Saturday, 27 September 2014

After the referendum - which way forward?

It’s now over a week since Scotland voted No – a verdict which raises far more questions about Scotland’s future than it answers.

I’ve been trying to make sense of the confusing web of information and misinformation that has been communicated within the media and by the representatives of political parties. What is apparent is that there is no broad consensus among the Westminster parties, no acceptance of the “devo max” being proclaimed as an inevitability by many sections of the media, no long-term view and no real idea of how to deal with the “English question”. In fact, the latter hasn’t even been adequately defined other than in the cynical language of David Cameron. 

Lessons from the referendum
Before I consider the question of how to move forward from the referendum – both the result and the two-year long debate – it’s vital to consider what we’ve learned from that campaign. Firstly, Scotland is more divided than many imagined, and such divisions cannot simply be wished away. The nature of Scotland’s politics was shown to be fractious, tribalistic and at times surprisingly intolerant. Secondly, the result was closer than many expected; indeed, only a few months ago the No campaign would have considered a 55-45 victory as a defeat rather than something to be greeted with either relief or celebration. This can hardly be accepted as an approval of the status quo and suggests that there is an appetite not only for change, but a desire that such change be far-reaching and radical. Thirdly, the real winner was democracy – with a huge 85% turnout and hundreds of thousands of activists energised and inspired by their involvement in such a significant national conversation.  Fourthly, the intervention of Gordon Brown and his promise of a timetable for change certainly ensured that the result was not closer and may even have prevented a Yes vote. Brown may well have saved the Union, but Scottish voters will not respond positively to any attempt to backtrack on that promise – something the Labour Party must bear in mind. Fifthly, a common theme in the national conversation on Scotland’s future was the lack of trust in politicians and the political establishments.

Labour's predicament
There can be no escaping the reality that the pledge for further powers was made in some panic, which explains the chaotic and ill-conceived nature of what has followed. Most significantly, Brown and Darling’s keenness to avoid a Yes vote at apparently any cost allowed them to be outmanoeuvred by Cameron, who has cynically calculated an opportunity to play the English card with success. It could easily be Labour’s undoing: they, unlike the Tories, have everything to lose by selling Scotland short. Labour has somehow managed to find themselves on the losing side: in spite of being the foremost voice within Better Together, they now find themselves between the proverbial rock and hard place. Do they dishonour a pledge they made without consideration of its ramifications, or do they accept the possibility of being in office but unable to govern? Business as usual is not an option, but neither is putting the genie back into the bottle. The conversation now needs to be had. A powerful and persuasive Yes campaign in Scotland has done what no amount of Liberal Democrat constitutional navel-gazing has ever accomplished – it’s had Westminster frightened. And it’s put both the D-word (devolution) and the all important F-word (federalism) onto the political agenda. 

The situation provides opportunities, but it is difficult to see how Scottish Labour is in any kind of position to respond positively. Paralysed by self-interest, they are unable to deliver on the public expectation to facilitate change without compromising their electoral ambitions. And yet the electoral possibilities are nil if they fail to. Labour’s predicament is entirely of their own making: Better Together was always an uneasy alliance but Labour have been strategically weak, easily outfoxed by the Prime Minister at crucial moments and unable to dictate the political discourse.

Conservative cynicism
My criticism of Labour does not indicate any kind of support for the Conservatives’ position, articulated by Cameron and his Justice Secretary Chris Grayling. The Tories have been nakedly partisan, pouncing on the West Lothian Question they have virtually ignored for decades to force Labour into a corner. No doubt, the spectre of UKIP also features in the thinking that produces arguments such as the potential for “an English backlash” if Scottish MPs can force “socialist policies” on the rest of the UK. Not only is this kind of language from Grayling intemperate, it smashes the illusion of a united front into the water. Given the Tories have been at pains to undermine the evils of SNP nationalism, it is disappointing that immediately after the referendum result many senior Conservatives have retreated into the familiar haven of English nationalism. One down-side to their virtual disappearance in Scotland (at least in relation to Westminster representation) is that they have nothing to lose by doing so. 

Given the standoff between Labour and the Conservatives, and with Gordon Brown stating that his timetable will be adhered to irrespective of any Commons vote, it is little wonder that the SNP have been able to capitalise on the uncertainty, attracting several thousand new members and overtaking the Liberal Democrats in terms of membership. For Alex Salmond to claim that Scottish voters have been “tricked” is premature – only time will tell – but Paddy Ashown, speaking with Dermot Murnaghan, was correct when he deemed that "there is something very close to a national citizens revolt against Westminster – it may be that the Scottish revolt, near revolution, may go away but I rather doubt it listening to Mr Salmond earlier on and his, in my view, entirely justifiable anger.” There is unquestionably a genuine anger, which must be recognised and responded to. Failure to do so will only serve the interests of the Scottish National Party.

SNP opportunity
The SNP has its own issues currently, following the resignation of Alex Salmond as leader and First Minister. But it is being strengthened by the doubts surrounding the may forward, suggestions of backtracking and unwillingness to deliver on the part of Labour and the Conservatives, the uneasy peace between the pro-Union parties and the strong appetite for change. What is clear is that the SNP must be part of the “solution”. They must be engaged with, their input obtained. The fact that 1.6 million people voted in support of independence not only demonstrates the effectiveness of the Yes campaign, but of the influence the SNP wields. Nicola Sturgeon has already intimated her willingness to work collaboratively to ensure further devolution for Scotland. Not only is this necessary for any effective settlement, it is also wise from a strategic perspective with scope for exploiting divisions between and within the pro-Union parties. No doubt the SNP’s opponents will be wary of this, but any lasting settlement for Scotland must necessarily involve them. 

The Liberal Democrats
There are opportunities for the SNP, but there are also opportunities for the Liberal Democrats. Gordon Brown was quite incorrect to consider his proposals as resembling either “Home Rule” or “federalism”, but what he has succeeded in doing as getting those Lib Dem concepts back on the political agenda. 

The Liberal Democrats yesterday appointed Michael Moore and Tavish Scott to the devolution commission. Moore has already demonstrated his innate reasonableness and ability to work with all parties, including the SNP and would appear to be an ideal representative in the forthcoming discussions; Scott, on the other hand, is a more unusual choice. He is naturally more combative and is notably antipathetic towards the SNP. Such aversion is unlikely to aid constructive dialogue. However, he has been a consistent advocate of decentralisation and of federalism within Scotland. If Moore and Scott form an unlikely double act, it is not necessarily an unworkable one. Both are strongly supportive of both devolution and federalism, both need little reminder of the appetite for significant reform and neither are likely to be distracted from their purpose by either the Tories’ cynical attempts at playing the English card or Labour’s descent into self-destruction.

Indeed, the opportunities for the Liberal Democrats go beyond merely championing their case for federalism. As Michael Moore stated while the counting was still underway last week, there is a need for healing in Scottish politics. Indeed there is, and it is clearly something that the Conservative and Labour parties are ill-equipped to deliver. There is the potential for the party to help facilitate a conversation that will calm tensions, heal wounds and confront the divisive rationale behind what was often a fraught and ill-tempered battle. It can only be done in collaboration with the SNP, but there is a chance for the Lib Dems to bring Scottish politics forward in the aftermath of the vote, championing again a pluralistic society, challenging division and seeking the kinds of changes Scottish voters want to see.

The case for federalism
What the Liberal Democrats cannot do is assume that the case for federalism is so strong that it makes itself. Neither can they take their former better together partners on trust. It is time to promote the cause of federalism as never before, as the window of opportunity is both narrow and temporary. However, former allegiances and rivalries must be cast aside – the most likely ally in the pursuit of federalism is neither the indecisive Labour Party nor the self-preservationist Conservatives, but the Scottish National Party. 

While the long-overdue “English question” has now also been given consideration, increasing the potential for something resembling a federalist settlement, the debate cannot be allowed to be framed by the Tories’ demands. As Nick Clegg has argued, “the vested interests in the two old parties can conspire to block reform...we cannot allow an exciting new chapter of empowerment and constitutional renewal to be held hostage yet again by a Labour and Tory pre-election standoff... the issue of English votes they could jeopardise the Union they purport to defend. Surely we haven't fought to save our Union in a vote north of the border, only to see it balkanised in Westminster? Unless they're careful, the Conservatives may end up turning their back on Scotland, while Labour ignores England: a recipe for stalemate when we should we working across political divides to renew our creaking constitution from top to toe."

The question of legacy 
And so, what will the legacy of the Scottish referendum be? The usual protagonists seeking to gain party-political advantage and the inevitable disappointment of a fudged compromise, offering little more than tinkering around the edges? Or will we actually have, if not federalism, at least something approaching the type of progressive change the referendum result demands?

Part of the difficulty is Brown’s ridiculous timetable, which was always optimistic and designed to fit Westminster priorities rather than address the substantive issues. Lasting change cannot and will not be delivered by the self-interested conforming to the demands of self-set timescales. Neither can it come from pledges made in the heat of a referendum debate, without having consulted either parliament or cabinet. In fact, I’m probably one of the few Scots who does not wish to hold the three party leaders to their pledge – I’d prefer them to rip it up and start again, offering us something better and more meaningful.

The way forward

It is absolutely vital to overturn the Tories' flawed logic and separate the issue of further Scottish devolution from the wider matters of federalism and UK constitutional reform. The timetable announced by Brown, however hurried, must address only the immediate matter of extending Scottish devolution. It has been utterly shameful of the Conservatives to link the promise of further powers for Scotland to the issue of English democratic reform. The promise to deliver for Scotland should not depend on reaching agreement for "English votes for English laws". That is not to diminish the need for a conversation on English matters, but that should be distinct from that we are having on devolving more power to Holyrood.

After a final recommendation from the devolution committee has made made and agreed, then must we turn our attention to "the English question" - or, rather, the question of UK devolution. Of course, as a Liberal Democrat I’m going to passionately defend and promote the federalist cause. That is not the most obvious outcome, admittedly. But the process is, in many ways, of equal if not greater importance. Rushing into major reform of English government without either a constitution or popular participation is as foolish as rushing headstrong into independence – what is required is a period of reflective and engaging public consultation. The result of the referendum has been interpreted in many ways, but to suggest it is a mandate for party-appointed politicians to determine our future behind closed doors is absurd. Not only is it non-democratic, it fails to take into account the lessons from the referendum I mentioned previously. What is needed is for people from across the political spectrum, from civic society, voluntary organisations and charities to come together to facilitate a real debate on Britain’s future in which all those with an interest can participate and endorse. Such far-reaching change cannot come from a political elite.

There is a need for real democracy to be seen to be active. Will the devolution commission have the courage to appoint a UK Constitutional Convention? If they do, it could stimulate a debate similar to that we have witnessed in Scotland recently, but without the antagonism...a conversation that can inspire in a way that no election campaign ever has. It would also constitute the best opportunity yet for real federalism.

I doubt this will happen, however, owing to the fears of Labour and the Conservatives. But it is something that Liberal Democrats (and possibly the Greens and SNP) should promote.  The alternative is a controversial and underwhelming settlement, framed by the interests of the Labour and Conservative parties. The mechanism is vital not only to get the result we want, but to have the democratic conversation that Scotland – and the UK – so urgently needs. 

Certainly the immediate priority is to work with all parties (and the SNP in particular) to secure the best possible deal for Scotland, while allowing for something more dynamic to consider the complex issue of how the governance of the UK is to be reformed thereafter. 

Putting the referendum lessons to good use
Coming back to my initial points regarding the referendum lessons, how do we heal Scotland’s divisions? How do we deliver radical change? How do we ensure that democracy wins out? How do we avoid any political backtracking? And how do we deal with the lack of trust in politicians?

The answer for me is obvious. It’s a constitutional convention, with a considered and respectful public conversation. It represents the best chance for real change and the best chance for the Liberal Democrats. 
The devolution commission is the product of a panicked pledge and an unwillingness to engage with the issue prior to the referendum. We must now work with it, but we now owe it to the country to do things better. There are huge opportunities for the Liberal Democrats to be the main winners from the referendum, but if we fail to deliver anything other than a few “further powers” not only will we have missed the best opportunity in over a century to bring Home Rule to Scotland, we will have surrendered entirely our credibility. It's time to tear up the familiar script and start again.

The road ahead is fraught with risks – but they’re risks that must be taken if federalism is to become reality. The question is: do we have the courage to take them?


Richard T said...

I can't and indeed wouldn't dissent from what you've written but I suggest that Tavish Scott's nomination has a dual purpose in light of his (and Liam MacArthur's) work on the treatment of the Northern Isles, linked to the need to hold the Scottish Government's feet to the fire over the Our Islands Our Future. Devolution goes beyond Edinburgh (and Cardiff).

Andrew said...

I agree Richard, hence the reference to "a consistent advocate of decentralisation and of federalism WITHIN Scotland"

BrianPowell said...

So after 4 years collaborating with the Tories,LibDems try to jump on the back of the Yes campaign and the SNPs push for the best deal for Scotland.
But as far as I can see they are trying to to get less for Scotland and are going to need to explain that to the Scottish voters. As will Labour.

David Pollard said...

For now I think we ought to celebrate the fact that for the FIRST time the SNP are willing to join devolution discussions. Let us see how things progress from here.

Andrew said...

David - I am delighted that the SNP are willing to play an active part in devolution discussions. I also think that the discussions will be better for having them on board.

Brian - I guess you haven't read anything I've written in the last two years. And this isn't actually about the Lib Dems per se, or the Yes campaign, but about how to create a better Scotland (and UK). As I've stated very clearly, the SNP have to be a part of this process.

Al said...

First of all congratulations on your part in a very creditable 50% in Inverclyde for YES. When the campaign started if I had known that we would win here in Glasgow and get half the vote in Inverclyde I would have thought that Scotland's liberty would be on its way to winning out over the disgusting fear campaign of terrifying pensioners and the most vulnerable in society that has been waged by the unionist parties and the full Westminster establishment against the Scottish people. I left the liberal democrats a year ago to campaign for YES. Having seen the party from the outside, there is no way I would ever go back at least until Scotland regains its liberty. Its unquestioning British nationalism, obsessive hatred of the SNP leading to it standing shoulder to shoulder (literally sometimes) with UKIP or worse and willingness to take part in a campaign of frightening and misleading the most vulnerable in society into submission should have no place in a party that is supposed to love liberty.

I think you are heading for a big disappointment. Devo Max was what was trumpeted as being offered, that is generally understood to be all powers other than foreign affairs and defence. (Whether or not that was the actuality of what was on offer is neither here nor there - it is the perception of the voters of what was offered that matters and their disappointment at every power short of it that is delivered will be felt by unionists at the ballotbox. It is a perception that they were willing to play up to, with the aid of their BBC allies, or at least not deny, before the vote. For example here.. There is no foreseeable way that the unionist parties will be able to deliver on that promise. Only today Willie Rennie was in full reverse gear, calling Devo Max "ultra-extreme". Using that sort of language for something that at least 45% and likely the majority of the Scottish people want shows how much he is in denial about how deeply the unionists have been trapped in their own web of deception.

It is hard to see how this process can end in anything other than failure to make good on the promise of devo max and a second independence referendum. The only real question now is over timing which I suspect is what this devo commission is really about - it is an attempt by the unionists to play for time to try and delay the backlash from the voters until after 2015 or even 2016 in the hope the issue will fade or go away. It is up to the successors of the grassroots Yes campaign to ensure that they don't succeed.

cynicalHighlander said...

!'m in total agreement with Al on this.

Tavish is wrong as he thinks Shetland first not Scotland so a complete waste of space as is Prof Tomkins the hater of any meaningful devolution.

This is about the transfer of power from Westminster to Holyrood and damn all about further decentralisation that is not its remit.

Where is the Steel report from years ago as Ming's mince is pathetic nonsense. The people are driving this and any backpeddling by the unionists will see them greatly diminished next May. The SNP now have over 70,000 members and still growing 1.5 times greater than the UK Liberals from a twelfth of the population.

Andrew said...

I think the criticism of Tavish is justified. I considered him an odd choice. But it could work, if he can ditch his antipathy towards the SNP.

The SNP would welcome federalism as a means to and end. The Lib Dems see it as an end in itself. The Greens would probably be supportive, broadly speaking. Neither the Labour or Conservative Parties really want it. Therefore the SNP-Lib Dem dialogue is key to the success of federalism.

The Steel report was a fine document, with a few shortcoming naturally - but fundamentally a sound basis for both a devolution settlement and a federal UK.

Tavish needs to be effective - otherwise he could be part of the Lib Dem team that wasted the best chance ever of achieving workable UK federalism.

Jenny Blain said...

Again, an excellent and well thought out post. Thanks, Andrew!
I'm going to have some talks with local Liberal-Democrats tomorrow, to see where I might stand within the emerging political map of Scotland. Will bear all your comments in mind. The question is how effective can Scottish Liberals be - and I'm looking also at the conference in Glasgow and the disconnect, apparent to me from that and a few other things, between 'Federalism' as policy and 'Federalism' as practice. Hmm.