Opinion: More powers are not on the ballot paper

Scottish Parliament 23 May 06 067The three unionist parties – and, yes, that seems to include us – have united to promise more powers if Scotland votes No tomorrow.

But what are they offering, and is it “guaranteed”? I don’t question Ming’s sincerity when he claims that federalism is within touching distance but I seriously question his optimism.

Our own party has its plans for fairly radical change (though calling it federalism is stretching a point, and our policy is now entangled with plans for devolution on demand in the rest of the UK). Two and a half years ago we had the opportunity to have our version of federalism on the ballot paper. While not constitutionally definitive, the likely large majority this option could have won would have given it strong political traction.  But our Inverness conference rejected it in a nasty wave of anti-SNP rhetoric.

If we vote No tomorrow, progress at Westminster  on more powers for Scotland will depend mainly on the two larger parties. Most of what they are offering is very minor or recycled – as with Gordon Brown’s list of 12 powers.  The only major point on which the Tories and Labour seem agreed is not a power at all: it is transferring responsibility for most or all of income tax to Scotland, a poisoned chalice if ever I saw one.

Ironically, the best source of support within rUK for radical change may lie in the anti-Scottish backlash that is demanding a stop to (imagined?) subsidies for Scotland and a solution to the West Lothian Question.  The former in my view can only be solved by giving Scotland full fiscal autonomy, and in fairness that has to include the resources (e.g. oil) as well as the extra costs that come with being more geographically dispersed.  Labour certainly, and I guess the Tories, are strongly opposed to such a solution: a large part of Gordon Brown’s argument is that there should be cross-subsidies between the various parts of the UK.

As to the West Lothian Question, it is clear that there is heavily entrenched opposition to the restructuring of the Westminster parliaments needed for a clear solution.  The Mckay Commission on the Consequences of Devolution for the House of Commons (2013) dismisses federalism, whether with an English parliament or with  English regions.  Instead it proposes a typical British constitutional muddle, in which the principle is adopted that “decisions at the United Kingdom level with a separate and distinct effect for England (or for England-and-Wales) should normally be taken only with the consent of a majority of MPs for constituencies in England (or England- and-Wales)”, while at the same time “MPs from outside England should not be prevented from voting on matters before Parliament”.

If we vote No tomorrow, the only hope I see for real progress on more powers is if the 2016 Scottish Parliament election produces a clear majority committed to federal status for Scotland. If we want to play our part in that we will need to forge an alliance – perhaps through another Constitutional Convention – with those who voted Yes; and that will mean working with the SNP and Green party more than Tory or Labour.

If it comes to it, I will do my constructive best to support more powers, but they’re far from guaranteed.  But for now, given the actual choice on the ballot paper, I’ll be voting Yes.

* Denis Mollison is Chair of Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform, and has been a member of the party since joining the SDP in 1981. Here, he writes in a personal capacity.

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  • Eddie Sammon 17th Sep '14 - 5:35pm

    You won’t get more powers if you vote Yes either, because you’ll immediately withdraw Scotland from the UK, EU, UN top table, Nato and other international organisations.

    The situation is a mess, I hope for a no vote and I feel the same about the EU, but we need to make sure that a Yes vote doesn’t mean the end of co-operation and working in mutual interest.

  • Eddie Sammon: That is utter nonsense. There is infinitesimal likelihood that the EU would exclude Scotland or even assume that Scotland had in anyway separated from the EU.

    There is an obvious reason for this: the precedent that would be set. Such a precedent would be present a fabulous gift to anti EU right wing nationalist politicians throughout the EU. The precedent would offer an easy exit for any group that could see an immediate term advantage in leaving the EU. Not only that it would confirm the suspicion that some have that the EU carelessly overrides democratic outcomes. There is no advantage for the EU to go down this route.

    Imagine if the aim of the Nationalists had been to break free from the EU. Do you really imagine that the EU would be saying yes if you vote for independence you can so easily detach yourself from the EU and the collection of international treaties that membership of the EU entails?

  • From an outside perspective Denis Mollison’s article rings true to me. I am very apprehensive of the Scottish Liberal Democrat’s strong identification with the NO campaign. I can see that the position of the Party in Scotland where the Conservative Party is much less prominent is different to that elsewhere in the UK. I just hope that the Party in Scotland has a clear idea of what it is doing and what it will be doing after the referendum.

    In reality I expect a NO vote, because it is more likely that NO voters would be reluctant to admit their preference to pollsters than YES voters. Nonetheless there will be a large number who saw a vote for YES as a commitment to hope for the future. I find it hard to believe that Scottish politics will be the same in the wake of this vote. I expect a strong impact in the 2015

  • Eddie Sammon 17th Sep '14 - 6:08pm

    Hi Martin, I meant that the EU withdrawal would only be temporary, but still immediate.

    I think the whole thing is constitutional naval gazing. It is the same with the EU. When a union is divisive we should just sign a free movement and free trade agreement. We should have done this with Ukraine and should do it with Scotland immediately if it leaves.

  • … elections (sorry my computer blinked!).

    I simply wish the Party had been less one sided in this debate. If Scotland did vote YES we should be in favour of giving Scotland full support and encourage Scotland to opt back into whatever institutions and arrangements that are mutually beneficial. In the same way a similar radically devolved outcome is possible following a NO, but in all honesty I would expect several well meant initiatives that, like initiatives on electoral reform, would be spiked in the Halls of Westminster.

  • Eddie: it would not even be temporary for the reasons I gave. The standing principle would probably be the treaty obligations that any successor state or states would be expected to uphold. I also expect that EU legislators would try to carve out a legal argument that would claim Scotland to represent an exceptional case, possibly by arguing that Scotland already had quasi independent features (e.g. a distinctive legal system) that other regions to not enjoy.

    Nonetheless, come Friday, I suspect these legal convolutions will not be needed and EU representatives will be able to continue to assert that there has been no adjudication on what it will be maintained, remains a hypothetical issue.

  • Eddie Sammon 17th Sep '14 - 6:40pm

    Martin, according to Barroso, Juncker and others:

    “Barroso’s view, echoed by his incoming successor Jean-Claude Juncker, is broadly that, as a new state, Scotland would be outside the EU and have to apply to join. Acceptance needs unanimity and Spain, Belgium, Italy or others fearful of setting secessionist precedent might veto it.”.


    I have long suspected that Scotland won’t be allowed in without agreeing to the Euro. The EU wants to turn nationalism into a dirty concept.

  • Julian Tisi 17th Sep '14 - 6:58pm

    @ Martin “There is infinitesimal likelihood that the EU would exclude Scotland or even assume that Scotland had in anyway separated from the EU.”

    I’m sorry but with every respect that’s absolutely and nye-on certainly the opposite of the truth. It’s one of the very many utter myths that the Yes campaign has peddled. If Scotland chooses to leave the UK, an EU member, it will start as a completely new state with no international memberships, affiliations, currency or anything. It would get recognised by the UN for sure. It could choose to adopt its own currency or someone elses’ without a currency union. Everything else – trade agreements, international memberships et al – would have to be negotiated with other countries.

    And as for the precedent it sets, Eddie Sammon is right. The precedent many EU states will want to avoid is making it easy for a nationalist group to split their countries. Hence they’re unlikely to make it easy for the Scots to get into the EU nor the terms on which it would no doubt eventually get in.

  • Eddie: the article you quote fails to provide supporting evidence. Juncker has, with good reason not referred to Scotland. The only comment directed at Scotland was that his office made it clear that Juncker was not referring to Scotland when he said there needed to be “a break from enlargement”.

    In any case rather than debate this side of the issue, we should be more concerned about the consequences of the referendum campaign to the standing of the Liberal Democrat Party in Scotland. I think there are much more real fears here: I would like to hear from anyone who has reason that can assuage my concerns.

  • Julian Tisi: You have not addressed my argument. In brief faced with a choice between setting a suicidal precedent and accepting Scottish membership, the EU would pragmatically opt for common sense.

    You need to think seriously about the consequences of setting the precedent that you have assumed.

  • Denis Mollison
    Thank you for a considered and thoughtful piece. Lots of Liberal Democrats, Liberal Democrat supporters and former Liberal Democrat members and supporters (many of whom we have lost since 2010) will be voting YES alongside you.

    I fear that the NO campaign will win on the back of the Establishment onslaught of the last couple of weeks, everyone from The Queen to David Beckham, The Banks, EU big wigs, NATO, President Obama, Tesco telling the Scots what to do, raising all sorts of scare stories which are patently nonsense. But I fear that there will be enough people who will be scared off by such things.

    In The Guardian Owen Jones points out that the forces from outside politics that have lined up against a YES vote
    will be gunning for Miliband next in the weeks running up to the General Election. I expect that they will also be gunning for Liberal Democrats despite the current party leadership painting us as Unionist.

  • Denis Mollison 17th Sep '14 - 7:41pm

    On EU membership, Juncker is on record as saying that Scotland would be a special case – http://news.stv.tv/scotland-decides/news/283287-indy-scotlands-eu-membership-would-be-treated-as-special-case/

    Also, my understanding is that other EU countries (e.g. Spain) have to put forward a valid reason for vetoing membership – and setting a precedent for Catalonia is unlikely to count as such.

  • Steve Comer 17th Sep '14 - 7:53pm

    The really crazy thing is that “more devolved powers” for Scotland are promised after a no vote, despite that option not being allowed on the ballot paper, but is this credible? Clegg knows our party would back that, but I imagine die-hard unionists on the Tory and Labour backbenches would ensure it was kicked into the long grass until afterthe General Election.
    If the Unionist parties were so keen on devo-max why isn’t it on the ballot paper tomorrow? Come to think of it why are voters not being allowed to choose status quo or the pre-1997 unitary cebtralised state?

    Looks like the old gambler Salmond has bet the house on more powers for Scotland and has won, the only question is whether his main bet (Independence) wins or whether it his place bet on “devo max” Whatever happens the galvanising effect of the campaign on the political culture in Scotland has beeen terrific, and I hope things don’t just slide back to politics as usual on Saturday,

  • Julian Gibb 17th Sep '14 - 8:04pm

    No one believes more powers will be delivered.
    What does that say of the Part leaders who continue to make such claims?

  • @Martin (17th Sep ’14 – 5:55pm)
    Re: “That is utter nonsense. There is infinitesimal likelihood that the EU would exclude Scotland or even assume that Scotland had in anyway separated from the EU.”

    Sorry but the precedent (for Scotland to automatically leave the EU if it becomes independent) has already been set: I suggest you look up Algeria, Greenland and Saint Martin and Saint-Barthélemy…

    Additionally, I suspect that the Scottish parliament’s stated hopes of being able to retain the UK’s various rebates, opt outs etc. will also be dashed.

    Given Scotland’s hopes of staying in the EU depend in large part on the sponsorship of rUK (and we all know how good Westminster are at influencing our EU partners and the French specifically…), I suspect that after a Yes vote Scotland will (temporarily) be even more reliant upon Westminster.

  • Little Jackie Paper 17th Sep '14 - 9:02pm

    Dennis Mollison – With respect that article you link to does not say that Scotland would be some sort of special case. It says that there would be discussions.

    The EU question is rather interesting. It has been some time since I spent some serious time in Scotland, so I’m rather out-of-date on how popular (or not) the EU/Euro etc are in Scotland. But discussions and negotiations are quite some way from membership. I can’t see why an Scottish application would not be welcome, but the obstacles are rather more than theoretical. Most obviously the lack of a lender of last resort may well be a serious problem. As I understand it (happy to be corrected) Luxembourg, a long -standing EU member had to make some very significant changes to its financial system under EU requirements in 1998.(http://www.europarl.europa.eu/euro/briefing/general/25_en.pdf)

    A look at Montenegro shows the problems that can arise with the EU in the absence of a currency and associated infrastructure. Scotland most certainly is not in the Montenegro position and I would imagine that the EU would be very keen to avoid another Montenegro-type situation. Certainly Scotland would not want Montenegro style austerity.

    It may well be the case that an Independent Scotland could apply to join the EU and that application would be well-received, but that does not mean that membership would be on the same terms as the present UK arrangements. The various opt-outs may well not be available. Schengen in particular looks like it could be a real headache, oddly no one seems to mention that.

    It does, of course, raise the question of why there seems to be a reluctance to establish an SCP, certainly the ex-Yugoslav countries established currencies and made a good fist of it.

    And I would add that the EU’s definition of, ‘valid reason,’ when it comes to membership can be in the eye of whoever seems to want to find a reason. The Greek state’s appalling attitude to the Republic of Macedonia being a illustration.

    None of this, of course is a reason to vote NO (declaration, I couldn’t care less one way or the other). But there do seem to be some rather blasé assumptions being made on the subject of Scotland’s relationship with the EU.

  • Little Jackie Paper 17th Sep '14 - 9:07pm

    Martin – ‘The standing principle would probably be the treaty obligations that any successor state or states would be expected to uphold.’

    How would the NATO treaty fit with that? Or are there some treaties where one is expected to uphold and some that can just be walked away from?

  • @JohnTilley

    “despite the current party leadership painting us as Unionist.”

    The current leadership? When has the Leadership ever supported anything apart from power devolved within a Union? The GOM and Home Rule within the Union – is that not what Nick argued for this very day? I’d say we’ve had a pretty stable position since the 1880s.

    Also, I have not seen what Jeremy Thorpe’s view on the matter, but all other living past leaders support a No vote. So, when have has a leadership ever not backed pretty much the exact position which the current one is arguing?

  • LJP: Without knowing the details of the treaty, I cannot be specific, but clearly whatever the details, they would form the starting point for any negotiations.

    Roland’s so called precedents apply no better than the integration of East Germany into a new Germany.

    If a separatist party wished to break out of the EU by this means do those arguing that Scotland would automatically exclude itself from the EU really think that the EU would give the nod to such a straight forward manoeuvre? I do not think so even though the case of Greenland does provide a precedent of sorts.

    Besides all of this is tantamount to ‘fiddling while Rome burns’. A NO is so much more likely and since this is a Lib Dem site, there seems to me to be an alarming lack of foresight of the consequences for the Party. In terms of the prospect for the Party either side of the border a YES vote would I think be helpful. Of course the issue should be considered on its merits, but we cannot ignore the implications.

  • Little Jackie Paper 17th Sep '14 - 10:04pm

    Martin – ‘If a separatist party wished to break out of the EU by this means do those arguing that Scotland would automatically exclude itself from the EU really think that the EU would give the nod to such a straight forward manoeuvre? I do not think so even though the case of Greenland does provide a precedent of sorts.’

    I think that it’s entirely plausible actually. The EU is based on treaty, not constitution. Those treaties are only as good as whoever signs them. If a separatist party wishes to separate then what it does is become independent of the former state and treaty institutions, the EU doesn’t, ‘give the nod,’ to anything. Independence means just that! There are, of course, various interpretations of successor states, but the idea that a newly independent country could assume the same deal as before will carry on seems to me to be optimistic.

    ‘Besides all of this is tantamount to ‘fiddling while Rome burns’.’

    No it isn’t – these are really rather important points for a newly independent country. As for the LDP, I’m not a member so I will leave it to others. My personal reaction will be, ‘thank heavens that’s over.’ The sky doesn’t fall YES or NO, it’s no skin off my nose.

  • ATF.
    I am not sure what point you are trying to make.
    In the current referendum campaign it was wrong headed to be seen lining up with Tory, Labour, UKIP and the Orange Lodge marchers with their ‘No Popery’ banners . Liberal Democrats could have campaigned for Devo Max which is in line with the 19th century Home Rule tradition of the party. Instead the current leadership acted as Cameron’s Scotland representatives (or fall guys).
    Many Liberal Democrats will vote YES. Liberals have always supported the self-determination of small nations elsewhere in the world, why not Scotland?

  • LJP: What I mean is that we should pay more attention to the more likely of the outcomes. I will be very surprised if the issues of treaties and continuity become a reality. The problems with the consequences of a NO vote do not seem to get so much attention.

  • Little Jackie Paper 17th Sep '14 - 11:34pm

    ‘The problems with the consequences of a NO vote do not seem to get so much attention.’

    To be honest I’m probably not the best person to talk on this because I seriously don’t care one way or the other about the union. I suppose there is the risk we end up with a neverendum and all the issues it creates every 10 years or so. That wouldn’t be good. Either way, we have devolution, we have channels for more (or less) and we have politicians who are quite capable of finding ways through this. We’ve had all the, ‘it’s all England’s fault,’ grousing before – this is the chance for people to leave. That’s what this is about, right? If the answer is NO, then that’s it, it’s NO.

    Generally, the UK Parliament will need to look for a way to respond to what comes out of this referendum and the loser will have to accept the outcome. If it is YES, then the NO campaign will have to work to a new set of Scottish institutions and civil society. They will have to accept that there is no obligation of any sort on the rUK to agree to, say, currency union on terms dictated from Edinburgh. If the result is NO, then the YES campaign will need to swallow it and develop a devolved model bearing in mind that it’s vision for independence was rejected. That’s it.

    I do accept that your earlier point about other anti-EU groups possibly looking to follow the Scotland route as a way of by-passing the EU is a more interesting concern and one I had not thought of. But then ultimately that’s the nature of majoritarian democracy. I, and a lot of people who aren’t pounding the keyboard, are really rather sanguine about it.

  • @ Martin “Julian Tisi: You have not addressed my argument. In brief faced with a choice between setting a suicidal precedent and accepting Scottish membership, the EU would pragmatically opt for common sense.”
    @ Dennis Mollinson “On EU membership, Juncker is on record as saying that Scotland would be a special case…other EU countries (e.g. Spain) have to put forward a valid reason for vetoing membership – and setting a precedent for Catalonia is unlikely to count as such.”

    As Roland points out above, the precedent has already been set. And as for letting Scotland back into the EU, both of the above points ignore just about everything that EU leaders (national and EU Commission) have said will happen. There is simply no huge desire to make it easy for Scotland to re-enter the EU quickly and on the same terms as the UK. Indeed far from it. They’ve been saying the opposite – that it would take perhaps 5 years, if it isn’t vetoed altogether. That the UK rebate is a non-starter. And on and on.

    The blind optimism of the Yes campaign that the rest of the world will simply fall into line with Scotland’s demands is simply breathtaking.

  • Julian TIsi
    “…They’ve been saying the opposite – that it would take perhaps 5 years, if it isn’t vetoed altogether. That the UK rebate is a non-starter. And on and on….”

    Ian Paisley, famed the world over for shouting NEVER, NEVER, NEVER, suddenly when the moment was right he shared power with Sinn Fein, and by his own account rather enjoyed doing so.
    It is a funny old world realpolitik. Just imagine, a politician saying one thing before a vote and doing exactly the opposite after the vote.
    It would never happen with the LiberalDemcrats of course if they get into power — or so I used to believe and tell voters, but that was before the Clegg Coup.

  • @JohnTilley – I would agree that when the time is right strange things can and does happen in politic’s. However, all I pointed out (and Martin in his response missed) is what the precedence is, not what will happen. What will happen, particularly if it goes against the established precedence, I suggest depends heavily upon relationships across the EU and certain key member states. I’ve not seen anything to indicate that Scotland has been and hence will be any more successful at this than the UK.

    But then we may find that those treaties, that were subsequently exposed as being blank sheets of paper when our leaders signed, the term ‘UK’ was being used as shorthand for a list of members, hence all is okay. 🙂

  • Whatever the truth about the position of an independent Scotland and the EU even the worst case scenario is better than being forced out permanently in 2017 by the UK electorate as a whole.

  • John Barrett 18th Sep '14 - 3:42pm

    Denis again makes some very sensible points.

    Although I voted Yes, all the polls still predict a No vote will win the day. If it is a No vote, the Scottish Liberal Democrats should watch its back between now and the General Election, as the knives will be out from those they have worked closely with over the last year or more. If it is a Yes vote, I hope they have a Plan B.

    Nothing is guaranteed after the next General election. Call it a vow or a pledge, we will have to rely on Labour and the Conservatives at Westminster to deliver it and their track record shows why they cannot be trusted when it comes to major reform.

    Ming saying that Federalism is within touching distance is like saying that after AV was rejected, PR was now within touching distance, as something we did not want had been rejected by the voters.

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