Saturday, 4 January 2014

What I want from Better Together - more negativity

Those of you who are regular visitors to my blog will know that I’ve often criticised the “no” campaign for their negativity.

It will therefore come as something of a surprise when I say that what I hope to see from Better Together in these crucial, final months of campaigning is more negativity.

Not simply negativity, but focused negativity.

And that negativity should be directed towards the Union. It is the only intellectually honest tactic to save the 307 year old union, which is itself arguably threatened by the strategy of its self-appointed defenders.

Let’s turn back the clock a bit. A little over a year ago, myself and other Lib Dems were making the case for a multi-question referendum on the basis that this was the surest method of providing for guaranteed further constitutional and political reform in the aftermath of a “no” vote. In essence, many of us were looking for a way by which we could bring ourselves to vote “no” in the knowledge that improvements would inevitably follow. As an “ultra-federalist” (an intended term of abuse coined by a fellow Lib Dem) I fail to see how the constitutional status quo is either desirable or sustainable, a view shared by many others who are far from nationalists in their political outlook. We wanted some guarantees rather than vague talk.

In the meantime, the Scottish Liberal Democrats have published their own plans for Home Rule. It misses a few opportunities but in general it’s a fairly optimistic and well conceived vision. It is not, however, a blueprint for a federalist settlement and its principal deficiency is that the Lib Dems lack the means via which to implement their grand programme. Ming Campbell’s report is a signal of intention at best; there is no serious prospect of it being realised without the support of the Conservative and Labour parties – which means there is no serious prospect of it being realised.

For their part, the Tories and Labour are at pains to tell us that there will be further reform, but omit to provide explanation as to what shape it may take. This lack of elaboration on their part is telling. Labour talk in vague terms about a range of ideas including a new convention, but are unable to be more specific and have suggested long-term timescales; the Tories seem to be struggling to put forward any proposals of significance that are remotely practical.

This is relevant to the pertinent and immediate question of whether Scotland should be an independent nation as it underlines the inescapable fact that it is not only the pro-independence camp that legitimately stands accused of a failure to provide detail of their vision for a post-referendum Scotland. The only certainty is that, whatever the referendum result, the immediate consequence will be more uncertainty.

Of course the Scottish voting public deserve better. However, in the absence of any positive indications from Better Together as to what form and shape prospective constitutional reforms might take, what is needed is a healthy dose of intellectual and political honesty towards the nature of the Union.

If we were to believe Better Together’s claims, then the Union has never been in a healthier state. It constitutes “the best of both worlds”. It is “like a family”. In fact, like Mary Poppins, it is practically perfect in every way. Better Together consistently sing the praises of the status quo, as if any deviation from the current settlement would result in economic Armageddon.

No doubt there are some who believe this; who genuinely think that the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy is an example to the world, who feel that no further reform other than the most basic of tinkering at the edges is necessary, or whose understandings of “family” are as dysfunctional loosely connected units presided over by a domineering patriarchal figure.

Aside from its message that the Union represents some type of democratic Utopia, Better Together’s tactics have been invariably negative. The worst thing about the campaign to date is that, in supposedly “defending” the Union, they are actively undermining the case for both federalism and future constitutional reform. It is more than ironic that Liberal Democrats, passionate advocates for ongoing reform, have sat passively by while their progressive vision is sidelined in favour of shrill, tribalistic negativity. Worse still is the degree to which many Liberal Democrat activists have uncritically supported whatever Better Together happen to be saying at any given time, including misguided and disingenuous claims about the nature of the Union.

What I would like to see from Better Together is an acceptance of the Union’s flawed make-up. It must, like those of us campaigning for a better EU, recognise the dysfunctional nature of the status quo – accepting that the current arrangements are far from perfect and actually have so often failed to serve the interests of Scots. It must be honest in regards the Union’s deficient democratic system, the need to build on the devolution settlement, the social and economic divisions inherent within (and exacerbated by) the Union, and the worsening relations between Scottish and British parliaments. It also has to recognise that the Britishness it promotes and defends with such vigour is dying and that the appetite for change is very real.

Messages such as “the Union has served us well for 300 years” are not only glib and simplistic; they are very, very wrong. The Union, like any other political arrangement, has had its share of successes and failures. It is difficult to take seriously any “positive case” made by a campaign group that refuses to face up to inconvenient facts of history.

Better Together, if it genuinely aspires to any kind of political credibility, must acknowledge that it recognises the glaring limitations and inadequacy of the Union, rather than reinforcing lazy myths and ill-informed cultural stereotypes. Only by embracing intellectual honesty can Better Together hope to preserve the Union. It may well be the case that the Union is worth defending, not least if – like the EU – it can be reformed from within. But the Union so beloved by Better Together no longer exists – if it ever really did. What the Union needs, if it is to survive, is not the ramblings of nostalgics and an ill-conceived appeal to shared culture, but a forward-looking approach; one that learns from the past while recognising the Union in the future will need to be very different in how it works, how it relates to its component parts and how its systems of democracy work in action.

So, it’s time for Better Together to up its game. Let’s have more cynicism and negativity – not towards Scotland, but towards the Union itself. I don’t expect Better Together to articulate a programme of evolutionary constitutional reform, but a general acceptance of the Union’s weaknesses and limitations would be a very useful starting point for future constitutional negotiations.


Douglas Guy said...

I'm done. I've been a liberal since the 70s (with a short break voting SDP in Hillhead). The decision not to push for a shape a third option, when it was nor only going to give us what we want, but also going to win an easy majority was so inexplicably stupid that I've given up. I won't see anything even close to federalism in my lifetime. The fantasy that we can defeat the nationalists and then push our own agenda in its place during the following parliament is so detached from reality I just can't believe those proposing it are serious. It's obvious we are going to be slaughtered at the 2015 Westminster election. But a successful Devo Max campaign by the whole Scottish party would have helped insulate us here. Instead we get Carmichael leading for the Tories and the status quo.

Enough. If Indy Light is all that's on offer I'll take it. Salmond you've got my vote. What can I do to help?

Unknown said...

Absolutely agree. I've been in revolt on this issue since my motion supporting a third option on the ballot paper was so sneeringly turned down by the Inverness conference in March 2012. The bad judgement in fact goes back to the 2007 election, where the Scottish leadership (unconstitutionally?) took a precipitate decision not to talk to the SNP, cancelling the meeting of wider party reps they were supposed to consult.

Peter A Bell said...

As thoughtful and passionate an argument as we would expect from Andrew Page. And one which must surely lead to the conclusion I wrote about recently (Vote Yes to save the union) that only independence can save those aspects of the union which are worth saving.

We must recognise that devolution is not necessarily or primarily an instrument of progressive change. It is at least as much a tool for preserving the structures of power and privilege which define the British state. The imperative which drives devolution is the minimum concession necessary to maintain the status quo. Devolution, as conceived by the British parties, has nothing whatever to do with improving government or democracy. It is entirely a self-serving exercise in the interests of the British establishment.

Rather than rectifying the serious flaws in the British political system, the constitution tinkering of the UK government has served only to highlight the asymmetric, anomalous and democratically deficient nature of the political union. It can't be fixed. The political union must be ended in order that we can redefine the relationship between Scotland and the rest of the UK; putting that relationship on a sounder footing; making it a fitting relationship for two mature nations in the world of the 21st century.

I would pull Andrew up on just one point and that is the regrettably facile comment in which he implies that the Yes campaign "legitimately stands accused of a failure to provide detail of their vision for a post-referendum Scotland".

Legitimately? Really?

What of the Scottish Government's 670-page paper on the matter? What of the visions being developed and articulated by the likes of the Scottish Greens, the Jimmy Reid Foundation, Scottish Global Forum and Business for Scotland among many, many others? Do these count for nothing?

Does the anti-independence campaign offer anything even remotely comparable?

It is rather sad to see Andrew Page fall into the habit of lumping the two sides of the campaign together in a way which is uncharacteristically vacuous and intellectually indolent. I trust and expect that it was a momentary lapse.

Anonymous said...

The UK does not take kindly to constitutional reform, as shown by the failure to reform the bloated House of Lords (which still includes hereditary aristocrats and C of E bishops) and the crude first past the post voting system. The introduction of devolution could have been an opportunity to create some kind of federal system, but instead devolution was grafted onto the existing constitution, leading to problems such as the infamous West Lothian question.

I see no sign that either the Tory or the Labour party has any desire for further devolution. In the unlikely event that the next UK government did attempt to devolve significant additional powers to the Scottish parliament, any legislation might well be blocked by the government's own backbenchers or by the Lords. As Andrew Neil said, the only reason there is talk now of additional powers for Holyrood is the threat of a Yes vote. If there is a No vote, it is much more likely that some existing devolved powers will be clawed back by Westminster.

The UK government has insisted that the referendum offer only two options. If the alternative to independence is to be further devolution, then a definite proposal for this should be made to the Scottish electorate in advance of the referendum; the time for this is fast running out. Without such a proposal, and some guarantee that it will be implemented in the event of a No vote, anyone talking up the prospect of devomax or even devoplus is asking the Scottish electorate to vote for a pig in a poke.