The Scottish constitutional question

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The constitutional question has dominated Scottish Politics for years and shows little sign of going away. It’s something the Liberal Democrats should have total strength on – we have been interested in where power does and should lie for decades. Decentralisation in a system of cross-national cooperative government is in our DNA.

However, this period of constitutional obsession and wrangling has done little to support our party. Many across the UK may feel a similar sense of exhaustion talking about Brexit that we feel in Scotland about independence, except we have been doing it for nearly 10 years, not just the last 4.

It is for this reason that many in the Scottish Liberal Democrats feel tired and done with talking about the SNP, wishing that we would take a different stance to our pro-UK position. This often comes with the accusation that we risk looking like Tory-lite and we must talk about federalism as an alternative – a proposal that no Liberal Democrat I have ever met disagrees with. However, we also run the risk then of looking to be insufficiently pro-UK, or that we have qualifications to our support of the UK, which is unacceptable to the majority of our base or floating voters and risks alienating us from the Scottish electorate even further. 5 MSPs and 4 MPs are better than none.

However, both of these suggestions miss the point. Brexit and Scottish Independence are symptoms of a much larger problem. Those that would vote for these, come what may, are far from the majority of the Scottish or UK population. Focusing on the constitutional wrangling of the UK does not address that so many people vote for these because they feel they have nothing to lose, in an economic system of stagnant wages, few opportunities, an ageing working population lowering the promotional opportunities for them to advance. A housing market has allowed house prices and rents to rise for the majority of property owners, but priced out the young and low income earners from saving and buying a home of their own.

When the Tories or the SNP come knocking on their door telling them the system is broken and they have a solution, it is no surprise that our message of risk and fear does not resonate with them. They feel they have nothing left to lose.

It’s the power of our messaging and our failure to properly address the root problem that is the heart of our failure. We must start to see the bigger picture. If we keep playing the other party’s games, we won’t get out of where we are. Being SNP or Tory Lite will only legitimise their positions and not be enough to bring anyone over to us.

The irony is that there are constitutional problems that are reducing people’s feelings of control and engagement with our political system. All Liberal Democrats know that First Part the Post creates a political system that gives some votes far more power than others – so, of course, many electors feel powerless. An unelected upper chamber, stacked with friends of the prime minister, many of them failed politicians, does nothing to enfranchise normal people.

Too many people feel completely left behind in our society – and if modern Liberalism is to mean anything it should mean that no one is left behind. A society prosperous with opportunity, shared across the country, the constituent nations of the UK and reaching every corner of the UK, felt in every community and no one feeling isolated from the decisions that affect them.

Without recognising that this is the cause of many of the problems in the UK, we cannot expect to improve our chances or to be taken seriously as a party. We must fix our broken politics to make people feel they an empowered in our democracy if we are to talk about the constitution. We must fix our broken economy, creating opportunity in areas of low growth and stagnant wages if we are to expect anyone to feel included in our country.

Almost above all, we must use the levers of power available to us, such as education, to make it happen. No one can be left behind, or our entire country will be held back with them. When we measure our success as a country, we are only as strong as our weakest members.

* John Waddell was the candidate for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine in 2017 and 2019.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Really good points John.

    I’m so weary of it all, which I strongly suspect is what the nationalists are relying on.

    There’s still no credible plan for currency or how to fund the shortfall, and it’s exhausting trying to discuss it with people who don’t know and don’t intend to find out the role of a central bank or anything else that might undermine the vanity that we’re the ones subsidising the rest of the UK.

    They’ve already indicated that they intend to avoid getting bogged down in debates involving facts, and will focus instead on ‘stories’.

    It’s all so depressing, especially when well meaning members from England refuse to listen to Scottish members who have done the reading and would be the ones facing the massive cuts to public services. Just because Sturgeon is critical of Johnson doesn’t mean she is doing a good job or is an ally.

  • Laurence Cox 24th Jul '20 - 11:51am

    I have the greatest sympathy for Lib Dems in Scotland, who were badly let down by Jo Swinson when she agreed to go in with the SNP and allow Johnson his December election. The simple fact is that the Tories plus the SNP had an overall majority in the Commons and by refusing to move we could have left the SNP in the position of being Johnson’s enabler. By the time that this agreement was made our support had already been drifting away and any hope of a significant gain in seats lost.

  • richard underhill 24th Jul '20 - 12:24pm

    “badly let down by Jo Swinson when she agreed to go in with the SNP and allow Johnson his December election”
    Yes: what will she be able to say in her memoirs? or in Who’s Who?

  • @john waddell

    “A society prosperous with opportunity, shared across the country, the constituent nations of the UK and reaching every corner of the UK, felt in every community and no one feeling isolated from the decisions that affect them.”

    This sound like the Tory Party’s “levelling up” agenda and I don’t actually see much difference in your policy pitch as set out in this piece from the Tories. What is the difference?

    I also note you carefully avoid any reference to the economic and social consequences of Brexit, the centralisation of power in Westminster and the undermining of the devolution settlement. Are you reconciled to those?

  • Robin Bennett 24th Jul '20 - 6:25pm

    Well, John, I am a member who does not think Federalism is an alternative, and am not alone. It is a non-starter. Those whose Big Idea is English regional assemblies forget that the Scottish psyche cannot equate nationhood with regions.

    Current polls predict not only a comfortable Holyrood majority for the SNP in next year’s election, but that the pro-independence Greens will gain a additional-member seat in all nine lists. Nicola Sturgeon’s popularity may fall as recent mistakes come to light, but we will end up with a new Parliament still asking for another referendum.

    As Lib Dems we cannot claim to “stand up for Scotland” any more than other parties which are bound to their English counterparts. The polling predicts we will still see no advance on the dismal five seats we were left with at Holyrood in 2011. (We had 17, but most of our supporters transferred their affections to the SNP then, and again in the 2015 Westminster election)

    The time has come for realism, and a change of tack on Independence. The “too poor, too small” arguments can be countered with the simple fact that democracies of the same population size as Scotland – Denmark, Finland, Norway, and far-off Costa Rica and New Zealand – are well-run and rated among the happiest countries in the world.

  • Rif Winfield 25th Jul '20 - 10:19am

    With 54% of the Scottish electorate (and rising) now favouring independence, it is sadly too late to talk about federalism. I agree with Steve Comer’s point about many Scottish Liberal voters (as opposed to the Scottish Lib Dems as a party) now backing independence, which has contributed to the drop in support there for the Lib Dems. Realistically, Brexit has removed the last chance for the option of home rule within the EU (which was the logical outcome of Devo Max); in that context the Brexiteers are ironically the real begetters of the breakup of the (UK) Union. Perhaps the best contribution we as Liberals can now make to the debate (and the best chance for any electoral revival) is to talk about what common institutions can be preserved, and what the SNP – who will dominate the process of gaining independence – can be persuaded to agree with.
    Firstly, there are plainly common aspects which even the SNP supports. Preservation of the common currency – the pound – is clearly in the SNP’s interests; at least until they try to join the EU, when they will be required to eventually adopt the Euro. Keeping the pound does require some fiscal alignment with the British economy, at least as regards monetary policy.
    Secondly, notwithstanding the small element of republicanism within the SNP, in general they do not dispute retaining the monarchy (after all, if Canada, Australia and New Zealand can keep the Queen as Head of State, without any affect on their national sovereignty, so can Scotland). So that issue can be shelved too.
    Foreign and defence policy will remain the main areas to sort out between Scotland and the residual UK. There should be little to disagree here, with the exception of nuclear weapons – and it is clear that an independent Scotland will refuse to retain the nuclear base for the British SSBNs (and most Liberals would support them in this!).
    For those who have supported Devo Max, therefore, it is on the above issues that Liberal Democrats should be concentrating their thoughts, rather than taking what will inevitably be perceived as a Tory-Light pro-Unionist stand against the growing majority demand for Scoittish independence.

  • Rif Winfield 25th Jul '20 - 1:15pm

    Dear George,
    The problem – and its solution – would be exactly the same as exists for the land boundary between Northern and Southern Ireland! So we have to cope with this issue anyway in that context; it doesn’t present any new issue.

  • @Rif Winfield.
    But George is essentially correct. Ultimately there will be a proper border between the north and south in Ireland unless we are part of a customs union, or Ireland is reunited. I imagine that having a common customs area with England/Wales will be a priority for a independent Scottish government.

  • Question for John Waddell. Which would you prefer :

    1. To live in a country ultimately governed in London by a first past the post Tory Government (in the pocket of big business and the lobbyists) which 75% of your country voted against, with an unelected second chamber and about to introduce Brexit ?


    2 . To live in a country ultimately governed by a parliament elected under PR, a bit nearer home, wishing to rejoin the EU (something your country voted to remain in by 62 to 38% in 2016) and pursuing a mildly social democratic agenda ?

    3. What has happened to the 46% of West Aberdeeenshire and Kincardine folk who used to vote Lib Dem and to elect a Lib Dem M.P. ?

  • George Thomas 26th Jul '20 - 2:45pm

    Boris Johnson and the Conservative party must love the situation in Scotland currently. Through it, Labour cannot enter Number 10 without winning seats as blue as those represented by Jacob Rees-Mogg and all he needs to do is deny a second Scottish referendum vote which seems to be in line with the mindset of the majority in England – amazing how being part of a Union which allows you to exit is one which denies your country sovereignty but being part of a Union where they can deny you that choice is normal. The latest white paper on trade then allows what is agreed by the Conservative’s in England to be forced onto the more liberal, more progressive Scottish voters and Boris can secure his sizeable base with quotes such as “there is no Scottish/English border.”

    The Union is going to change massively over the next 5-10 years. The future is going to be independence, recognising the UK as a multi-nation state (with potential for proper for federal UK), Number 10 restricting what devolved nations can do until that system almost doesn’t exist or a fourth as yet unseen option. Boris Johnson has chosen to attack devolution and now the other parties have to chose what their best scenario is.

  • Peter Hirst 26th Jul '20 - 6:06pm

    We should learn from recent events in Spain and give Scotland no reason why its people should want independence. This includes full fiscal independence, a guarantee of fair treatment and full control of its own laws except in defence, trade deals and international affairs.

  • @ Peter Hirst How is it possible to have full fiscal independence but no control of trade deals, Peter ? And by implication are you also saying you’d put a block on Scotland rejoining the EU (62% of Scotsvoted remain). Do you think it’s in Johnson’s DNA to give Scotland “a guarantee of ‘fair’ treatment” ?

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