Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Nick Clegg signs a pledge - what could possibly go wrong?

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, along with Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour counterpart Ed Miliband, has signed a pledge to devolve more powers to Holyrood in the event of a “No” vote.

The pledge, which promises "extensive new powers" for Scotland’s Parliament "delivered by the process and to the timetable agreed”, has been described by Better Together as “a vision around which Scotland can unite”. The leaders also affirm that "the UK exists to ensure opportunity and security for all by sharing our resources equitably" and ensures that the Barnett formula will continue to be used to allocate resources.
If it is a vision around which Scotland can unite, then Scottish people must be lacking in aspiration. Former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell promised yesterday that “federalism is an arm’s length away”. What this announcement proves is that either Sir Campbell is over-optimistic or that he has incredibly long arms. What this pledge amounts to is a belated announcement of commitment to Scottish devolution, but it lacks both credibility and ambition. 

Better Together has failed to spell out in over two years what its plans were for “further powers”. It has given only the most vague of commitments until this point. It was always something to be put on the backburner, to be talked about only after the independence question had been settled. Consequently, we have been asked to vote no on the basis of nothing more than general promises of reform without any detailed proposals having been put forward. While Better Together have asked Scottish voters to “think hard about what independence will mean for Scotland”, they have omitted to provide any indication of what further devolution will mean in practice.

Until now.  And, quite frankly, it’s not enough.

Some questions have to be answered – most obviously why has it taken until now, two days before the vote, to provide anything resembling a plan? But questions should also be asked about the process that is being committed to: do we want a rushed timetable, a closed-door conversation on our political future that excludes Scottish society, a politician-dominated elite making views on our future and telling us it’s what we want? Or would we prefer an open and engaging conversation, in which public and civic society can play a role, and which can be conducted without acrimony and without the influence of vested interests?

People who have been enthusiastically campaigning for the last two and a half years – often people completely new to politics – deserve better than patronising, and belated, pledges. 

What is called for in the aftermath of the referendum result is some sober reflection on how Scottish political society can work constructively to build a progressive Scotland.  Rushing headlong into devolution would surely be as irresponsible as rushing, unthinkingly, into independence. 

The problem with the pledge is threefold. Firstly, it does not commit to any dialogue with Scottish voters.  It is, in effect, disempowering. Not only will Scottish people not have a democratic say in the outcome of the timetabled negotiations, they will also be unable to inform the thinking behind the proposals. Secondly, the detail revealed so far is spectacularly underwhelming, meaning that those of us hoping for something resembling Menzies Campbell’s Home Rule recommendations are likely to be disappointed. It doesn’t really guarantee very much. Thirdly, the signatories lack any credibility in Scotland.

David Cameron and Ed Miliband’s approval ratings in Scotland are notably poor, their political parties being at best viewed with some suspicion. Nick Clegg’s personal “brand” is viewed with such disdain that it is surprising that he didn’t consider the wisdom of signing pledges in the run-up to a public vote.
Only Better Together could imagine that a pledge signed by Nick Clegg could possibly provide any reassurance to the public. Only Better Together could imagine that the Scottish public trust Clegg, Miliband and Cameron. And only Better Together could imagine that this would be seen as anything other than a desperate tactic.

Do I believe Nick Clegg is committed to devolution? Yes, but he’s never given any commitment to anything approaching federalism. In fairness, however, there can be no denying that the Liberal Democrats are committed to overdue reform - but can the same really be said of the Conservative and Labour parties? Their commitment, such as it is, is borne from political expediency rather than any ideological principle.

What the pledge does not do is state why it should be trusted. The signatories themselves do not lend the pledge much trustworthiness. Furthermore, there can be no escaping that Better Together would have preferred not to have made any kind of promise now and are only doing so on the back of polls suggesting an at one time unthinkably close outcome. If the No campaign had spent the previous two years openly discussing what further devolution might look like, rather than merely suggesting some form of it as a probability, I might well be able to get behind the "vision".

What would be a vision is the establishment of a new UK Constitutional Convention. If I was being offered something of that nature, even now I would be tempted to vote No. But nothing so far-reaching is seriously being considered.  Vote No and our parliament will get a few more powers - if that's what excites you then go for it, but I'd like something a bit more substantive and far-reaching.

As it is, it is not so much a vision as an excuse. It is a reaction rather than a statement. It is disappointing to see committed Liberal Democrats taken in by this, hailing the imminent advent of "federalism" as if it was now a certainty when in truth it is as far away as ever.  If the pledge is intended to convince wavering voters of the opportunities of a "no" vote, it is unlikely to succeed in its purpose - if you want people to believe a promise, it's important to ensure it's the right people doing the promising.


Anonymous said...

Tory backbenchers are already committed to voting down any new powers for Scotland.

None of the party leaders has the authority to demand loyalty.

The Tories probably look forward to Cameron being relieved of his post by Boris. Ed can't possibly be long for the leadership, and it's not certain that Clegg will be in parliament this time next year.

The backbenchers will be doing what the possible/probable new leaders want, and in Johnson's case that is NOTHING for Scotland. He has nothing to lose, especially after a no vote.

Anonymous said...

One interesting point that has gone unnoticed is that (depending on the poll) about a third of those who voted Lib Dem in 2010 are voting YES in 2014. Given the intemperate way that the party has conducted itself over the past two years on this issue and how it has allowed itself to become indistinguishable from the Labour and Conservative establishment, these are supporters that are now alienated from the party that it could ill afford to have lost. The party did itself great damage and missed a great opportunity by falling into line with the Labour and Conservative establishment and opposing a third option on the ballot paper. And it is that opposition to a true "further devolution" option that shows the recent pledge of Devo Nano is so clearly born of fear of a YES vote. Everyone knows that if the UK establishment really wanted to allow Scotland more devolution it would have been much more relaxed about allowing it onto the ballot paper 2 years ago.

In this latest development the party is again blindly following the Labour and Conservative lead and has no distinctive voice. As things stand, the Yes case has been subjected to two years of scrutiny. It is clear what powers and just as importantly, what sources of income Scotland gains from a YES vote - all of them! It is now far from clear what a NO vote would mean in terms of powers and income and there is insufficient time left to clarify it or find out if even part of it is deliverable. There are now too many unanswered questions and too much uncertainty and risk associated with a NO vote - a very peculiar role reversal!

Dena MacI said...

Nick Clegg seems to be to pledge nowadays what my granny's sideboard was when spray polish was first invented. Have the Liberals ever had a worse leader? Apart from poor Ming the Mystified and Chaarlie Bottle

Andrew said...

With respct Dena, Charles Kennedy was a competent leader. Admittedly, he had an alcohol problem, which is not something to be joked about. Worse still, he was not treated with any obvious sympathy by his party. He is still an MP I hugely admire.

Ming was never my choice to be leader and was never really going to be effective. But he might have been likeable, in a way that Nick Clegg really hasn't been for many. it also helped the Lib Dems in Scotland to have Scottish leaders with some credibility.

I don't doubt Nick's sincerity, but he should know that signing pledges isn't likely to reassure many people...