The unsung hero of the Edinburgh Agreement

As I watched the events unfold in the Edinburgh sunshine today, as Alex Salmond and David Cameron signed the historic Agreement on the process for the Independence Referendum, my thoughts were with the man who actually put the leg work in on this.

To put it bluntly, if we’d waited for David Cameron and Alex Salmond to reach agreement, we’d be waiting until people were telling their grandchildren about the day Hell froze over. In fact, only recently the Tories were murmuring about the UK Government running its own referendum. That, believe me, would not have ended well.

Had Labour been in power, the process would have taken even longer. Their last Secretary of State, Jim Murphy, was not known for his cordial relationships with the SNP Government. There was little co-operation between the two administrations. Murphy talks in terms of patriots vs nationalists, language which I find poisonous, unacceptable and unhelpful.

It needed not just a Liberal Democrat in post as Secretary of State for Scotland to work constructively to get an agreement, but one who is known for unflappable reasonableness. It’s Michael Moore who deserves the credit for what’s becoming known as the Edinburgh Agreement.

When the SNP won their overall majority last year, they had a mandate for a referendum on independence. Unfortunately, they didn’t have the legal power to deliver it. To put the poll beyond challenge in the courts, the power would have to be devolved from Westminster. The SNP Government were clear that the UK Government should just give it to them. Mike Moore was clear that there were a few reasonable strings attached: the referendum had to be legal, fair and decisive.

The Agreement satisfies honour on both sides. From the UK Government’s point of view, the referendum will be supervised by the Electoral Commission and not a body appointed by the SNP. There will be one single question on independence alone. The SNP have won on timing – although, to be honest, it couldn’t have been held much before Autumn 2014, and also on giving 16/17 year olds the vote.

Liberal Democrats will be pleased to see that extension of the franchise and it gives a good springboard for a campaign to extend the franchise for all elections. Some party members will be disappointed that there is a single question on independence as they would have liked to have seen a question on more powers for the Parliament. However, this poll is not the only way to skin the “more powers” cat.  Rather than including a difficult to define “devo max” question which may have delivered an inconclusive result, the Liberal Democrats can lead the way to developing a consensus for the next stage of devolution. We would like to see a fully federal UK and more details of our proposals will be published later this week. It will also talk about devolution from Holyrood to local communities. Further devolution and federalism would never be a second question to Scottish Liberal Democrats. It’s what we’re about.

Today’s Agreement is not Michael Moore’s first major success. The Scotland Act, passed earlier this year, gives the greatest devolution of power since the Act of Union. This was not accomplished easily. As soon as the Calman Commission report was published, the Tories tried to backtrack from it. Labour could have legislated for it but chose not to. Michael Moore had to deal with issues raised by the Tories and Labour at Westminster and the SNP, who sent a list of 6 demands for amendments as condition for their support, at Holyrood. That Bill was supposed to have been dead in the water towards the end of last year, but Mike, with his usual quiet, reasonable approach got everyone singing from roughly the same bit of the hymn book enough for both parliaments to pass it. The SNP, who had described it as a dog’s breakfast, achieved none of their demands but voted for it anyway.

There is a certain irony that the Liberal Democrats who effectively vetoed a referendum on independence at Holyrood in 2007 have been pivotal in sorting out the details of such a poll in 2012. It’s a better referendum because of our input. Not only that, but Michael Moore’s role in ensuring that 16 and 17 year olds get a vote must not be forgotten.

Liberal Democrats should be feeling very proud of our Scottish Secretary tonight for his patience, his proven ability to work with all parties in Scotland and the constructive way in which he conducts himself. Nick Robinson and the rest of the media could do with looking beyond Salmond and Cameron to the real hero of the hour.


* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • I think it right and proper that the English stay well clear of this one. I am English, good luck to the Scots – whichever way the vote goes.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 16th Oct '12 - 1:01pm

    So that would be why Mike and Nicola Sturgeon spent so much time thrashing out the details over the past month, would it?

    Remember when we started this, there was talk of second question and a commission appointed by the SNP overseeing the Referendum. Neither of those are in the Agreement. Those were the most important things to the UK Government.

    A Lib Dem Minister was always going to be well disposed to allowing votes at 16 and it’s great that he was able to tenaciously pursue getting the rest of the Government to agree. It just goes to show that quiet, behind the scenes work can be much more effective than shouting loudly on the sidelines.

    Can you really imagine JIm Murphy being so reasonable? Or Tom Harris?

  • Malcolm Baines 16th Oct '12 - 2:26pm

    Big Dave – there are huge implications for England, Wales & Northern Ireland if the Scots do decide to vote for separation – a more appropriate term in my view than independence bearing in mind that the UK is historically a joint English/Scottish enterprise.

    For a start off the formal name of the country would have to change as the UK would not exist any more. I suggest South Britain & Northern Ireland would as a name encompass all 3 remaining territories. Secondly the flag would change as the cross of St Andrew would have to be removed from the Union Flag. Thirdly, new passports would need to be applied for and issued to the inhabitants of the new South Britain.

    By contrast, if Wales becomes independent, then that would have hardly any impact on the rest of the UK at all as Wales was incorporated by force rather than an Act of Union.

    In many ways it would have also been appropriate to have a vote at the same time to see if the Northern Irish wishes to remain with England in South Britain, unite with Ireland, become independent or join with a new independent Scotland given the much closer ties they have with the Scots than the English.

  • Tom Robinson 16th Oct '12 - 3:27pm

    Sorry, but I can give no credit at all to a supposed liberal & democratic party whose main contribution to the debate on the issue was to veto a referendum, and to refuse even to discuss coalition with the SNP in 2007 unless any attempt at a referendum was dropped -how has that worked out for you 🙂

    In 2011 the then Scottish “leader” (Tavish) shouted that if scots wanted a referendum they should vote SNP (absolutely certain they would not, exercising his usual woeful judgement)-it turned out to be the only bit of LibDem advice that the Scots have followed for generations 🙂

  • Tony Dawson 16th Oct '12 - 6:54pm

    Who, then, is going to pen “The Ballad of Michael Moore”? 🙂

  • I think it is Scotland’s decision, but it is fine with me that some UK political parties are involved in the campaigns, because a large number of people in Scotland vote for those parties in elections, both General and Scottish Assembly, and those people should be represented in the debate.

    If Scotland are staying in the Commonwealth and keeping the Queen, then I do not quite get why there is talk of changing the flag, but I am sure England will cope either way.

    Wales was taken by force? How rude, someone should apologise for that!

  • Salmond didn’t want a second, devo max question. He just wanted the “westminster parties” to be the ones who denied a third of scots their first preference because it is those people who will decide the result of the referendum. His pitch to them will be – you want greater autonomy for scotland but you can’t trust the other parties to deliver it, look how they denied you the chance to vote for devo max in the referendum, your only real chance to get close to what you want is to vote for my non-scary-keep-the-queen-and-the-pound version of independence. If he can persuade a majority of devo max people into the independence camp then he has won. Salmond has got exactly what he wanted.

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