Monday 27 June 2016

We can't have both

Sometimes the Scottish Liberal Democrats needs a bucket of ice water dropped on its head.

There was a members meeting on Sunday in Edinburgh in which we were to discuss the way forward. Chatham House rules mean I am restricted in what I can say but I think it's fair for me to outline the broad nature of the challenges that face the party. It is to Willie Rennie's credit that the meeting was called at all, but there was a real feeling among many at that meeting that the party just isn't facing up to the reality of the new constitutional situation that we occupy.

There were arguments that we should continue to fight for the UK to remain in the EU. Effusive praise was lavished on Tim Farron for taking on the mantle of the 48. Surely to goodness followers of Scottish politics of all places should feel uncomfortable with the imagery of that. But the strategy, whilst a good rallying call for the party and its values in England, is a total waste of time in terms of getting something done. Tim Farron is not going to be the next Prime Minister and even if he is he is not going to be able to use a General Election mandate just to "cancel" Brexit without riots in the streets of Northern English cities. The people have spoken.

Not wanting to choose between two uncertainties is a natural human instinct. But you don't always get to decide what decisions you're asked to make. And Scottish Liberals are closer than ever to being forced to choose between a British Union and a European one.

We have to be ready for that eventuality. Putting off deciding is cowardice. And we absolutely have to back a Scottish independence referendum if, and this is the key point, all avenues to keep Scotland in the EU are exhausted.

Willie was very keen after Spring conference to insist that the party had said two contradictory things when it asked to lift a moratorium on fracking while endorsing tougher carbon limits. So he clearly knows that politics is sometimes about making decisions between things that turn out to be incompatible.

A sizeable proportion of the people at Sunday's meeting tried to make that clear: unless the EU comes up with some sort of "reverse Greenland" (almost certainly legally and practically impossible because of both the politics of other member states and because it would rip apart the British single market) all that is left is for Scots to choose between Unions.

That isn't turning to Scottish nationalism or buying into a trap. That's just the choice we have. It is the competing of two different internationalisms, which have more in common with each other than the nascent English nationalism that put us into this sorry mess without so much as a care in the world for how it would affect Scotland.

The unavoidable reality is that we are approaching a situation where the mandate Scotland gave on Thursday is incompatible with the mandate it gave in September 2014 and the mandate England and Wales gave on Thursday. The core premises upon which that 2014 mandate was undertaken are now void. Hundreds of thousands of the 2 million people who vote No were materially influenced by the fact that a No vote would secure Scotland's place in the EU. The EU is constitutionally significant in a way literally not one single other international organisation is. It lives and breathes through our laws, our politics, our constitutional politics, and the nature of what it means for Britain to be a common endeavour. The No vote was not a vote to endorse the British project as it existed in 1970, or even 1707. It was to endorse it, with its fundamentals, as at 2014.

The only solution, the only way to reconcile those mandates, if staying in the UK means Scotland is not in the EU, is another independence referendum.

I know it's not reasonable to expect people who feel a close emotional attachment to the UK to campaign against it. But to be against even making the choice is an even more terrible stance for a democratic and European party to take. Opposing a referendum in any circumstances makes it absolutely certain that we are anti-Europe unless the UK does a volte-face. That is simply unacceptable to me and to hundreds of other members and I suspect thousands of supporters.

The Parliamentary party are terrified they'll lose trust in the electorate if they break a manifesto promise not to support another referendum. They ignore the fact that the vast majority of the electorate didn't vote for them anyway. In times of constitutional crisis, all bets are off.

They are taking the wrong lesson from the tuition fees debacle. The crime was not breaking the pledge; it was making a pledge that in the circumstances it was designed to be relevant for was totally unsustainable. It's time we level with the public that we made an error on May. Because we did.

At the very least the Scottish Lib Dems have to support another independence referendum. My judgment now is that liberalism is best served by Scotland seeking an undertaking for accelerated admission as an independent member into the EU, or even in the worst case scenario applying as a new member. I understand that on that aspect many liberals will vigorously disagree, and understandably. That is why we need a Special Conference, both to establish whether and what the official party position should be in a future referendum, and to make it clear in any motion that members and Parliamentarians are free to campaign as their conscience dictates.

To oppose the choice is itself to choose however. And it's the wrong choice. At the very least Scotland needs the chance to decide which internationalism it prioritises. And if that is internationalism with the other nations of the British Isles so be it.

Those turning to independence were implicitly accused at points that they were showing a lack of imagination, buying into Scottish nationalist narratives. Frankly I think the opposite is true: holding steadfast to the two Unions position isn't a display of imagination but of delusion. Imagination needs to have practical import and we are the only ones at the moment willing to imagine where this crisis is actually heading.

I didn't say it at the meeting because I spoke early in the day and I wanted to be constructive, but if this party fights against a second referendum even when that referendum is in the interest of liberalism and Scotland, I am leaving it. I've given it several last chances to show courage on the constitution, and it has disappointed me time and time again.

1 comment:

  1. I thought last time around that the whole country should have voted on Scottish independence, and that should be the case next time. The union is a partnership and both (all) partners should be consulted. Essentially, people would be asked to choose between England & Wales leaving the EU with Scottish independence or the country staying united but also staying in the EU.