Sunday, November 1, 2009

Liberal Democrats vote to thwart their own favoured constitutional option

The Liberal Democrats, as I understand it, take considerable pride in their long history (including predecessor parties) of consistent support for meaningful Scottish Home Rule. In the 1950s and early 60s when the SNP were still a fringe party, the Scottish Liberal Party was the leading voice in favour of constitutional change. So strong was that apparent commitment that I believe there was even once serious talk of an electoral pact with the Nationalists. And yet when the moment of truth came in 1977, the Liberals voted down the minority Labour government's guillotine motion on the Scotland and Wales Bill, thereby (as it turned out) effectively delaying devolution for a full two decades. It wasn't that they had turned against Home Rule as such - it was simply that their unionist instincts had kicked in, and 'wider political concerns' seemed more important at that moment.

A similar paradox is at play now. Nobody doubts that the Lib Dems genuinely support considerably stronger and deeper devolution. The question is just how strong and deep is that support? Enough for them to will the means as well as the end? Just a few hours ago, they had a golden opportunity to take matters into their own hands and make their own vision for Scotland's future a reality. But just like in the 1970s, wider concerns - ie. short-term politicking - proved more important to them than taking concrete steps towards achieving their stated goal. By backing a referendum on independence on the condition that a third option ('devolution plus') be added, they would have been guaranteed to get their wish - Alex Salmond has all but conceded that point. When the referendum took place, the chances are the Lib Dems' favoured option would have won the day. Although that vote would not have been binding on the UK government, it's almost inconceivable that a clear-cut result (as opposed, say, to the razor-thin 1979 margin) would not have been acted upon. But presented with a chance to empower both themselves and the Scottish people on this issue, the Liberal Democrats instead voted to empower...the UK government. And whether that's a Labour or a Tory government, it means that absolutely nothing will happen. And, as always, nothing will happen very slowly.

Also slightly baffling to see the suggestion that there had been "genuine anger" among delegates about Alex Salmond's proposed referendum question. That's the kind of response that might have been appropriate had the First Minister said "it's this or nothing". Instead, he's fallen over himself to be accommodating on the format of the referendum (other than insisting that independence must be on the ballot paper, which perhaps gives a clue as to the Lib Dems' true anti-democratic objection to the whole idea). But, as a general rule of thumb, when members of one party talk about feeling 'genuine' anger towards the policies of another party, it's probably best to be sceptical . Members of the public are certainly entitled to talk about 'genuine anger'. With party activists you can usually safely assume it's political somewhere down the line.

1 comment:

  1. Nobody doubts that the Lib Dems genuinely support considerably stronger and deeper devolution. The question is just how strong and deep is that support? Enough for them to will the means as well as the end?

    The Lib-Dem's favoured method of organising local and regional government inside the UK is federalism. However they're not sure if that means four, "national", parliaments and a UK one or a model which follows Labour's, "Nations and Regions", model where the UK is split into Scotland, Wales, NI and various English regions. In a typical Lib-Dem fashion they still haven't made their minds up on that one or if they have they're not telling.

    What you must remember is that the Lib-Dems are a unionist party. Devolution and federalism are still unionist solutions which do not break the integrity of the UK and that's actually written into their constitution. An independence referendum threatens the integrity of the UK whether it is multi-option or not. If it had been a referendum on further transfer of power under the devolution settlement or a complete reorganisation of government under federalism then they would have agreed to it at the drop of a hat. The problem is as always that the Lib-Dems are a unionist party and do not want to threaten their beloved union in any way.

    Even assuming that they would go against the unionist philosophy they believe in and agree to a referendum then the problem is the third option. The third option can't be an anodyne, "more powers", choice, the actual transfer of power both in legal and financial terms has to be spelt out before it goes on the ballot paper and the Lib-Dems don't have a third option. They've got lots of papers and suggestions such as the, "Steel Report", but their solution is always to get a second constitutional convention going which will make the choices for them because they simply don't have the will, courage or ability to spell out a costed, working solution themselves. The Calman Commission was a demonstration of how the Lib-Dems can get taken for a ride by Labour and the Conservatives and neither party really want anything to do with it now. As a third option it is so close to the current set up and so hideously complicated in its, "Assigned Taxes", solution that it would be a non-starter anyway. There is no third option available which can go on the ballot paper for a referendum in the near future.

    I'd love to hear how they thought the proposed question on the bill was, "rigged". The obvious solution would have been to agree to support a referendum bill in exchange for rewording the question but the, "rigged", question outrage is just a diversion. The reality is that the Lib-Dems are unionist to the core and an independence referendum is just too dangerous to contemplate for them especially as despite all their years of self-congratulatory reports and policies they still don't have a workable third option to put on the ballot paper. Even if they had a realistic third option to go on the paper I still think that the independence question would make the referendum a no-go area for them.