Should the Lib Dems withdraw from Better Together?

Tony Greaves: "The more I listen to the Better Together
campaign, the less I like it."
I'm not a fan of Better Together - something that's unlikely to change, although I do have respect for some of the figures within it.

I'm also not really one to get out the "I told you so"s when circumstances prove me correct. However, having made the case in January 2012 for Liberal Democrat non-affiliation to a "no" campaign that would inevitably employ the tactics of cynical negativity, it has been encouraging in recent months to see overdue and welcome criticism from Lib Dems - including Scottish leader Willie Rennie, albeit implicitly, in his promotion of a "sunshine strategy" - in regards the relentlessly negative campaigning and how this is actively undermining the case for the union.

Liberals like Charles Kennedy have also brought a sober-minded, balanced, fair and reasonable perspective to the debate. It is not necessary to agree with Charles to appreciate his innate decency, his understanding of Scottish and constitutional issues and his love of Scotland - not to mention the kind of asset he could be if his positive message was not drowned out by the tribal bickering that has characterised much of what the media (and the respective campaigns) have passed off as democratic discussion.

I've made no secret of my desire for Better Together to lead the political conversation, and in doing so to be more intellectually honest about the shortcomings of the current constitutional arrangements. I've also argued that the most realistic chance of achieving anything like the federalist settlement we claim to believe in was lost when the Liberal Democrats refused to countenance the idea of a second question on the independence ballot.

I'm perfectly open to the reasonable suggestion that I could be wrong on these counts, although I've yet to be convinced - especially in relation to the damage Better Together is doing to the Lib Dems, the opportunity for a genuine federalism and even the union itself. While I understand why people may vote one way or the other, or as individuals opt to campaign one way or the other, I have never seen the wisdom in our party - which is neither nationalist nor unionist - falling down firmly in support of the Better Together camp.

The esteem in which the "no" campaign is held by the public is such that, in the not unrealistic scenario that Scotland does reject independence, it will be in spite of their campaigning tactics rather than because of them.

As mentioned previously, more Liberal Democrats have spoken out against the appalling Better Together campaign, including many "no" supporters frustrated at how their party has been sidelined and its key messages eclipsed by the petty, and sometimes bitter, anti-SNP talk.

Today, the latest installment of Liberal Democrat commonsense comes from Tony Greaves, one of the negotiators in the Liberal-SDP merger negotiations of 1987-8. It makes compelling reading. He makes many of the same points that I have in the last few years, from the unfortunate effects of association with Better Together to the lost opportunity regarding the second question, but his language is more direct. One might even suggest it is more angry; frustrated at a misguided and patronising "no" campaign that had the potential to be so much more.

Typical of his contribution is this excerpt on the currency question:

"The more I listen to the Better Together campaign, the less I like it. I was appalled by the threats by the Westminster parties, including ourselves in the person of Danny Alexander, over the pound. The view that a currency union would be out of the question, full stop, not to be discussed; and that it could not be negotiated in any circumstances; is or is not sensible policy. But as a blunt statement at this stage, it was stupid politics and anyone with an ounce of common sense could see that."

He also states that he is "astonished that the Scottish Liberal Democrats are now content to be labelled as Unionists", and remarks, in closing, that "it’s time for our friends north of the Border to crystallise their Liberal Democrat vision for Scotland, disengage from all-party establishment mush, and join the likes of Michael Moore on a distinctive Liberal campaign trail. Or we might all be saying bye-bye."

He isn't wrong. There is time for a "sunshine strategy" to be effective, but it will require - in the infamous words of a recently separated Hollywood star - a "conscious uncoupling" from Better Together. Our voice is more distinctive, more positive and more direct outwith a campaign that often treats us, and the electorate, with disrespect. If we are to make the case for federalism, we have to firstly understand what we mean by that and, secondly, be able to communicate it effectively to voters. Unfortunately, the straightjacket imposed by conformity to Better Together's strategy has prevented both the internal and external conversations from taking place, and resulted in the Lib Dems being publicly perceived as little more than an anti-SNP party, in the way that we were once seen as anti-Tory.

I agree with Tony Greaves, who appears (in spite of - or perhaps because of - his self-declared limited involvement in Scottish politics) to have a well-considered appreciation of the ramification of the independence referendum for both the Scottish and federal Liberal Democrat parties. Whatever the next few months have in store for the Lib Dems, there can be no escaping that our future in Scotland will be directly affected by the stifling relationship with Better Together.

Tony Greaves was writing in The Liberator


The problem for the LDs is that constitutionally the leadership would only consider something up to their cobbled federalism stance and no more which limited the debate. Its the 'half pregnancy' stance which will always bring out an unworkable resolution.

2007 decisions by Tavish as his vitriol to the thought of working constructively with a party who wished for self government for Scotland would destroy his dream of ennoblement his real reason for entering politics.

LDs have duped the voters for years in the disguise of we are not the the Tories or Labour yet jumped into bed with them for ministerial posts nothing else rather than offer support on an add hoc basis. Democracy at work.
DougtheDug said…
"astonished that the Scottish Liberal Democrats are now content to be labelled as Unionists"

Since the Liberal Democrats do not want an independent Scotland why do they reject the label unionist?

Federalism is simply a rearrangement of local government within the UK which retains the integrity of the UK as a single national state.

Even though federalism doesn't break the union and is touted as a distinguishing policy of the Lib-Dems I've had a look at the Lib-Dem website and I can't see the word federalism anywhere on the issues page.
kininvie said…
I can quite understand your desire for the LibDems to withdraw from the ghastly Better Together. But what I cannot understand (and find intensely frustrating) is why you won't see that (absent second question on ballot) the only hope of achieving the LibDem ideal of federalism is to gain power first and negotiate afterwards. That can only be done by voting Yes. How can your ideal ever be realised by voting No? Beats me
Andrew said…
Kininvie - if you haven't noticed before, I've made more than clear my personal intention of voting yes.

However, that's a personal choice and I understand why others in the party will vote differently. While i accept my view may not be the majority view among Lib Dems, there can be no escaping how destructive association with Better Together has been.

Doug the Dug - as I've said previously, if it was an offence to be a federalist party there wouldn't be sufficient evidence with which to convict us!

Cynical Highlander - I too was more than disappointed by Tavish's stance in 2007. There were reasons why a coalition with the SNP might not have worked but to refuse to even negotiate was an affront to democracy.
kininvie said…
Andrew - I'm well aware of your personal intention to vote Yes, and I'm glad you are prepared to stand up for that. My comment was addressed more in the (faint) hope that you could provide some insight into the party's thinking, which leads themto act so much against their own interests - assuming they don't have a death wish, which I sometimes doubt.
Iain Stewart said…
It doesn't really matter what the Liberals do any more as their teaming up with Cameron and Osborne has marginalised them. If the Liberals stay in the Better Together campaign, who is going to notice? Sadly, the Liberals are now seen as just one constituent part of the Tory government in Westminster, and the alacrity with which Danny Alexander leaps at any chance to utter semi-truths in support of his colleagues doesn't do the Liberals any credit. It's as sad to see how far the Liberals have fallen in the same way as Labour.
Anonymous said…
Interesting blog so thanks for that. I consider myself a Liberal but would never join the party unless it was independent of the Liberal Democrats in the rest of the UK given the shift to the right under Clegg. I could never support a party that thinks nuclear weapons are good with the result being foodbanks and more poverty, I know simplistic view but certainly a part of the story.

I agree with you regarding Better Together, if it's a no vote it will be in spite of them not because of them. I personally will be voting yes but either way on the 19th September we have a divided country, a yes and we can all start to build, a no and I really fear for Scotlands future under this corrupt and broken system.

The Libdems however are going to suffer a lot of pain and a very long road back. I suspect you will lose half your seats across the uk, if not more due to broken promises, and the links with the Tories. The fact that you have no real alternative policies is not helping, Danny Alexander is a millstone around your knecks, Cable sold off Royal Mail to hedgefunds and then lied about it while under pricing the value against advice from boe and is a busted flush. Charles kennedy was the leader I came very close to joining the party for but again the libdems shot themselves in the foot by not supporting him.

I also agree with you on the second question, it should have been on the ballot paper and it would have been if Clegg had the guts to actually be a federalist. I will join the party one day, definately on the back of a yes and maybe on the back of a no to fight for liberalism but I admire you for standing up and being counted with your blog.

Les Cunningham said…
My view is that any kind of federal arrangement for the UK is a non-starter. It could not be imposed on England without a referendum there, or across the whole of the UK, and I do not believe that there is any great desire for radical constitutional change amongst the English electorate. I suspect that any proposal for an English assembly or parliament would be rejected by people who would object to another layer of government with a resulting increase in the number of politicians.

Another problem is that a federal system in which one part has about 80% of the total population would be very unbalanced. If one looks at countries with a stable federal system (such as the USA, Canada, Australia and Germany), none of the component parts is large enough to dominate the whole. Breaking up England is not a realistic option.

I think that having a second question on devo-max (effectively a quasi-federal option) would have been disastrous, because the result, according to opinion poll results, would almost certainly have been no to independence and yes to devo-max - but almost certainly the UK government would have been unable (or perhaps just unwilling) to deliver devo-max. At the least, it would have resulted in years being wasted before we could have had another independence referendum.

I do not believe that the Scottish Government ever wanted a second question - they just wanted it to be the UK government which ruled it out.
Anonymous said…
I hope that your lack of posting for nearly 3 months reflects how hard you are campaigning for a YES vote and not that either anything bad has happened to you or that you have been intimidated into silence by those Britnat bullies in the no campaign.
Andrew said…
Thanks for your concern - no, nothing to do with bullying or intimidation, but it does reflect a period of relative ill-health. Hope to be more active on here soon.
mather153 said…
Can anyone direct me to where details of the LD federalism proposals are?