Quite amazingly the issue of Scotland’s constitutional future has dominated the UK headlines over the last day. As Prime Minister David Cameron and other cabinet colleagues including George Osborne intervened on setting a timescale and the legal remit of a referendum on independence, the political debate erupted into a hostile and undignified confrontation with both sides making predictable comments accusing the other of jeopardising the Scottish economy.
For the most part it was tiresome stuff. However, there were some serious questions asked about the SNP and its plans for the holding the referendum and equally vitally the tactics of the coalition government were brought under scrutiny.
Essentially, the debate centred around the timing of the proposed referendum and whether it would in fact be legally binding, rather than simply a consultative survey of public opinion. David Cameron appears willing to offer a legally binding ballot if certain conditions are met, including a “sunset clause” and excluding under 18s from the vote – something Danny Alexander seems happy to accept in spite of historic Lib Dem support for extending the franchise to those aged 16 and upwards. Other coalition demands include no question on the “devolution max” option preferred by Willie Rennie, something that brings into question the relevance of the Home Rule Commission. It also appears that the coalition government may wish to call their own referendum if the SNP refused to accept what it was offering – as far as calling Alex Salmond’s bluff goes, this was a rather dismal attempt and underlines the coalition’s anxiety for a quick referendum. The Westminster government has no mandate for conducting such a referendum, which would surely be aimed only at clipping Alex Salmond’s wings.
A fellow Liberal Democrat blogger, Graeme Cowie, has already written clearly and concisely on the “referendum strings”. A law student, he has insights into current legal arrangements that neither I, nor I imagine many who are currently engaged in the hostile debate, have much appreciation of. He observes that all talk of any referendum being legally-binding is intellectually and politically speaking utter nonsense. He also correctly highlights that the SNP has the mandate to ask the question at a time of its choosing and that attempts by other parties to determine the holding of the referendum amount to “disgraceful politicking”. Most tellingly, he notes that what is actually central to discussions is not the referendum itself but the democratic legitimacy of Scotland’s institutions – and Holyrood in particular.
It is, therefore, inconsistent for a “federalist” party such as the Liberal Democrats to support the coalition government’s attempts to influence the outcome of the referendum. We should accept that the SNP, having a majority in the Scottish parliament, has the right to call the referendum when it likes – it has already intimated it hopes to do so in the second term of the parliament and likely to be in 2014. Alex Salmond is not obliged to time the implementation of SNP policy to suit either David Cameron or Michael Moore.
Jo Swinson commented last night on STV that “"We should have the voters deciding the outcome of a referendum, not the courts." She also added that it was vital to “give the Scottish Parliament powers it needs to hold a referendum” which she hopes will be “legal, fair and decisive”. Of course I agree. It is a great pity, however, that for several years the Liberal Democrats have refused to support even the idea of an independence referendum, even one in which we could have helped to shape the question. Labour’s Douglas Alexander, writing in today’s Daily Telegraph, said much the same thing while adding that Salmond “fears the verdict of the Scottish people”. The SNP hedging its bets around when is most likely to give it the result it wants is actually its legal right, and is no more symptomatic of fear than a UK government seeking to ensure a referendum is held as soon as possible for similar reasons.
Nicola Sturgeon accused David Cameron of “interfering” in Scottish matters. I wouldn’t use that language; as Prime Minister he has every right to make an intervention if he wishes. But surely the fact that he can doesn’t mean he should. I would question the wisdom of his intervention and his blatant attempt to influence the outcome: given his standing among Scots voters I would suggest there isn’t a surer way of strengthening the pro-independence cause than having this overbearing and unpopular man, who lacks any credibility in Scotland, appearing to dictate terms. It’s like revisiting the 1980s, with Cameron taking over Thatcher’s mantle as the best recruitment sergeant for the opposition parties (or, in this case, the SNP).
I do agree with Sturgeon when she argues that the UK government setting deadlines and threatening to run its own referendum on its own terms undermines a fundamental democratic principle. The Liberal Democrats, if we are a federal party, must recognise this and ensure that the Scottish government is allowed to do what it has an electoral mandate to do.
I have little concern for the Conservatives. They have little to lose in Scotland in any case: only one MP compared to our eleven. As Nicholas Watt surmised in today’s Guardian, Osborne is in a win-win situation. If he can hold off the nationalist threat and ensure that the SNP’s referendum is lost he will be a hero to the Tory right wing, ever the romantics for the union. But if his identification with the “no” campaign pushes Scotland towards independence, he may achieve an even greater victory – that of ensuring that the Tories in England retain power for a generation.
On the other hand, I am far more concerned for the future of the Liberal Democrats. Ever keen to claim our credentials as being a “federalist” party, we have done very little to actively promote a federal vision for many years. Even Devolution Max for Scotland is not in itself a federalist proposal. Federalism would put Scotland on an equal standing with England, which remains utterly undevolved. I’ve searched our manifestos in vain for any reference to a seriously cohesive and practical federalist vision for the UK and must conclude, pretty much as Nick Clegg appeared to do, that we are not federalist in substance or practice but devolutionist. We’ve had opportunities with the Steel Commission (a vastly bolder and more radical statement of intention than Calman) and in eight years in government at Holyrood, but stopped talking and certainly didn’t deliver anything to bring about the further devolution Scotland so badly needed. And now, in response to the very real possibility of independence, we have established a third commission – the quaintly named Home Rule Commission (Gladstone would have loved that title) – but as yet no policy or detailed direction on this matter for the public to excite themselves about.
Professor of politics at Strathclyde University, John Curtice – always someone whose views are worth listening to – thinks that denying voters a second question, or a middle way between the status quo and independence, is a hugely risky strategy. From a Liberal Democrat perspective, the assumptions that we should oppose independence in a Yes/No ballot and that voters favouring further powers would necessarily vote “no” could prove to be seriously misplaced. I, like many other Lib Dems (and even many SNP members) would happily welcome “Devolution Max” and this is clearly something a genuinely federal party should support. However, if the only options on the ballot form are what Nick Clegg describes as two “extremes”, I imagine many will vote for independence – it is, after all, a more liberal alternative than the status quo. And, as Curtice supposes, questions will be asked about whether “unionist” parties would in fact have the will to deliver any further devolution at all; certainly the Tories have no such intention while the Lib Dems’ five MSPs have little influence and less credibility than they once had. It may all hinge on Scottish Labour...
If there is no second question on the ballot paper, I will certainly vote for independence. In fairness, I probably would anyway but at least if a second question was asked I would have to seriously consider the finer detail of what was being proposed. There are plenty of other Liberal Democrat members who think along similar lines. As for the Liberal Democrats, how can we and our federalist credentials be taken seriously if, in government, we do not urge for an option on the ballot form that more accurately reflects our principles? True, this might represent an equally risky strategy to championing a single question referendum, but at least as a party we would be being true to ourselves and be able to campaign for something we believe, rather than negatively campaigning against independence.
What became very obvious yesterday is that the Lib Dems need to be more positive in their approach, especially within the Westminster government. It was also glaringly obvious that tactically and personally Alex Salmond is more than a match for David Cameron. Willie Rennie and the Scottish Lib Dems, as well as Johann Lamont’s Scottish Labour, must raise their efforts to promote a new devolution while (as Jo Swinson insisted) challenging the substance of independence rather than the process. Anything else will be political suicide: whatever the eventual referendum outcome, we will for many years be remembered for the role we played within it. The referendum will do far more do define us as a party than anything Willie Rennie says or does.
Would I rather the Lib Dems be remembered as a party of negative, cynically opportune anti-independence obsessives or the party that, while perhaps unconvinced about the merits of independence, saw the pursuit of a fairer and freer Scotland as a greater aim than defence of the status quo and did everything it could to realise it? I’m sure you know the answer.