Opinion: Scottish Lib Dems should abandon their suicidal complacency and promise to devolve oil and gas

It seems now clear, after months of polling, that nothing will disengage the Scottish electorate from its preoccupation with its place in the Union.   The latest TNS poll shows the SNP on 46%. Even a fall to below 40% will win the SNP most constituencies under FPTP.

We have heard much about Scottish Labour’s slump in the polls (from 42% in 2010 to 30% now), but the poll shows that their Lib Dem counterparts have collapsed from 19% to an appalling 3%. Lib Dems MPs look like being down from 11 to between 1 and 3.

Despite such a desperate situation, there are no signs of panic (not a Lib Dem characteristic). Willie Rennie has avoided emulating Labour leader Jim Murphy’s frantic efforts which, when not risible, offer little advance on existing Labour policy. Nick Clegg does not help: he has no profile in Scotland other than his association with English tuition fees and televised glimpses of his unhappy, disengaged visage at Prime Minister’s Questions.

There have been Lib Dem initiatives, such as criticism of police stop-and-search policies and Danny Alexander’s proposal to tighten the net around tax evasion, but it is in the area of Home Rule that Scottish Party policy needs to change before, rather than after, a disastrous election result.

Current policy is to support the Smith Commission’s proposals, but the electorate is not so stupid as to believe the claim that Smith equates to “Home Rule” when, as Margaret Smith, the former Lib Dem MSP points out, its proposals mean that the Scottish Parliament will raise only 37.68% of what it spends.

Ming Campbell’s Home Rule and Community Rule Commission report in 2012 recommended against passing oil and gas revenues to Scotland because of market volatility and in this he will have felt vindicated, but speaking on Radio 4’s Any Questions? on February 13, he said:

The present United Kingdom is not sustainable… there has to be a proper understanding of what the English want by way of devolution. And there’s a very simple answer to that, and it’s called federalism: an association of four nations which have as much responsibility for their own affairs as is possible but come together for defence, foreign affairs, large scale economics and in my view also social security….

This sounds like Jo Grimond on self-government in his Personal Manifesto of 1983, when he wrote

I find it difficult to see how … any powers can be reserved to the UK government except foreign affairs, defence, and the wider issues of economic policy linked to a common currency and common trade policies.

Note that there is no mention of reserving to Westminster the control of natural resources. Instead there is a vision of a common currency, Bank of England controls, and all revenue being raised in Scotland with a subvention to the federal government for defence and foreign affairs.

Of the seventy or so policy areas which, after the Smith Commission proposals, remain reserved to Westminster, the most totemic is oil and gas revenue.   Devolution of oil and gas would be a natural progression within the principle of subsidiarity. In British federal creations such as Australia, Canada and Malaysia, control of natural resources went to the states.

An announcement that Lib Dems support the devolution of the control of revenues from oil and gas means the party is backing a sustainable alternative to Independence.  Other devolvable areas can fall into place in accordance with the federal principle, and the Barnett formula can be ditched.

Scotland is now, for the first time in 30 years, contributing less (including oil revenues) to the Exchequer than it is receiving, compared to the UK as a whole.  This may lead to some snide remarks about timing from SNP politicians but they can hardly object.

* Robin Bennett first joined the Liberal Party in 1957. He is a member of the North East & Central Fife Liberal Democrats.

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22 Comments

  • Matthew Huntbach 2nd Mar '15 - 7:59pm

    So, would you say that on the same grounds the wealth that is in London and the south-east should stay in London and the south-east rather than be more equitably shared across the UK?

  • Philip Thomas 2nd Mar '15 - 8:08pm

    I support ditching the Barnet formula. As Matthew is hinting though, I don’t think that works out as well for Scotland as you seem to think!
    As for federalism, in addition to the areas listed, there must of course be either common immigration policy or (horrible to contemplate) internal border controls between the federal regions.

  • Simon McGrath 2nd Mar '15 - 8:16pm

    if we had devolved oil and gas taxation how would the SNP be reacting to the drop in revenue due to the fall in oil prices?
    Call me cynical but I suspect there would be loud calls for the English taxpayer to stump up.

  • Matthew Huntbach 2nd Mar '15 - 10:48pm

    Well, the SNP claim to be a party of the left, but I thought “left” meant a belief in sharing wealth out equally. Saying”The money from North Sea oil is all ours and we won’t share it with the rest of the UK” is hardly that, is it? Apart from that, they seem to think they can maintain a higher level of public services through playing the usual small country trick of having low corporation tax. In other words, they want to starve other countries of income by setting up a brass plate industry, whereby money made in bigger countries is artificially diverted just to them. How does this count as “left”? Sees to me to be the opposite of what “left” usually means.

  • Eddie Sammon 3rd Mar '15 - 3:37am

    With Scottish Lib Dem poll ratings so low I have wanted to ask for a while why no one seems to be questioning the leadership of Willie Rennie. It’s not an enjoyable thing to ask, but things need to dramatically improve.

    Clegg is arguably ultimately responsible, but at least we debate Clegg.

    Devolving oil and gas could be good if it meant scrapping the Barnett Formula. We need a fair deal for all nations of the UK.

  • Gwynfor Tyley 3rd Mar '15 - 8:12am

    This sounds like a knee jerk response to the current polling in Scotland.

    Wouldn’t it be better to let the Smith commission proposals be implemented and settle and more importantly to await the outcome of a constitutional convention for the whole of the UK to avoid the piecemeal approach to devolution being taken by the Tories

  • What’s the point of devolving oil & gas? It would make Scotland (even more) dependent on a dwindling resource that simultaneously provides ever decreasing revenue while acting as a major brake on the development of renewables or nuclear (both of which Scotland is almost perfect geographically to host).

    Besides, giving the SNP what they want (and what a majority of the Scottish people rejected) is no way to protect the union.

  • Julian Tisi 3rd Mar '15 - 10:33am

    As Gwynfor Tyler says, we should allow the Smith Commision proposals to be implemented and settle first. Until then, I don’t think it’s right that we revisit further Scottish devolution at any time soon. Scotland has always got a good deal via the Barnett formula, balanced by the fact that most North Sea oil is in Scottish waters. As Matthew Huntbach says, you could suggest that on the same basis that Scottish oil revenue stays in Scotland that the revenue from financial services should stay in London. But if you agree in redistribution to the poor you would share out both. What the SNP really wants is both the Barnett formula AND 100% of oil revenues, but for entirely selifsh reasons.

  • Malcolm Todd 3rd Mar '15 - 10:54am

    What Gwynfor Tyler and Julian Tisi said. There’s absolutely no evidence that Scotland is unhappy with the level of devolution already granted, since it hasn’t been implemented yet.

  • Eddie Sammon 3rd Mar '15 - 11:01am

    I want to make clear that I am not against different areas of the country having different powers as long as they don’t retain the power to vote on other people’s legislations. Yes there are concerns over currency, but we can go too far in the perfection direction where we start trying to make everything equal regardless and the logical conclusion of this way of thinking is we start redrawing the map of Europe into equally sized countries.

    There needs to be a balance – no to messy devolution, but no also no to disregarding culture and local factors.

  • Eddie Sammon: For those of us outside Scotland, there is an obvious tendency to leave Scottish Lib Dem strategy and policy to the Scottish Party. It is up to those who live there, however, I have not understood the stance of the Scottish Party during the referendum campaign; I really did not think it was so necessary to be so unequivocal on the issue, I thought that the same result of increased devolution could be attained from either a ‘Yes’ or a ‘No’ vote. I agree with you: whilst I think I can usually see what Clegg is trying to do, I am much more mystified by Scottish Lib Dem strategy.

    Nevertheless, Caron, for example, who is Scottish and campaigns as a Scottish Lib Dem, does not seem to raise these misgivings, suggesting that there are issues here that we, who are not involved, do not properly appreciate.

  • Good to see someone in Scotland is talking reality when it come to polling and seats etc. Like others I am amazed at the apparent complacency of the national and Scottish parties. When May 8th comes we will only have ourselves to blame nobody else..

  • David Faggiani 3rd Mar '15 - 12:21pm

    I think Willie Rennie will probably stay on in Scotland as Leader, no matter how bad the GE2015 results, until the Scottish Elections next year. By which time, quite a lot of things about the wider Party platform may be different.

  • Eddie Sammon 3rd Mar '15 - 5:54pm

    Thanks Martin. I agree the party should have been more welcoming to those in favour of independence. I came down hard against it in the last few weeks of the vote, but going forward the party needs to attract people who will consider voting for independence if there is another vote. Federalism alone is not enough, independence always has to be on the table as a last resort.

  • Denis Mollison 4th Mar '15 - 9:20am

    Martin / Eddie – you’re right on the Scottish party’s wrong turning. Since rejecting the possibility of a third (“devo-max”) option on the ballot paper the party’s identity has been lost within the anti-independence conglomerate.

    The problem goes back earlier, to the 2007 election, after which we refused to even discuss coalition with the SNP. At the time I was upset that the Scottish leadership took this decision without waiting for the wider body of members who were due to meet on the Sunday 3 days after the election. It has since come out that this decision was heavily influenced by our federal leader (Ming, who was in turn leant on by Gordon Brown). Not good either for democracy or the independent status of the Scottish party.

    Today’s situation echoes 2007. I quite understand that we are campaigning vigorously against the SNP considering that they are the main threat in 10 of our 11 seats. But given that their policy stance is that for the coming parliament their aim is stronger devolution not independence, it’s a pity we don’t seem to be able to contemplate working with them. We have the irony that it’s the unionist parties that are trying to make this election a rerun of the Independence referendum.

  • Julian Gibb 4th Mar '15 - 10:57am

    Robin

    A well written article. I am a Green at heart but will vote SNP in pursuit of Independence. I have respected many LibDem MPs over the years but I noted a significant change in direction (In Scotland) after post Charles Kennedy.
    Mr Kennedy was not a supporter of Independence but it was clear that he was in touch with the views of people such as myself. Mr Kennedy held the door open to discussion instead of the recent move to slamming it in our face.

    It is unfortunate that the main political parties at Westminster feel that the answer is to stand firm on a unionist position. It is evident across the LD party now even on sites such as this (Caron adopts a rabid anti SNP stance)

    As a “Nationalist” I am not unhappy at the policy of the main parties which is driving federalists towards the independence camp. The LibDems need to decide if they are truly a federal party or if they will continue the dogma of Westminster.

    Look at the polling data in Scotland – it is consistent over several polling organisations across months. Westminster Parties are not listening to the electorate. People do not believe your promises. I am pleased with that status – are the LibDems?

    p.s. Going into partnership with the Tories at Westminster was never going to win the Scottish hearts.

  • @Julian Gibb

    The latest Ashcfroft polling in Scotland suggests that 37% of 2010 LD voters will vote SNP in May and the LDs will only retain Orkney and Shetland.

  • Galen Milne 5th Mar '15 - 9:52pm

    Robin – Why don’t we just go the whole hog and take the banks back and all their accrued debt under Scottish state control along with all the other airports including Prestwick. And while we are at it lets buy Grangemouth so the oil we will now have control over can keep the refinery going when INEOS decide enough is enough and they frack off. If we do agree to do all that then we might as well invest in Longannet plus the decaying nuclear power stations. Once we’ve got all that under Scottish state control we might care to wonder if there will still be any private sector tax payers around to pick up the tab for these state subsidised industries plus our NHS, free Universities, buses, personal care for the elderly, our OAPensions, our schools, the permanently unemployable, fee child care, free prescription, I wonder?

  • Denis Mollison 6th Mar '15 - 11:30am

    Galen – I don’t see how your comments are relevant. Robin is advocating the re-allocation of existing tax revenue, not nationalisation.

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