‘No’ voters need to remember 2011. Any vote against a proffered change will be read as a message that everything is perfectly fine and nothing needs to change. Is that what you want to say? And ‘Yes’ voters must be careful not to get so caught up in the story that they lose the ability or will to engage constructively after the vote. Odds are that independence isn’t going to happen, but the vote will still cause enough of a hooha that if the political will can be found, something positive can still be achieved. That something being a federal solution.

    If we end up leaning too hard and independence does happen, well, I’ve given that a lot of thought and its not exactly the end of the world. English people won’t want to be in a currency union, but that is pretty much the only aspect of the breakup negotiations that its reasonable to expect England to put to the popular vote and is a daft idea anyway. The English, or at least the few who are likely to be doing the negotiating, aren’t so petty as to try and block Scottish EU membership, and as long as that stays the rest of the solutions to the Scottish question can be worked out in reasonable safety.

  • T-J so often gives voice to my own opinions. I really would have liked to have seen

  • [sorry computer glitch] …. I would really liked to have seen a Liberal Democrat position that aimed to achieve a similar position for Scotland irrespective of whether the vote goes NO or YES; i.e. an end result that is either a devo max or independence min.

  • Tony Dawson 22nd Aug '14 - 1:22pm

    Having lived in the West of Scotland, I consider myself far more ‘British’ than ‘English’. If I still lived there, I should, however, be minded to vote ‘Yes’.

    I am no great fan of Alex Salmond but there are people in senior positions within the Liberal Democrats that I am considerable less a fan of.

    I cannot see a ‘UK MInus Scotland’ existing in a unitary form for long. If it happens (and I still doubt whether it will) there would be a very strong push towards regional government with proper devolved powers.

  • Liberal Neil 22nd Aug '14 - 3:03pm

    @ David-1 – I don’t think there will be any momentum among the English for policies based on regressive or vengeful policies against the Scots.

    At present the general mood is pretty indifferent. What will happen is that if people currently on the electoral roll in Scotland decide they want to become an independent country, subsequent decisions will be taken based on what is in the best interests of the remainder of the UK. Some of these, inevitably, will not be in the best interest of Scotland.

    But then I expect the government of an independent Scotland will take a similar approach, it’s what governments do.

    Overall my expectation (and maybe, as a McGregor, I’m biased in this) is that an independent Scotland and the remainder of the UK will continue as generally friendly neighbours with lots of economic and cultural ties but with occasional differences of policy.

  • A very reasonable assessment of the situation by John Barrett. I agree that it’s much more measured and honest than either of the official campaigns, neither of which has been prepared to admit to any disadvantages to their favoured constitutional position.

    @Caron: “I don’t want fairness and compassion to stop at Gretna. I care as much about poverty in Manchester or Southampton as I do in Glasgow.”

    That’s admirable. Can I take you would advocate, in theory, the eventual expansion of the UK’s borders to include continental Europe? I assume you care as much about poverty in Montebourg and Santander as in Manchester and Southampton, and don’t want fairness and compassion to stop at Land’s End.

  • Galen Milne 23rd Aug '14 - 8:21am

    Reference the Federal solution. When the likes of Gordon Brown allies himself alongside Murdo Fraser advocating a federal UK post a NO vote then I’m in no doubt the momentum will gather in the regions of England when they recognise the benefits of “self determination” relating to local autonomy re health care etc. A YES voter in my humble opinion (that’s ruffled a few feathers) is they are playing with fire and I’m not going to countenance their opinion at this juncture with so much at stake for future generations north and south of the border. I’ve along sat on the terraces at Hampden and felt the hatred some “fans” exhibit against the Auld Enemy but it’s not so vile as that when the Old Firm meet and a YES VOTE won’t cure that “disease” in the West of Scotland society. I’m an optimist by nature otherwise I’d never have stayed the distance when surrounded by so many “feint hearts” in the past 4 years.

  • Douglas McLellan 23rd Aug '14 - 10:13am

    I think that for a number of people, like myself, the risk of independence (and it is a risk) is far outweighed by the hope of living in a better country. My personal bug bear is immigration and asylum and first Labour and then this Coalition gov have basically made the immigration and asylum system full of racist hate. There is no evidence for the rules and decisions that this coalition government have passed.

    Now, I know that an independent Scotland may not be much better but we know it cannot be worse than what the UK offers people in need. It is that simple hope that means I am voting Yes.

    Whilst the idea that I should not separate my hope from the hopes of people in Manchester has some merit, the counter argument then is actually when should be driving towards a single global country and government as there should be no difference between Manchester and Mandera if it comes to fairness and compassion deciding where governments and country borders should be.

  • Tony Greaves 23rd Aug '14 - 6:09pm

    The idea that we are close to a new federal solution for the UK (“Home Rule all round”?) is in my view nonsense. Perhaps the best result, in order to send the shock-waves that are needed through the arrogant and basically corrupt Westminster establishment (and perhaps set in process the kind of desirable changes Tony Dawson wants to see) would be for NO to win by one vote!

    I NO wins by more than a single figure %, Westminster will make a lot of appropriate noises, and end up doing very little.

    Tony Greaves

  • It seems to me that the Yes camp are fooling themselves and voters that they can keep everything good and/or beneficial about the Union and what remains of the UK have to go along with it. If Scots want to leave the Union, that is entirely their affair, but they are independent and become a foreign country to the rest of us. Scotland can keep the pound, like Montenegro has the Euro, but we don’t provide guarantees to Scottish banks or include Scottish factors in interest rate decisions. They can have BBC Scotland assets but don’t get future BBC programming or services for free. If Scotland relaxes immigration controls that put the UK at risk, expect border posts and passport checks. Once separated from the UK, Scottish interests are not a consideration in any and all UK decisions. The reality will be that like Norway and the EU, Scotland will often be forced into following the UK whilst having no influence on the decisions being made. Go for it, but do so with your eyes open. Independence means you are on your own should things go wrong, no-one us going to help you out. At the same time you will not be as free to make your own decisions as you might think.

    The other thing I think is quite odd is that the shape of an independent Scotland currently seems to reflect SNP policies.. But with independence surely the main reason for the existence of the SNP disappears. Even if they survive, their support based on the independence policy will disperse to other political groupings to the extent that it is highly unlikely they would form an independent Scottish government. So aspects like defence arrangements are likewise unlikely to stay as currently advertised.

    I don’t know the answer to this one but are NI Unionists supportive of union with England / Wales or with their culturally closer Scottish cousins? Is there likely to be debate about the future of NI that would be triggered by Scottish independence?

  • Lin Macmillan 24th Aug '14 - 12:03pm

    Thank you to Kevin for his kind comments. As usual Tony Greaves has got it absolutely right. One of the great strengths of the Liberal Democrats is that we do accept that people have differing viewpoints, even on quite fundamental issues of policy, and there have been plenty of other examples in the past of people publicly going against party policy – Nick Clegg and tuition fees comes to mind.

    In his address to the gathering that celebrated the life of Margo MacDonald earlier this year, Jim Sillars told us that not long before she died, Margo expressed concern that the Referendum would cause division and discord. She spoke of her desire for vigorous and civilized debate during the campaign, plus an end to hostility at one minute past ten on 18th September, once the polls have closed.

    My own colleague, Right Rev John Chalmers, who is currently the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, has also called for “respectful dialogue” during the Referendum campaign. He has been instrumental in arranging a service of reconciliation in St Giles on Sunday 21st September, as he recognises that whatever the result, there will be many who feel hurt and profoundly disappointed. He has expressed concern that “ Once the referendum vote has taken place, we shall have neither utopia nor unity. In the coming months there is a danger the referendum will set people against each other, in their own community, their own street – even their own family.” I should say that disappointingly John Chalmers has been the victim of some cyber bullying for his stance despite the fact that he has remained vehemently impartial.

    Respect for differing views and tolerance should surely be fundamentals of Liberalism, I fully respect the views of those in the party whose views differ from mine, and I ask that they accord me the same courtesy.

  • John Barrett 25th Aug '14 - 8:19am

    The last three comments have all been spot on.

    Tony – as you say – the other Westminster parties have shown no appetite for Federalism over decades and are not likely to change now.

    SteveL – “The reality will be that like Norway and the EU, Scotland will often be forced into following the UK whilst having no influence on the decisions being made”. That’s exactly the problem now on issues such as Trident and in the past regarding the decision made about going to war in Iraq. There are risks, but I think Norway got it right. in more ways than one. There will also be consequences and responsibilities for the Scot in the event of a Yes vote.

    Lin – Wise words indeed. It will also be no bad thing if in the event of the result being a Yes vote, (which at this date still looks very unlikely) that every single member of the the Liberal Democrats has not been out of step with the majority vote of the people of Scotland.

    …..and thanks to all the other contributors too…..more welcome.

  • Tony – as you say – the other Westminster parties have shown no appetite for Federalism over decades and are not likely to change now.

    This isn’t true. Labour introduced parliaments in NI, Scotland & Wales, devolved power to the London Assembly and held a referendum on establishing regional parliaments in England, they lost the latter. That is why there is no current appetite for Federalism. The question was put to the people, and they rejected it.

    Perhaps they won’t in the future, and it would be wise for supporters of a more federal UK to start working with the one party with a track record of devolving power, Labour, than pretending they are opposed to the concept. and demanding Scottish Independence in a fit of political pique.

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