Opinion: No is not enough; Scottish Liberal Democrats must embrace independence referendum

Alex Salmond’s SNP have a political mandate to hold a referendum on Scottish Independence. With an unprecedented majority in the Scottish Parliament and a manifesto pledge, the question is not if we have to confront this issue, but how.

Leaving aside arguments about the Scottish Parliament’s legal authority to legislate on an independence referendum (this can be resolved amicably through Westminster legislation) the Scottish Liberal Democrats must engage with the merits, not just of independence, but also “devo-max”.

Although Liberal Democrats generally support the Union, not all members are so-minded. Some (myself included) are ambivalent or notionally support Scottish independence, on distinctly liberal rather than “nationalist” grounds. Much of the SNP’s success resulted from attracting our former voters. Many in that party share our liberal instincts. On several issues we should be natural allies: wrestling power away from a London-centric Westminster; seeking reform of the EU’s CFP; and reforming social policy.

Alas the relationship has been fractious and dysfunctional. The tipping point was the last Parliament. Scottish Lib Dems inadequately co-operated with Salmond’s minority administration, in general and specifically on the Referendum Bill.

As democrats, we should have supported that referendum. As liberals we should have grasped that opportunity to articulate a federalist-inspired alternative. Call it “devo max”, “independence lite”; whatever you like. What mattered was it had to give the Scottish Parliament real power, not simply allocate resources from a Westminster hand-out.

The Steel Commission (2006) recognised this. Seeking full devolution of most taxes and the Crown Estate, it offered a real framework from which to articulate our vision for Home Rule. Parliaments responsible for raising every penny they spend have greater power, but greater accountability too.

Instead, we shunned the SNP’s “National Conversation” and referendum, turning to Scotland’s conservative forces: Labour and the Tories. The result? The Calman Commission, itself a damp squib, further diluted by the Scotland Bill. It marginally changes a tax-varying power Scotland has never sought to use and gave the Parliament modest borrowing powers. It ignored corporation tax, alcohol, tobacco and fuel duty and failed to overhaul the arbitrary and universally resented Barnett spending formula. We squandered a chance to shape Scotland’s future in our federal image. The electorate punished our cautious incrementalism. Our disastrous performance in 2011 wasn’t just a Coalition backlash; our unremitting negativity towards a relatively liberal and pragmatic SNP administration compounded it.

We must not throw-away this opportunity again. Our entire conduct towards the referendum has been in lockstep with the so-called “Unionist Bloc”.

Firstly, we’ve had this argument about the “economic uncertainty” businesses feel about the future constitutional set-up. Sure, CBI Scotland sought clarity on some issues, but most of this information is already in the public domain. In a globally integrated economy the notion that this causes mass uncertainty for Scottish business is unfounded.

Boyd Tunnock, prominent confectionery tycoon, wanted clarity on the currency and whether Anglo-Scot trade barriers would exist. These questions have been answered several times! The SNP would keep Sterling (we would be joint-stakeholders of the BOE) in the interim before putting any change (Euro or otherwise) to the people in a referendum. Further, Scotland wouldn’t have trade tariffs with England provided it was an EU/EFTA member, the first being almost certain. Absolutely there are questions that remain to be answered, for example how to separate assets and the national debt and structural EU issues, but they don’t give cause for scaremongering.

These are, anyhow, issues of process not principle. The raison-d’être of self-determination is being able to choose our currency and which international treaties to sign. Certainly the SNP should clarify their preferred and likely transitional arrangements, but advocating independence isn’t a perpetual manifesto of specifics. Trust the Scottish people to make these choices as and when the time comes.

Secondly, sending mixed-signals about the “devo-max” question, harms only us. Willie Rennie has made some positive signals but we need more. By challenging its place on the ballot we again throw away the chance to engage with the SNP and define the woolly term as our own vision. We could argue for: devolving taxes instead of tax rates; devolving powers to deal with Scotland’s drug problem; and devolving localised work visas to attract more people to Scotland and relieve pressure on the densely populated English South-East. We could seek guaranteed Holyrood representation on UK international delegations, particularly CFP negotiations, so Scotland’s fishermen’s concerns are voiced by the politicians closer to them.

That list isn’t exhaustive. More importantly, devo-max presents a chance to re-establish ourselves as an independent liberal-minded voice on the constitutional debate and in Scottish politics. Laying claim to the consensus option distinguishes us from Labour and the Tories, articulating a vision distinct from independence without attacking it for its own sake. If we do this we should achieve more working with the SNP administration. Moreover, we might just find the Scottish people willing to listen and engage with our ideas again.

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  • Really good article.

    The problem you’ll have now (aside from fighting against the majority in your party who don’t understand the issue well as you do) is that we may already be beyond the point where it became impossible for the Lib Dems (or Labour, for that matter) to swing behind Devo-Max™.

  • Some of the issues that you claim above are already resolved may be so in the mind of the SNP but in reality should require the agreement of the rest of the UK, agreement which has not been sought. For example – retaining Sterling. I don’t see why the populations of Wales NI and England should accept any arrangements which might cripple the BoE’s ability to deal with situations that arise in the same way that we see European banking institutions repeatedly failing currently.

    Devo-max represents a having cake and eating it position. Surely a lot more specific information about devo-max is needed before non-SNP politicians from all parties can identify which parts they support and which they don’t. and detail is needed on which bits should be agreed by those beyond Scotland.

  • Jim Chalmers 18th Jan '12 - 12:52pm

    It is not difficult to define DevoMax. It means having the same relationship to Westminster that the Isle of Man or the Channel Islands have.

  • mike cobley 18th Jan '12 - 1:07pm

    Most commentary from such liberal observers as Gordon fail to mention that the reason nationalism has the wind in its sails (just as there is a parallel rise in support for the EDL and UKIP) is due to the neutralisation of effect argument and opposition from the left and centre-left. Without strong, respected advocates deploying vigorous arguments, the social democratic structures created and expanded since 1945 are crumbling before our eyes, since not only must a fortress be well-made, it must also be well-defended.

    The SNP was only able to attain its current majority because the Libdem vote in Scotland collapsed. And just when, nationally, the public is crying out for that strong, vigorous, forward-looking social democratic clarion call all that is heard are the feeble mediocrities of Labour’s Double-Ed Show. Certainly, there’s no possibility of the slightest peep of social democratic principles emerging from the Liberal Democrats, now that the very term ‘social democracy’ has been has become an embarassment to a leadership desperate to become the nation’s alternative-to-Toryism-but-with-Tory-flavouring.

    If the Scottish electorate ends up endorsing the SNP’s demented agenda for national insignificance on the northern fringes of Europe, it will be because the Liberal Democrats (aka the Liberal Party in all but name) failed to make the argument for the social democratic solutions that the whole of the UK desperately needs. After that, what will be left? – Scotland the Small, and Lesser Britain?

    (I should point out that I am a federalist – the Union as it stands is and has been creaking under the strain and needs refurbishing.)

  • Malcolm Todd 18th Jan '12 - 1:59pm

    “It is not difficult to define DevoMax. It means having the same relationship to Westminster that the Isle of Man or the Channel Islands have.”

    Interesting. Including complete absence of representation at Westminster and therefore zero influence over defence and foreign policy?

  • Graeme, interesting piece. I hope the LibDem leadership takes note.
    Re mike cobley; I would rather be an insignificant nation on the fringes.
    Think Mike, an insignificant nation but with acceptable and socially democratic institutions in place. Who cares if no one can find us on the map post Independence, as long as the population is socially and democratically better off.

  • Federalism is no magic bullet. You can’t get around the disparity in populations. It does offer potential improvements though.

  • Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do. Steve Jobs, founder, Apple.
    This could almost have been tailor-made for the SNP .. even for the Lib-dems at one point!

  • Very good analysis Graeme.

    Your central thesis that the debate has moved on dramatically following the SNP win in 2010 is key here and I don’t think the other parties have woken up to it fully yet. The Lib Dems are beginning to.

    The view of both yourself and Andrew Page in his blog that we should have a second question is one I am warming to. The issue is how to define devo max which could dominate the debate and allow the SNP to advance the argument that “anything short of fully indy is a dog’s breakfast” as they did (albeit with some justification) in relation to Calman. The second question needs to be crystal clear in its terms. Possibly an indy-lite option whereby rather than UDI as the SNP would have it a delegation from Scotland is empowered to renegotiate the Act of Union leading to federalism or full fiscal autonomy. Very difficult to put that into a referendum question though!

  • Correction – SNP win was 2011…

  • Allan Heron 18th Jan '12 - 4:40pm

    Agree wholeheartedly with the views put forward by both Graeme and Andy.

    I think one of the greatest challenges for Liberal Democrats is the fact that the party itself replicates the problems of Westminster in a post-devolution world. For example, it’s a frequest grumble of represenatives from Scotland who serve on Federal committees that much of the business is of no interest to them as it’s actually English business. I image the same issue applies to colleagues from Wales. That great self-appointed symbol of liberal radicalism had an article in it highlighting some issues of demarcation between the Federal and English parties. Their solution? Simple, wind up the English party. Any serious commitement to federalism should surely have looked to bolster the English party allowing Federal responsibilities to be limited to matters of relevance to ALL the state parties.

    Westminster has continued since 1999 as if it should always continue unchanged whilst constitutional reforms applied to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Of course, what goes unstated is the premise that Westminster is the English parliament, and that the other parts of the United Kingdom are there on sufferance. The answer to the “West Lothian question” is not and never has been about tinkering around the edges but need a more fundamental response to how this impacts the governance of England. A continuing silence in this regards just makes independence both inevitable and more desirable to be grasped at the earliest opportunity.

    If the leadership of the Liberal Democrats want to present a case for a single question referendum, then they need to present a programme for wider reform which will allow the union to flourish and, more importantly, how they believe this can be delivered.

    I believe this referendum will be used as means of settling the question of reform for a generation. I can’t see where further reform comes from if we get to the other side of a “no” vote. I can’t see it coming from either Labour or Tories, and it won’t come from us as we’ll be an electoral irrelevance for the same generation as constitutional reform. There’s no way we can campaign on the negative side of a single question referendum in those circumstances.

  • @Alastair

    You can get around the population disparity problem with reasonable effectiveness if you capitalise on the anti-Westminster feeling in some of the regions as well as in Scotland and Wales. It seems to me that from Yorkshire northwards, there’s regular comments and opinion pieces with people only half-jokingly suggesting their respective county or region should join Scotland post-independence.

    Obviously that’s going a bit far, but it reveals the loss of confidence in the centralised Westminster state. New regional assemblies along the lines of the Greater London Assembly or the proposed North East one can and should be formed to deliver the benefits of localised government.

    @Malcolm Todd

    Why the hostility to Devo-Max?

    Although I will grant you, there is ambiguity there. While the Channel Islands settlement is one way of doing Devo-Max, you rightly point out that its not democratic enough. I think our settlement between Scotland and Westminster should be more akin to the Nordic Council’s model of international co-operation.

    In that organisation, each member state is sovereign but sends delegates from their parliaments in numbers proportionate to the country’s population to an ‘over-Parliament’ that co-ordinates policy goals, works out a single environmental policy and managed a passport union before Schengen.

    Ours would be a bit different, with defence and foreign policy being the key unifier and the rest being more discussion points for coordination. But the example from Scandinavia shows us how policy areas like the environment and infrastructure benefit from international co-operation under a loose confederation.

  • Jim Chalmers 18th Jan '12 - 5:12pm

    Jim Chalmers said: “It is not difficult to define DevoMax. It means having the same relationship to Westminster that the Isle of Man or the Channel Islands have.”

    Malcolm Todd replied: “Interesting. Including complete absence of representation at Westminster and therefore zero influence over defence and foreign policy?”

    Precisely. Devo Max without major restructuring at Westminster will make the present West Lothian question look trivial.

    Allan Heron’s analysis looks very relevant.

  • David Pollard 18th Jan '12 - 7:20pm

    Keep up chaps and chapesses, Willie Rennie has already launched a Commission to look at Devo-max or Home Rule if you prefer. Liberal Democrats are leading mainstream opinion in Scotland with this Commission. All the opinion polls point in this direction. And what of the SNP? They are left supporting independence, which is clearly a minority position. The only place for them to go is to support a Devo-max question in the referendum and we will be there waiting for them with the answer.
    As for England; as Scotland moves towards greater autonomy, the regions of England outside the south east will start looking on with envy!

  • Michael Parsons 19th Jan '12 - 10:05am

    Perhaps “devolution” is a weasel word used to distract us from liberal and democratic imperatives. The real policy is Home Rule, which means Dominion status for otherwise subject nations. This policy began with Canada in the 1830’s and continued to Indian Independence in the 1940’s and beyond; with its most hard-fought battle being Irish independence. Gladstone’s heroic struggle for Ireland shows how entrenched sentiment can be against national liberty in the British Isles .
    We need to take up the cudgels against domination;. quibbles about forms of the referendum, subsequent rights and so on are side issues in the struggle for the rights of the democratic self-determination of peoples Surely the Coalition must stop trying to play god and determine in advance whether the outcome will be happy or unhappy. These questions are for the rights and decisions of the Scots themselves, who would certainly seem deserving of our respect. and capable of deciding by their own apparently grudgingly given processes.

  • The point has been made by Paddy Ashdown and others that the inclusion of devo max as a third option on a referendum ballot paper would lead to confusion and lack of clear preference. I would have thought that this is easily solved by using the much-maligned AV voting system.

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