Tuesday, March 6, 2012

What would an authentically 'non-unionist' Liberal Democrat party look like?

The Liberal Democrat blogger Caron Lindsay left a comment on the previous thread, and I thought I'd respond properly in a fresh post -

"Well, of course, if Alex Salmond chose to have the referendum earlier, then there would be more time to work with the SNP.

That's hardly likely before the referendum, when the two parties are on different sides, is it?"

That evades the central issue straight away, because it leaves us no clearer as to why the two parties are on different sides prior to the referendum. I'm not talking about the fact that one is supporting a 'Yes' to independence, and the other is supporting a 'No'. I'm talking about the Liberal Democrats setting their face against the possibility of a second referendum question on their own (supposedly) preferred constitutional model, which is clearly the best tactical hope of achieving the objective of 'Home Rule'. If there was a second question, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP would be on the same side on one question, but opposite sides on the other question. Precisely the middle 'non-unionist' way you might expect Caron to favour.

"And what do you think the Ming Campbell Commission is all about if it's not developing a strategy for home rule - and devolving power from Holyrood to councils and communities? We're not hanging about developing our strategy on home rule."

Frankly I think the purpose is to give the appearance of activity, and to provide some kind of cover for the otherwise inexplicable spectacle of a 'Home Rule party' undermining the cause of Home Rule at every turn. As others have pointed out, a sincere Home Rule party would have had their blueprint worked out long before now.

"I want to see more actual detail on how we get to more powers after a no vote in the referendum, but I'm sure it'll come. I don't want the reactionary forces in Tory and Labour to think this is a good excuse for no further change, so we need to get signed up to something ahead of time."

It's difficult to know whether to laugh or cry at this point. Could I gently suggest that the best way to prevent the reactionary forces having such an excuse is not to sign up lock, stock and barrel to the worldview and strategy of those forces, which goes like this : "first the Scottish people must be forced to make a binary Yes/No choice on independence, then they must be coaxed into voting No by any means necessary, then that vote will be used to legitimise the idea that remaining within the UK means that Scotland's future constitutional arrangements are no longer a matter for the Scottish people, but are instead entirely at the discretion of the UK government". Where precisely do the Lib Dems depart from that worldview? If they do think that Scotland's constitutional future within the UK is a matter for the Scottish people as well as for the UK government, why are they moving heaven and earth to ensure that the people will never have any say on enhanced devolution? What more excuse do you think the reactionary forces need to do nothing after a No vote?

"The mistake the SNP makes is to define us as a unionist party when we aren't and never have been. We are a federalist party, a party that believes in decentralising power, having decisions made at the lowest practical level."

As I've pointed out a number of times, federalists are unionists. It's simply a fact - a federation is a political union. However, let's be generous for a moment and accept that there can be a middle way between unionism and nationalism. The more radical Liberal Democrats have articulated it down the years, by suggesting we should free ourselves from the absolutism of the nation state, and instead look at the level of government where each individual lever of power is most appropriately exercised. Therefore, some powers would be transferred from Westminster to Holyrood, some from Westminster to Brussels, some from both Westminster and Holyrood to local government. Crucially, the new dispensation would be constitutionally entrenched. Westminster rule wouldn't exactly wither away, but it would be no more or less important than any other tier of government, meaning that the one-dimensional notion of "London sovereignty over Scotland" would certainly be at an end.

That's what an authentic 'non-unionist', 'non-nationalist' Home Rule party would look like. But does that bear any actual resemblance to the modern-day Liberal Democrats? Er, no. Their pro-Europeanism lies in tatters as they prop up the most isolationist British Prime Minister since Margaret Thatcher. The Liberal Democrat Secretary of State for Scotland makes a mockery of the commitment to a stronger Scottish Parliament by using the stock excuse of "we need more evidence" to justify powers that his own party supposedly want transferred to Holyrood remaining exactly where they are. A 'non-unionist' would not take the default view that "Westminster knows best, unless overwhelmingly proved otherwise". And above all else, they legitimise the one-dimensional notion of the sovereignty of the British state by supporting the view that any changes to Scotland's constitutional position short of independence are none of the Scottish people's business. In a nutshell, the Lib Dems look suspiciously like bog-standard British nationalists at the moment.

How might we expect a 'non-unionist', 'non-nationalist' Home Rule party to act in the run-up to the referendum? Broadly, by saying "a plague on both your houses" to unionism and nationalism, and using this unique opportunity to fight for their own preferred constitutional model. What we would not expect them to do is declare their absolute loyalty to the forces of unionism in a 'winner-takes-all' fight to the death with the forces of nationalism. But that's exactly what the Liberal Democrats have chosen to do.

I fear we must draw the obvious conclusion.


  1. Well said. The Lib Dems' "federalism" is a sham.

  2. I broadly agree James. History will judge, but it certainly seems odd that the Lib Dems are not staking out their claim to what the polls tell us is Scotland's preferred settlement. What an opportunity for them to revitalise themselves in Scotland.

    Perhaps the real point is that Devo Plus/Max/whatever seems less than popular south of the border. This seems to be because it is bizarrely misconstrued as Scotland having its cake and eating it, rather than the reality which would be Scotland paying for the ingredients and cooking the cake itself, then freely giving a slice or two to the rest of the UK. I can't see why the Lib Dems aren't all over Devo Max, except that they think it won't play well in Middle Englandshire.

    In any case, it's somewhat strange that Rennie talks of the Lib Dems being in favour of 'Home Rule' for 100 years, and of the other parties taking their first tentative baby steps on this road, while at the same time the Lib Dems don't have a clear set of proposals for Scotland and are waiting for Ming Campbell's Commission (yes, another one!) to cast it's pearls before us all. Come on, you've had 100 years to develop your vision for Scotland, and Ming himself has had most of those 100 years to work out what needs to be done. Surely now you just need to dot the i's and cross the t's.

  3. Another sound analysis, James.

    They took part in the Calman Commission as equal partners with Labour and the Tories; we’ve had Steel; we’ve not got Campbell, and at the same time Kennedy has stepped up to the plate to lead against independence.

    And yet, they have been planning for this debate for 100 years, says the bloke in charge of their group in Holyrood.

    How weird is that?

    The debate should now be fourfold (maybe fivefold, as the Tories are split on the subject):
    Labour: More powers in a devolved parliament but some powers going back to London.
    Tories: No more powers (according to Ruth) Some limited powers (as yet undefined) according to Dave.
    Liberals: Federal UK.
    SNP, Greens, Socialist Labour: Independence

    It seems to me that this is the opportunity for the parties to air their views, have a proper grown up debate (the way the UK never has) and make a decision that suits the people of Scotland (and the rest of the UK if they are to be involved.

    Alex has given them time. There are yet 2 ½ years before we vote.

  4. Thankfully, not all Libdums are as enthralled as Caron with the conference speeches. I find it hard to argue with much Andrew has to say here: