Opinion: A new constitution won’t deliver the social change people think they’ll get with a yes vote

As a Scottish Liberal and a lawyer, I have been inclined at times to get too involved in the minutiae of constitutional issues.  I can explain how to count several forms of PR and I have firm and detailed views on written constitutions.  Enduring two years of referendum campaigning in Scotland, however, has woken me up to the dangers of over-emphasising constitutional issues.

When you read much of what comes from the Yes campaign, you are lefd to believe that every social problem – real and perceived – that has ever occurred in Scotland will be solved by changing the constitutional settlement.  Scotland will become a land of milk and honey where all social problems melt away (or, at the very least, are showered with unending supplies of healing money) and a raft of social services will be presented as being “free”.

Surely though, we all realise what we are actually voting on here?
A Yes vote only changes:

  1. an aspect of our decision making structure and
  2. the economic context within which those decisions will be taken.

It still leaves us in a position where we will have to make hard choices about what to do with whatever we have – just as we do at the moment.

The decisions that an independent Scotland will take and the resources that will be available are far from pre-ordained.  Scottish voters are not as reliably left wing as some would have you believe.  Accordingly, even if there is a Yes vote, this social change that is promised may never be delivered to any significant extent.  By setting up the debate on these terms we have set a course whereby:

1. If we vote No any social problem (and there will be social problems!) will always be cast as the fault of the constitutional settlement in general (and the Westminster Government in particular) rather than the result of political decisions and economic and social realities. Rather than face up to issues, rUK would be blamed and we will continue to be sold the dream that we our problems could be solved if we reopened the constitutional issue. Our debates in future will always be about the constitution rather than the real economic and social choices we face.

2. If we vote Yes, those whose vote was secured through the promise of great change will be left disillusioned and disappointed when reality hits – and it will!  In Greece (where I currently work), such disillusionment has led to an increase in support for the extreme left and the extreme right. Is that next for us?

It is dishonest to claim that independence will result in any particular policy being implemented by a future government or that government will have the resources to honour particular spending commitments.  By casting the debate in those terms we are storing up problems for the future. I hope that I am wrong but I can see us regretting the indulgence of these last two years of constitutional navel gazing and wishing we could put the populist genie back into the bottle.

* Stephen lives in Edinburgh, works in the oil industry in Aberdeen and has been a party member since he was 17.

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7 Comments

  • Yes. 100%. A similar argument applies to UKIP and the EU.

    Presumably in the event of a yes, and independence, some way will be found to continue to blame rUK for all of Scotland’s problems. It might not have traction on merit, but anybody disagreeing will be considered a traitor.

  • Stephen Harte 8th Sep '14 - 11:12am

    Totally. the nationalist currency plan is to keep the pound – eitehr as part of a formal currency union or through informal “sterlingisation”. In either of these appoaches, monetary policy will be taken in the interests of rUK and not Scotland and in the currency union plan, the rUK would have some control of Scottosh spending plans. This all is enormous opportunity for our do-nothing SNP administration in Edinburgh to continue to blame “the English” for all of our problems.

  • There is a lot of slap dash thinking in this debate.

    I love Alex Salmond’s use of the ringing phrase “The sovereign will of the Scottish people”. First there are lots of people who are Scottish who will not have the opportunity to express their will in this referendum and some people who do not regard themselves as Scottish at all who will express their will. What those eligible to vote do will determine the outcome but the outcome will be the result of many separate “wills” rather than “The [single] will of the Scottish people”.

    Secondly there is the promise of the social agenda which Alex says will inevitably come with independence. All that happens is that votes of those living in Wales, Northern Ireland and England will no longer directly affect the political agenda in Scotland. After independence those living in Scotland will be perfectly entitled to vote for a reactionary government if they want to.

  • A further +1 in support of your article, Stephen.

    @Richard

    My favourite is the talk of a “seeking a mandate from the Scottish people” to keep the pound. That’s all well and good, but means nothing if rUK doesn’t want a currency union with, what would be, a foreign country.

    Fair to say there would be a mandate, whether it is right or wrong to think so and certainly from the English, to Westminster saying “Nope, not going to happen”.

    Regardless of the outcome of the vote, the power to forge a currency union lies in Westminster not Edinburgh – Salmond is offering power that an independent Scotland simply wouldn’t possess and would leave it truly under the heel of the Treasury and an Central Bank over which they have no say. If Scotland wants less say over key economic powers, vote Yes.

  • Refreshingly clear, and sadly so true.

    As Joe Otten said also true of the debate about the EU.

  • A douche of absolute reality. Unfortunately if it turns out to be all too true in the wake of a yes vote there will be no way back. How on earth did we get ourselves into this situation – a serious risk of the United Kingdom (for all its flaws and after much fascinating travel elsewhere the only place I really want to live) being irretrievably broken up at the behest of those who live in one part of it, containing 8% of its population?

  • Simon Banks 12th Sep '14 - 8:55am

    To be honest, if anything before this campaign started I probably leant to Yes, though as a 3/4 Englishman, 1/4 Welshman living in England I would never have had a vote. Any further extension of powers to Scotland and Wales excites me as would a thorough regional devolution. As a History graduate I’m aware of the long history of Scotland as an independent nation, though also that Scotland’s loss of independence occurred mainly because of the depth and bitterness of divisions within Scotland, not mainly because of English cunning and certainly not through English force of arms.

    I’ve shifted to No initially in solidarity with Scottish Liberal Democrats solidly and passionately against independence. Clearly within the Liberal Democrats there is no wish at all on any side for a divorce and no perceptible difference between what it means to be an English Liberal Democrat, a Welsh Liberal Democrat or a Scottish Liberal Democrat except on issues unique to each nation. I found Michael Moore’s speech on the union at Glasgow last year powerful and moving, and when he was sacked shortly after, I was shocked and suspected it was a bad mistake.

    I can well understand the concern often expressed here by Scottish Liberal Democrats that the No campaign has been too much dominated by negative arguments and details, losing the big picture and the heart.

    I have several concerns about the Yes campaign. I suspect there has been more bullying and crowd psychology on the Yes side than No: the media, emasculated (effeminated? No) by fear of seeming biased, present any suspicion of dirty tactics as coming equally from each side, and we know that well from by-election campaigns. I find supporters of independence claiming that Westminster politicians are all cunning and ruthless and care nothing for Scotland, rather ignoring the odd fact that not long ago both the UK’s Prime Minister and his most powerful minister were Scottish and presumably had become cunning and ruthless and indifferent to Scotland through infection in London – and what seems quite obvious to me, that Alex Salmond, along with strong positive traits, is both cunning and ruthless. I also find them airily stating a wish that the rest of the UK liberate itself from such cunning and ruthless men and uncaring policies, which is strange because a UK without Scotland would precisely be moved radically away from whatever things Scots care more about than the English do.

    And that’s the biggest issue for me. A UK without Scotland would be moved well to the right. Instead of Scotland exerting considerable influence within the union, it would be powerless outside – able to make some more decisions for itself, but also inevitably affected by decisions taken without it south of the border. No small country next to a much bigger country, without another land neighbour, can live unaffected by its neighbour’s decisions. In that sense the argument is similar to that over the UK’s EU membership. And the UK without Scotland would be less positive for Scotland than the UK with Scotland.

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