Opinion: 19th September – now what?

imageLooking ahead: It’s 19th September, and Scotland has voted “No” to independence. Thank goodness for that! The uncertainty is over. The people of Scotland will continue to have their say in how the whole of Britain is run; will still use the pound (and still have their say in how it is managed); will, without the need for difficult negotiations, still be part of the EU and still have the whole of NATO ready to protect it; will still be both British and Scottish, without having to choose one or other; will still have representation on the UN security council. And the Union will not have to endure the pain of partition – which a century of evidence from countries like Yugoslavia, Sudan, India and even Ireland tells us can be very great indeed.

The Union has survived, but it was close, and there’s still a problem. Nearly half of Scotland’s population is so unhappy with the way that it is governed that it was willing to turn its back on the benefits of being part of a long-lasting and successful union. Clearly something needs to change, if this widespread discontent is to be contained.

Nationalists claimed that an independent Scotland would be a “richer and fairer country”. The first of these claims was the subject of most of the pre-referendum debate, and will never be answered conclusively. But the second can be addressed even after a “No” vote. A frequent and not unreasonable claim of nationalists is that Scottish voters care more about “social justice” than do those further south. This is generally simplified into the assertion that the nasty Tories are doing less to help the poor in Scotland than an independent Scottish government would. The example quoted many times both in “Scotland’s Future” and in the pre-election TV debates was the so-called “bedroom tax”.

My suggestion to help heal the wounds inflicted by this divisive referendum, and also to deal with whatever truth there is in the nationalist assertion, is this: devolve control over benefits to Holyrood, and start the process as soon as possible. And if the LibDems could be seen to lead the way on this, so much the better.

Ming Campbell’s document on Federalism contains this proposal, and much, much more. But that is a big and complicated document, with a lot of material that would seem abstract to most people. To me it seems that devolving control over benefits alone would satisfy a lot of “Yes” and “No” voters alike that progress had been made, and would help make the issue of independence go away for another generation or so, ensuring that this referendum doesn’t turn into a “neverendum”.

* Malcolm Wood is a Liberal Democrat member in Edinburgh South East.

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12 Comments

  • Given that a major claim of Better Together is that voting yes will safeguard pensions it probably would not be a good idea to devolve the most expensive benefit – old age pensions.

    That said matters such the administration of housing benefit, including the “bedroom tax”, should be devolved to try to slay the English being cruel to Scots stories. I would not expect this to be wholly successful – witness the SNP’s claims that the continued union is a threat to the NHS despite this being devolved to Holyrood.

    … and anything that is done may take decades to have an effect. Over twenty years after the poll tax was killed off and over fifteen years since the Holyrood Parliament first sat I still had people I was canvassing saying they would vote YES to stop the English experimenting on them and that those in Westminster were cruel to the Scots.

  • If we don’t get Federalism, with real and workable devolution that delivers a fair solution for everyone on this island, we will be back here in ten or fifteen years time with another referendum on the same topic, but with a very different vote split.

    But in the here and now, as I point out on most of these articles, we have to think about what message we’re sending when we vote. ‘No’ translates through to Westminster as ‘carry on, everything’s fine, no need for change’. Is that the message any of us want to send?

    Independence remains very unlikely to happen. But with all the ideas and pent-up energy that the debate has released, we can certainly do something worthwhile, positive and progressive. If we can harness that energy. And the louder the clamour for change is at this referendum, the more likely it is we’ll actually get somewhere with it.

  • Any chance of asking the English what they want? What chance of answering the West Lothian question? It is a bit rich Scottish body politic suggesting they re more interested in social justice when Scottish MPsvoted to raise tuition fees for the English youth whilst knowing their own constituents were immune. If welfare is devolved will we see Holyrood being more caring (as I’d encourage them to be) whilst Scottish MPs play along with the ever more stringent and mean spirited game being played in Westminster? So what chance the English will be asked what they want from the Union?

  • Dear muxloe,
    the answer is ‘when the English vote for a government that does that’.
    it’s not as if England is short of seats in westminster.
    simple.

  • Malcolm Wood 28th Aug '14 - 9:04pm

    @muxloe: I think the tragedy of any English complaints about the West Lothian question is that, when various English regions were offered devolved powers (mayors, assemblies, etc.), they voted “No”.

    @T-J: I largely agree. A decisive “No” vote would probably not push Westminster to make any changes. So a benefit of all these “Yes” votes might well be to force a bit of a shake-up. Let’s just hope that there aren’t *too* many of them, though.

  • I way always against independence but now I’m changing my mind. Saying that, I struggle with the risks, particularly over the currency issue.

    I cannot bring myself to vote No in support of the union. So I will either vote Yes or not vote at all, most likely the latter.

    For the last 3 decades and a bit we have seen attack after attack on the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society, from all three Westminister parties. I used to support the Lib Dems because I believed they were still social democratic after Tony and the Labour Party tried to out Thatcher the Tories. But alas the Lib Dems turned out to be no different with their attempts to make USA still student tuition and the bedroom tax. This country, the UK, is no longer a country I feel we should be a part of.

  • “A frequent and not unreasonable claim of nationalists is that Scottish voters care more about “social justice” than do those further south. ”

    Scots care more than say the UK administration of Edinburgh-born, Fettes educated Tony Blair. Or more than the UK administration of the Renfrewshire born MP for Kirkcaldy Gordon Brown. Or more than the UK administration of the half-Scottish David Cameron. Why would an independent Scotland be more just than the UK governments led for the last 17 years by individuals that would automatically qualify as Scottish Citizens? It is a totally unreasonable claim with no historical basis. It may have been a few decades back but the Conservatives have been the biggest party in Scotland before now even receiving over 50% of the vote in 1955, more than in the rest of the UK.

    An independent Scottish Government will not necessarily reflect the centrist SNP liberal (small l) agenda.

    When there is a target for 50% of the population to be university educated rather than the 10% of my youth it is simply not sustainable to provide it all for free. Why should labourers, shop workers and refuse collectors subsidise degrees for tomorrow’s private school educated lawyers, accountants, fine art historians, and management consultants? That isn’t social justice. We should have targeted free tuition in subjects of clear social and economic national benefit that is biased towards state-educated students – doctors, teachers, scientists and engineers.

    Adjusting housing benefits was a good idea aimed at freeing up public housing for those most in need. A laudable intent and socially just, but implemented in the most damaging possible way for all concerned. It should only ever have been imposed when and where decent smaller accommodation becomes available, and had generous provision for disabilities and very long term tenants. Something that should have been commended ends up rightly condemned.

    To my mind it is the unsophisticated execution of these policies not the underlying principles that is the problem. Sadly we are a junior party in a coalition and don’t have total control.

  • @johnmc
    No party has offered that possibility. (And no mainstream party will; its againstTory instincts while Labour and Lib Dems need the celtic votes) Why should the English people have to wait for a party to offer them the option but direct democracy is good enough for the Scots? As to the English having enough seats – true, so we is there any need for Scottish MPs to vote on issues that affect us but not their own constituents?

    @malcolmwood
    Agreed…to an extent but then I’m from London. I did vote for the GLA but have never been asked about the west lothian question.

  • @malcolmwood

    Many people in England don’t want regional devolution but that doesn’t mean that it necessarily follows that they are content with the west lothian question. I’d hazard a guess that most English voters would accept the status quo but ask that Scottish MPs be exempt from voting on affairs that don’t affect their constituents. I guess we’ll never know because it would make for messy government and because it seems the chances of the English people actually being asked what they want are very slim indeed.

  • Peter Chivall 29th Aug '14 - 7:52am

    What’s wrong with asking the English people if they’d like an English Parliament, preferably one more than 100 miles from Westminster – say by the HS2 station outside Derby. It could have the same powers and electoral system as Holyrood. The rump UK Parliament could stay in Westminster, but reduce to a single chamber – I would choose the Lords because it’s a better shape than the Commons, which is only a wooden stage set anyway…..

  • Malcolm Wood 29th Aug '14 - 10:22am

    @SteveL: Good points, all of them. But, at least during my lifetime, Scotland (along with northern England) has voted for more left-wing parties than has the south of England. And I think that’s at least partly to do with social justice. Or, at least, the lack of it in the Thatcher government’s policies.

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