LibLink: Shirley Williams: How Scotland could lead the way towards a federal UK

Shirley WilliamsThe Guardian posted an article by Shirley Williams yesterday, in which she writes:

The referendum decision will come at the culmination of a long period of disillusionment with politicians. The SNP, like the other mainstream parties, has attracted its own share of public frustration about centralisation and the excessive rule of Edinburgh over other regions of Scotland. Nationally, the disillusionment began with the poll tax, the decline of manufacturing in Scotland, Wales, the Midlands and the north of England during the Thatcher years, the failure of our interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan and the financial crisis in 2008 which loaded on taxpayers the huge costs of bailing out the banks.

Her solution is:

It demands a radical response, not only devolution of more powers, including in areas of taxation and public expenditure, to Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, but also a willingness to devolve power within each country to the great cities as well as to local communities – in short, acting on the principle that decisions should be made at the level of those affected by them. The digital revolution makes that easier than ever before.

She refers to the West Lothian question, and also discusses the need to build infrastructure in Scotland.

Finally she mentions:

… the kind of intense open public discussion that characterised the Scottish constitutional convention in the early 90s. That convention produced a blueprint for devolution and a new Scottish parliament.

Scotland gave us a model then. These are steps on the way towards a federal United Kingdom. We should be grateful to the Scottish people for opening the way to a democratic destiny grown from local roots. That can only be realised if we work together.

* Newshound: bringing you the best Lib Dem commentary published in print or online.

Read more by or more about , or .
This entry was posted in LibLink.


  • Stephen Harte 17th Sep '14 - 12:48pm

    while Shirley may be right that the SNP have picked up support from those fed up with the centralisation of power in London, their own administration in Edinburgh has been heavily centralising. For example, local police forces and fire brigades have been abolished and centralised into one Scotland wide body accountable to the SNP Justice Minister.

  • Matthew Huntbach 17th Sep '14 - 1:13pm

    But how does Shirley Williams’ “solution” in the second quote solve any of the problems in the first quote?

    Again and again we are finding this idea that someone’s favourite constitutional change will solve some intractable problem when it won’t. We are hearing a lot in the Scottish referendum, and also on people justifying support for UKIP, about people being “disillusioned with politics”, we then have it said that people feel our politicians are all elite types who only care for the wealthy and things like tuition fees, the “bedroom tax”, cuts in the NHS and so on are given as the reason for that, and we are then told that pulling out of the UK, or pulling out of the EU, and now this devolution of powers to city authorities will solve all that.

    Except it won’t.

    The underlying problem comes from the fact that people want government services, but aren’t willing to pay the taxes needed for them. Pulling out of the EU, pulling out of the UK, devolution to local government in England won’t solve this. It won’t magically create money that wasn’t there before. Even if pulling out of the EU had no adverse economic consequences for the UK (highly unlikely) the amount saved in payments to the EU is actually a very small proportion of the UK’s overall budget, it won’t pay for everything that people are moaning about. Given that Scotland is a net beneficiary of taxes raised and government money spent in the UK, pulling out of the UK will lose it money to spend, not gain it. And if an independent Scotland or English city with more devolved powers were to impose big tax increases in order to make politics nice and on the side of the people and not nasty and elitist, just on who would they be imposed? Well, not the big City fat cats in London on account of them being in London (or legally in whatever tax havens they are supposedly in), and anyone rich local would probably flee the local place anyway to London to avoid these taxes.

    Sorry, however nice the idea of devolution or “independence” is, setting it up as a magic solution to problems it won’t solve is a path to disaster. It serves simply to postpone the necessary discussion on the REAL problem and the difficult measures that are needed to really solve it. It is setting the scene for a quite massive disillusionment when the devolved/independent governments can’t wave a magic wand and solve the problems that were put down to those elitist uncaring MPs in Westminster. Of course, if Scotland or each of the big cities supposes it will be the tax haven, making big tax cuts to attract the fat cats, well that’s no solution because it only works if no-one else does that. If everyone does it, it just pushes everyone further down the road of cutting taxes to please the fat cats, and then having to cut government services to pay for the tax cuts, which was what the independence/devolution thing was supposed to be a reaction against in the first place.

    In some ways this is like the Coalition. When it started up, even though there were the “LibDems propping up the Tories” grumbles from committed Labour types, as you’d expect, there was an initial honeymoon period where most people fell for the line that this was somehow a completely new form of government and so would somehow magically solve the intractable problems that cause people to be “disillusioned” with politics due to politicians not delivering the impossible. The anger that built up very quickly afterwards was an inevitable response to the fact that, no, having a Coalition government did not solve these problems, services people wanted the government to provide still had to be paid for by taxes, and if not by taxes they had to be cut, or paid for by taxes disguised as loans …

    Devolving power is just shifting around the deckchairs when the real issue is that the nation state has lost much of the power it used to have to international finance. There isn’t the power to devolve. Whatever constitutional mechanisms you set up, it still lies in the hands of the City fat cats and the global financial funds. Devolution of power just makes it easier for that type to play off one democratic authority against another.

  • Not sure who has been briefing Shirley.
    Her attack on the SNP for centralising things in Edinburgh at the expense of the rest of Scotland seems to be at odds with where the SNP gets support in elections.
    The central belt tends to be Labour, the further away you get from Edinburgh the voters’ choice tends to be SNP. Of course there used to be some strong areas for Liberals but I would not put money on us even retaining what seats we have, especially if there if there is a NO vote.

    I have been saying for some weeks (if not months) that I expect NO to win. That is when the problems will start for our party. We lined up with the Unionists our traditional enemy. We campaigned for a result that will damage us next May.

    Our party both north and south of the body has used up resources which would have been much better spent on the build up to next May. So our prospects will have suffered a double whammy.

    It is not clear if Shirley really believes her solution will actually happen any time soon.
    Tory and Labour MPs already grumbling about bribes to Scotland are hardly likely to vote before the General Election for Shirley’s ” radical response, not only devolution of more powers, including in areas of taxation and public expenditure, to Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, but also a willingness to devolve power within each country to the great cities as well as to local communities – “.

    After the General Election whichever party is the biggest (Tory or Labour) it will be a Unionist Government and the panic of the last few weeks and the promises made will be forgotten.

  • Devolution is not so much about a regional building, or regional parliament, or more local body of councillors. It is about a ‘direct voter voice’ and an ability to be your own representative in political decisions being made.
    In the Parliamentary session 2012 -13 there were 227 ‘divisions’, or (yes/no) votes. Did all MP’s vote on all of those divisions? Did MP’s truly represent their constituents on those votes, or did they get whipped by party policy instead?
    Here’s the thing:
    When I phone my bank, their ‘system’, puts me through a series of 3 pass-code checks to validate that I am, who say I am, and then I am allowed to move money, request a loan, modify/move/cancel my mortgage account,… etc.
    Surely with only some 227 votes per year, some of which, even our ‘representatives(?)’ don’t even think it important to turn up and vote on(!); Is it not beyond the wit of an I.T. company to provide a secure system, similar to the phone banking system, to create a secure ‘binary’ division type selection for voters to represent their views directly for themselves?
    Why should I have to lobby my MP, who will just ignore me anyway, and vote how the party whip tells them, when I could just as easily represent myself, and vote by phone? The counter argument to this idea, is that some situations are just too complex for ‘simple voters’, to grasp and make rational decisions on. Is that really so? Lest we forget, 650 ‘intelligent representative MP’s(?), failed, to stop us going into an illegal war in Iraq? Surely, if I am capable of securely moving £ thousands by phone, then I’m capable of taking some bigger political decisions directly, with a secure binary phone choice?
    When considering devolution, simply swapping corruptible politicians in Westminster, with corruptible politicians in Manchester, is simply half hearted and lacks any vision. You have to first rid yourself of this elite, ‘We know best’, thinking.? For true devolution, you have to think about how to enable *the direct voter voice*, no matter which region they live in, and for that, you have to think bigger and much more lateral.

  • Paul In Wokingham 17th Sep '14 - 2:56pm

    The Germans – as so often – have a word for it that has no direct equivalent in English. That word is heimat. In wikipedia it is described (quite well) like this: “Heimat is a German concept. People are bound to their heimat by their birth and their childhood, their language, their earliest experiences or acquired affinity.” It evokes a sense of well-being and inclusion. It is a concept of homeland and belonging that is based on place, not race.

    And Germany takes pride in its strong regional identities and federal system. There is a reason why the club is Bayern (i.e. Bavarian) München. Are we really culturally receptive to federalism in this country?

  • Malcolm Todd 17th Sep '14 - 3:27pm

    “Germany takes pride in its strong regional identities and federal system.” Certainly, Bavarians are often fiercely proud of being Bavarian — much like e.g. Yorkshire or Cornwall here. I don’t think you’ll find equally clear “identities” in North-Rhine-Westfalia or Sachsen-Anhalt. How much difference this makes to political devolution/federalisation I don’t know.

    The shape of German federalism owes much to the desire of twentieth-century leaders to limit the power of Prussia, which would have been overwhelmingly dominant in federal Germany if allowed to remain united, much like England in a federal UK. I’m not aware that there’s a great deal of hankering amongst modern-day Germans for Prussia to be reconstituted but I may be wrong.

  • I have great respect for Shirley, I wish to make the point in these forums devolving powers is fine BUT only when Central has levelled the playing field somewhat.

    I listened to Gordon brown when I said that the Scots get more for regional size yes, the welsh get more for ill health No ill health is because no jobs are there and they wish to live in Wales. NE England does well from pensions it would as the young have to move to have any chance of a job

    Devolution in my view would only entrance the poor areas inc in my view Wales and Scotland ( never visited Ireland so don’t know) this country Must stop spending so heavy London South East Gordon said housing Benefit not a shock as everyone of wishes any prosperity at all MUST move there or abroad

    Devolve yes but level the field first and without increasing the cost of Local Kings and Spenders who can’t add up

  • Matthew Huntbach 17th Sep '14 - 5:03pm

    John Dunn

    Why should I have to lobby my MP, who will just ignore me anyway, and vote how the party whip tells them, when I could just as easily represent myself, and vote by phone?

    Right, so are all of us going to spend hours every day studying the details of all the latest things on which decisions need to be made at all levels of local government? Oh, come on now, who has the time and interest to do that? Most people don’t take part in most of the votes they are entitled to take part in. How many people could be bothered to vote in the Police Commissioner elections that were introduced recently, as an example? So why do you think most people would just love to spend hours on obscure pieces of legislation, local council business and the like?

    I most certainly do NOT want to be governed by the small number of people who might get involved in this, because I very much doubt they would be representative of the population as a whole.

  • Matthew Huntbach 17th Sep '14 - 5:14pm

    John Dunn

    Lest we forget, 650 ‘intelligent representative MP’s(?), failed, to stop us going into an illegal war in Iraq?

    I think it’s time we stopped playing political football with that one. I am afraid that the “nah nah nah nah, Tony Blair is a mass murderer, he’s responsible for all those deaths in Iraq” line seems to have reverberated rather further than domestic politics knock-about, some people elsewhere seem to be taking it rather seriously.

    There were arguments both sides. We’ve seen the same in Syria, and now we’re seeing the same in those places taken over by teenage sadists who call themselves “Jihadists”. It may be “illegal” to go in without a UN resolution, but is it nice to stand by and see mass murder take place if we don’t?

    Had the invasion of Iraq gone as I think Blair (stupidly) supposed it would – Saddam Hussein deposed, some sort of reasonable government put in place, people left happy about that, those who opposed the “illegal war” would now be faced with endless taunts of “You would have stood by and let that dictator carry on”. We got it right, but seeing what’s happened since, it would have been far better if we’d been the over-pessimistic ones.

    When a bunch of one type of Iraqis kills a bunch of another type of Iraqis, I rather think those Iraqis must take the prime blame for that. Sorry, I’m not going to play the racist game of saying they can’t be held responsible for their own actions, so all the blame must be put on the white men for provoking them.

  • @ Matthew
    For starters : My local MP is frankly not up to the job (IMO). I didn’t vote for that MP, and that MP certainly does *NOT* represent my view. This proves the point that representative democracy is at best tenuous?. In fact, in 40 years of voting in general elections, I have *never* had representation of my views(!)
    You further ask:
    “Right, so are all of us going to spend hours every day studying the details of all the latest things on which decisions need to be made at all levels of local government? Oh, come on now, who has the time and interest to do that?”
    Like I said, Matthew, you need to think less rigidly and more lateral?
    So, let me expand on my last comment. Suppose there was, as my last comment suggests, a method of phone voting my views directly…. but,…. I was either too busy or just didn’t want to put the time into studying a particular issue? No problem.
    Suppose we take just four random people. [Shami Chakrabarti], [Archbishop of Canterbury ], [Richard Branson], [Russell Brand]. I suppose it could just as easily be [John Dunn] in that list?
    If I decide that (say) Shami Chakrabati tends to represent my general views, I could, instead of phone voting myself, re-assign all my phone votes to her. (How she votes, is now how I would vote?). Such, that she becomes my de-facto *representative MP*? The point is this ~ I’m *now*, represented *accurately* and democratically, by someone *I trust*, under this new system, and not some parachuted in ‘Red Prince’ or other cynical carpetbagger who’s appeared, despite having no interest or connection with me or my region?
    If I subsequently decide that Shami is not voting as I would expect, I can recover my vote and use it myself, or re-assign it to someone else who I trust better?
    Like I said, [devolution], needs some serious lateral thinking, in order to bring it as close as possible to ‘The Voter’?

  • Matthew Huntbach 17th Sep '14 - 7:09pm

    Matthew Huntbach

    of local government?

    I had meant to write “of national and local government”, given that if this were done at national level it must surely be done at local level as well. I doubt that John Dunn has ever ploughed through the paperwork that a councillor gets every week, which is a necessary part of the decision making that role involves. The idea that every one of us would happily do this, and plough through all the paperwork an MP gets on top of it is, well, …

  • Matthew Hunback — I agree with you about the truckloads of reports that councillors have to work through. 99% of ordinary people have neither the time nor the inclination to wade through such stuff. That is why we have a democracy of elected representatives, faulty though I think is.

    But I disagree with you about Iraq. See this for just one of my reasons —

  • “The idea that every one of us would happily do this, and plough through all the paperwork an MP gets on top of it is, well, …”
    Trust me, you didn’t have to plough through mountains of paperwork, to see through the Blair WMD ruse, or the fact that the bedroom tax was simply a dumb idea. Maybe MP’s should have lifted their head from the paperwork occasionally and used plain common sense instead?

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th Sep '14 - 11:44am

    John Dunn

    For starters : My local MP is frankly not up to the job (IMO). I didn’t vote for that MP, and that MP certainly does *NOT* represent my view. This proves the point that representative democracy is at best tenuous?. In fact, in 40 years of voting in general elections, I have *never* had representation of my views(!)

    Yes, same with me – this has been the prime motivating factor all my adult life for being involved in politics. It is why I am a strong believer in replacing the FPTP voting system by STV.

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th Sep '14 - 11:48am

    John Dunn

    If I decide that (say) Shami Chakrabati tends to represent my general views, I could, instead of phone voting myself, re-assign all my phone votes to her.

    Yes, that is in effect how STV works. The idea of STV is that to get elected you need a quota of people who want you to be their representative. It does not matter where those people come from. Thomas Hare’s original proposals did not have constituencies, the whole country was just one multi-member constituency. That was impractical when all done by paper, but I have toyed with the idea of resurrecting the original proposal using modern technology. In fact I have a project proposal I offer to my students on that.

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th Sep '14 - 11:51am


    But I disagree with you about Iraq

    So you think that when a Shia kills a Sunni or a Sunni kills a Shia, etc, no guilt falls on that particular Sunni or Shia for what they did? Instead they are all silly little kids who cannot be held responsible for all their actions? Or they are all, secretly, still being ordered to do all his by Tony Blair and George Bush?

  • Matthew Huntbach

    Not sure why you should make such a comment. I am certain that there is nothing in LDV thatmI have said that is remotely like that.

    I recognise that not everybody has time to read every LDV thread, but there have been a number of recent discussions covering Syria, Iraq etc where I have been very specific about Wahabi / Salafist support for and direct funding of Jihadis. I have never been under the illusion that this is a simple Sunni versus Shia thing, nor that Blair has anything to teach any of us.

    I have also several times pointed out the delay in publishing the Chilcot report. See —

    So I think it is unfair for you to accuse me of the simplistic nonsense in your last comment. It is out of character for you. I look forward to you returning to your usual well thought out and well expressed style of comment.

    It may be that Syria / Iraq is not your principle interest? Or maybe you got out of bed the wrong side this morning?

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Sep '14 - 12:35pm

    John Tilley

    I meant what I said. I believe the Muslim world needs to develop a sense of maturity in which it recognises that the horrible things that are happening there indicate a deep malaise which can only be sorted out by the people of the Muslim world. I see the line “it’s all the fault of George Bush and Tony Blair” as a way of escaping responsibility for this, as an excuse for not doing something themselves to develop a more decent society.

    So often we see this sloppy line used in commentary, often by people like ourselves who detest Blair and Bush for their economic policies, that in order to kick Blair a little more, we say things that can be interpreted as suggesting that he and Bush alone are responsible for all the deaths that have occurred in Iraq since then. Well, sorry, but I don’t go along with that. As I said, I DO place prime responsibility on those sectarians and gangsters who have chosen to engage in the violence. Saying this does not mean I agree with the Blair/Bush invasion of Iraq. It was quite obviously a stupendously wrong thing to do, for many reasons. However, I don’t believe that it was done with the intention of killing millions, and I certainly don’t see it in any way as an “attack on Islam” as it has sometimes been put. If it WAS that, then those boys who did what they did in Woolwich, just a couple of miles from where I live, would have some justification in doing that. But it was not that, and I really do think we should make quite sure to avoid language which could be interpreted as that, because that language really is being picked up and used by some very nasty people to justify some very nasty things.

    The Sunni-Shia line is clearly very much a simplification. There is a lot more I could say which would involve some discussion of Muslim theology, but here is not the place to do it. However, it can be summarised as despairing at the gutlessness of all those Muslims who claim the horrendous things done by the “Jihadists” are nothing to do with their religion, but don’t seem to be that bothered about asking why it has arisen, and about developing the sort of deeper more spiritual and more satisfying interpretation of Islam that I think could be brought out.

  • Matthew Huntbach
    Matthew, thanks for coming back on this one. You and I could obviously spend time discussing this elsewhere at length. My objection to your earlier comment (Matthew Huntbach 18th Sep ’14 – 11:51am) was that it seemed to be suggesting that I held views that I most certainly do not.
    Reading it again – you were probably just making your point in a short, sharp comment.
    I do appreciate you providing a longer version even if I would not endorse everything you say.

    I think you are unfair to the vast majority of Muslims who know only too well what the Salafists are, that the Saudi Royal Famly and Qataris are supporting and funding them in their murderous activities.
    Muslims have been murdered and had their historic religious buildings and treasures destroyed in acts of barbarism by the Saudi government in Saudi and by their agents elsewhere.
    A couple of Fridays ago virtually every mosque in the UK issued a statement condemning the acts of IS and made clear that their murderous fanaticism has nothing to do with Islam and should be condemned.

    Then Ku Klux Klan claimed to be Christian Knights when they were lynching, torturing and intimidating black Americans. None of us believes that the KKK were representative of Christianity.

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Sep '14 - 4:39pm


    Yes, but it has taken all this for those statements finally to be made in the mosques. This is something that should have been done long ago. It remains a great concern to me that the Muslim community seems far too ready to adopt a victim status and so suppose everyone else is at fault and it needn’t do anything to solve the problems within it, and the readiness of so many people to use the “Tony Blair’s a mass murderer nah nah nah nah nah” line doesn’t help with that. For me, it would greatly help if all those posters about Gaza I see stuck up everywhere around where I work (a place which has a high Muslim population) were balanced by at least some show of concern for the minorities suffering so cruelly right now in Iraq. I rather think “it’s all Tony Blair’s fault” helps the mindset “nothing to do with us”.

    In what I write here, I am thinking very much of my own religion, I am very much aware of the horrendous things done in the name of Catholicism in the past, and also of the movements which gradually changed it. We don’t burn people at the stake any more, do we? But how did we get out of the mentality that thought such things acceptable?

    I don’t think the Salafists can be written off as a tiny and unrepresentative faction, given their current dominance and influence. Currently they seem to be the only “cool” version of Islam, the one the disaffected kids go for because they think their parents’ form of the religion is fuddy-duddy. To me, Islam needs the equivalent of the counter-reformation or the Oxford movement, which rediscovered some of the beauty of the more allegorical and poetical interpretations of religion and challenged the plodding literalism of Calvinism. Also I link this to my own concerns over the dominating influence of right-wing evangelical protestantism and the heavy financial backing it gets from people in the USA.

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

If you are a member of the party, you can have the Lib Dem Logo appear next to your comments to show this. You must be registered for our forum and can then login on this public site with the same username and password.

To have your photo next to your comment please signup your email address with Gravatar.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?


Recent Comments

  • Tom Harney
    From my point of view before we worry about people refusing to be vaccinated we should make sure that people can in fact get the vaccine. As I say this is from ...
  • David Raw
    @ Adrian England As someone shielding, and who for many years believed the Liberal/Lib Dem Party to be the sensible law abiding political party..... you may...
  • Caron LindsayCaron Lindsay
    That is a good point, James. I keep forgetting you still have to do that in England. All noms in Scotland apart from Westminster are just self nomination....
  • Dan
    I believe the EU in its current construct will be self destructive, the tensions between the birth of the EU nation-state rather like the US, but with out its c...
  • James Moore
    Perhaps the government can explain why a volunteer deliverer can spread the virus, while a paid deliverer cannot? If it is not safe to go door-to-door then t...