Sunday, 3 February 2013

Is the future federal?

I ask the question because Willie Rennie's made a timely and positive contribution in today's Scotland on Sunday.

The Scottish Liberal Democrat leader argues that "we must realise the future is federal".  But why must we?  What evidence actually points towards this eventuality.  And who is the "we" Mr Rennie is trying to convince?  It would seem he's aimed his piece squarely towards the SNP, but surely if federalism is to become a reality it requires the Labour and Conservative parties to be convinced of its merits?

A lot has been made of the Electoral Commission's decision in respect to the wording of a question on which most Scots have already made up their minds. Less has been made of the Commission's recommendation that voters require more information about the ramifications of both a "yes" and "no" vote, as well as the obvious challenge to both campaigns and the media to up the ante in regards actively informing the electorate rather than reducing the most important constitutional question ever put to the Scottish electorate to glib simplicities and party-political tribalism.

Rennie is right to ask questions of the SNP.  But he also needs to ask some very serious questions of the Tories and Labour, towards whose leaders he appears to be undeservedly generous and accepting at face value.  It's difficult to know where the Scottish Conservatives stand, with Ruth Davidson sending out conflicting signals, although it would be surprising if they'd support anything more than the very minimal increase of devolved powers.  Labour seems not to wish to talk about devolution at all and, while Johann Lamont can be expected to promote some package of enhanced devolution at her party's conference in April, there doesn't seem to be enormous appetite within the Labour Party for a radical overhaul of the status quo - or, indeed, for anything remotely resembling the federalist "Home Rule" Willie Rennie champions with such enthusiasm.

In honesty, there's not been sufficient talk of federalism within the Liberal Democrats in recent years - especially for those not in Scotland.  The important question of English devolution has been intentionally avoided, and the cause of an English Parliament abandoned to the likes of the English Democrats.  I've made the quip before, and it remains true, that if we it was a crime to be a federalist party there wouldn't be enough evidence with which to secure the Liberal Democrats' conviction.  Obviously the SNP's independence referendum has resulted in the Liberal Democrats' responding with the Home Rule Commission's praiseworthy recommendations, but is it sufficiently credible, sufficiently grounded and sufficiently flexible to convince opposition parties of its merits and thereby justify Rennie's faith in a federalist future?

Let's be brutally honest about this. Much as Rennie wants our party to be the "guarantors of change" (and I wish it were so), we have failed in the twenty-five years since the party was formed in 1988 to get federalism onto the agenda. We've failed even to get it into most of our manifestos during that time. Furthermore we have not, during eleven years in government in Holyrood and Westminster, ever succeeded in securing any significant step towards a genuinely federal settlement for the UK.

Now, I am a federalist.  A European federalist, no less.  Like Rennie and most other Liberal Democrats I would love to see a federal UK.  I'd also like to see a proportional system of voting for Westminster and long overdue reform of the House of Lords, but we know what happened to those aspirations upon the Liberal Democrats entering government.  Liberal Democrats have watched on as so many of the hopes we have held for generations have turned into dust.  Clegg doesn't exactly have the touch of King Midas.  The guarantors of change?

Federalism is a noble aspiration, as indeed are proportional representation and Lords reform.  There is no doubt in my mind that Menzies Campbell's report on Home Rule, some minor criticisms aside, was a welcome contribution to the debate.  It's objectives were praiseworthy.  The real question, however, is not whether it is laudable, but whether it is plausible.

It certainly has to be plausible if I'm being asked to vote to reject independence - which in my mind is preferable to the constitutional status quo - and hold out for full federalism.

Returning to Willie Rennie's piece in Scotland on Sunday, it is more than interesting to observe that he believes there is, in political circles, "an emerging consensus on the detail [of increased powers for Holyrood]."  I think he is right, in that Davidson finally realises the damage drawing a "line in the sand" will do to her party electorally and that there is a mood among Labour's senior figures to embrace further devolution (if only as a tactic to disarm the SNP). But is it a mood for federalism?  And can the broadest of broad consensuses ever be the basis for making confident boasts in the inevitability of the federal ambition?

The most likely outcome in the event of a "no" vote is a limited expansion of devolution that no Liberal Democrat should be happy with.  Regrettably, for all the positives Rennie espouses, the Scottish Liberal Democrats are not leading the conversation.  Rennie's championing of federalism continues to be drowned out by the cynical negativity of those he requires as allies.

Further devolution may follow a "no" vote in 2014 but, in the absence of any firm commitments, I would suggest anyone voting "no" in the hope of significant progress being made on that front is likely to be sorely disappointed.  In any case, devolution is not federalism.  Suggesting that the future may involve a little more devolution is not the same as insisting that the future is federal.

Whether a significant defeat for the cause of independence in the referendum would actually aid Willie Rennie's federalist ambitions is questionable.  There can be little doubt that such an outcome would prompt the predictable analysis that most Scots are content with the status quo, with a few tweaks.  It would not provide much in the way of ammunition for federalists anxious to break the mould of stale devolutionist thinking or the subservient relationship Holyrood has with a Westminster parliament that is proving itself to be virtually unreformable.

I welcome Willie Rennie's optimism, but it must be tempered by realism. Given our frustrations in government and the unlikeliness of either of the other main parties endorsing a federalist plan, the best that can be hoped for is an extension of devolution.  The only hope for federalism is the Liberal Democrats securing an overall majority in 2015.  I would suggest there's more chance of Jacob Rees-Mogg becoming Prime Minister.

So, is the future federal?  I wish that it was.  I wish that the Liberal Democrats (and its predecessor parties) had been better positioned electorally to take advantage of opportunities that have long since disappeared.  I wish we had the political influence to be "guarantors of change", possessing the leverage with which to bring our opponents to accept our vision and work with us to implement it.

The bottom line is that any change will only be achieved with the co-operation of Labour and the Tories.  They will certainly not buy wholesale into our forward-looking dream.  It is unrealistic to expect them to, and equally unrealistic to expect Mr Rennie to convince them to. If we've learned anything from our relationships in coalition, it is also that we cannot take our opponents at face value and that it is hugely unwise to invest so much trust in party leaders - especially when the party leader in question is particularly adept at exploiting the working relationship for his own political advantage.

Perhaps Willie Rennie has more cause for optimism than I imagine. Perhaps. But this Liberal Democrat is going to take a lot of convincing that federalism is a realistic prospect - or anything other than yet another Liberal aspiration to be crushed by the cynicism of our supposed partners.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

The future is either independence or an onslaught on the existing devolution settlement from the Tories who will interpret a NO vote as an abdication of the Scottish people. We only get one chance and given the choices available YES to independence is the ONLY option

DougtheDug said...

I agree with what you've written here Andrew. I've always thought that federalism has been treated by the Lib-Dems as unwanted Liberal baggage unfortunately brought on-board during the merger and then stuffed into a cupboard and forgotten.

Federal parliaments are constitutionally protected so the first step in federalism has to be the creation of a written constitution for the UK which protects their powers. However I've not found anything about that on the main Lib-Dem website or to be honest anything about federalism at all. Federalism and devolution in the current Lib-Dems seems to be a topic driven only by Scotland and not by any internal desire in the party for a federal UK.

You're right about Willie Rennie. Why is he directing his pleas to Alex Salmond to help create a federal UK when it's Labour and the Tories who will have the majority in Westminster after a no vote which will enable them to effect any changes to the UK constitution.

If there is a no vote then the SNP will not only be powerless they will be treated as pariahs by the victorious unionists and I would have thought their endorsement of anything at that point would give it the kiss of death.

tris said...

I thought Cameron had ruled out anything except independence and the opposite, which I tend to think of as dependence.

I realise that there have been some mutterings of 'jam tomorrow', but we had that before, and from the Tories (a lot more dependable one than the current one), and it came to nothing. It was, in short, a lie.

Cameron said, 'line in the sand'; Davidson said 'line in the sand'. The Cameron said 'some jam tomorrow', but refused to say what kind of jam and how much; and Davidson said 'some jam tomorrow', but was equally reticent with any further details.

I don't think Clegg has any influence with Cameron now, so I can't see him being able to pull any strings. Cameron knows Clegg would never dare risk a general election.

I wonder if Lamont will offer the same kind of jam as Cameron, and about the same amount? Or if she will continue to bury her head in the sand and tell us that we can't have something for nothing.

The silliest thing that they all did, was rule out devo max. I realise that it would have been hard to deliver it, and I wouldn't have voted for it, because it would mean retaining ownership of nuclear weapons and allowing Westminster to draw us into wars in any Muslim country that has oil and looks like it's not going to buy its arms from us. Not to mention leaving Hague in charge of Foreign Affairs, god help us.

But many people would have gone for it with glee, and I suspect that the SNP would have found themselves with a dwindling support by now.

It's amazing just how many bad judgement calls Cameron has managed to make. I'm trying to think of something he got right.

And talking of bad judgement calls and Willie Rennie, what on earth was he thinking about supporting a bedroom tax on the basis that downsizing will make it easier for people to find work?

cynicalHighlander said...

Federalism in the UK needed to be started decades ago with the backing of all parties, so all the talk now is irrelevant because if Scotland votes no powers will be taken back by Westminster so that a referendum can never happen again.

Gedguy said...

I agree with everything you have said Andrew but I would replace the word Federalism with confederalism. The problem with federalism is that the largest component of the federal state still has the biggest say. In this case it would be England and nothing would change. The power would still lie with the City of London. Confederalism, on the other hand, means that NOTHING can be done with a majority of the federal states agreeing.

Unknown said...

"Regrettably, for all the positives Rennie espouses, the Scottish Liberal Democrats are not leading the conversation."

As Tris's comment suggests, our one chance tp lead the conversation was as advocates of a second question in the Referendum.
But on Saturday (at the South Scotland conference) Willie was praising the squashing of a second question as one of Michael Moore's finest negotiating achievements! I like what Willie's saying on "post-No" negotiations, but I see very little chance of it getting anywhere.