Opinion: ‘Scotland – where now?


The referendum is over and has settled nothing. The election has raised more questions than answers. And the Conservative Government’s first Queen’s Speech has set the direction of travel, while leaving the specifics nicely vague. What we do know is that plans for ‘English Votes for English Laws’, barring Scottish MPs from voting on whatever the executive decides are England-only matters, will see Scottish Votes for British Laws made increasingly irrelevant. We also know that further devolution to Scotland is going to happen, but not if the offer can satisfy the SNP’s short term ambitions.

So where are Liberal Democrats in all this? Our historical commitment is of course to Federalism, which differs from devolution in that the members of a federation usually cannot be abolished by their federal government, and that such members are usually equals – each state has the same amount of control over its own affairs, and the same relationship with the federal government. Not so with devolution, which has led to the creation of several assemblies in the UK, each with differing powers and responsibilities.

An often-made observation is that if ‘Devo-Max’ had been on the ballot for the referendum, it would have won. In the end, the Better Together campaign finished on a pledge that voting No was still voting positively for new powers to go to the Holyrood Parliament.

That is the key. Devolution of everything that can’t be strongly argued for as an essential UK power is popular in Scotland. It’s also the right approach for Liberal Democrats to take. Call it Devo-Max. Or as seems more likely, cooperate with the SNP and let them call it Independence-Lite. But a Holyrood Parliament that is fiscally autonomous, able to borrow like the federal states of Germany, fully responsible for its own taxation and accountable to the people of Scotland for the results, offers the best way forward for Scotland.

It also offers the best way forward for England. A fiscally autonomous Scotland would mean an end to the unfair Barnett Formula. Devolving the bulk of spending, social and taxation policy to Holyrood would leave the SNP with no reason to vote on much of what happens in Westminster, making a party with an English majority less vulnerable to the charge of being held to ransom by the SNP. And we would end the situation where the Scots put up with governments they didn’t vote for to ensure that the English don’t get the ones they did vote for.

In the final analysis, Devo-Max, Independence-Lite, call it what you will, falls more neatly into the strict dictionary definition of a confederation. Perhaps the imbalance between England and the other UK nations, and the way this problem has been mishandled, means that a confederation is the best union we can expect to see.

But in any case, it is entirely compatible with that much older turn of phrase we as Liberals are used to – Home Rule.

* 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.


  • christopherhaigh 8th Jun '15 - 4:53pm

    What a wonderful article setting out a coherent Liberal Democrat policy for a considered non-radical change for the good which will surely get cross party support.

  • Jamie Stewart 8th Jun '15 - 5:40pm

    Is federalism really the “historical commitment” of liberal democrats? What is that based on?

    Symmetric federalism makes sense, but we are a million miles from it! Under this Tory government, with minimal inclination for consultative devolution, and no large-scale plan except for creating new “economic powerhouses” anti-Westminster sentiment will only grow in Scotland and, possibly, the rest of the UK. We need to develop a coherent proposal for symmetrical devolution, along the lines of the regional assemblies first hastily proposed under New Labour, in order to save the union. Otherwise it will be a matter of when, not if, Scotland will split from the rest of the UK, depending only on how long it takes the SNP to force the issue again.

  • Scotland Scotland Scotland Scotland Scotland…
    What about Wales? The South West? The North East?

  • Little Jackie Paper 8th Jun '15 - 6:48pm

    I’d be careful what you wish for here, particularly with the Germany comparison. Lander borrowing is notionally subject to strict controls, but they have been of value that is doubtful. I’d imagine any Holyrood borrowing would be subject to some serious controls from Westminster.


    Jamie Stewart – ‘depending only on how long it takes the SNP to force the issue again.’ Isn’t that the answer then? They want another referendum then so be it. A second no would presumably kill the issue. At the moment we are seeing the precise problem with referendums – the tendency to produce neverendums.

  • At the moment we have two big debates, one about the internal organisation of the nation with further devolution to parts of the country and the attempt to use the Parliament for two purposes, deviding the MPs into two classes, and then the external relationships to the ECHR and the EU. It will be difficult to give all proposals the right amount of time for sincere discussions.
    We certainly shall look outside to see how other nations use devolved powers in their regions. It should be noted the sample cited had its regions in place and wherever you live you have a devolved regional government responsible for you. I had once the chance to vote for the Welsh Assembly though I felt its above the level I should participate, however now I will not be able to have a vote in any devolved regional assembly / Parliament as this nation is only partially covered and there need to be an change to the English electorate in order to treat us the same in all 4 nations. A proposal I do not wish to further. On the other hand I may not need to worry as the political landscape may have changed completely in two years time.
    The discussion should be about geography as well as devolved powers.

  • George Carpenter 8th Jun '15 - 11:04pm

    @Carl Gardner Federalism doesn’t mean there should be no regional redistribution. In fact, it means more. It could mean an end to the rest of the country subsidising London, which has several times the tax money spent on it compared to other regions. Back to the example of Germany, the richer regions have to pay bulk sums to poorer regions (not the best system, but it can be done)
    Here in the West Country, public transport is falling to bits, whilst London has a great transport system, the only metro and high speed rail in the country and yet gets new investment in the form of crossrail 1&2!
    It’s ridiculous, unfair and far too centralised.

  • Jamie Stewart 8th Jun '15 - 11:28pm

    Alistair put it much clearer than me! Keeping on trying to sort out Scotland alone is like treating the symptom rather than the cause. We need to argue against the crazily unthought-through devolution currently being proposed and implemented for the rest of the UK otherwise there will just be an enormous mess…

  • Graham Hughes 9th Jun '15 - 10:46am

    It is refreshing to see there are members of the Liberal Democrats who have not forgotten that one of the core principles in the party’s constitution is a federal UK and devolving as much power as is feasible to the nations of the UK. It is just a shame than none of you are elected representatives in Scotland. Willie Rennie seems unaware that the coalition with the tories and the independence referendum are both over and is parroting the tory line almost word for word. It seems that unthinking hatred of the SNP is now the sole principle of the party on Scotland and policy should be to oppose them even when doing so goes against the core principles of the Liberal Democrat party.

    The referendum is over, we got the result in September, so the party should stop fighting it now and look to what is the best constitutional settlement for Scotland and the UK. If the party really wants to see Scotland remain within a federal UK and not be fighting anther referendum campaign in a couple of years time you need to get your elected representatives to stop trying to thwart any increased devolved powers in order to try and gain some minor perceived political advantage over the SNP and instead get them to speak out against the inadequate Scotland Bill and to call for a constitutional convention to look at the whole picture and at which you can argue for a federal settlement.

    Federalism has been a principle of the Liberals for well over a century. It was what Liberal Democrats in Scotland campaigned on during the referendum. There can never have been a time in the history of the party when that was more achievable than now. yet, while I have heard calls from senior figures in both Labour and Conservative parties calling for a fully federal solution, the stance of the Liberal Democrats in Scotland seems to be to defend the current “veto-max” offer as the last word purely out of a desire to oppose the SNP. If I was still a party member I would be calling loudly for Willie Rennie to either get his act together and start promoting the principles of the party he leads or to get out and let someone else, who will, take his place.

  • Steve Deller 9th Jun '15 - 6:41pm

    Time for the referendum question “Should England be an independent country”

  • “Most people there probably regard Westminster as England’s parliament anyway. ”

    But it is not, quite the reverse. It is the national parliament for the whole of the United Kingdom, and it has responsibility for all non-devolved matters — which, at the moment, includes the government of England, as England has not got a devolved assembly.

    That is why the whole EVEL concept is a sham: it implies that a Parliament can deny to a section of its members the right to vote on the matters for which they were elected. It is no different than if one party in the House of Commons were to pass legislation denying members from any other party the right to vote. It is a direct undermining of the principles of democracy.

    If the UK Parliament desire a democratic authority to create laws for England distinct from UK laws, then they must create such an authority — they cannot create the fiction of such an authority by delegating its powers to a committee.

  • Furthermore, it should go without saying that federalism (a question of how the constituent countries of the UK are to relate to each other) and regional devolution are two separate issues. Obviously devolution to Scotland, NI, and Wales, were necessary before federalism could be properly contemplated, but the issues of devolution of power to local authorities in England (the North, London, etc.) are an England-internal matter and have nothing to do with federalism as such, and would only have a bearing on the question if it were seriously proposed to abolish England as a legal entity.

  • I can’t tell you how bored I am of hearing about Scotland and the SNP.

  • It is clear that Scotland will become an independent country – it is just a matter of when. Considering that the majority of those under 55 voted ‘yes’ but 75% of over 75 year olds voted ‘no’, it may not be that long until a second vote will return a majority for making the break.

  • The results of the 2015 elections has split the UK to the extent that break up is now guaranteed.
    England is more to blame through the election of so many conservatives.
    Scottish electorate only reacted to increased centralisation from London by the election of the SNP.
    With post election weakness in liberal representation at Westminster: a federal constitution will not be clearly properly advanced and Separatism will grow.
    It is therefore only time before Wales wakes up and Plaid Cymru make similar gains.
    At this point I see no other option for Wales is to back Plaid.
    The Green party has already come to the conclusion that the UK system is unable to reform itself into democratic federal system.
    It is sad that English conservatism is dividing the UK.

  • Richard Underhill 25th Dec '15 - 12:51pm

    As David Steel MP used to say the Scottish legal system is different from the English “That is a fact.” to compare with the Tory opinions. For instance the Crown Prosecution Service is a copy of the Scottish system.
    This Christmas will be memorable for the announcement that the Church of England and the Church of Scotland are working towards a closer relationship. This will take time. There are important differences. For instance over bishops. The Church of Scotland does not have bishops whereas the Church of England now has female and male bishops.
    We might also remember the late Ian Paisley MP, MEP saying that the European Union “is a Catholic conspiracy”. It was not then, partially because Greek membership brought in a country whose Christianity is mainly Orthodox and partially because an attempt to write Christianity into a constitution was rejected. How could we possibly have done that to Jews in Germany? Post-communist enlargement has brought in Bulgaria and Romania, also mainly Orthodox and then at some risk of falling back under the ambitions of Moscow’s “near abroad”.
    Christians are being persecuted in the Near East and Middle East.
    A joint statement in two languages by ethnic Greeks and ethnic Turks in Cyprus is a sign of hope, given sufficient patience. I have been to a mosque in the south of Cyprus. Their reaction was only to tell me to take my shoes off. At a hole in the wall visas were issued on a daily basis.
    Common sense is yesterday’s experience. Fantasy is that the United Nations Security Council will vote unanimously for anything, but it has done so twice on Syria. Further progress is urgently needed.

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