The Supreme Court decision on a Scottish Referendum

The Supreme Court has delivered the judgement everyone expected from it – the obvious statement that, under the law as it stands, the Scottish Parliament does not have powers to call a referendum on Scottish Independence without the consent of the UK parliament. This judgement presents one opportunity and one threat to Liberal Democrats.

The opportunity is the chance to cut through the squabbles between Conservatives and the SNP by pushing our own policy – that of a truly federal UK. A Federal UK has been Liberal policy for over a century and to my mind we do not emphasise it sufficiently often or strongly. Voices in other parties (including respected former ministers such as Malcolm Rifkind and Gordon Brown) have from time to time hinted at support for a watered-down version of federalism, but we are the only party which can authentically present the idea as fully worked out and our own.

Federalism would do much to reduce the UK’s democratic deficit. Scotland has not voted once for a Conservative government in the last sixty years, but has had to put up with Conservative or Conservative-led governments for well over half that time. The Conservatives have imposed wildly unpopular policies on Scotland (the poll tax comes to mind) and are rightly blamed by many Scots for an unnecessarily harsh destruction of the country’s industrial base. These are just two policy directions which a federal system of government could have prevented.

A federal system of government would also allow replacement of the House of Lords by a democratic second chamber representing the interests of the different parts of the United Kingdom. We have the opportunity now to shout from the rooftops about a policy which is attractive, different, and workable.

The threat to Lib Dems comes from the fact that maintaining the constitutional status quo is Conservative policy. If we appear to welcome the Supreme Court’s judgement without pointing out the flaws in the present structure of the UK, we will be perceived merely as echoes of the Scottish Conservatives. It need hardly be said that this will be a very harmful perception for us in Scotland. We do not want a continuation of the present dispensation – very far from it. We want a Federal UK, in happy partnership with the EU and making a positive contribution to world order through the United Nations. These things do not flow naturally from the status quo.

It is time for Ed Davey and Alex Cole-Hamilton to match their opposition to independence with an equally strong condemnation of the current structure of the UK. Neither independence nor the status quo are good enough for LibDems. We have a better option. We should be offering it energetically.

* Nigel Lindsay is a former Liberal councillor in Aberdeen and a longtime activist in the party, but considers himself an internationalist first and foremost.

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20 Comments

  • There is no reason for the Lib Dems as a unionist party to ever agree to a referendum. I don’t think any PM in the next 50 years will agree to a referendum. There is no reason to. The SNP will never do deal with the Tories so the other parties don’t have to offer anything.

    No PM wants to go down in history as the PM who split up the union.

    Also because of Spain the EU would come down heavily on the Westminster govt side if the SNP tried to wildcat it.

    Sturgeon going to the Supreme court has killed any chance of a referendum in the next 50 years.

  • Andrew Ducker 24th Nov '22 - 10:06am

    I’d be totally up for a federal UK with proportional representation.

    But…there’s no sign of either of the largest parties being interested in that, or it getting support at a level which might lead to it.

    Until that changes, federalism is a nice idea that’s not worth investing much thought into.

  • slamdac 24th Nov ’22 – 8:44am……
    There is no reason for the Lib Dems as a unionist party to ever agree to a referendum. I don’t think any PM in the next 50 years will agree to a referendum……..Sturgeon going to the Supreme court has killed any chance of a referendum in the next 50 years………..

    Would you say the same about another EU referendum?

    Yet again Nicola Sturgeon has outmanoeuvred Westminster… Today’s court ruling enabled her to say “If (English) law won’t allow independence referendum, that shows why Scotland needs independence” Even ‘Unionists’ must admit that Westminster (England) see Scotland as a ‘subject nation’ rather than a ‘partner’.

    Actually, after yesterday’s decision, Sturgeon needs neither a referendum nor independence. The SNP will remain, for the foreseeable future, ‘THE’ party of Scotland and can make whatever demands it likes of Westminster, short of actual independence; an independence that was fraught with problems.
    Sturgeon has won ‘without firing a shot’.

  • The most recent Polls suggest a small Unionist majority of Votes in the Election whenever it comes. At the same time, its not impossible that The SNP could become the Official Opposition at Westminster.

  • John Barrett 24th Nov '22 - 2:43pm

    The SNP have mastered the art of taking credit for issues that are reserved to Westminster and avoiding criticism of matters devolved to Scotland and under their control, such as the NHS and education.

    Their claim to have a mandate for independence rests on the support of the Green Party at Holyrood. However, everyone I have spoken to who voted Green did so because of other issues, such as concern for the environment, not independence. Those who consider independence the number one issue vote SNP.

    Holyrood has no authority to deliver constitutional change in the UK.

    For any elected body to claim to have a mandate for something they have no ability or authority to deliver, would be like a local council having a referendum on lowering income tax, which many would vote for. Then that council claiming that Westminster should deliver it, as the people had voted for it.

    Like Nigel, I believe that Federalism is the way forward and the previous offer in the 2014 referendum was in many ways a form of Federalism, with the same currency, the same head of state, shared armed forces and remaining in the EU together.

    What is offered now and into the future is quite different and involves something more destructive than leaving the EU. This is why, as someone who was prepared to vote Yes last time, if there was another referendum on independence, I would vote No.

  • The ruling came as zero surprise to anyone with a passing interest in the constitution, and I include Sturgeon and the more sensible members of the SNP. It was, as if often the case, a ploy to appear to be doing something, stoke division and have something else to complain about, while the faithful parrot the unofficial, but encouraged falsehoods, such as it being an English court with English judges.

    What Sturgeon and serious nationalists really need to do if they want an independent Scotland is to persuade more Scots that independence is a good thing. They don’t do that by wasting yet more money on court cases they were destined to lose, but by filling in some of the detail of how an independent Scotland would function and showing competence with existing powers.

    I’m not convinced that pushing federalism will work for most hardcore nationalists. There are those who might prefer it, but the debate is tricky, and IMO we should be pushing for electoral reform first. It will fix most of the things the less xenophobic nationalists insist motivate them. Inevitably some will have been pretending, but it would force them to be honest.

  • Catriona Bhatia 24th Nov '22 - 3:20pm

    The main reason always given by our Leaders for not advocating Federalism is that it is too complex for the public to understand and also we (LibDems) haven’t got a solution to how Federalism would work for England. However it is clear that Nationalists also don’t have a clear idea how Independence would work nor do Unionists have a solution for the UK’s constitutional future.

    LibDems are both pro-European and Federalist – a unique position amongst all the political parties which we MUST take the opportunity to promote. It gives the electorate a positive reason to vote for us!

    Let’s get campaigning for “FOUR Nations – ONE Country” and leave the small print for later…

  • If there were ever another referendum, it would need to more than ‘in”/’out’. Or Scotland might end up with the debacle we’ve seen since the Brexit vote. A total mess six years on, and loud mouths in power claiming they can do whatever they interpret leaving as, ‘because it is The Will of the People’.

    Also, given what leaving the EU has done to Kent, I’d expect either detailed proposals to avoid the M6 in Cumbria becoming a lorry park, OR the vote being extended to the border counties.

  • You would think so Cassie. Unfortunately, most of the shouty people are making David Davies look like an amateur. It’s not a case of Scotland holding all the cards, our cards are gold plated.

    Their economic plan is more of a list of aspirations with as much going for it as my plan to retire early when I win the lottery. But it’s enough for some. You’d think we’d learn from Brexit, but the main lesson seems to have been taken up by the nationalists, which is to avoid specifics at all costs.

  • Jenny Barnes 24th Nov '22 - 5:31pm

    In PMQs yesterday Sunak repeatedly avoided answering questions from SNP MPs on the lines of “what is needed for a referendum on Scottish independence”. I think it would be better to define the pre requisites than to just say no. I would suggest a detailed plan of exactly what would be entailed by SI: currency, borders, relationship with rUK, defence (what about Trident basing), foreign policy, taxation and other reserved matters. Clearly many people voted for Brexit as a pig in a poke, or even just to give Cameron/Osborne a black eye, and the adult behaviour in this issue would be to make sure that the Scottish people can leave the Uk if they wish, or possibly even if the rUK wishes, but should know clearly what that means. Together with sensible thresholds for the votes – 60%? and a timescale/ and or conditions on which further referenda could be held if so desired.

  • Galen Milne 24th Nov '22 - 6:32pm

    Nigel is spot on – it’s high time for us to “come out of the shadows” so that we can prevent the binary nature of the current Yes/No conundrum. Federalism is not rocket science and despite the naysayers within our Party they need to stop the negativity about what the voting public can understand once and for all. As a Party we can’t rely on Labour to lead the conversation, nor should we, but we can believe that the significant voices within Labour, like Gordon Brown, will soon latch on and help expand the debate. And the sooner this conversation starts the better. Thank you Nigel for leading the charge.

  • @Jenny, I’d say it’s tricky to define, and worth remembering that SNP MPs of the time voted for the Scotland Act which agreed what is and is not devolved. We already had one referendum, but that was based on the premise that we’d never had a vote on it before and Cameron being as reckless about it as he was with the Brexit vote. How might it apply to other parts of the UK – e.g., what’s the process for London going independent?

    Sturgeon previously said polling of 60% in favour of independence for a sustained period (a year) before she’d push for another referendum and lots of people agreeing with that yesterday and today. Many argue she got the result she expected and wanted from the Supreme Court. It was about seeing to be pushing for independence, without actually doing it.

    There’s a strong case for saying that another referendum won’t be considered unless there’s a detailed plan with impact analyses, as well as 60% support, but I’d argue the only way the SNP can push up support for separation is by making the case and giving more detail. Complaining about being held against our will might entrench some views, but it doesn’t change the minds of those who would rather stay.

  • Robert Brown 24th Nov '22 - 10:32pm

    Nigel is spot on with his call for our Leaders to start pushing federalism. It also needs political airspace to give it life.

    I am personally sick to death of the binary choice offered by the two nationalisms which are in power in London (Brexiteers) and Edinburgh (SNP/Green). Many, possibly most, voters want to be proud of their country without having flags of one sort or another thrust at them. There is a big constituency for federalism of people like this who want improved, more accountable and more competent government, who probably regard themselves as both Scottish and British, or are not vastly bothered.

    The independence issue will only be put to bed when we can win back a percentage of the electorate who currently back the SNP to believe in the advantages of a reformed, federal United Kingdom.

    Unlike the SNP, we are not a one trick pony trying to turn the next General Election on a ingle issue. Federalism is a great fit with other Liberal Democrat themes such as moving closer to Europe, backing human rights against Tory abuse and stopping SNP power grabs of local and community powers.

    Alex’s speech at Conference referenced our federal credentials. Now our leaders need to start some initiatives to get federalism up the agenda. It is a huge strategic opportunity to present ourselves and our federal ideas as the only credible, practical and attractive alternative both to independence and to the constitutional nightmare which bred the Brexiteers.

  • George Thomas 25th Nov '22 - 11:05am

    “No PM wants to go down in history as the PM who split up the union.” (slamdac)

    There are two ways to split the Union: independence vote or such horrible treatment of devolved nations that majority in those countries stop seeing themselves as Brtish.

    Tony Blair, David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Liz Truss, Rishi Sunak are all contribution to growing numbers seriously questioning whether being part of Westminster is worth it.

    Options to counter this feeling are to set out positive case to stay in Union, including much needed changes to how things are run, or negative case of leaving. At the moment every politician is trying the latter without consideration to the former.

  • George Thomas 25th Nov '22 - 12:36pm

    “I’d be totally up for a federal UK with proportional representation.” (Andrew Ducker).

    Investment in London is relatively easy now because private companies are willing to foot part of the bill, but that’s only because historical investment in London at expense of areas in North of England, in Scotland, in Wales so London is real area of economic growth whereas others currently behind on this.

    If we switch to federal UK now with proportional representation, then there is a risk that political decisions (for example not devolving HS2 funds to Wales) make current inequalities even more concrete.

    Levelling up was such an empty phrase but so effective for a reason.

  • Wednesday’s judgement was all about the competence to legislate, and as Nigel rightly says, the outcome was foregone conclusion. The only other possibility was for the case to be thrown-out altogether.

    One aspect that is perhaps just as powerful, and is often overlooked by the pro-UK contingent, is “hearts and minds”.

    For the nationalists, this drives the ‘othering’ agenda. Everything is focused on being consistent Scotland-wide, centrally directed, and very definitively terminated at the border. Any opportunity to highlight differences between Scotland and the other home nations is seized upon; any differences within Scotland are skimmed-over as being inconvenient, opportunities for cooperation are treated with suspicion. All this fuels their one solution – independence (and by inference screw everyone else).

    It’s the “hearts and minds” we have to win over first, and I see this echoed in the comments of Catriona, John and Robert above. We have an archaic democratic system. Tradition (and a bit of pomp & ceremony) are all very well – but surely there must be huge swathes across the UK that want it updated, modernised, and made reflective of Britain today. That’s what Federalism and PR offer. No wonder large numbers are turned-off from engagement in our democracy, when they see how it runs. Cries of “They’re all the same” or “It doesn’t matter who I vote for”… These are the unrepresented and excluded that we should be reaching out to, as well as swaying those already mired in the politics of today.

  • Thomas Robinson 25th Nov '22 - 8:27pm

    England has no interest in federalism for the simple reason, as clarified by the Supreme Court, that it de facto has the whip hand in UK decision making.
    Another point no-one has mentioned is that every opinion poll has shown that a clear majority in Scotland believe that it is Holyrood, not Westminster, which should decide on whether and when IndyRef2 should happen.
    Given the demographics, which are totally crushing for unionism, I cannot see the Union side being able to do anything more than delay Scottish independence. If Westminster goes further and produces ever more unreasonable obstacles to independence, then when it comes, unnecessary bitterness will exist for decades

  • Peter Hirst 29th Nov '22 - 3:56pm

    Federalism is part of the solution but only part. Whatever the constitutional arrangements for the UK, treating all citizens equally especially in the areas of rights, equality and fairness is essential. Under the right circumstances it would be unusual for a substantial proportion of a part of the UK to want to be independent.

  • I would question the author’s assertion that “A Federal UK has been Liberal policy for over a century” since were that the case there was more than ample opportunity for such a policy to have been applied in the case of (all of the island of) Ireland. That just didn’t happen as there is no evidence of the Liberals having pushed that policy in late 1910s/early 1920s much less later.

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