One union liberalism

So now we know what Brexit means. Other than the famous tautology, it means we’re out of the Union, out of the market, out of the travel area, out of the customs union, everything. To cut a long story very short, it means I feel lied to.

Far from governing in the interests of both Remain and Leave voters, this government’s Brexit objectives leave pro-Europeans with no stake in the proceedings that will define this United Kingdom perhaps for the remaining duration of its existence. Worse, we are being asked to meekly unite behind the most trenchant version of the opposing viewpoint available.

A bitter enough pill for an individual to swallow, but in summarily rejecting any compromise at all, this government is also dismissing a substantial majority view formed in a nation backing European partnership.

Liberal Democrats in Scotland have been making a virtue out of being the only party in favour of two Unions, the only pro-EU, pro-UK party. Given the ascendant and hegemonic views of the SNP and the Tories, the probability of retaining both unions is low. Those parties hold power and will remain in power throughout the negotiations as no elections are due between then and now. By the time we get a chance to propose having cake and eating it to the electorate, it will be too late. There will be no cake.

A second European referendum is off the table, the government making it clear that it prefers no deal to one it doesn’t like. So we must look to less perfect solutions.

Since June, I have been back and forth between my old and new homes, England and Scotland. A sense of division is becoming ever more pronounced. Likewise, the strategies that work to defend and advance liberalism are diverging. In England the strategy is to knuckle down and get on with the twenty year project of salvaging elements of Liberal England and rebuilding it.

Here in Scotland, much more can be salvaged. The social market economy is less degraded, with political momentum behind its defence that simply does not exist elsewhere. We must also recognise that second referendums can happen on more than one issue.

The party should continue to support the Scottish Government’s initiative to negotiate some consolation prizes of Scottish access to elements of the European Project. Further, we should back that up with an idea about what happens if, as this Brexit strategy indicates, that negotiation goes nowhere.

Consider the vision expressed by May: Britain as a tax haven undercutting competition, undermining workers’ rights harming everyone but the very richest and seeing an acceptable future in signing up to whatever America First trade deal that Mr Trump might be willing to offer to keep Britain from cooperating further with Europe. This cheapens the Union between England and Scotland.

At the close of these negotiations, we Liberal Democrats must be prepared to stand by our principles, be they social democratic, liberal internationalist or simply the values of common decency. If this Brexit strategy is followed through to the conclusion of a hard right corporations’ deal, can we back an independent Scotland in Europe as a better alternative than Britain alone against the world?

* T J Marsden is a member of the Liberal Democrats originally from Peterborough but latterly based in Scotland

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • I think it’s important to remember that one of the proposals for an independent Scotland was a reduction in corporation tax, as well as aviation duty. Amidst the claims that an independent Scotland would be a socialist utopia, there were nods to business that Scotland’s economy would be boosted by becoming a low-tax economy.

    There’s a lot of goal posts being moved, depending on who is offering to cut the taxes. When it’s the SNP – it’s to benefit Scotland and the Scottish people. When the Tories do it – it’s to benefit their fat cat banker friends, and a race to the bottom.

  • David Evershed 21st Jan '17 - 12:06pm

    Now we know. When May said Brexit means Brexit she meant Brexit means Brexit.

    If only she’d said. 🙂

  • Neil Sandison 21st Jan '17 - 12:29pm

    Good article perhaps we should fight as “The United Kingdom Liberal Democrats “across the UK ,on the basis the English nationalist conservatives will break up the first European Union ie the UK that has lasted for 3 hundred years for the sake of smashing up the second European Union that was born out of the need for peace and trade following armed conflicts that killed millions for most of the last century .

  • Eddie Sammon 21st Jan '17 - 1:29pm

    I would try to defeat the SNP on their own ground: liberal-nationalism. The SNP can be portrayed as obsessed with leaving the UK to the detriment of the most pressing of Scottish interests. It’s probably the only way to beat them across the nation.

  • Simon McGrath 21st Jan '17 - 1:36pm

    “Consider the vision expressed by May: Britain as a tax haven undercutting competition, undermining workers’ rights harming everyone but the very richest ”

    can you link to where she said this please ?

  • The Tories are not breaking up the UK. When it happens it will be the inevitable consequence of devolving power. As for fighting for the United Kingdom? Well, that just adds insult to injury as it shows that a supposedly democratic party will bend to the traditions of a class based hierarchy of inherited power that reduces citizens to subject when politically convenient.

  • “An independent Scotland would be a socialist utopia”. I’ve never heard that and it’s certainly not true.

    What is true is that Scotland is less down the road of destroying public social values than post Thatcher England and has a much more social democratic liberal political system. I’d go further and say Nicola Sturgeon is less of a nationalist than Mrs. May and exhibits many more traditional small ‘l’ liberal values on matters such as immigration and community relations.

    I voted No in the last Indy Ref, but I can see the advantages of a no Trident, no Grammar School, more welfare sensitive, none fracking and less privatising independent Scotland with a PR elected Parliament. Brexit could be an ultimate determinate.

    The prospect of living under a right wing Tory Government outside Europe for the rest of my life is a daunting prospect

  • John Peters 21st Jan '17 - 3:16pm

    There is at least a symmetry in that the feelings of oppressive governance that led to the UK exiting the EU is similar to the feelings of oppressive governance that may lead to Scotland leaving the UK.

    I’m fairly sure most who voted Leave will have empathy for Scotland’s predicament.

  • Interesting article but doesn’t mention that the Scottish Lib Dems voted with the Tories in the Scottish Parliament the day after May’s Brexit speech against the Scottish Government’s motion in support of its proposal for the whole of the UK to stay in the Single Market and, failing that, for Scotland to do so while staying in the UK.

    So it looks as though the Scottish Lib Dems are giving up on the Single Market and falling in behind the Tory position.

  • Nicholas Cunningham 21st Jan '17 - 3:36pm

    Of course the nation has been hoodwinked, a blank piece of paper decides the nation’s destiny. People can go on about the Lords, but without a proper functioning House of Commons where’s the accountability, the executive needs to be challenged, accountability needs to be taken seriously, after all that’s supposedly is the core value and the heart beat of any democracy. How can anyone even argue the case against the Lords and their outdated privileges when May’s words, Brexit means Brexit, regardless, what leadership is that. Then to top in all, there will be a vote, but we are leaving anyway, who in the right mind would accept an ending without knowing the consequences.

  • @David, you obviously didn’t spend much time in Dundee during the referendum. The idea that Scotland could go fully socialist if independent was one of the reasons given for many of those I came across campaigning for independence.

    I know some old-school SNP types, and I can assure you they are far from socialist, and the term Tartan Tories applied to them was apt before they realised that campaigning against the Poll Tax was a vote winner. The rhetoric may be different now, but those people didn’t suddenly go left-wing. There is a saying now “wheesht for Indy”, which is the general idea that you shouldn’t criticise the SNP, or anyone within the independence movement, because it will get in the way of achieving independence.

    Of course, even if you accept that the SNP or whoever would be in power after independence really would want to increase public spending, the figures don’t add up. For all of the talk of levers (cuts to corporation tax), or trident, there’s no reason to believe that would make up for the loss of the Barnett Formula. To maintain public services as they are now would require a huge tax increase, which we know won’t happen. Add in the costs of independence itself, and the complications of leaving a union with our main trading partners, then I’m not sure how anyone could advocate for independence on anti-austerity grounds.

    There are some who want independence for the sake of independence (to take back control). It’s the top priority according to the SNP’s constitution, and if they are prepared to acknowledge that it would make most people poorer, then fair play. Some do, but most don’t, and any attempts to discuss the economic reality is described as “talking Scotland down”, or means you are unpatriotic.

    The best thing for the people of Scotland, as for the rest of the UK is for us to work together to improve the UK system. Work harder to get reform of the House of Lords, and get PR back on the agenda. Speaking of which, has everyone signed this on PR?

  • Fair enough, Fiona – though you hear all sorts of funny things in Dundee.

    I don’t think independence is a done deal – I do think everything is in the melting pot.

    As for the SNP, they don’t have a majority in Holyrood…. and I doubt if they will after the next election. Thank goodness for PR.

  • Simon Horner 21st Jan '17 - 5:17pm

    The writer of this article poses the crucial question for all of us living in Scotland. “Can we back an independent Scotland as a better alternative than Britain alone against the world.” That would certainly be my choice, for more security and prosperity in the long term.
    We should face up to the facts here. The people of Scotland voted to stay in both the British and the European unions. On 24 June, the “double unionist” option disappeared. The European credentials of Liberal Democrats are unquestionable, but in arguing so firmly against a second Scottish independence vote (I would prefer to have it presented as a “which union” referendum) the party has made its default position clear: UK unionism/nationalism rather than European unionism (only now possible with Scottish nationalism).
    I understand and respect those who take this position. But the party’s strident refusal to countenance a “decider” referendum strikes me as illiberal and anti-democratic. The window of opportunity to resolve the contradiction created by the referenda in 2014 and 2016 is very limited and will close altogether by March 2019. The end result could be the worst of both worlds: Scotland out of EU in a hard Brexit in two years time, then out of the UK when the polls finally look favourable enough for the SNP to risk another independence vote. The biggest irony is that the UK unionist/nationalists oppose a new Scottish referendum despite the evidence that they would probably win it, thereby putting the issue to bed for a very long time. It isn’t the outcome I would favour but at least it would end the uncertainty.

  • “Consider the vision expressed by May: Britain as a tax haven undercutting competition, undermining workers’ rights harming everyone but the very richest ”

    Not sure this cascade of events would actually be true in reality?

    I’m not saying I agree with where we find ourselves (as a ‘Remainer’ 7 months ago), but we are where we are now.

    As others have commented today (on various threads), despite ‘our’ USP at the moment, it seems clear to me (beyond any reasonable doubt) that Brexit IS going to happen. Therefore we must surely now be looking to the future.

    I would suggest a good starting point would be for policy developers to start researching the Singapore model (not saying that’s where we’ll necessarily end up, but the direction of flow seems to be pointing towards a similar senario) and thinking about how we can keep ahead of the political curve, such that if we start going down this line (or something similar), look at how we can reach an inclusive fair outcome form as many people as possible.

  • @Hireton and others: Everybody knows that the Liberal Democrats are in favour of the single market. Unfortunately, Nicola Sturgeon has decided to collapse the big tent she put up on June 24th and is exclusively going on about independence. Scottish nationalism is not the answer to Tory nationalism. That’s why the Lib Dems didn’t vote for the Government motion which was worded to put us in that position. It does not mean our commitment to the single market is in any way diminished.

  • I cannot understand why the Liberal democrats rule out working alongside Plaid Cymru. Many of Liberal democrat policies here in Wales are shared with Plaid Cymru including policies on Europe. Wales still has a manufacturing base, unlike England, and has a trading SURPLUS with the EU. Therefore, being in the Single Market is important to us in Wales.
    Plaid Cymru is an internationalist party and certainly not inward looking.
    Wales needs good trading and cultural relations with the rest of the world and wants equality with England.

    Unfortunately, the current system leaves power in the ‘imperial’ capital: London.
    The parliament at Westminster can override Welsh decisions, but Wales cannot override Westminster decisions.

    The LD should challenge centralism.
    To do this must get elected in the UK as a whole to change the UK into a federal system.

    The only alternative is that then it will be left to Plaid Cymru / SNP to get more power with possible independance.
    Perhaps then Wales, Scotland and England could form a commonwealth of British states on an equality basis.

    The question is will England/Britain vote for Liberal democrats and direct federal reform, rather than follow the break-up and reform route ?

  • Only Scottish Lib Dems can decide how they feel about independence and another referendum. As an Englishman, it’ll be one of the saddest days of my life if Scotland leaves, but it’s Scotland’s choice.

    If Scottish liberals believe in two unions, though, isn’t it worth fighting for them until that becomes impossible? Sullenly conceding, both on Brexit and independence, is just what the English and Scottish nationalists want their opponents to do.

  • Economically, this is a flawed article. Whatever May says in threats history shows us that smaller countries will undercut their larger neighbours. There’s a reason why Apple (and many others) are based Ireland. We all remember the ‘Double Irish with a Dutch Sandwich’. And let not forget that the SNP have not raised taxes but cut airport taxes. The only way Scotland can retain inward investment, moderate tax levels and its high social standards is to remain in the U.K. If it leaves one of these will fall, taking others with it.

  • Neil Sandison 22nd Jan '17 - 8:42am

    Have we abandoned federalism now with greater powers to the nations and regions of Great Britain ?
    One size does not fit all but we do need a nation with sufficient economic and social mobility to retain a viable a base line manufacturing and commercial hub, or collectively will we become a USA tax haven for Trump and his friends whilst abandoning Europe to the far right and the re-emergence of facism ?.Open, tolerant and united is my kind United Kingdom.

  • Richard Underhill 22nd Jan '17 - 9:51am

    The UK is a natural federation, but say federalism to a Tory and the reply will probably be about the EU.
    As David Steel said recently this is also about Lords’ reform, because Greater London is the only part of England to have regional government. He favours a reformed House being elected by the bodies which Scotland, Wales and Northern have, but England does not.

  • “The Tories are not breaking up the UK. When it happens it will be the inevitable consequence of devolving power.”

    False. The Tories were perfectly happy to win the previous GE by playing on English fears of a greater Scottish influence while only mentioning Wales when using it to attack Labour on the NHS, spreading fear again which when attacking the health sector is playing with people’s lives.

    One argument put forward as to why areas like the South Wales valley’s voted for Brexit was that there is rarely credit given to the EU for investment into these areas. It was only during the campaign that it was really spoken about. Likewise, not enough is made about links between Scotland and Wales, Scotland and NI, Wales and NI and it all seems to be about competing for equality of funding between these nations and Westminster.

    The Scottish Lib Dems could be arguing that the more connections the better against the isolationism that Tories and SNP are calling for in different ways.

  • Neil Sandison 22nd Jan '17 - 1:57pm

    Anthony Watts .Would your list also apply to a federal United Kingdom ?

  • @caron

    “Unfortunately, Nicola Sturgeon has decided to collapse the big tent she put up on June 24th and is exclusively going on about independence.”


    I read the SG proposal and it is aimed at not taking Scotland out of the UK and the Single Market by proposing that the UK stays in the Single Market and if that is not possible by Scotland being in the EEA through associate membership of EFTA sponsored by the UK (and hence the SG has compromised on remaining in the EU).

    The motion which the SLD’s voted against and with the Tories was:

    “That the Parliament notes the publication on 20 December 2016 by the Scottish Government of Scotland’s Place in Europe, setting out options for the future of the UK and Scotland’s relationship with Europe; understands the detrimental social and economic impact on Scotland and the UK of losing their current place in the European single market; welcomes the options set out in the paper, including on free movement of workers; agrees that the UK as a whole should retain its place in the single market, ensuring rights not just for business but for citizens, and that, in the event that the UK opts to leave the single market, alternative approaches within the UK should be sought that would enable Scotland to retain its place within the single market and the devolution of necessary powers to the Scottish Parliament; agrees that further devolution to the Scottish Parliament is required to mitigate the impact of the UK’s decision to leave the EU, and endorses the Scottish Government discussing these proposals with the UK Government in order to secure the protection of Scotland’s interests as part of the Article 50 process.”

    As far as I can see there is no mention of independence. Scottish Labour were able to vote in favour even though they oppose independence as much as the SLD’s (who notably opted to vote with the Tories and against the motion not just abstaining).

    I wondered if the reason was that the SLD’s have not yet given up on full EU membership for the UK so they thought that the SG was compromising too much but apparently not.

  • Thanks everyone for reading and commenting. And thanks to LDV for publishing an article that I think it would be fair to say, sits somewhat outside of the prevailing opinion of the Scottish Liberal Democrats.

    Just wanted to make a followup comment.

    While independence scenarios range widely, I would argue that the scenarios actually being considered do not diverge fundamentally from the social and economic mainstream of European thought. Ireland offers the best analogue, but while their politics is focused on tax efficiency to the point where they will sue the Commission for trying to protect their tax base, they still aren’t really operating outside of that mainstream.

    Unfortunately, in her statements to both domestic and international audiences Theresa May has described her options as precisely that – if Europe does not capitulate, she says she will reform Britain into something outside those norms in order to compete aggressively in a race to the bottom.

    I am asking Scottish Liberal Democrats to think forward two years. If she is bluffing then those liberals who see a better chance arguing for cooperation between British nations in a post-independence scenario will stick with their view, as will those who prefer to carry on working for federalism within the existing constitutional arrangement. And perhaps the Brexit will be an amicable enough divorce that allows the possibility for British unionists to believe that the UK might one day rejoin. Perhaps.

    If there is no bluff, though? With no elections until 2020, she’ll have time to do it. And in ‘moving outside’ European norms, the United Kingdom will be rejecting both social democracy and liberal internationalism, poisoning the relationship with Europe for decades to come. I am asking people to consider whether any United Kingdom at all is better than an independent Scotland in Europe. Do Scottish Liberal Democrats necessarily remain unionists in a future where the only route to Scottish involvement in European unity runs through a successful independence bid?

    And I think it is important for us to consider this ahead of time, rather than finding ourselves caught out if we end up being presented with a choice between the two unions by forces beyond our control.

  • John Mitchell 27th Jan '17 - 4:55pm

    @ Fiona

    “I think it’s important to remember that one of the proposals for an independent Scotland was a reduction in corporation tax, as well as aviation duty.”

    Absolutely and that should not be forgotten. I agree with both of your posts and as you say despite framing themselves as the ‘anti-austerity’ political party, if Scotland were to leave the UK it would result in much more austerity than we’re seeing now.

    @David Raw

    “I voted No in the last Indy Ref, but I can see the advantages of a no Trident, no Grammar School, more welfare sensitive, none fracking”

    Grammar schools will not impact Scotland and fracking is not off the table yet. Only Labour, the Greens and us oppose fracking outright. All three parties are not in government or really near winning control at this time.


    “Scottish Labour were able to vote in favour even though they oppose independence as much as the SLD’s.”

    You may think this but it’s not true. Scottish Labour have been all over the place on independence. I’d say Labour’s anti-independnce position is tepid at best. It’s a big reason why they’re flagging behind the Tories in Scotland now.

  • John Mitchell 27th Jan '17 - 5:06pm


    “I am asking people to consider whether any United Kingdom at all is better than an independent Scotland in Europe.”

    I clearly think that it is. The UK has instability but I don’t think it has as much as the EU. There is less that can go wrong. Scotland exported 63% to the rUK in 2015 compared to 16% with the European Union. The rest of the UK is our biggest trading partner.

    I’d also challenge the notion of an ‘independent’ Scotland within Europe. That was one of the reasons to back leave in the first place, and to reclaim sovereignty in certain areas.

    I do accept that both campaigns told lies but I don’t think it justifies a re-run. All political campaigns are predicated on spin and lies, or most of them.

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