Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Unveiling the UK government's 'neverendum' on maintaining the union

One of the constant refrains of unionist politicians is that SNP rule will lead to a 'neverendum' - a carbon-copy of the Quebec experience whereby the 'separatists' (cue demonic music) keep losing independence referendums, but then keep calling a new one until they get the result they want. In truth, the jibe is well wide of the mark even in relation to Quebec, where so far there have only been two independence referendums, fifteen years apart, with the most recent one a full sixteen years ago. Indeed, the second one only came round so 'quickly' because of the total collapse of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords on constitutional reform (which, incidentally, ought to be a warning from history to unionists who think the way to see off independence is by being as intransigent as humanly possible). Even now, the Parti Québécois seem to have no plans for a third referendum if they win the next election. So the Quebec experience actually lends considerable weight to Alex Salmond's reassurance that a No vote in a Scottish independence referendum would resolve the issue for "a generation" - and at the very least that any attempt to call another referendum sooner than that would require a clear, fresh mandate at a Holyrood election.

But can unionists - and more specifically the UK government - say the same about a Yes vote? If we are to take Michael Moore's latest pronouncement seriously, it appears not. They seem to think that a No vote should kill the matter for all-time, but if there's a Yes vote, not to worry - we'll just hold a second referendum with a much more complicated question a couple of years later to see if we can get a result that is more to our taste.

I'd suggest they're playing a very dangerous game here. The whole reason that unionists have invoked the spectre of the 'neverendum' over the years is that they know full well that the public think there is no case for a quick second referendum on the same subject - that No should mean No, but by the same token Yes should mean Yes. And since the public are sensibly inclined to think that one side of the argument should not be given a second bite of the cherry if they lose the vote, the following question may well start to be posed of the UK government - if you really think that a consultative referendum wouldn't provide a sufficient mandate for independence and that there needs to be a referendum on the details of an independence settlement, shouldn't the latter vote be the sole referendum? In other words, isn't the logic of your own position that you should enter into full independence negotiations now with the Scottish government, and that there should only be a referendum once the settlement has been thrashed out?

The other danger of the game Moore is playing is that, if he gets his way, it may well make a defeat for the unionist side in the "first" referendum much more likely. After all, we know that many people not yet convinced by the case for independence were quite happy to back the SNP on May 5th, because the double-lock of the referendum pledge meant that it was safe to do so. Bizarrely, Moore seems to be hellbent on also making it 'safe' for these people to vote Yes to opening negotiations on independence - because the message will be going out loud and clear that such a vote won't finally settle matters. They can suck it and see, which may not be such an unattractive proposition after a few more years of Tory rule.

It was suggested on Newsnight Scotland that Moore's intervention may be just one part of a new strategy of 'muscular unionism', which also involves ripping up the 'respect agenda' (will this be the sixth time?) by refusing point blank to budge an inch on extra powers for the Scottish Parliament. Since Moore's party are supposed to favour many of the powers that are being requested, it seems this 'muscularity' is largely being used to punch the lights out of the Liberal Democrats' own beliefs.

I heard it said forcefully at the Political Innovation conference in November that it was quite wrong to call the Lib Dems a 'unionist' party - they are, in fact, 'federalist'. Did Muscle Man Moore get that memo? As a Lib Dem contributor to a later package on Newsnight hinted, perhaps the party's Scottish prospects would be a little brighter if they remembered that they are actually a Home Rule party by tradition. That means breaking out of the self-destructive, almost unthinking impulse to forever lump themselves in with the Tories and Labour as just one more part of the unionist mush, in opposition to the nationalist 'other'. Here's my advice to Michael - take a step back, stop talking to Tories for a little while and start talking to your own grass roots, and then consider whether the time isn't in fact ripe for some Muscular Federalism.


  1. I heard it said forcefully at the Political Innovation conference in November that it was quite wrong to call the Lib Dems a 'unionist' party - they are, in fact, 'federalist'.

    The Lib-Dems do love that word don't they?

    The first thing to say is that federalism is a subset of unionism not a third option alongside independence and unionism. Whether it is a federal parliament in Scotland or a devolved one or whether there are other federal or devolved parliaments in the rest of the UK makes no difference to the integrity of the Union and the supremacy of the UK parliament in London. A Scotland with a federal parliament is still just a region in the UK.

    Federalism is just a way to reorganise regional government under the umbrella of a unitary UK just the same as devolution.

    The second thing to say is that all federalism means is that the powers of a regional parliament are constitutionally protected. It has no bearing on how powerful that parliament is. If the powers of the Welsh Parliament were constitutionally protected then it would be a Federal Parliament even though its powers are substantially less than the current devolved parliament in Scotland.

    The Lib-Dems have never come clean about what powers federal parliaments in the UK (note that UK word again) should have or whether they are talking about federal parliaments for the four "footballing" nations of the UK or something based on the "nations and regions" model of the Labour party.

    "Muscular Federalism", is just another name for, "Muscular Unionism".

  2. Agree with the above additional points as well as with that advising the Secretary of State stepping back and reflecting before he issues anymore "muscular" fiats in defence of the "Union" (an increasingly phantasmagoric construction of the Anglo-centric, colonialist mind); to not do so and to inflame was has been, by and large, a relatively civilised public discourse, is to forget the law of unintended consequences in the heat of imperialist hubris. It is also to forget history and the lessons that should have been learned by all sentient and rational and democratic beings involved in this unfolding Scottish portion of the story with relation to the peoples and nations of these isles.

    This may be, potentially, an even more dangerous and regrettable consequence of such inflammatory pronouncements flouted in the face of the popular will.

    Let us hope not.

  3. Let them try to twit the Scottish people in that way. The SNP should simply ignore them and press on with their referendum plans. In the event of a “yes” and if Westminster still want to stand in the way, the SNP should declare UDI like Rhodesia did in 1965. As to the Scotland Bill, well if they don’t give the Scots what they voted for in terms of beefed up powers now the Scottish Parliament wont pass the bill and Westminster will either have to tear up the Sewell Convention and force it on us contrary to their respect agenda (much trumpeted) or tuck their tail between their legs and roll over.

    The Lib Dems have much more to lose than the Tories and not just in Nick Clegg’s fevered imagination in the “long game” (i.e. their 11 Scottish MPs in four years time). Scottish local council elections are now less than a year away, do the Lib Dems want to be swept off that map as well?

  4. Doug, I agree that federalists are unionists, and I made that point myself a few months ago. But I presume the point of some Lib Dems claiming otherwise is to emphasise that their party is neither in the traditional 'unionist camp' along with the Tories and Labour, and neither are they in the nationalist camp - they have their own distinct position between the two. Unfortunately, the Scottish Lib Dem leadership (both Moore and Rennie) take the opposite view - they clearly want to frame the Lib Dems as just another unionist party.

    I also accept that federalism doesn't automatically imply a more powerful parliament - there are some very weak federalist models out there. But in practice I think it would, and in any case entrenchment of the parliament's powers wouldn't go amiss - Calman, after all, is grotesquely taking some powers back to London.

  5. James:

    You should quote their own constitution back at those Lib-Dems claiming that they're not unionists. In essence it says that the people of the UK have the right to reorganise local government as much as they like as long as they don't threaten the UK. From Charles Kennedy to Ming Cambell to Tavish Scott and now to Willie Rennie and Michael Moore they've always been a bunch of hardline unionists. In fact their constitution forbids the Lib-Dems from supporting independence as an independent Scotland is not feasible within a federal UK framework.

    From the Preamble to the Lib-Dem Constitution:
    We believe that sovereignty rests with the people and that authority in a democracy derives from the people. We therefore acknowledge their right to determine the form of government best suited to their needs and commit ourselves to the promotion of a democratic federal framework within which as much power as feasible is exercised by the nations and regions of the United Kingdom.

  6. I can only assume from the way Rennie is coming at issues that the LibDems believe that they have already lost in 2011 all their former voters who had any interest in further powers for Holyrood and he is just looking to retain the support that is left.

    The LibDems are finished in Scotland-they won't be cominng back as a significant force.