Tuesday, 13 January 2015

What is "ultra-extreme devolution"?

Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie will tonight attack the SNP campaign in a lecture to the David Hume Institute.

The Scotsman, having obviously had sight of Mr Rennie's script, reports that the Lib Dem leader will warn of the SNP "gaining independence by the back door" via "ultra-extreme devolution".

“As a minimum [the SNP] say they want a form of ultra-extreme devolution that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world and which would inevitably tip Scotland into independence." Mr Rennie will say. He is also expected to accuse the SNP of redefining the purpose of the referendum, criticising them for promising a referendum as a "once in a lifetime opportunity" while "planning the next one". “I find it inconceivable that their target to win every Scottish constituency in May will not result in an attempt by them to get independence by the back door”, he will add. "Those who thought that winning the referendum by almost half a million votes was enough to put the issue to bed or even a lifetime need to think again. The Nationalist campaign continues"

The SNP campaign for independence is bound to continue. Anyone who thought that the referendum would settle the matter for ever, and that the SNP would simply abandon its raison d'etre, is being unrealistic. The referendum was a setback for the cause, that much is true - although how serious a setback depends on how the pro-Union parties respond in the coming months and years. I appreciate how frustrating it must be to hear those denying the result, behaving as if the Scottish people haven't voted, or who are now suggesting that independence just requires "one more push" - but to criticise the SNP for continuing their campaign is ridiculous. We Lib Dems haven't abandoned our campaign for electoral reform because of the AV referendum reversal. Neither were anti-Europeans silenced by the 1975 referendum.

I understand Willie Rennie's tactics, and there are reasons why he's turning his fire on the SNP. With Labour's current predicament and the predictions of significant SNP gains at the General Election, it should surprise no-one that he is seeking to warn Scottish voters of the potential consequences of returning an unprecedented number of SNP MPs. But the idea that a post-election deal, presumably with either Labour or the Conservatives, would yield "ultra-extreme devolution" (and this is necessarily something we should all fear) is difficult to accept. Neither of those parties is likely to offer the SNP anything along the lines of fiscal autonomy exceeding what exists "anywhere else in the world", whether the SNP are seeking it or not.

In any case, what exactly is this "ultra-extreme devolution"?

Liberal Democrats have previously used the term "extreme" to describe supporters of independence, and Mr Rennie also made an attempt to associate the SNP with an "extreme" English nationalist party. I hope this is not a further unwise attempt to smear political opponents. Certainly using terms such as "extreme" in the absence of context, as the Scotsman has done in this case, is unhelpful. What is Mr Rennie actually referring to?

I for one would support what others may consider an extreme form of devolution - and that's a full fiscal federalism, which is the kind of thing Liberal Democrats should be promoting. So I'd be interested in knowing something more about what these super-devolution plans are, what evidence there is that such plans have been advanced by the SNP and whether there is any intelligence to suggest that either the Tories or Labour would entertain them.

Make no mistake - the SNP aren't going to give up on independence. That's an inescapable fact of political life. They'll keep on using whatever weapons are in their armoury to make it happen, and they'll go through any door to achieve it. It's who they are.

True, the SNP have in recent weeks suggested that the general election could be used to secure "home rule" for Scotland. What they mean by "home rule" may be quite different to what Liberal Democrats aspire to, but there is nothing controversial in seeking to use a UK election to secure a better constitutional future for Scotland. Indeed, it is something I hope we will be doing.

I don't know what else Mr Rennie will say in his lecture, but I hope he deals with the substance of what "ultra-extreme devolution" - or "Devo Max Mega Plus" - is, because the term itself is loaded while providing little real information. However, I also hope he takes the opportunity to reiterate the Liberal Democrats' support for "home rule" and the case for wider UK constitutional reform, because it is in making the case for a workable federalism and real democratic change that the arguments can be won and independence defeated. Mr Rennie needs to keep talking less about the independence referendum and saying far more about the Scottish Liberal Democrats, while communicating our own distinctive agenda for Scotland's future.

Having not had sight of the lecture script, I will reserve judgement and suggest The Scotsman has predictably focused on one element of the speech. However, if we've learned anything in the last four years it's that adopting an overtly adversarial approach towards the SNP is seldom productive, and Mr Rennie must take care how his messages can be interpreted.


Andy Myles said...

Couldn't agree more Andrew. Willie is wandering down a really daft path if he thinks that the referendum result was conclusive. By exactly the same logic he uses, virtually every political party "loses" at each election and they should all just go away and shut up because they were somehow wrong? This really is the bottom of the intellectual barrel.

Fourfolksache said...

Willie will probably cease to hold political office in the next Scottish election - along with many others!
To aspire to have what already exists in the Isle of Man and the Channel islands is obviously not 'extreme' in any way. This is a further indication that the LibDems are just as corrupt as their Labour and Tory mates. Despite alleging to want Home Rule it is patently obvious that this is a smokescreen to make the LibDems look more democratic. Your party had a great opportunity to honestly support this initiative and appeal to many voters. Nick Clegg's recent comments about the SNP are nothing short of disgusting. The LibDems deserve the oblivion that is coming their way

Andrew said...

I don't think Willie is corrupt.

What does concern me, however, is how many of our messages seem characterised by negativity.

Also, as someone else pointed out earlier on facebook, this kind of intervention does beg the question: who is it who's not putting the referendum behind them?

As for Home Rule, the Liberal Democrats should be supporting it and collaborate with others to achieve it. We're unlikely to get anything on our own terms, of course, and that should feature in our thinking. We have to take the broader, adn sometimes longer-term, view.

Scotland's future is too important for it to be reduced to this kind of silliness.

With respect, however, none of us have heard the lecture in full and I'll reserve judgement in the meantime. I'm not going to take those quotes in the Scotsman as evidence of the substance of Willie's speech.

That said, Willie does need to be much more positive and learn from previous mistakes. We should not use terms such as "extreme" easily.

Andrew said...

It seems mental health is the principal focus of Rennie's lecture tonight. Not that we'd have known this, of course, from reading the mainstream media's take on it.

Which of course raises so many questions: why the media find mental health issues to be of lesser interest than asides at teh SNP, and why a Lib Dem leader would use a speech on mental health to take such digs.

Sometimes, it's vital to remember that the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.

I'm much more interested in what Willie has to say about improving mental health services than I am in what he thinks of the prospects of "independence by the back door".

Anonymous said...

There are times when language should be used carefully to avoid the risk of devaluing it. Given the events of the last week, Willie should think very carefully about the implications before branding supporters of DevoMax/Full Fiscal Federalism, which is likely to be the majority of the Scottish population, as being "ultra-extremists".

Je suis Charlie!

Anonymous said...

As usual Andrew, a measured and well thought out piece.

I think the SNP leadership has made it very clear that they understand the result of the referendum and accept it. Indeed I have heard Nicola say so myself.

She made it very clear that she would always want independence, and that the party would always have it as their goal, at least while she was leading it. But she said very clearly that the people had spoken and that all the evidence that they had suggested that what swung it for NO was the vow/Gordon Brown’s speech (with David Cameron’s connivance) promising devo-max or “as near federalism as you can have in a collection of states where one state has 85% of the population”.

Nicola saw it as her job to ensure that the Westminster government deliver what they promised in a last minute panic. In short she has said that it is her aim to get as many MPs into Westminster as possible to put pressure on whatever the next government is to provide a federal Britain.

I’ve always said that I don’t favour this option because it leaves foreign policy and war making in the hands of Westminster. I loathe Britain’s foreign policy (largely made in Washington) and their propensity to go to war as the drop of a hat. But there’s little doubt that from the earliest days of the referendum campaign it was what a majority of people wanted. (I seem to remember you indicating that it was your choice.)

It seems to me that Jersey, Guernsey (with Sark having autonomy within that Bailiwick) and to a slightly lesser extent, the Isle of Man, all have some sort of devo max. I know how well that system works. I see no reason why we couldn’t have this. Indeed I’m not sure that Alistair Carmichael didn’t suggest something like that himself.

I’ve never heard anyone ask for or even talk about extreme or ultra devolution. And frankly I don’t know where Willie Rennie found those words. Certainly, I’ve never heard anyone from the SNP or SSP or Greens mention them. Language like this isn’t really helpful. It suggests a nut case fringe which may exist (I don’t know), but which certainly doesn’t exist within the leadership.

What could it be? If devo max has always been understood to refer to ‘everything except foreign policy and defence’, what would ‘extreme’ devo max or ‘ultra’ devo max entail?

What indeed does the Liberal Democrat federalism actually mean?

Independence, even after the concessions of the vow and Brown’s speech, was still favoured by 45% of the population. It is unlikely to disappear, no matter how much British unionists want it to. And I’d imagine that the more that Westminster backtracks on what they promised, the more that people will want it. The next referendum won’t be so far away that people can’t remember Cameron’s duplicity.

As you say, we only have the Scotsman’s interpretation of what Rennie said, and on past record that is hardly a reliable indication of the overall content. (The Scotsman has become incredibly tabloid in its approach to news reporting.) As you are likely to see the full script… and I am not… I hope you may update us iIn due course.