Wednesday 18 January 2012

No is not enough; why the Scottish Lib Dems must embrace the Independence referendum

This post is a reproduction of my Op-Ed on Lib Dem Voice.

Alex Salmond’s SNP have a political mandate to hold a referendum on Scottish Independence. With an unprecedented majority in the Scottish Parliament and a manifesto pledge, the question is not if we have to confront this issue, but how.

Leaving aside arguments about the Scottish Parliament’s legal authority to legislate on an independence referendum (this can be resolved amicably through Westminster legislation) the Scottish Liberal Democrats must engage with the merits, not just of independence, but also “devo-max”.

Although Liberal Democrats generally support the Union, not all members are so-minded. Some (myself included) are ambivalent or notionally support Scottish independence, on distinctly liberal rather than “nationalist” grounds. Much of the SNP’s success resulted from attracting our former voters. Many in that party share our liberal instincts. On several issues we should be natural allies: wrestling power away from a London-centric Westminster; seeking reform of the EU’s CFP; and reforming social policy.

Alas the relationship has been fractious and dysfunctional. The tipping point was the last Parliament. Scottish Lib Dems inadequately co-operated with Salmond’s minority administration, in general and specifically on the Referendum Bill.

As democrats, we should have supported that referendum. As liberals we should have grasped that opportunity to articulate a federalist-inspired alternative. Call it “devo max”, “independence lite”; whatever you like. What mattered was it had to give the Scottish Parliament real power, not simply allocate resources from a Westminster hand-out.

The Steel Commission (2006) recognised this. Seeking full devolution of most taxes and the Crown Estate, it offered a real framework from which to articulate our vision for Home Rule. Parliaments responsible for raising every penny they spend have greater power, but greater accountability too.

Instead, we shunned the SNP’s “National Conversation” and referendum, turning to Scotland’s conservative forces: Labour and the Tories. The result? The Calman Commission, itself a damp squib, further diluted by the Scotland Bill. It marginally changes a tax-varying power Scotland has never sought to use and gave the Parliament modest borrowing powers. It ignored corporation tax, alcohol, tobacco and fuel duty and failed to overhaul the arbitrary and universally resented Barnett spending formula. We squandered a chance to shape Scotland’s future in our federal image. The electorate punished our cautious incrementalism. Our disastrous performance in 2011 wasn’t just a Coalition backlash; our unremitting negativity towards a relatively liberal and pragmatic SNP administration compounded it.

We must not throw-away this opportunity again. Our entire conduct towards the referendum has been in lockstep with the so-called “Unionist Bloc”.

Firstly, we’ve had this argument about the “economic uncertainty” businesses feel about the future constitutional set-up. Sure, CBI Scotland sought clarity on some issues, but most of this information is already in the public domain. In a globally integrated economy the notion that this causes mass uncertainty for Scottish business is unfounded.

Boyd Tunnock, prominent confectionery tycoon, wanted clarity on the currency and whether Anglo-Scot trade barriers would exist. These questions have been answered several times! The SNP would keep Sterling (we would be joint-stakeholders of the BOE) in the interim before putting any change (Euro or otherwise) to the people in a referendum. Further, Scotland wouldn’t have trade tariffs with England provided it was an EU/EFTA member, the first being almost certain. Absolutely there are questions that remain to be answered, for example how to separate assets and the national debt and structural EU issues, but they don’t give cause for scaremongering.

These are, anyhow, issues of process not principle. The raison-d’être of self-determination is being able to choose our currency and which international treaties to sign. Certainly the SNP should clarify their preferred and likely transitional arrangements, but advocating independence isn’t a perpetual manifesto of specifics. Trust the Scottish people to make these choices as and when the time comes.

Secondly, sending mixed-signals about the “devo-max” question, harms only us. Willie Rennie has made some positive signals but we need more. By challenging its place on the ballot we again throw away the chance to engage with the SNP and define the woolly term as our own vision. We could argue for: devolving taxes instead of tax rates; devolving powers to deal with Scotland’s drug problem; and devolving localised work visas to attract more people to Scotland and relieve pressure on the densely populated English South-East. We could seek guaranteed Holyrood representation on UK international delegations, particularly CFP negotiations, so Scotland’s fishermen’s concerns are voiced by the politicians closer to them.

That list isn’t exhaustive. More importantly, devo-max presents a chance to re-establish ourselves as an independent liberal-minded voice on the constitutional debate and in Scottish politics. Laying claim to the consensus option distinguishes us from Labour and the Tories, articulating a vision distinct from independence without attacking it for its own sake. If we do this we should achieve more working with the SNP administration. Moreover, we might just find the Scottish people willing to listen and engage with our ideas again.

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