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Monday, 9 February 2015

Lib Dems should support EU veto

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice
It's good to recognise when other parties make positive suggestions.

This weekend Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood indicated that she has devised a plan with Nicola Sturgeon that would mean Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland could veto the UK's exit from the EU.

Effectively, the veto would mean that an English majority vote in support of an EU exit would not in itself be sufficient to guarantee a withdrawal.

There has been some criticism of the "democratic" merit of this position - some are arguing that this makes a referendum pointless, or that a simple arithmetic should be sufficient. Scots and Welsh have been represented by some as seeking to enforce their wills upon England.

This is simplistic, and such suggestions betray attitudes that fail to understand the realities currently facing the Union. There will be no more powerful case for Scottish independence than for English voters to enforce an EU withdrawal not supported by Scotland's electorate. Similarly, those who seek to present a new type of union - in which the constituent nations are a family of equals - need to be careful what signals they send out if they reject this proposal.

I for one do not believe that the majority of English people are as Euroskeptic as some would suggest. I think a referendum would result in a win for those championing continued EU membership. But it could be a close thing, and I don't blame Wood and Sturgeon for seeking to put in place safeguards to secure Welsh and Scottish interests.

I'd even go so far as to suggest this is what federalism should look like. Leaving the EU would have a significant effect on Wales and Scotland, something understood by their voters, who are much less anti-EU than certain parts of England. Why then should Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland not have the option to block change that has been rejected by their voters in a democratic referendum?

It's not really a veto that Wood is calling for, but for all UK nations to be recognised as such and for a final decision on exit only to be binding if it wins support of a majority of voters in all four countries. The situation in which England votes for exit and the others vote to remain in the EU is hypothetical, but it remains a distinct possibility.  At the heart of the issue is not so much the question of EU membership, but that of a democratic marginalisation of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - one that is increasingly being felt in Scotland.

Where should the Liberal Democrats stand on this? I'd challenge a federalist, pro-European party to support a plan that I believe can further the case for federalism while taking a step towards securing continued EU membership. There will naturally be howls of opposition from Tories who fail to understand democracy in any other terms than the country with the largest population having the loudest voice. But those who value the Union need to think long and hard about the nature of that Union - and the kind of relationships between the "family" members. Do we want to create a dominant England and an increasingly resentful Scotland? Do we wish to see a "family of equals"?

Unlike David Cameron's ham-fisted approach towards the "English question" - manifesting itself in the ill-conceived English Votes for English Laws proposals - this from Plaid Cymru's leader at least recognises political reality, and also the essential truth that it is federalism (including English devolution) that will provide the answer to Cameron's conundrum.

I hope Lib Dems can support this - it would be positive to see some active promotion of the federalism we preach with such gusto.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Should the referendum also need a majority in Cornwall to succeed? In Yorkshire? In London? In Chipping Sodbury?

If Scotland is truly a part of the UK, then a Scottish voter's vote should be worth exactly the same as an English voter's vote, shouldn't it?

Andrew said...

If those areas have devolved assemblies, then possibly.

If we want the UK to work, then we have to think differently about democratic arrangements.

The surest way to secure disintegration of the UK is to ignore opportunities to create a genuine federal system. Almost certainly, a vote to leave the EU would lead to renewed (and stronger) calls for Scottish independence.

This isn't really about the EU referendum, but about the merits of an argument - put forward by Plaid Cymru - to champion a sort of federalism. They're making the case we should.

The "democratic deficit" argument - i.e. that Scotland was politically marginalised to the point that how it voted no longer mattered - led to the creation of the Scottish Parliament via the SCC. The same argument can apply to this situation, and should at least be understood.

Inevitably federalism is further reaching than a referendum veto, but this is a case in point and demonstrates (in my mind) the need to arrive at a federal arrangement for the UK.

It should also be pointed out that Greenland (part of the Kingdom of Denmark) did not join the EU when the rest of Denmark did*, perhaps setting a precedent? England can do what it likes within a federalist state, just as could Scotland, Wales and NI.

I am concerned about the use of the words "truly part of the UK" - this seems to be an anti-federalist argument. We're all part of the UK and therefore should accept the view of a simple majority?

Also, why Chipping Sodbury? It comes up in comments here and on my FB page quite frequently...having never been there, I have no idea why! :)


* I was reminded of this fact today by a Maltese reader

Anonymous said...

I suppose it all comes down to what your party means by "Home Rule".

You mentioned Greenland, which is a great example of real home rule. If you're really saying that Scotland can't do the same then I don't think you can be a federalist and I don't think you can be called a believer in "Home Rule" (whatever that means to Liberals these days).

Anonymous said...

I am concerned about the use of the words "truly part of the UK" - this seems to be an anti-federalist argument

It is, yes, an anti-federalist argument I was making.

UK federalism is simply the destruction of the UK by the long road. No amount of federalism will ever satisfy the nationalists; remember how the establishment of the Scottish parliament was supposed to take the wind out of their sails? How is that working out?

In order to save the UK, if such a thing is still even possible, calls for federalism — as must anything else which encourages the narrative of the UK as a bunch of separate nation-states that happen for the moment to be in a Union, rather than a single country where a person in Orkney has exactly the same standing and the same vote as one in Banbridge or Bath.

For if that narrative, of separate peoples yoked together rather than a single people in a single nation, is allowed to flourish, then the end of the United Kingdom is only a matter of time.

And Chipping Sodbury just sounds funny.

Andrew said...

The United Kingdom has never been a single nation. That's an insecapable reality. The 1603 Union was a Union of the corwns; the 1707 Union a Union of Parliaments - not of countries. No doubt many identify as "British" more than being English or Scottish, but Scotland and England are distinct entities with their own legal systems, etc. The UK is a state rather than a country.

You're making an anti-federalist argument - that's perfectly fine, of course, but I am a federalist hence my view. I'm not a nationalist and never could be. I don't accept that a person in Orkney has precisely the same standing as someone in Bath for a number of reasons, but that isn't actually the point. Another anonymous poster commented on Home Rule - how can Scotland be said to have any meaningful Home Rule if its membership of the EU can be decided by English voters?

Having thought a bit more about this, perhaps a veto is not the right answer - it may instead be preferable to allow for four distinct referenda in each of England, Wales, Scotland and NI. The Greenland precedent allows for distinct parts of a kingdom to make decisions on their EU membership without ceding from the member state. So England can do what it wants...

I am not a federalist because I want to save the UK (I voted for independence) but I feel it is the best option currently available. Alternatves only play into SNP hands, who are canny enough to exploit them.

I agree that it was always optimistic to believe that the Scottish Parliament (and the electoral system put in place to cynically deprive the SNP of a majority) could work in the long-term to keep nationalism at bay. The folly of that misplaced confidence is now obvious.

Al said...

While I wish you luck, the reality is that Liberal Democrats are not going to support a veto or different EU membership for different UK member nations.

Have you ever seen a Focus leaflet in England that mentions federalism? Neither have I because agent/organisers know that federalism is either not of interest or a vote loser there.

The party has declared the journey towards home rule over. Only a few weeks ago Nick Clegg declared that "I am delighted that these new powers have delivered home rule for Scotland". On planet Clegg, home rule has been delivered; that's your lot Scotland, you aren't getting a single extra power from the Liberal Democrats.

Even in the Liberal Democrat's Scottish local party, both your leader, Willie Rennie and Alastair Carmichael described what many would understand as home rule and federalism as "ultra-extreme".

You have commented on these in earlier posts so you are at least aware of them as evidence that electing Liberal Democrats will never deliver federalism or home rule as we understand it. In the 21st century they and other parties have only shifted position and devolved more power in response to a rise in SNP and more recently YES Scotland support. The more Liberal Democrats get elected, the less likely federalism becomes because the party will simply breathe a sigh of relief and conclude that the electorate have agreed that home rule has indeed been delivered and the current amount of devolution is enough. The only way to bring federalism or true home rule about in post referendum Scotland is to increase that pressure by electing a large block of SNP MPs in May and at subsequent elections. That is why so many former Liberal Democrat supporters such as myself are now backing the SNP. After all, what voter would want to support a party that brands them an ultra-extremist?

While I wish you luck in trying to change the Liberal Democrats from its hardline unionist stance, I can only see frustration and disappointment in store for you.

Jenny Blain said...

Indeed I think that Federalism would require either distinct referenda in the four countries (my preference) or some kind of 'veto'. 'Bigness', which includes that achieved at the expense of other countries with a union over three centuries, does not equate 'rightness'.
Though, like Andrew, I do think that the result of an EU referendum in the UK would be a vote for staying in - but the principle should be established, that while Scotland (and Wales, and NI) is part of a united 'Kingdom', a voice in international things is very necessary. And if Lib-Dems want Scotland to remain within the UK (and themselves to have any kind of credibility) they need to facilitate such a voice.

Gwyn Williams said...

On a pedantic point, the Plaid Cymru leader is Leanne Wood. Natalie Wood was an actress who was married to Robert Wagner.

Historically Wales is a principality of the Kingdom of England. Since 1922 Northern Ireland is a province of the United Kingdom which has even had its own parliament.Arguably the kingdom of Scotland has equal status with England but as we do not have a written constitution this is not set in tablets of stone. Ms Wood's discussions with Ms Sturgeon neatly ignore that there has been a referendum on UK membership of the EU and it was the result of that vote of the whole of the UK that we are still in the EU.

Andrew said...

That's not a pedantic point Gwyn - it's a silly mistake on my part!

Don't know why I got her name wrong when I know exactly what it is. Corrected now.

As you point out, the status of Wales is not so easy to define historically. But if we're to move towards the federal UK that the Lib Dems ostensibly promote, we have to think carefully about what that means for Wales and indeed Northern Ireland.