Judy Steel, wife of former Liberal leader David Steel, and announced her support for Scottish independence, according to today's Daily Record.
She is reported as saying: "“I have always believed in Scotland as an independent country. It’s an emotional thing. I suppose it’s tied up with my admiration for the Scandinavian countries and the influence of my parents, who were very disillusioned by the trappings of post-imperial Britain. It may be good for Britain as a whole and give it the chance to find a level where it can shake off that very grandiose and rather pompous history.” That’s a very timely intervention given the interpretation and presentation of British history at the Olympics opening ceremony but what is more telling is her use of the word “always”.
The implication is obvious – she has held this belief for as long as she remembers but until now it has never been possible to be public about it. Perhaps it is because her husband is no longer the high profile figure he once was, or maybe it’s because she feels that the momentum is firmly behind the “Yes” campaign, but she evidently feels she now has the freedom to be intellectually honest to her beliefs.
That she should support independence is not particularly surprising to me. Judy Steel has been around politics for many years. She’s experienced the highs and lows of the 70s and 80s and seen how the federalism espoused by the Liberals and later the Liberal Democrats has been replaced by a turgid devolutionism. She’s seen the more ambitious aims of her husband’s Commission of 2006 fall by the wayside. Moreover she’s been married to a Scottish MP who, whatever one thinks of him, has a history of advocating greater freedom for Scotland and Scots. Such ambitions have been consistently frustrated by the failure of Westminster and the Liberal Democrats to deliver anything resembling a real federalism, let alone the kind of increased freedoms most Scots seem to want.
Given this, I don’t find it at all unusual for someone like Judy Steel to be independence-inclined. However, it appears that her convictions go back several decades and pre-date her marriage to David. What is surprising, therefore, is that she’s been able to successfully keep her views to herself for so long.
Lady Steel believes that being pro-Scotland and advocating independence as a means to achieving a brighter future is not synonymous with being pro-SNP. In this I am in agreement with her. The intellectual arguments for independence – in fact the fundamentally liberal reasons to support independence – are by no means the sole property of Mr Salmond’s party.
Where I disagree with Lady Steel is her description of her support for independence as “an emotional thing”. For me, it is not, and never can be, an emotional thing. It instead stems from an intellectual reasoning and a pragmatic desire to achieve the kind of liberal Scottish society I desire so strongly.
What we are seeing is that a number of Liberal Democrats, whose adherence to liberal principles cannot be questioned, are beginning to either express support for Scottish independence or at least indicate that they will vote “Yes” in 2014 in preference to the status quo. These include Lady Steel, the Earl of Mar and Kellie and several other party activists.
There must be recognition within the party that, as a broad church, we should accept that there is a range of opinion within the party on the question of Scotland’s constitutional future. We are after all, Liberals. (Not to mention that we’re Democrats.) We should respect the views of all party members and allow them to freely campaign as they feel fit. I certainly don’t want any other Judy Steels within the party to feel silenced by an imposed conformity and be pressured to keep their opinions to themselves. Neither do I want to see others defecting to the SNP simply to obtain the freedom to campaign in favour of a “Yes” vote.
Having been in conversation with a number of other independence-minded Liberal Democrats (many of whom have approached me after reading my blog), we feel the time has arrived to establish an internal grouping within the party to campaign for independence. What we will not be is anti-liberal or even intrinsically anti-leadership: we merely wish to positively campaign for what we believe will facilitate a better Scotland, a more liberal Scotland, a freer Scotland.
Lady Steel is of course welcome to join us. It is early days yet and the proposed grouping is as yet unestablished; news of future developments will appear on this blog as well as via other channels as determined by the group. What is clear is that liberalism is not defined by attitudes towards Scottish independence and that the same should apply to the Liberal Democrats.
Anyone interested in being involved with a potential Lib Dems for Independence group can contact me, in the first instance, via twitter (@scottishliberal)