Independence Referendum announced - what Lib Dems should do next

And so Alex Salmond has announced that Scots will have the chance to vote on independence in Autumn 2014. This shouldn't surprise anyone. What it means in practice is that we will have to wait almost three years which is positive in the sense that it allows more than sufficient time for a reasonable debate, but is an unusually long time in which to plan and fight a campaign.

I'm quite enthusiastic about taking the arguments to Scottish voters but even I have to admit that after 3 years I might feel a bit of campaign fatigue. No doubt the average Scottish voter, possessing less in the way of political motivation, will tire even more quickly - especially if the campaigning amounts to little more than three years of intolerant namecalling, scaremongering and shallow debate.

Of course, while it will take some time for the campaigning groups to establish themselves, there can be little doubt on both sides that the campaign itself starts now. Already, Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie and former leader Tavish Scott have fired opening salvos: Rennie promised to "fight to protect Scotland’s future as part of the UK family" while Scott used twitter to predict "2 and a half years of fighting over Scotland's future".

None of this is helpful. As I've said too many times to remember, fighting talk like this simply plays into the SNP's hands. We don't need a fight, but reasonable argument and to be a party that can both inspire and empower Scottish voters to make their voice heard. With this in mind, I've drawn up a list of what I'd like to see the Lib Dems do in coming months - granted the party as a whole might not be as independence-sympathetic as I am but it must realise that responding to the SNP bait is counter-productive and damaging.

The first thing I want to see is the Scottish Liberal Democrats getting a bit excited about this referendum campaign, and to be obviously so. After all, we've been asking for it (at least since the SNP's Holyrood majority made it an inevitability). So we should embrace the opportunity to communicate our own vision for Scotland's future - a liberal vision that gives increased freedom to the Scottish parliament and Scottish people.

The second thing I want is for the party not to forget its federalist principles. We are, constitutionally at least, a federal party. Admittedly we've not done a lot in recent years to further a federalist agenda or to achieve further devolution (and we had our chances when in government with Labour, not least with the Steel Commission which should form the basis of current Lib Dem thinking) but here's a great opportunity to rectify that. We should ensure that we use every occasion possible to reiterate our distinctiveness from the Tories and Labour, neither of which have much of a vision for extending Holyrood's powers. Instead of repeatedly the same tired, predictable arguments about why independence would be so bad for Scotland we should be trying to sell a positive, liberal, forward-looking vision for tomorrow's Scotland - the kind that Scots might actually want to live in.

Which brings me to the third point - we need to be positive. Obvious one, isn't it? Voters are not turned on by negative diatribe and relentless personal attacks. The same goes for our attitudes towards Scotland. We need to avoid pursuing the tactics of fear or focusing our energies on everything that we perceive as "bad" about independence.

Fourthly, we should be careful not to align ourselves too closely with what is politically toxic. I know that several commenters will now wish to draw my attention to the make-up of the Westminster coalition. Yes, I know. And if that experience has told us anything it's that there are electoral implications for such alliances. We should also learn from the experience of the "No" campaign in 1997 - it was always going to find the going tough, but being led by figures such as Michael Forsyth made it toxic in the eyes of most voters - including some Tory ones. If the Lib Dems are to ally themselves with the "No" campaign, which would be fraught with dangers in itself, then they must be aware that being identified with senior figureheads from the Conservative Party and perhaps elsewhere could have significant electoral consequences, whatever the outcome of the referendum.

Fifthly, let's cut out the fighting talk. The kind of intervention from Willie Rennie and Tavish Scott was unhelpful. We don't need a fight, but a liberal party championing good liberal principles. And the status quo isn't a particularly liberal arrangement. Admittedly, if the referendum is only a single Yes/No question, then this will pose certain problems for us - we're likely to be tempted towards encouraging people to vote for one of what Nick Clegg has already termed "extremes". We can see this referendum about defending the Union (as Rennie appears to) or how best to take Scotland forward. But however we view it, we're going to achieve very little if we allow ourselves to be drawn into a "fight" with the SNP. We need to avoid all confrontational approaches if possible; not only do they not work given the SNP's almost expert adversarial performances, they are a poor weapon and usually only serve to make us look petty and tribal. On the other hand, when we are sensible, dignified, sober and calm in dealing with our political opponents (as Michael Moore was today), the SNP can be made to appear shallow and more than a little condescending. No doubt the SNP will seek to draw us into the bear pit knowing that if they can they'll invariably win, but the temptation must be resisted. This includes set pieces with Salmond in FMQs, in which we generally tend not to fare so well.

We have to remember that this referendum is about many things, but not the SNP. It has huge implications for the future of that party that Alex Salmond is only too aware of but ultimately it is about independence - and it is our role to be asking vital questions about the nature of an independent Scotland. And so my sixth recommendation is to choose our battles very carefully and, where possible, avoid addressing nationalism - instead concentrating our energies on the detail of what is being proposed, providing evidence-based concern to what will become a more complex political discussion. Ultimately the Lib Dems will be judged by their role in the referendum campaign, but also in how well they deal with more pertinent and pressing issues - not least on the economy and employment opportunities.

Seventhly, we must recognise that our principal challenge isn't with the SNP. It's with ourselves. We have to use this opportunity to recreate a distinct identity for Scottish Liberal Democracy. The SNP will have their own problems to deal with as the referendum date approaches: if it succeeds in achieving independence it will cease to be necessary; if it fails, the cause of independence will have been set back, perhaps irrevocably. Certainly if it is the former, this will present potential opportunity for the Liberal Democrats. However, in the immediate future our energies should be directed towards the kind of liberal renaissance I've spoken of previously and ensuring that the Lib Dems can re-emerge from the referendum as a credible force in Scottish politics. This won't be easy but it is far more necessary for the party to take steps towards revitalising itself than it is to provide opposition to independence (there are already two other parties doing that which, in fairness, don't really need our help).

Finally, we need to put the interests of Scottish people first. In everything we do, we must never forget that we are a federal party , a liberal party, whose purpose is to serve those we represent while building the "free, fair and open society" we so passionately believe in. Basically, we need to be true to ourselves - not slavishly following the "leadership" of questionably useful allies in a "No" campaign but by finding our liberal voice once again and expressing the kind of proposals for Scotland's future that I'm sure would resonate with Scottish people if only we could effectively articulate it.

I've made it clear enough that I'm independence sympathetic. I really would welcome an independent Scotland, and in all likelihood will vote for it. However, I remain a convinced liberal and I long for the Scottish Liberal Democrats to regain their political relevance and influence. I'm personally convinced that the best option for the Liberal Democrats in Scotland (at least if the referendum on offer does not include a "Devo Max" option) is not to formally join any of the two camps but rather champion a federal vision and ensure that instead of becoming constricted around personalities or parties the debate centres on how best to provide increased freedoms for Scottish people. That doesn't mean we shouldn't involve ourselves in the campaign, but that such involvement should be on the basis of asking the necessarily tough and technical questions rather than allying ourselves with what Nick Clegg dismisses as "extremist" philosophies.

There will be opportunities arising in the next few years for a party that is not openly hostile to independence. Any form of alliance with the Conservative and Labour parties, especially one that exists purely to oppose an idea that is arguably more liberal than the status quo, to me seems frankly unpalatable. The Scottish Liberal Democrats could do worse than maintain a position of detachment, using the referendum campaign as a means of promoting their own federalist solutions while refusing to identify themselves with either "tribe".

Will that happen? No, I fully expect that the party will fall in behind the Labour and Tory parties in arguing against independence, thereby tacitly supporting another arrangement we are ostensibly opposed to. But it doesn't have to be like that. The "No" campaign doesn't need us; likewise, we certainly don't need it.

What Scotland, and the UK, has needed for many years is a Liberal Democrat party willing to advocate a real federal alternative to the status quo. If the party can't seize the opportunity this time, why should Scottish voters be blamed for not believing we have the appetite to deliver?


DougtheDug said…
I'm personally convinced that the best option for the Liberal Democrats in Scotland (at least if the referendum on offer does not include a "Devo Max" option) is not to formally join any of the two camps but rather champion a federal vision

To be honest it's a bit late in the day isn't it? I mean the Lib-Dems were formed nearly 24 years ago and your party's, "Federal vision", still hasn't managed to work out whether you want multiple regional English Parliaments or a single English Parliament within a federal UK.

It's only now as an SNP run independence referendum has become inevitable that there has been any examination of more powers for Scotland in the Lib-Dems since the Steel Commission in 2006 with the 2011 post-SNP victory institution of the Ming Campbell Home Rule Commission and that is again restricted to Scotland with no federal vision for the UK.

It's only the SNP's decision to hold the refererendum in the second half of the parliament that has given you any breathing space at all and Michael Moore has already called for a referendum which only contains an in/out question so that whatever Ming Campbell comes up with it can only be offered as a jam-tomorrow solution. Vote no and the Lib-Dems possibly could give you jam tomorrow if they get back into another coalition. I don't think it will take off as a campaign slogan.

The Lib-Dems will be fighting side by side with the Tories and Labour for a no vote because even after 24 years and a two and a half year breathing space you'll have no Devo-Max/Federal/FFA/Indy-lite option prepared for the ballot paper because you simply don't have any body of work or existing policies to draw on and your Westminster MP's don't want anything like that on the ballot paper anyway.

If you're going to vote yes for independence I think you should take a long look at the minimal lip-service the Lib-Dems have paid to federalism over the last 24 years and jump ship to the SNP.
Andrew said…
I don't disagree with what you've written Doug. Our record of promoting federalism has not been what it could have been. I'm writing more out of frustration than anything else. The main reason I became pro-independence is because I gave up hoping that the Lib Dems or Labour were able to give us further devolution (LDs out of being on the political margins, Lab out of unwillingness) and that independence was therefore the more liberal of the remaining options.

It may be late in the day but it's better late than never. There is still the chance for my party to regain some credibility from this, and relaunch themselves as a federal party promoting a liberal agenda for Scotland and beyond. If, however, we go down the route of obstinately supporting a no vote with the Tories and Labour we surrender any right to call ourselves federalists and will probably end up paying a high price at the polls.

Yes - we've not done as much as we should have in the last 24 years to forge a real federalism - and neither have we much in the way of existing policies to support one. Agreed. But this referendum gives us a chance to revitalise this part of our identity and regain both relevance and credibility.

If only we have the courage to grasp it...
Edna Caine said…
I used to believe in Federalism but long ago realised that it is an impossibility. To successive ultra-centralist Westminster governments, the current one of which the Liberal Democrats are now part of, it has been a non-starter as it would dilute their power over the state they wish to control absolutely.

I'm intrigued by your comment -
"I really would welcome an independent Scotland, and in all likelihood will vote for it. However, I remain a convinced liberal and I long for the Scottish Liberal Democrats to regain their political relevance and influence".

Why the "however"? Surely these two statements are not exclusive? Scotland has a great Liberal tradition and it would be easier for them to regain relevance and influence in an independent nation.
Anonymous said…
-The Liberal's problem here...well OK one of them... is that, as you say, has called status quo and independence extremes. (I don't think he actually used the word extremists did he, although at a push the implication was there for those who were of a mind to infer it.)

And then Michael Moore, has indicated that the only permitted referendum questions will force people to chose one of these two extremes.

I realise that Cameron's influence is at work here, and that compromises may have had to be reached after Cameron blurted this out to the press and someone had to clean up his mess.

Unfortunately Cameron is making a habit of asking referenda questions, leaving out a popular choice. I'm for independence, but I want the Scots to get what THEY want. Like I should imagine they might have wanted PR, but didn't wan't AV so stuck with FPTP.

It would be best for us all if what we could do, regardless of what side of the argument we are on, is come out and paint our vision, firstly in broad brush strokes, but filling in details as we go on.

It would be good if this whole thing could be a positive experience for Scotland. But it will be difficult to keep bitterness and negativity out of it. I regret to say I doubt Lamont or Curren will miss an opportunity to be negative about independence. I have little faith (I'm sorry) in Rennie, and Ruth seems to be Cameron's woman (not like that!!!!). If you add Forsyth and Ffoulks to the mix it hardly makes for positive thinking, at least on past performances.

And I suspect dirty tricks will be around.

We must too be mindful not just of what the UK Constitution says, or rather doesn't say, about this kind of thing. People argue over the nuances of the American and French Constitutions. The fact that UK is not written down and that there is only one precedent (Ireland) for this, will make it doubly difficult to interpret.

But we must be mindful of international law on these matters. It is my understanding that the role of the UK government in organising, funding and adjudicating on this referendum is strictly controlled by UN law.

That remains to be seen.

It will be an interesting 3 years.
Anonymous said…
Andrew, I very much like the argument that you are putting forward in this article. To me, it makes absolute,straightforward,common sense.
I am an Independence supporter, but of no particular party affiliation. Indeed, without the question of Independence, I would most naturally be a Liberal.
However, given your Leaderships position in recent years, I wouldn't touch the LibDems with the proverbial barge pole!
If, and it is a Big IF, your party is not going to go the way of the Tories in Scotland,then a radical change in thinking has to take place, much as you have outlined here.
I am afraid that following the route your party has taken,and its Leadership has led, after the dawn of an Independent Scotland, the party will be unelectable.
That to my mind is unforgivable for a once great party with Liberal values.
When Scotland does eventually become Independent, and I say 'when' not 'If' it does, then the SNP will no longer remain the umbrella party it is today. There will be new politics in Scotland, and there will be great opportunity for a party to step into the SNPs shoes of today.
If those of a Liberal democratic persuasion start reclaiming the soul of the party in scotland prior to Independence,I see a certain amount of forgiveness by the Scottish electorate.
If it just keeps following this crazy Hari Kari route,it has had its chips!
I personally feel that the party in Scotland needs to distance itself from the party in the UK, to have its own voice from a Scottish perspective. I realise this does not sit well with the LibDems Federalist principles. But who is to say that these principle can't be realised in an Independent Scotland? I feel it is more likely to than in the UK setting.
I am not of any party, so don't have a political partisan axe to grind. But, it is how I would suggest your party should seriously begin to consider.
And Yes I know, It's not really any of my business, and I should remain outwith the discussion, but I do hope that some within your party take what you have said in this article very seriously indeed.

Best Wishes
Gedguy said…
A couple of things here.
1) Don't jump ship. Stay where you are and fight your corner because if/when independence comes there will be the need for a libDem party in Scotland that doesn't hark back to the Union days.
2) Why federalism? It's the same as we have now but with a different name. Now, if you had said 'confederalism' then I might have agreed with you. Federalism is still being led by the front and the front, because of the massive majority that England will still have, is no different than what we have today. Confederalism will mean that the UK & NI will have to have 4 equal votes before we go to war or change things within a confederal UK. Federalism is just Unionism through the back door.
RevStu said…
Agree with almost everything you say in the article, but unfortunately for you the key line is this one:

"Admittedly, if the referendum is only a single Yes/No question, then this will pose certain problems for us - we're likely to be tempted towards encouraging people to vote for one of what Nick Clegg has already termed "extremes"."

It's 99% certain that the referendum WILL be a single question. No matter how genuinely you believe in federalism, it isn't going to be on the table (and is unlikely to be in the forseeable future because however the referendum turns out it will kill further devolution like the AV vote killed PR).

So it's independence or status quo. Which side are you on?
Andrew said…
Ok, thanks for all your comments - many of them considered and detailed. I'll respond to them all in turn below:
Andrew said…
Edna - I too have arrived at the conclusion that Federalism is an impossibility. There has been no willingness from any of the parties to date to make serious steps towards achieving a real federalism. Even the Steel Commission, while bold in some respects, focused on Scotland rather than a federal arrangement for the UK as a whole.

I don't think there's any appetite for federalism from any party other than the Lib Dems, which are now, reduced to 5 MSPs, unlikely to yield much influence ion any case. Actions also speak louder than words, which is why the 24-year pretence of being a federal party will be shown for what it is unless we as a party take overdue action and stick to our principles. It's not so much that I expect the Lib Dems are capable of achieving a federal solution on their own - they're not. but at leasdt adopting this position will gain us respect, credibility and a voice in the debate we otherwise would be throwing away.

As for the comment - "I really would welcome an independent Scotland, and in all likelihood will vote for it. However, I remain a convinced liberal and I long for the Scottish Liberal Democrats to regain their political relevance and influence".

Why the "however"? The two statements are not exclusive. Of course, supporting independence is a perfectly reasonable liberal position to take. What I meant is that in spite of my commitment to independence and achieving it, I am also a member of a party I care for deeply and which I want to restore to a position of prominence and influence in Scottish politics. It's not that liberalism is incompatible with pro-independence, but that my desire to revitalise the party is equally important to me as that particular conviction. I want to fight for one without damaging the other.
Andrew said…
Tris, there's so much which is sensible in your comments that I don't wish to say much other than to agree with them.

I think you've highlighted the very real risk that this experience might actually be very damaging for Scotland - this is something that all parties on both "sides" need to be aware of. Most of the public aren't obsessed with the issue - at least not in the tribal way that some politicians are - and if the "debate" is allowed to descend into the predictable political scrap then it will be both undignified and turn many potential voters off. It also reflects badly on the nation as a whole - something we should all be anxious to avoid.

"It would be best for us all if what we could do, regardless of what side of the argument we are on, is come out and paint our vision, firstly in broad brush strokes, but filling in details as we go on." An ideal scenario, but I agree it is both a worthwhile one and achievable. I hope the Lib Dems' involvement in the campaign is to help fill in such detail, to ask hard questions about the nature of these details and provide the same kind of sobering influence on the debate that we would like to have over the excesses of Toryism at Westminster.

Well, you can but hope.
Andrew said…
auldacquaintance/Rod - thank you for your interesting observations.

The one thing I disagree with you on is that you say "this is not your business". But it is. Very definitely. We're dealing here with an issue that will affect the lives of every Scot, and Scottish democracy will be much the poorer if it doesn't have a liberal party at the heart of it.

As for the political benefits of adjusting our position I am in complete agreement with you. I am utterly convinced that there are significant opportunities to be gained for the Lib Dems in a past-independence Scotland if only we can gain the necessary credibility now. I accept that championing a federalist line is in itself unlikely to bring such an ambition into practice, but at least it allows us to:

1) be true to our principles
2) bring something positive to the debate
3) avoid contamination with the "no" campaign
4) bring us out of the kind of cynical oppositionalism that so easily translates as support for "unionism"
5) gives us an opportunity to rebuild the party and breath new life into Scottish liberalism.
6) as you rightly say, such a stance will help facilitate a certain amount of forgivemess!

I'm not really a federalist - I've moved beyond that. But many within the Lib Dems are. They're genuinely not unionists. Effectively forcing our members to support the status quo we actually passionately oppose is completely unacceptable, which is why the most positive thing the party can do is to not join either camps, making telling contributions from when necessary while advocating its own liberal programme and allowing its members to vote whichever way they personally feel is in Scotland's interests.

As for whether anyone takes anything I write seriously, I really don't know - although Alex Salmond would appear to!
Andrew said…

1) I've no intention of jumping ship.

2) Why federalism? Not because I believe in it. I don't really. I'm not personally championing it, even though it is clearly a lot better than the status quo or what's being proposed in the Scotland Bill. It is simply because that is the party's historic position and I think a great deal can be gained if it holds true to its professed principles.

Federalism has its shortcomings, but at least promoting what we've professed always to believe in will allow the party to say something positive and broadly original, without being seen as a crony of the unpopular Labour party or the unelectable Tories.

I'm really trying to appeal to the heart of the Liberal Democrats. It still beats. And it still cares more about a federal alternative to the status quo than attacking the pro-independence lobby just for the sake of it. At least, that's what I hope.

It is an intellectually unsustainable position for the Lib Dem leadership to support - and commit our party to - a "no" campaign if we are truly a federal party, or even one that simply wants further devolution. It might be the case that it can support neither "side"; that for me is a perfectly acceptable position to take. But supporting, as a party, something we've ostensibly never believed in or aimed for simply to undermine the cause of independence is neither liberal nor politically sensible.

This is why I appeal to the federalists - the party must wake up and remember what it is. Admittedly, they're not all of the same pro-independence conviction as I am but they want more (and deserve more) than to be saddled with the inglorious misfortune of enslavery to a "no" campaign in which our voice will not be heard and our liberal vision suppressed.
Andrew said…

"So it's independence or status quo. Which side are you on?"

Independence. It's the most liberal of the two options.


I want to bring my party with me. I recognise that most aren't pro-independence, although I know a few that are and some others who will support independence over the status quo. I also understand that being allied to the "No" campaign will bring zero political benefit while having the potential to damage the party even further.

This is why I am asking my party simply to embrace and promote what we've always believed in. We're not unionsts, at least not in the conventional sense, and we should have no truck with that kind of philosophy. If we find that, as a party, we can't support independence I respect that - but I hope that instead of indulging in negative campaigning we can instead use this almost God-given opportunity to help recreate our party positively. By advocating a distinct liberal position we can rebuild the party and avoid the pitfalls of being identified with the negativity of the "no" campaign - whose arguments will become more bitter, tribalist and personal as the campaign progresses.

But that's just my view. Whatever my party does, and I hope it is successfully steered between the two "extremes" Nick Clegg himself wants us to avoid, I will be voting "Yes" in 2014.
DougtheDug said…
Hi Andrew,
It's always nice to have a blog owner respond to the comments.

I think there are one or two problems with your idea that the Lib-Dems can avoid a "no" vote in order to promote a federal alternative.

The first problem for Scottish Lib-Dems is that without a Union there will be no federal UK as federalism in the UK is a system of regional government within a unified country. To achieve a federal UK you have to stop Scotland leaving.

The Lib-Dems in England/Wales/NI could still have a federal system in that new country after Scotland leaves but as you've pointed out already Scotland has been the driving force in both the Steel and Campbell commissions and Lib-Dem federalism in the rest of the country has been pretty much absent.

Then there's the problem that as the constitution is a UK matter the Lib-Dem Federal party not the Scottish branch of the party will be running the referendum campaign and Nick Clegg will be running a "no" campaign with hard-line unionists such as Danny Alexander and Michael Moore at his side.

Good luck with getting a campaign up and running which avoids both the "yes" and "no" camps but I think you may be in a band of one when you do it.
Andrew said…
Doug - I accept the difficulties. Federalism by nature accepts that Scotland should remian part of the UK. Thus it would be intellectually nonsensical for a "federalist party" to campaign for independence.

That said, it is also inconsistent to champion a cause thet we're equally opposed to. However unhelpful the Clegg "extremist" intervention was, he touched on a truth - namely that the two options we're given on the ballot form will both be equally objectionable to liberals. It would be unsustainable, and disingenuous, for the Lib Dems collectively as a party therefore to ally atself firmly to the "no" camp. Individual Lib Dems might have a preference between independence and the status quo and should vote and campaign accordingly, but it would be unwise to attach the party colours to any particular mast.

It's not that I believe federalism will work. I see it as a political non-starter for a number of reasons. But it's a better position for the Lib Dems to campaign from, especially if it is accompanied by a lessening in hostility towards independence.

That's just my view, of course!
Anonymous said…
A fantastic post. But could someone please answer this for me....

Many commentators, bloggers, and politicians, including George Osbourne and Willie Rennie, continue to state that Scotland would leave the UK. But hasn't Salmond said that an Independent Scotland would retain the Queen as sovereign, thereby we'd still be part of the UK, even if we were no longer part of Britain?

I mean, if that's the case, it seems that these commentators and politicians, who you'd expect to know a little about history, would know the difference. And if they do know the difference, it seems like they are deliberately enforcing this view to put off Scots who still feel allegiance or at least a cultural partiality towards the monarchy?

Could someone clarify?
Andrew said…
Thanks anonymous,

This question does need some clarification. I'm not sure that I completely understand it, but what I've gathered is that Salmond will still want the Queen as sovereign (something I really can't agree with him on!) and a close and ongoing relationship with the rest of the UK similar to that enjoyed by the Nordic countries - which are all independent yet interdependent.

As for politicians and political commentators, I can't posibly speculate as to their motives. But we do need clarification, not confusion.