Lib Dems need to practise what we preach on Federalism

Did you get excited when you got the Party’s email about our manifesto? How we are going to save the environment, based on our core values and vision? I did.

Then I made the mistake of actually reading it and I discover that our environment stops at the Scottish Border. 

I’m not naïve. This is a “sound bite” email. I don’t expect us to do into the nuances between the water company Scottish situation and that in England and Wales; that most of our sewage discharges don’t require to be recorded, as Neil Alexander has been highlighting in Moray; that  Scottish Water is publicly owned. After all, we still pay ludicrous bonuses to the top men (yes; they are men) and no-one seems to try to hold the Scottish Government to account for the failings of “the top water company in the UK”

But then we get to the specifics…

We will

double the size of the Protected Area Network 

The Protected Area Network is the creature of Natural England. There is no equivalent here.

 Strengthen the Office for Environmental Protection and increase funding for the Environment Agency and Natural England. 

Not a dickie about Environment Standards Scotland, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency/Scottish Water or NatureScot.

transform water companies into public benefit companies, 

Given Scottish Water isa public corporation, that would be a retrograde step.

replace Ofwat with a tough new regulator

You’ve probably cottoned on by now. Ofwat is English. We have the Water Industry Commission (who? I hear you say. It has no regulatory power; that rests with SEPA).

To be fair, the climate change commitments are better, couched in more neutral language (although the tree planting commitment does not withstand scrutiny.

This is a perfect illustration of how we fail as a federal party; and if we can’t run a federal structure internally, how can we hope to convince people we can establish a federal UK.

It would be nice if we tried, however. 

* Ailsa MacDonald is a pseudonym for someone who has been a senior activist in the Scottish Liberal Democrats. Their identity is known to the team.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Ok, but in practical terms, what do you expect? Sounds like a job for someone in the (presumably tiny & under resourced) Scottish LD staff to do a tailored version for the (proportionately v small) part of our membership in Scotland. Perhaps the author of this article might volunteer to write that, rather than writing a piece for LDV complaining about it?

  • Andrew Toye 8th Jan '24 - 1:06am

    It is not the business of the Federal Party to make environmental policy for Scotland, Wales or Norther Ireland as these functions have rightly been devolved – so it actually respects devolution to leave them out of a UK-wide general election manifesto. Of course “the environment” doesn’t end at internal borders, or even international ones, but we could add something to commit us to working with devolved authorities and international organisations (including the EU – that’s another subject!) to achieve our aims

  • Agree with other comments. Environment is devolved, and in Scotland it’s the job of Holyrood and MSPs to determine what happens. We’re preparing for a Westminster election, so those are the relevant policies to announce.

    As an environmentalist, and a Scot, I’m pleased to see emphasis on environmental policies in our manifesto launch. It doesn’t bother me that it doesn’t explicitly point out that some of it isn’t directly relevant to those of us in Scotland, because I want good environmental policies for the whole of the UK (and beyond).

    I hate what is happening to rivers and beaches in England, and while I think it’s good to remind people that publicly owned Scottish Water also needs to do much better, and poor regulation needs addressed, I support the policy to shift private water companies to public benefit companies.

    Andrew makes a fair comment that mention could be made of working with devolved administrations (and councils). I’d argue the real issue is that Scottish members hear little from the Scottish party on the environment.

  • Peter Davies 8th Jan '24 - 9:27am

    The problem here is that environmental issues are not devolved. Environment policy for the large majority of the country is set by the Federal Government.

  • In that the environment is intertwined with just about every other policy, then yes, what happens at UK level (as well as England, Wales or Cumbria) impacts us all. And in areas officially devolved to Holyrood/SEPA, direction from DEFRA/EA either doesn’t happen, or happens a few years later with a few tweaks. There used to be more collaboration, but there’s been increasing divergence (often unhelpful and for the sake of it IMO).

    ESS, NatureScot, SEPA etc are Scottish organisations, (under)funded by and answerable to Holyrood.

    This may be helpful:

    Personally, I’d like to see the Scottish Party be more forthcoming on environmental issues altogether.

  • Colin Brown 8th Jan '24 - 11:08am

    Alisa’s comments reflect a frustration in Scotland arising from the inadequate guddle of devolution as it stands. It’s pretty galling to read about policies for election to a UK parliament that appear to exclude the interests of significant parts of the union. England is clearly the dominant member of the union – that’s inescapable reality. But this leads to it feeling domineering as well! England needs its own parliament for matters devolved to England alone. The Lords needs abolishing. A Convention of the union or Senate is needed to deal with pan-UK issues and disputed areas. Until that happens, we have to put up with incomplete federalism. And its frustrations.

  • @Colin, you may be right and Alisa’s comments aren’t really about the contents of the email or the manifesto or the environment.

    However, this Scottish person didn’t feel excluded or domineered by the email. I was pleased to read it, supporting the goals whilst understanding it wasn’t the place for detailed commentary for the sake of constitutional accuracy and completeness.

    It can be tricky that our Federal structure doesn’t match how devolution currently works in the UK, and I have sympathy for those sending the emails trying to second guess what is of interest to whom. I was glad to get the email and will be happy to support the campaign by the Federal party to get MPs in place with the hope of bringing their implementation closer.

    But having been pleased to see the Federal party giving prominence to the environment for the election campaign, I’m brought back to the depressing reality that many members are more interested in complaining about the constitution than they are having serious conversations about climate or biodiversity breakdown.

  • Mick Taylor 9th Jan '24 - 6:45am

    @colinbrown. Not the red herring about an English parliament yet again. The party and its predecessor has consistently rejected this in favour of regional government. An English government would be no nearer the people than the current UK government and would totally dominate the federal system the party is committed to. Anyway, the argument in this thread is about the content of a UK manifesto for the GE. It does perhaps need a sentence explaining that certain policy proposals refer to England only due to devolution.

  • *sighs*

    I’ve been a party member for over 30 years, and in that time I can’t remember a period where this hasn’t been a problem. The Scottish and Welsh parties have always understood federalism, and the way this affects how we campaign. The English party, and, by extension, the Federal party, has always at best been confused by federalism, and at worst completely misunderstands it – much like England itself, one could argue.

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