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Monday, 2 July 2012

A liberal case for Scottish independence

This piece originally was written for Better Nation, and has also been published by the National Collective website. I reproduce it here for the benefit of those who have not yet seen it.
I’m a rather late convert to the cause of Scottish independence – a conversion that owes more to pragmatism than it does to political ideology. I’ve never been the kind of Liberal Democrat vociferously opposed to the notion of independence.

In 2007 I believed that, while a prospective coalition was a non-starter due to simple arithmetic, the party was misguided to rule out co-operation with the SNP on the basis that a referendum represented a “fundamental barrier”. Neither have I ever accepted the flawed logic of previous Scottish Lib Dem leaders in consistently denying Scottish voters the referendum – an ultimately futile tactic that has made it easy for political opponents to portray us as small-minded arch-unionists and contributed in no small way to our alienating of many traditional supporters. 

The leadership line for the previous few years has been more pro-unionist than the view of the party membership, and has been influenced more by antipathy towards the SNP than by either a coherent political strategy or a commitment to democratic principles. The referendum represents the fairest and most liberal option and is certainly preferable to elected politicians and Westminster policy makers deciding Scotland’s future on our behalf. I have struggled to reconcile our party’s democratic credentials with what I perceive as a poorly conceived and fundamentally illiberal approach in recent years and have become increasingly convinced that, far from being anathema to convinced liberals, independence offers significant opportunities. 

Not being a nationalist, the question of Scotland’s constitutional future has always been of secondary interest to the creation of a liberal society and a fairer political system. Features of the liberal Scottish society Liberal Democrats aspire to achieve include tolerance, an embracing of pluralism, the guarantee of free expression, the fostering of autonomous choices and greater democratic freedoms. A liberal society is one in which its citizens are empowered to take greater control of their own destinies. Liberals in the UK have a history of campaigning for a fairer and more democratic voting system, a green economy, decentralisation and localism, an end to the privileges afforded to the unelected House of Lords, reducing the voting age to 16 and the fairness agenda (so beloved of Nick Clegg). For those of us living in Scotland, liberals are far more likely to achieve such objectives in an independent Scotland than within a dysfunctional Union. A British system of PR is unlikely to be achieved in my lifetime, but may well be a feature of an independent Scottish democratic system in which concerns about the House of Lords would be both academic and redundant. Similarly, our objectives on fairness, the economy, green energy, lowering the voting age and empowering communities would have a greater chance of fulfilment after independence than they would have under the status quo, which has a proven track record of non-delivery.

The preamble to the Liberal Democrats’ constitution states that “the Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community”. The key question for Liberal Democrats therefore must be “which constitutional arrangement best allows for the creation of such a society?”

The preamble also makes the claim that “we believe that sovereignty rests with the people and that authority in a democracy derives from the people. We therefore acknowledge their right to determine the form of government best suited to their needs and commit ourselves to the promotion of a democratic federal framework within which as much power as feasible is exercised by the nations and regions of the United Kingdom.” This is clearly inconsistent with the leadership’s stance in recent years but also, in theory at least, simultaneously commits liberals to the right of self-determination and “democratic federalism”.

If I genuinely felt that the Liberal Democrats were capable of achieving this “democratic federalism” I would be supporting all attempts to make it a reality, as my inclinations are liberal, not nationalist. What we have learned is that, in eight years of coalition in Holyrood and two years in Westminster very little progress has been made on the federalism front. To put it bluntly, if it was a crime to be a federalist there would be very little evidence with which to convict the Liberal Democrats. We are not the “guarantors of change” Willie Rennie disingenuously claims us to be. Even if the premise that the party is by nature a federalist one is accepted, it is naive to believe that the best channel by which to achieve the benefits of federalism is affiliation to the negative Better Together campaign, which lacks any kind of vision for a post-referendum Scotland. 

We have a Deputy Prime Minister who asserts that “we are a devolutionist party”. That, of course, is not entirely true. Federalism is many things but it is not devolutionism. Jo Grimond recognised that a risk of devolution was “too much government” and that “it is no good transferring from Westminster to Edinburgh the diseases which...are bringing British democracy to its knees.” What is needed, insisted Grimond, was an arrangement that is open and accountable – “less government, better government and government nearer home”. He retained suspicions about romantic and inward-looking nationalism but also argued that, as far as Scotland’s future was concerned, “not to go far enough may be worse than going too far”. Devolution is not by nature a liberal arrangement and has a tendency to deliver over-government. Independence on the other hand, while clearly going further than federalism, does have the potential to provide both more effective local government and less government. From a liberal perspective, this has to be the best of both possible worlds.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats talk of federalism and Home Rule, which is welcome. Unfortunately, the actions of the leadership in identifying themselves with the Tories and Labour in a coalition of cynical negativity is likely to compromise both the party’s distinctive message and attempts to portray itself as anything other than committed to unionism. However, public perception is simply one challenge for the Liberal Democrats: another, more pertinent, difficulty being that the scope for achieving whatever the Home Rule Commission recommends is zero. Pragmatic liberals realise that without an additional option on the ballot form the choice is between the status quo, with no clear indication of what Scotland’s future will look like post-referendum, and an independence which offers opportunities for both Scottish liberalism and the Scottish Liberal Democrats. 

There would be electoral opportunities for the Liberal Democrats in a post-independence Scotland of which the party should be mindful. It is unclear what would happen to the SNP but, even if it continued as a political force, having achieved its primary goal the Scottish Liberal Democrats could be well-positioned to benefit from uncertainty within the SNP’s ranks. Independence could prove to be an antecedent for a liberal revival, especially if the party is able to use the referendum campaign to its advantage. Admittedly, the second possibility is looking more remote by the day but it remains an inescapable fact that independence could serve the Liberal Democrats well, in a similar way to how devolution has benefitted the Scottish Conservatives.

Of course, embracing independence will require surrendering the commitment to a federal Britain in which Scotland is part. I have no difficulty with this, especially as inaction on the part of the leadership is largely responsible for undermining my faith in the achievement of federalism. While I would have preferred the party leadership to have done everything in its power to ensure an option more closely relating to our position would be presented to voters, what is precious about federalism isn’t a doctrinal commitment to it but the kind of society it can help create. Federalism, like all constitutional arrangements, is simply a tool; a means to a desired end. The focus must be on end goals, not the journey. We must be mindful that the final destination – a fairer, better Scotland in which liberal values can thrive – is so much more significant than the route by which we arrive there.

In 2014, like millions of other Scots, I will be voting on the future of our nation. I will do so from a commitment to liberal values and a determination to progress the cause of liberalism. That is why I will vote “yes”.


Coincidentally, a fellow Liberal Democrat - Graeme Cowie - made his own liberal case for independence on Liberal Youth's Libertine blog. It is certainly worth reading.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

I followed a similar path. For years, I supported the LibDems because they seemed more economically just and socially progressive than New Labour. They were opposed to the wars. They understood both localism and environmentalism. They recognised that neither the state nor the market should have a monopoly on power. Most importantly, they were committed to a change in how we are governed, towards a more inclusive, decentralised, and constitutional system.

I became a convert to Scottish independence because I realised that such objectives could not be achieved within the creaking machine of the UK political system. There are too many old memories, too many imperial hangovers, too many ingrained anti-democratic assumptions at the heart of the UK state. Only independence, with a new state, based on a modern, democratic constitution, can deliver.

The treachery of Nick Clegg, in getting into bed with the Tories and propping up a neo-Thatcherite government, in return for a few very minor policy concessions, was the final nail in the coffin for me.

Independence, for me, is nothing to do with nationalism, and everything to do with the search for a more progressive, liberal-democratic, politics.

Allan Heron said...

Hard to disagree with much of what you say, Andrew. However, it's not clear that the SNP are going to move forward to offer a Scotland that will allow these opportunities. Indeed, it's not at all clear that the SNP have a clue what they will do should the referendum produce a "yes" vote.

The focus has been almost entirely on the basis that you wouldn't get this policy or that policy in an independent Scotland which MAY (and only may) be correct but despite their protestations to the contrary is every bit as negative as the Better Together campaign.

It beggars belief that a party campaigning for independence for as long as they have can't comment intelligently on matters of governance.

And I also remain very wary of their seemingly natural tendency to centralise. Their record suggests that their is a danger of an independent Scotland with the SNP would actually be an illiberal nation.

Long way to go but I suspect liberals will find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place on the basis of the evidence to date.

Andrew said...

Some good points Allan!

I haven't been impressed with either Yes Scotland or Better Together to date. Yes Scotland is moderately more positive in my view but needs to raise its game and as you suggest be more proactive in explaining what exactly independence will mean for Scotland and its people. Of course, in regards policies I am simply conjecturing - but there's no doubt that an independent Scottish parliament would be a more likely forum through which to achieve key liberal objectives.

There is no guarantee that such battles would be won, of course. But it's likely to be an environment far more productive for us than Westminster is proving now.

The matters of governance you refer to are absolutely key to understanding what Scotland will look like and how it will function post-independence. On those, we need answers (and people to ask the questions!). I hope that both "sides" in this debate understand their obligations to inform the public about what they will actually be voting for, rather than simply continue in the same negative, tribalistic vein.

True, there is an SNP tendency to centralise that we need to be aware of. That in itself is not an argument against independence, but we have to proceed with caution and oppose attempts at centralisation. We don't know what form an independent Scottish government would take so we can only speculate about policy direction; however, it demonstrates the need for a strong liberal party challenging the SNP and Labour on these vital matters.

Thomas W said...

Allan, what's going to happen to the SNP after independence? I don't think there's any doubt the party will disintegrate -- there are just too many incompatible views held by its members. For instance, I'm a liberal member of the SNP (and I used to be a member of the LibDems until thoughts similar to Andrew's caused me to join the SNP), and I often despair at some of the illiberal ideas aired by my fellow party members. At the moment, all SNP members are focused on independence, but once that has been achieved, lots will disappear and either join or set up new parties.
It often annoys me that the SNP are being asked to describe in detail what an independent Scotland will look like (which currency, how big an army, monarchy or republic, etc.). It's completely fair to ask what the SNP would change immediately, but any longer-term changes are likely to happen after a new Scottish Parliament has been elected, and it's entirely plausible that the Better Together parties will have a majority in the first independent Scottish Parliament.

tris said...

I'm a nationalist, who is probably much more liberal than nationalist by nature, but who has a real problem with living in the UK, a construct so heavily dominated (quite reasonably because of population and land mass) by England, as to make the two pretty much synonymous in most people's eyes, around the world and in these islands.

I've for long realised that the politics of Scotland is very different from the politics of England, and that we get a poor deal. Labour's rush to the right in order to win the hearts and minds (and votes) of Middle England was the final straw for me. We need to be independent so that we can chose our own way of doing things.

So far under devolution our differences have been crystal clear as demonstrated by our health and our education policies. Publicly funded hospitals; no tuition fees; care for elderly. All I think basically Liberal policies, some of which were instituted by a Liberal government, opposed by the Tories and grudgingly accepted as part of the deal by Labour.

Wouldn't it be nice to have that freedom over our foreign affairs, ALL of our transport; our military involvement; our non nuclear stance, etc?

It is probably hard for the SNP to lay out how things will be in Scotland in 2015. It can lay out what we have; what could be achieved; what are the possibilities... But, whether we will be a monarchy, an EU member, in NATO, is not really for the current devolved government to say.

In an Alex Salmond-led government post independence I imagine that we would be all of these things, but who is to say that that is what will happen.

As for voting systems, Alex is for PR, for 16s' voting (which I see the Liberal leadership is now against)...

But....

What if Labour forms the first administration, in coalition with the Liberals? Alex and the Yes Campaign cannot lay out what will happen then. Both the Labour and Liberal parties appear to be utterly opposed to independence and have given no idea of what their policies in an independent country will be.

But perhaps we rush them too much. At the moment it is broad brush strokes. Scotland would be quite rich. This would mean we could pay off our share of Brown and Cameron's debt. What we do with this money will depend on the government Scots elect.

Maybe it will be an SNP government (although maybe they will change their name). Maybe they would be able to go into coalition with another party once the horror of traitorous plots against the British state was no longer an issue.

The Yes campaign comprises three parties bitterly opposed to each other, with no particular plan for how the UK will be. Who knows which party will form the next UK government in 2015. It is a little unfair that Alex Salmond to be expected to do what the UK parties cannot.

Alistair Darling said it was a step into the unknown. Of course it is (although so is staying with the UK on its downward spiral). It's just not the negative step that he wanted to paint so that he can retain his seat booking for the House of Lords.

cynicalHighlander said...

Could I suggest that people get rid of the notion that because the SNP are the main pushers for Independence that they will end up as the only party once the yes vote is achieved and Independence is signed then it will be up to the next elected government to start implementing the path that suits Scotland and not party priorities. Independence does not tie anyone into an SNP dominated state portrayed by the MSM because they have no understanding of democracy outside the Westminster dictatorship.

Independence is just that a chance for once in ones life an opportunity to create a country that suits the majority in Scotland not Westminster and its financial masters in the City.

Can I suggest that the appearance of centralisation is the only way of breaking up the infiltration of past party affiliation of the establishment which has constrained Scotland for decades without causing alarm from down south.

Old Scot said...

As a Liberal I wish to campaign for a society where the needs and voice of the public drive policy. I want decisions to be taken as close to the people that are affected. Subsidiarity is central to Liberalism.
I wish to have a system where power is ceded from the people to appropriate levels of decision making.
Not people at the top with power deciding what they will give up.
The current Liberal Democrat leadership will hopefully soon move on and the party return to more Liberal ways.

Anonymous said...

I realise this article was quite a while ago but a bit near the end really caught my eye and got me thinking:

"Of course, embracing independence will require surrendering the commitment to a federal Britain in which Scotland is part. I have no difficulty with this, especially as inaction on the part of the leadership is largely responsible for undermining my faith in the achievement of federalism. "

Wouldn't Federalism in Scottish terms, really just be Independence with an expanded British & Irish Council where we cooperate on "National"/"Regional" terms anyway? Is continued usage of the word "National" really worth all this extra effort?

Wouldnt Independence will essentially give us federalism-max a generation or so before the UK electorate would consider starting down this path, only with an extra Brit UN seat and 6 extra Brit EU seats thrown in to sweeten the deal?