A few weeks ago I put together a draft topical motion with Derek Young on the issue of the party’s position on a second question in the independence referendum. My motivation for doing this was primarily to ensure that this issue is debated rather than being decided for the members by the party leadership. I was also concerned that the Scottish Liberal Democrats can campaign positively during the independence referendum, that we seize the best opportunity in decades to achieve our vision for a constitutional settlement and simultaneously ensure that the Home Rule Commission has some purpose other than cynical opposition to the SNP.
Unfortunately our proposed motion didn’t receive the required number of signatures but, by fortune, Denis Mollison of East Lothian successfully managed to submit a topical motion that made it onto the conference agenda. Denis’s motion was more direct and perhaps less comprehensive than ours, but it made the same fundamental points as well as raising the issue of extending the electorate to include those aged 16 and 17. The motion called on the Lib Dem leadership to "to engage with the Scottish Government so as to get the option of Home Rule included in the referendum in a fair way” as well as to run a "positive campaign in favour" of this and to support the Scottish Government in seeking to enfranchise 16 and 17-year-olds. Hardly revolutionary, you would think, and not likely to offend.
Senior figures within the party were perfectly aware of the importance of this motion, which is why so many of them made reference to the importance of not having a second question in their contributions in the conference hall. There can be little doubt that they were anxious to persuade delegates to reject both the motion and the thinking behind it and ultimately they were successful. I have to say that myself and a number of other party members find the refusal to countenance a second question as illogical and tactically naive. I would go further: it’s also a wasted opportunity which will have tragic consequences for the party. Furthermore, it’s indicative of political attitudes whose basis is very firmly in the past; prejudices and mindsets born in a different era that not only keep us looking backwards but prevent us from looking positively towards the future.
According to The Herald, Denis (who is a professor emeritus in Applied Probability) “claimed the party would pay a heavy price for insisting on a straight yes or no to independence” and warned of the “danger of being dragged into negativity". A timely contribution, but one which was seized on and ridiculed by senior Lib Dems.
Scottish president Malcolm Bruce exposed some of the collective thinking and motivations of the leadership when he claimed the motion was a “naive response”. The reason for this? “Alex Salmond is the most brutal, cynical manipulator in British politics” he explained "You would be playing into the hands of Salmond, handing him a get out of jail free card. He loses this referendum, he goes. Do we want him to stay?" And so, this is what the debate is really about in the minds of those leading our party. It’s not about facilitating a progressive liberal settlement, but about Alex Salmond. Bruce and others are so obsessed with Salmond and his party, so stinted by resentment, bitterness and intolerance that their energies are entirely concentrated on defeating the SNP leader. How pitiful. I was clearly right when I said in November that the unfortunate cartoon was suggestive of an almost pathological dislike of the SNP: “the whole tone of what the party leadership is saying [is misguided and self-destructive]: we’re so anti-SNP, so cynically negative and so focused on targeting the First Minister personally that it’s no surprise the public aren’t attracted to our broader message.” The cartoon was simply an indicator of a misplaced logic that seems to have taken hold over senior Lib Dems as well as our campaigning strategy; what is worse is that in spite of the problem being highlighted little has been done to remedy it.
The Herald indicates that Bruce’s other contributions included comparing Scotland to a host of other nations including “South Sudan, Republic Srpska, South Ossetia, Kashmir, Basque Region, Catalonia, Chechnya, Greenland, North Cyprus, Transnistria... Do we really want the world to break up into a growing list of tiny countries nursing their grievances through the international community” I don’t see the point he’s making, unless it’s the predictable and tired argument that Scotland is ill-prepared to take care of its own destiny. Of course it may be that he is suggesting these areas claims to self-determination is questionable. Either way, the comparison is both flawed and facile in addition to being loaded with ill-disguised prejudice. If Scotland can be compared to other areas of the world, I’d suggest Luxembourg, Belgium, Moldova, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Austria, Liechtenstein, Montenegro, Slovenia and Slovakia. Those countries are either small or emergent and have their own problems, but are hardly “nursing their grievances through the international community” and there is no reason to suggest an independent Scotland would be any different.
Bruce went on to insist that it would be wrong to go down the independence route as it would disassociate Scotland from “UK institutions such as the BBC, the World Service and the Department of International Development which employs 500 people in Scotland.” Another simplistic argument, and one that doesn’t convince on any level although what this has to do with a second question on the referendum ballot, I’ve no idea.
If Bruce’s words had been misadvised and unhelpful, blinded by intolerance towards the SNP, worse was to follow in the form of Alan Reid, MP for Argyll and Bute. He compared Salmond to Stalin, insisting that “it's not who votes that count, but who counts the vote." You don’t have to be an SNP supporter to find that one offensive. Again, this had little to do with the actual motion and everything to do with a retarded attitude towards the SNP. When, in my predictions for the year, I stated that “most Scottish Lib Dems will continue to suffer from Tourette's Syndrome whenever the word ‘independence’ is whispered.” I was of course joking. But there’s a serious underlying truth that has been exposed by Bruce, Reid and others. Just as Godwin’s Law dictates that as an online discussion grows, so the probability of a comparison to Nazism approaches, my observations (let’s call them Page’s Law) have determined that as Scottish Liberal Democrats discuss anything openly, so the probability of inappropriately hostile references to Alex Salmond is vastly increased.
Fortunately there were some sane voices. Galen Milne noted that in denying a second question the party would be "denying people the chance to vote in favour of something which a majority support." Denis, in summary, stated his desire for the party to " adopt a positive, distinctive position. Refusing to accept a second question on Home Rule is cutting off our nose to spite our face." He also reiterated "the party's long-standing commitment to Home Rule and a federal UK, the only major party in Scotland with such commitments". But it has little effect, with conference voting to approve a self-defeating campaign of negative and cynical opposition to the SNP rather than an opportunity to set out a distinctive vision for Scotland’s future that is as far removed from the unionism of the Labour and Conservative parties as it is the SNP’s nationalism. What has essentially been done is to ally the party into an anti-independence alliance with the Tories and Labour in the vain hope we will be able to persuade the SNP to do what our five MSPs want in the event of Scottish electors voting “no”. Now, Mr Bruce, that is naive.
This approach is flawed for several reasons. Firstly, it undermines the Home Rule Commission. The findings of this commission will be announced in the near future, but there will be no framework for putting them into place; any positive action from the Liberal Democrats now being dependent on a negative outcome in the referendum. Opposition to a second question has not only deprived us of the one meaningful opportunity to realise our aims, it has also rendered us and the Commission itself impotent.
Secondly, the idea that a defeat in the independence referendum will render the SNP and Alex Salmond dead in the water is wildly optimistic. Salmond’s popularity has not stemmed from his championing of independence but has occurred in spite of it. The notion of the SNP becoming a spent force if the verdict of the voters goes against it is an ill-conceived one. There is no doubt that such an outcome would create serious problems for the SNP, but there is no reason to suspect that it would signal the death of the party. On the other hand, a victory in the referendum for Alex Salmond would expose deeper questions for his party to answer and, with the SNP having fulfilled its raison d’etre and questioning its purpose and political future, there would surely be opportunities for the Scottish Liberal Democrats in an independent Scotland.
Thirdly, in allying ourselves with the Tories and Labour we have ensured that our voice, comparatively small but ideologically distinct, will not be heard. We will be perceived simply as a minor and rather insignificant partner in a coalition of negativity.
Fourthly, if the party had agreed to accept a second question, we could have campaigned distinctly for a settlement that the majority of Scots broadly agree with. There is little doubt that, should the initial question of independence be rejected, the alternative pro-change option would carry the day. The argument that independence must first be defeated before such change can be achieved is therefore nonsensical. There is, however, absolutely no reason for believing that the kind of change we want will ever be offered to Scots people in a referendum again. If the Lib Dems genuinely believe that a “no” vote will crush the SNP – what hopes are there that Labour and the Conservatives will work with us? If not, why should the SNP want to work with us? And the “vitally important influence of Lib Dems at Westminster” that Willie Rennie puts so much trust in (something he revealed during the bloggers’ interview) is not something that can be depended on post 2015.
Fifthly, the Scottish Liberal Democrats have wildly overestimated their influence if they honestly feel that, having got the independence question out of the way, we can then embrace the opportunity to facilitate the further devolution we want. It’s arrogant to state that we will work with the SNP, but only after their plans have been frustrated. That’s not pluralism. But that’s not my principal objection. The real flaw in this thinking is that we fail to recognise we are a party of five MSPs and will be until at least 2016 – and even then we can not be sure of a kinder verdict from the voters. If we were the Labour Party then I’d accept there’s a chance this tactic could work. But we simply lack the numbers, or the ability to positively influence the other parties, to ensure that our vision is even taken seriously, let alone implemented.
What has happened is that the cause of Home Rule has been dealt a fatal blow by those claiming to champion it.
I cannot support the status quo. I will not defend it, because it is not worth defending. And yet there appears to be no realistic, liberal alternative on the horizon other than independence. It is foolish to talk of opportunities post-2014, not least because those opportunities are now dependent on the negative outcome to the referendum the Liberal Democrats have committed themselves to campaigning for. There is no guarantee that the recommendations of the Home Rule Commission, or the views of the party membership as a whole, will ever make it onto a ballot form, or will even form the basis of cross-party talks for Scotland’s future.
And so, I will be voting for the most liberal option on the ballot form – independence. I have come to believe in it not so much from a conviction that it is the best option for Scotland but that it is the best achievable outcome. I know there are Liberal Democrats who think similarly and are bitterly disappointed that an alternative pro-change option, supporting the kind of positive alternative they believe in, has been denied to them.
Unfortunately, it seems that the party leadership cares little for the views of such people, including Professor Mollison, motivated instead by its suspicion and intolerance of the SNP and Alex Salmond in particular. This episode reveals many things – the inflexible attitudes of senior Lib Dems, the willingness of the party membership to follow obediently, the lack of a sound strategy for achieving our professed objectives and a failure to grasp the unique opportunities we have been provided. But most importantly of all it demonstrates that the party has no idea where it is going – other than to do its utmost to defeat the “Yes” campaign of which I will be a dedicated supporter.