Saturday, May 05, 2007

After the Scottish elections

I hesitate to offer advice from a distance, but should the Lib Dems be so opposed to a referendum on Scottish independence?

My instinct is that the SNP would never be able to win such a referendum. But if there is a majority for independence in Scotland, is it moral or realistic to think it can be permanently stymied simply by refusing to allow people a vote?

People who believe in the Union have to make a positive case. In the past they told the Scots they could not possibly survive as an independent nation. These scare tactics have been discredited by the success of the Nordic and Baltic states in recent years. Refusing to have a debate at all is unlikely to be a more successful tactic.

I understand that Alex Salmond is not the uncomplicated cheerful chappy he appears on television, but there are reasons why I would welcome a breaking of the alliance between the Liberal Democrats and Labour in Scotland.

It is hard to argue that the Holyrood administration has been more liberal than Blair's government in London. It anything it has pursued the more nannyish aspects of the New Labour agenda with greater enthusiasm.

So much so, that the only policy Liberal Democrat policy I could name from last week's Scottish elections is the demand for more PE in schools.

A chance to think about what differentiates us from Labour would be no bad thing.

Later. Neal Ascherson, a sometime Lib Dem candidate, writes on Comment is Free:
Like it or not, the Lib-Dems (who more or less held their own in this election) still guard the gate to power. They are thinking hard about their options. For all their pro-Union distrust of the Nats, they recognise that this election confirmed a powerful new impatience for more (if not yet full) independence in Scotland. Their own programme is for a radical expansion of the Scottish parliament's powers. But the stonily Unionist rhetoric of Gordon Brown during this campaign shows what an uphill struggle this will be, a struggle in which the SNP is their only conceivable ally. The negotiations with a triumphant, cunning Alex Salmond will be hard. But if the Lib-Dems are to stay credible - and avoid public disgrace - they have to live dangerously and start talking.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

It's not the Scots Lib Dems who are acting illiberally over a referendum, it's Ming who's put his foot down.

Paul Griffiths said...

There are, or should be, two routes to a referendum on an issue. Top-down, from a government seeking a specific mandate for an action, and bottom-up, via a citizens’ initiative (CI).

Exactly on what issues. and in what circumstances, a government needs an explicit mandate is a tricky question, although constitutional change is an obvious candidate. But as I understand it, the Scottish Lib Dem leadership are arguing that it would be perverse to seek a mandate for inaction, in this case by initiating a referendum on a move to independence that they did not support. Once the precedent had been established, the argument goes, there could be calls for referendums on all sorts of issues, merely on the basis of opinion polls.

It strikes me that the CI route may be a way out of the impasse. Lib Dem party policy has approved of CIs in the past. And I think I’m right in saying the Scottish citizens can already petition the parliament. The Lib Dems could agree with the SNP to extend the idea of CIs such that if a significant percentage of the people supported a referendum, one would have to be held.

James Graham said...

Basically, I agree with Paul Griffiths. I can't really see why the Lib Dems should be bullied into backing a referendum on ANY policy they disagree with. However, I equally would support a general policy of backing CIs.

In Ming's defence, his argument that joining a government with an independence-obsessed main party would be a mistake is a sound one - we have other priorities, so why should we join an executive that will spend so much time concentrating on this issue?