Why Scottish Liberal Democrats oppose a second Indyref

Last Sunday,  Lib Dem Voice published my article on how the Scottish Liberal Democrats should promote polices that use the existing powers of the Scottish Parliament create a fairer, greener and more prosperous Scotland.  Some commented that since Brexit has happened Liberal Democrats in Scotland should pivot to support for independence, or at least put the question back to the people of Scotland.  I thought it might help to set out some of reasons why Scottish Liberal Democrats oppose a second referendum and want to keep Scotland in a reformed and federal United Kingdom.

The preamble to our constitution commits us to promoting promote a democratic federal framework for the United Kingdom.  Independence is not the same as Home Rule in a Federal UK and it should come as no surprise when we say that.  We should also learn from David Cameron what can happen if you support a referendum about something you oppose.

Over the past three decades the Scottish Party has successfully helped deliver devolution and home rule for Scotland within the United Kingdom.  The Scottish Parliament has substantial powers.  Those powers should be used to address the problems our country faces now.

Politics is about choosing what to spend time, money and effort on.  Choosing to talk about the constitution means that other issues will inevitably be neglected.  In March 2017 the head of the Civil Service in Scotland warned Scottish Ministers that preparing for another independence referendum would see de-prioritisation of domestic policies.  This is a real issue in SNP run Scotland.  Standards have slipped.  Scottish schools have declined in international rankings, college places have been slashed and the Scottish Government has failed to meet its own targets for the provision of nursery places.  Another referendum and potentially the creation of a new state will suck attention and money from almost every other problem we face.   Whether you’re a parent with a child at school, a patient waiting for surgery or a homeless person in desperate need of a roof over your head, you don’t have the luxury of years of more constitutional wrangling.

But what about Brexit?  We know the arguments against Brexit.  Separating from our largest trading partner will harm our economy for years to come, reduce opportunities for young people, for science, research and development and make it harder to tackle Climate Change.   The debates about the Northern Ireland backstop have highlighted the problems a new land border between the EU and a non-EU member state.  The real financial cost of Brexit is much larger than any ‘savings’ from ending EU budget contributions.  

If leaving a 40-year-old union has the impact we see from Brexit, just think about the effect of leaving this 300-year-old union.  Scotland’s largest trading partner is England.  That is not a trivial issue. If the reason for Scotland leaving the United Kingdom is to re-join the European Union, then we will be re-joining without England.  Apart from short haul air every route from Scotland to the EU27 lies through England.  We can see the mental gymnastics of Brexiters about the Irish border.  If the SNP get their way the external border of the Union would be at Gretna, Carter Bar and Berwick-upon-Tweed.  Just think about the disruption to businesses, families and connections.  Along with the issues of the choice of currency and the deficit a hard border with England is as much as a problem for the SNP as a hard border in Ireland is for Brexiters.

In the middle of a pandemic when the UK can borrow money at much better terms than a new state with no currency there is also something slightly irrational about campaigning to throw off the shackles of the UK – with its pooling and sharing of resources that allows Scotland to run a large deficit in public spending of around 7%  – in order to re-join a political union that does not pool and share resources to the same degree and requires members to run a 3% deficit.

However, it is not just about money.  Liberal Democrats must continue to make the passionate, emotional and economical case for a reformed United Kingdom. This, it could be argued, is the more important argument.  The question of independence goes right to the what the United Kingdom if for.  Are we divided?  Are people in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland really that different in outlook and interests?  Do we choose to put up barriers and say goodbye to old friends?  Or do we look forward and work together to solve our problems? 

The SNP would have us think different, but there is more that unites the people of the United Kingdom than divides us.  Hundreds of years of cultural, social, economic and family connections link Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland.  Liberal Democrats respect multiple identities.  One of the striking things about the campaign against Brexit in the years since 2016 was how it gave voice to the celebration of multiple identities.  It is possible to be Scottish, British and European at the same time.  Such a pluralistic approach makes it harder for people to build up an irrational fear of ‘the other’.  The scars of the 2014 referendum still stain Scottish political culture much as the scars of 2016 effect politics and public life across the whole UK.

Despite the protests from nationalists there is a dark side to the idea that one identity must trump all others. Many will have seen how some ‘joyous’ and ‘civic’ nationalists recently protested at the border with England in hazmat suits.  Of course they are an extreme fringe, but every time a prominent figure in the nationalist movement suggests that the concerns of people in England, Wales or Northern Ireland are alien to Scotland or responds to criticism of the SNP government with the whataboutery that, “It’s worse in England” they encourage a certain type of nationalist to ramp up the abuse.

If we are all Jock Tamson’s bairns then we should strive to create a society where taking one identity does not preclude sharing in another and where borders and division are not the answer to our problems.  It would be pretty foolish to respond to the new borders of Brexit by putting up a hard border from the Solway Firth to the Tweed.

Of course, the Tory Government wants to do some pretty unpleasant and harmful things, but is Boris Johnson really a good enough reason to break up a 300-year-old political, economic and cultural union?  Is he so tough and unstoppable that the only option is to leave?  While his ego might think it true, it is not.  In the past we have had politicians who have shown the power of the UK as one.  Politicians like Charles Kennedy whose liberal vision for our country showed us what it meant to be a United Kingdom.  Let us work together and show how the actions of a small-minded Prime Minister pale in comparison to the opportunity that a Federal United Kingdom presents.  


* Fred Mackintosh QC is the Scottish Liberal Democrat Prospective Scottish Parliamentary Candidate for Edinburgh Southern.  He was a member of the Campbell Commission on Home and Community Rule.  His campaign webpage is at www.fredmackintosh.scot 

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  • It’s a good article and my head agrees with it. But my heart, not so sure. Can I honestly say to Scottish friends that with everything going on with the UK Government that they couldn’t do better, even with the cost of change that Fred points out? Northern Scotland feels remote from Edinburgh, let alone London. Perhaps the biggest pleading is that if we are ever to shift this Government, we will need those Scottish votes to make it happen.

  • Fred is a respected lawyer and as such is usually careful in his use of words. However, the word ‘some’ is missing in the title.

    It would be helpful if it could be explained why the border situation in Ireland is not appropriate in Scotland.

  • An article that is rather selective and partisan in facts…

    I’m no Scot but Scotland is still dependent on Westminster for funding and, if ‘standards have fallen; in Scotland they are a lesser reflection of the same falls in the rest of the UK.

    “Do we choose to put up barriers and say goodbye to old friends? Or do we look forward and work together to solve our problems? ”
    Tell that to Northern Island; their ‘goodbye’ was a re-run of Johnson’s personal life, a man whose lack of integrity is legendary..
    As for Johnson, he wasn’t a political heavyweight when the last referendum (promised the ONLY safeguard of what was then our EU friendship). Johnson is just the latest in ‘Westminster’ leaders who regard Scots as undesireable aliens; remember Cameron’s ‘coalition of chaos’, etc.

    A referendum is only a ‘choice’ not a dictat. If your argument is valid then the result will be the same and your fears of Sturgeon will be eased by her having lost yet another referendum..

  • John Marriott 19th Jul '20 - 11:25am

    People make similar arguments when opposing PR. It will, they say, allow all sorts of dodgy people and parties to get into Parliament. I say that, if they can get the votes, they deserve the representation and then they will have to defend their position against scrutiny.

    It’s the same, surely, with Scottish Independence. If the SNP wins another mandate next year, let them have their Referendum. Then their policies will again be scrutinised and they may struggle to answer some very awkward questions.

    What about a currency? What about the Barnett formula? What about the revenues from the now unfashionable North Sea Oil? How do they get a fast track back into the EU? What about their defence strategy? The list is very long. After all, the UK is now just waking up to the fact that little guys don’t have that much clout in this world of heavyweights. An even smaller guy can’t rely on whisky sales alone.

    However, you have to have some sympathy with independence supporters, when they were told last time that, if they left the U.K., there was no guarantee that they could step straight back into the EU! Much has happened over the past six years.

  • Only the British Government can call a referendum and they aren’t going to anytime soon. Scotland could call one but it would be symbolic. As for the idea that the problem is the English, I suspect that had they been given a vote in 2016 Scotland would be independent because a lot of people think , well, if that’s what Scots want, good luck to them.

  • I fear that Fred’s article is in danger of conflating opposition to two distinct, although necessarily related, propositions: “a second Indyref” and Scottish independence itself.
    Obviously, all sorts of political and economic objections could be raised against those advocating full independence – but I suspect that it will prove virtually impossible to resist a further referendum on the subject, particularly if the SNP wins a clear mandate in next year’s Scottish Parliament elections. In those circumstances, it would surely be seen as profoundly undemocratic and churlish for the Scottish Lib Dems to continue to oppose Indyref 2 or to encourage Lib Dem parliamentarians at Westminster to do so on their behalf.
    Whatever our position on the substantive issue of independence – and there will undoubtedly be Lib Dems and liberals on both sides of that argument – surely no true democrat or liberal could fail to support the principle of self-determination? If there is a genuine appetite for a further referendum (as seems to be the case), we should therefore respect, rather than seek to frustrate, the democratic right of the Scottish people to decide their own constitutional future.
    Besides, as others have also observed, much has changed since the ‘No’ vote in 2014, not least Brexit (which was decisively rejected by the Scottish electorate) – so perhaps we should be more gracious in acknowledging this, allow the SNP to hold a “final say” referendum … and then ensure that their independence proposals are subjected to detailed scrutiny, leading to a vote in which Lib Dem proposals for a fully federal U.K. could also be included on the ballot.

  • Robert Brown 19th Jul '20 - 5:35pm

    Excellent article by Fred. I would add a couple of comments

    1. Referenda – a referendum is not democracy heaven. In fact it reduces everything to a binary choice and causes people to line up in hostile tribes in either side of identity lines of various kinds. Both the 2014 and 2016 referenda were hugely unpleasant and divisive experiences which resolved nothing because of the relative closeness of the results. Referenda used to be regarded as suspect foreign devices used by Napoleon, Hitler or Mussolini to give spurious sanction to their power.

    We should not be supporting another referendum on independence – neither the referendum nor independence are our policy. Nor should we answer artificial questions or what ifs. Our policy is Home Rule within a reformed, federal UK. If we make a decent case for it, then the SNP may not get that majority and there is a new situation.

    3. Europe – it really isn’t true that people voted No in 2014 on the basis that that was the best way to stay in Europe. On the contrary, it was the SNP who were in a problem because it was uncertain if there would be automatic re entry to the EU for an independent Scotland. Remember Alex Salmond’s non existent legal advice?

    In 2014 the SNP argument was there would be no real change because we were all in the EU together. Now the proponents of independence have to sell a hard border, a break up of the UK home market, a currency issue and the austerity plus demonstrated by Andrew Wilson’s paper. Whatever else it is, it will be a major and damaging event for Scotland.

  • William Dickie 19th Jul '20 - 6:08pm

    Intelligent and interesting article, it would seem that no political party wants the Separation of Scotland from the United Kingdom apart from the extreme fringe of the SNP.

  • Simon Horner 19th Jul '20 - 6:27pm

    I recall a discussion I had with Fred over coffee at a Scottish Libdem conference in Dunfermline shortly before the Scottish independence referendum. We were mulling the then hypothetical scenario of Scotland being forced to choose between the UK and the EU. We amicably agreed to differ. I opted for European unionism while he preferred to maintain the UK link and I respect his continuing commitment to his position.

    When the hypothetical turned into stark reality, on the Friday after the EU referendum, I realised that my 42-year membership of the party would have to end. It was clear to me immediately that, at least from a citizenship point of view, it would not be possible to be British and European at the same time. Nationalism is deeply unpalateable to Liberals but all of us have effectively been forced to align ourselves with a form of nationalism (Scottish or British). I reluctantly switched my vote to the SNP and then emigrated to Ireland in order, in due course, to regain the EU citizenship that I used to share with my Belgian children.

    The Scottish Libdems need to recognise that giving priority to the British link now puts them firmly in the UK nationalist camp, notwithstanding their venerable support for federalism (which I fondly remember being extolled at Scottish Liberal conferences in the 1970s).

    I won’t seek to contradict Fred on the economic arguments. In the short term, at least, he has some valid points, but I am convinced that Scotland’s long-term interests lie in rejoining the EU with its huge market, liberal foundations and commitment to internationalism. This is only possible if the country can detach itself from its existing, uncomfortably assymetric union, and escape from the absolute sovereignty of a Westminster parliament that is dominated by people whose values are increasingly strident and alien. And for those who suggest that the EU would shun a Scottish application, I suggest a dose of ‘realpolitik’. There might well be some awkward issues to resolve (fishing?) but overall, the welcome back would be a warm one.

  • John Marriott 19th Jul '20 - 7:54pm

    @Robert Brown
    Sorry to be pedantic, Mr Brown; but referendums (the correct plural as ‘referendum‘ is not a noun in Latin) are by their nature binary. However, as could have been the case with a second EU referendum, a menu with choices, with the chance to mark them in order of preference, might offer a more nuanced approach. I appreciate that you are hiding behind party policy; but as I am currently not a member I feel perfectly at liberty to offer the following:

    For a second Scottish Referendum: 1. Status quo 2. Devo max within a Federal UK 3. Full independence. Order in preference.

    And how about a referendum for the rest of us on the same lines? You could even ask the English if they approved of Scottish Independence. Now that might produce an interesting result!

  • Graham Evans 19th Jul '20 - 10:33pm

    @ Simon Horner The EU is struggling to hold together the disparate views on how to respond to the consequences of Covid-19 of Poland and Hungary as one perspective, the Netherlands, Austria, and Sweden as another perspective, Spain, Italy and Greece as a third perspective, while France and Germany try to put together a compromise. Whatever is eventually decided will create problems for the next decade. The last thing the EU needs is a new member at odds with its biggest trading partner by far.

  • Jane Ann Liston 20th Jul '20 - 12:07am

    Well said, Fred.
    We’ve seen a Brexit referendum with a narrow majority to leave being pushed through despite a growing number of people, maybe even a majority, now wanting to remain (too late, we’re out), now that they realise what it means. I can just see the same thing happening again should Scotland narrowly vote to leave the UK, but there will be no return.

  • richard underhill 20th Jul '20 - 7:05am

    Robert Brown 19th Jul ’20 – 5:35pm
    or De Gaulle, depending on which he was more likely to win.

  • Anne Cunningham 20th Jul '20 - 8:36am

    Can anyone really see the long term LD aspiration for a federal UK ever happening? The possibility began to crumble when devolution set up three in four legislative bodies and it has receded into the distance. Twenty years on, Westminster still dominates and although the Tories are rejected time and again by Scottish voters, we are not an equal partner of England and never will be and Brexit has personified this situation. Is denying us another referendum increasing your support? Election results and polls continually prove that it doesn’t. Isn’t it time to reassess the actual facts in front of your face instead of concentrating on policies which would clearly never get past the Westminster government?.

  • Anne Cunningham 20th Jul '20 - 8:49am

    John Marriott “For a second Scottish Referendum: 1. Status quo 2. Devo max within a Federal UK 3. Full independence. Order in preference.”
    1. It doesn’t exist and never will – it is party to the whims of Westminster.
    2. A vote for it would make absolutely no difference – it is in the hands of Westminster.
    3. It could result in Independence (hopefully) but, unless Westminster changes radically, the question will be asked again and again in the future.
    The fact is, and will remain, that Westminster dominates and Scotland has no voice within it.

  • John Marriott 20th Jul '20 - 9:22am

    @Ann Cunningham
    In response to your analysis of #2, all the more reason, therefore, for Liberal Democrats EVERYWHERE to campaign for a Federal United Kingdom! As for your views on #s 1 and 3, the status quo is Scotland as it is now, which gives it in some ways the best of both worlds, although Brexit might alter that. However, it still has the Barnett formula. If it wins full independence the picture for it might not be as rosy as its supporters have predicted. Remember the ‘sun lit uplands‘ of a buccaneering Britain free of the shackles of the EU predicted by so many Brexiteers.

  • Innocent Bystander 20th Jul '20 - 12:41pm

    I count myself as one of millions of English who will see Scottish independence as a blessed relief from centuries of whingeing and accusations.
    We can easily get offended. Emperor Hadrian didn’t have to build a wall to keep the English in.
    England is where the media, arts, science, sports, science, business and every other form or interest and action are and the Scots are welcome to stay in Scotland.
    Both Salmond and Sturgeon deny there will be a hard border. Be careful, if 55 million English want a border there will be a border. And they will go for that far sooner than the destruction of England to appease those who will never be appeased until they have cut all their ties with the English.

  • Peter Hirst 20th Jul '20 - 2:56pm

    Geography shows that independence for Scotland must be a last resort for both countries. Surely, we can give Scotland enough autonomy to satisfy all but the most ardent nationalists. Politics and power struggles are getting in the way of what is best for most of the people of both countries.

  • richard underhill 20th Jul '20 - 4:04pm

    Robert Brown 19th Jul ’20 – 5:35pm
    Given three choices and not being Japanese are your choices transferable?

  • As an Englishman living in Scotland I’ve come to the conclusion that Mr Innocent Bystander has finally blown his cover after several years of careful, not to say deceptive,l camouflage.

    His posts always seem to arrive during Dominic Cummings’ tea breaks.

  • @Martin, you suggest we ignore the claims that Spain or Belgium might block Scotland’s application to join the EU, and you are right. That’s always been a red herring, designed to detract from the real stumbling block.

    The far bigger obstacle comes in the form of the economic requirements of membership. That is, to have a deficit of less than or equal to 3% Ignoring the last few months, Scotland’s deficit was sitting stubbornly at around 8% which was the lowest it had been for some time. Like many parts of the UK Scotland is able to operate at a deficit greater than 3% because some of the UK operates a surplus or a lower deficit, bringing the overall deficit within the allowed 3%

    The SNP’s Growth Commission report discussed options to reduce the deficit, and while the report can be criticised for some of its rhetoric, it did at least acknowledge the requirement for deficit reduction. It would require cutting the Scottish budget by about 1% per year for 10 years to meet the requirements – and all that assuming no knock on impact for the wider economy. It hoped that, despite these cuts to public spending, there would be world record beating growth thanks to the simple act of independence, using magical levers that are not apparently available to a devolved Scotland, nor it seems to any other country that’s struggled to cut their deficits. The alternative is to off-set some of the cuts with massive tax rises, and while many of us are OK with paying a bit more tax, the economy as a whole would struggle if Scotland became a very high tax economy. It should be noted, that until the economic crash, the proposal from the SNP was that an independent Scotland would follow the Republic of Ireland model, being a low tax economy. They had to quietly drop that proposal once the EU had to bail out Ireland.

    So it’s all very well posing the theoretical question of whether or not Scotland would be better off in the UK or EU single markets, the reality is that Scotland would have to operate for a number of years outside the EU either way.

    And to those saying they think that a “small financial hit” is an acceptable price to pay – please not that it equates pretty much to the budget for the NHS. Assuming those people would want to protect the NHS, what other public services would they cut instead?

  • John Barrett 3rd Aug '20 - 12:43pm

    It does appear that the main reason against a second referendum is that Fred and other decision makers in the Scottish Lib-Dems fear the SNP might win it.

    As someone who voted Yes to independence (along with an estimated 30% of Lib-Dem supporters) last time, but who thinks that I would probably vote No, if there was another indyref. I cannot feel anything other than that there needs to be a better policy developed before next May’s Scottish Parliamentary elections, or the Scottish Lib-Dems will struggle to hold on to their existing few seats at Holyrood.

    Entering a campaign with the message that we will not allow people to have a say on their own future is a political suicide note and it will place all candidates in a no win position, when asked the question, “Why will you not allow Scottish voter a say on their future?” Any answer will be a poor answer.

    When the party was demanding a second vote on any EU deal following the Brexit result, and at the same time denying Scots any second vote, it was clearly an unsustainable position then and it is unsustainable into the future.

    Much better to support a second referendum in the run up to next May, but to demand that any negotiated deal also be subject to a second vote, to allow the people of Scotland the final say, should they choose Independence in the first vote.

    The SNP will then have to negotiate a deal from a very weak position, especially over trade, currency, defence, the economy and border issues.

    We need to reconnect with the Scottish voters again. Denying them a voice is not the wat to do it.

  • Richard Brindle 29th Nov '20 - 6:17pm

    It is surely better for at least one part of Britain to be part of the EU than none. An independent Scotland could, and should, be the 28th member of the EU. In combination with Northern Ireland, effectively a member of the EU, and the Republic of Ireland, these three Celtic states could force the rump of the UK into the EEA. If Scotland adopted the Irish nationality system of allowing anyone with a Scottish grandparent to have Scottish, and consequently, European nationality (for a fee…) then millions of Brits could once more be European. The LibDems should be neutral on Scottish independence and not oppose it.

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