Tuesday, December 17, 2019

GUEST POST Unionism is making the Scottish Lib Dems irrelevant

Mark Stephens says it is time for the Scottish Liberal Democrats to abandon 'me too' unionism and engage with Scotland’s constitutional future

The Liberal Democrats once played a prominent role in Scottish politics. The party played a full role in the Constitutional Convention which 'acknowledge[d] the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of Government best suited to their needs' and paved the way to the Scottish Parliament. The party was in coalition with Labour for the first eight years of the new parliament up to 2007, with Jim Wallace serving as Deputy and periodically Acting First Minister.

Twenty years on from the restoration of the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish Liberal Democrats are - bluntly - irrelevant.

The party played an undistinctive role in the Better Together campaign during the 2014 independence referendum. Then was the time to articulate the case for a federal UK, but this 'core objective' was set aside for some ad hoc proposals dressed up as 'principles' that the party fed into the post-referendum Smith Commission. (The commission was set up in the aftermath of the independence referendum to deliver the UK party leaders' 'vow'.)

Contrary to the expectations of the UK parties, the defeat of independence in 2014 did not mark a return to politics as usual. Instead, it established independence as the principal fault line in Scottish politics.

This has played to the advantage of the SNP (obviously), which has now replaced the Labour Party as the principal centre-left party in Westminster as well as Holyrood elections, and Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party as the most authentic voice of unionism.

In 2016 Brexit opened up a second constitutional fault line. In response, Nicola Sturgeon unambiguously positioned the SNP as the main anti-Brexit party north of the border. Given that one-third of the Yes vote in 2014 voted for Brexit in 2016, Sturgeon’s leadership may be contrasted with Corbyn's ambivalence. Consequently, there has been some churn in the pro-independence support bringing it into closer alignment with pro-EU sentiment.

The Liberal Democrats (like Labour) have failed to adapt to this new landscape. The party has effectively become a 'me too' unionist party. This may make sense as a strategy to unite the unionist vote in the handful of seats in which it is competitive, but it is catastrophically limiting as a national strategy.

What is the point of the party everywhere else in the country if the Tories (or Labour in the case of Edinburgh South) are best placed to stop the SNP? A perusal of the results across Scotland provides the voters' clear answer.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats managed to get themselves into a complete fankle over these two constitutional issues during the 2019 election. The SNP supported a second EU referendum, and indeed played a leading role in Westminster opposing Brexit and challenging in the courts the government’s attempt to prorogue parliament.

It also argued that since Scotland voted very clearly (by 62 per cent) to remain, being taken out of the EU constituted the material change required in its 2016 Holyrood manifesto to justify a second independence referendum.

To be clear the manifesto stated 'the Scottish Parliament should have the right to hold another referendum ... if there is a significant and material change in the circumstances that prevailed in 2014, such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will.' With Green Party support, a referendum bill is progressing through the Scottish Parliament.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats argued for a second referendum on the EU, but vehemently opposed a second independence referendum. This inconsistency appeared hypocritical - for the good reason that it was. But Willie Rennie went even further - ruling out another referendum in his lifetime regardless of the outcome of future Scottish Parliament elections.

The Lib Dem response to the dual victory of Boris Johnson’s Conservatives in England and Wales, and the SNP's landslide in Scotland has not been encouraging. Jo Swinson has blamed a "wave of nationalism" north and south of the border, as if Brexit and support for Scottish independence are both sides of the same xenophobic coin.

This bares little scrutiny. Brexit is backward looking, focused on withdrawing from an international organisation, hostile to immigration, led by the political right, and supported by the elderly. Scottish independence is forward looking, founded on a 'civic' view of nation, led by the political centre-left, and supported by the young. The franchise for the independence election included EU citizens, and the SNP wishes to extend it further to everyone legally entitled to live in Scotland.

In marked contrast to the UK's government’s 'hostile environment' to immigrants, Nicola Sturgeon as First Minister has issued a number of open letters to EU citizens living in Scotland, one this week stating:
Scotland values you for the contribution you make to our society, our culture and our economy. Whether you have lived here for months or many years, Scotland is your home, you are welcome here and we want you to stay." 
Characterising expressions of such openly liberal values as xenophobic nationalism is clearly pretty daft, especially when voters in parts of Scotland have shifted allegiances backwards and forwards between the SNP and LibDems in seats such as Ross, Skye and Lochaber, East Dunbartonshire and Fife North East. It seems unlikely that the values of the switchers markedly change.

Perhaps they share the view of former Scottish Lib Dem chief executive Andy Myles, who questioned the "magic spell that says sovereignty must stay with the State Imperial Crown at Westminster, and that it might be better to bring it back closer to the people."

Post-election, it is clear that constitutional questions will continue to dominate Scottish politics. Already some Labour figures are dropping their outright opposition to future referendums, finding the prospect of Brexit and a majority Johnson government to be unpalatable. David Steel has mooted a 'British Isles confederation, replacing the House of Lords with a Senate elected by its component institutions.'

The Scottish Lib Dems could be part of this process, but only if they abandon their outright opposition to a future independence referendum, and enthusiastically enters the debate on Scotland’s constitutional future. This is key to restoring their position in Scottish politics.

Of course the Scottish Lib Dems can carry on with their 'me too' unionist strategy. They can continue to parrot the increasingly tired trope that the independence referendum was only 'once in a generation' even though the party signed up to the post-referendum Smith Commission, which stated that “nothing in this report prevents Scotland becoming an independent country in the future should the people of Scotland so choose.”

They can maintain that Nicola Sturgeon has no mandate for a referendum despite its manifesto pledge on precisely this point and commanding a majority on this issue in the Scottish Parliament.

The Lib Dems could even claim that the SNP winning 80 per cent of the seats in Scotland in last week’s election, with leaflet after leaflet demanding that Scotland’s future be put in Scotland’s hands represents no mandate, because they 'only' got 45 per cent of the vote.

This would look ridiculous coming from a party that had intended to revoke Article 50 without a referendum on the basis of a majority of seats, not votes.

But if Willie Rennie and his colleagues choose to continue to go down this path, they might reflect on what happened the last time Liberals chose to add the word 'Unionist' to their party’s name.

Mark Stephens worked for Alan Beith at Westminster.


Matthew Kilburn said...

I think there is much more in common between the two nationalisms than Mark admits - in many parts of England, Brexit can only be carried because it has a significant number of younger people who support it. Mark is right broadly on that point but I think it's a mistake to paint Brexit support in England purely in those colours. He must surely be correct, though, that a more positive case for Britain needs to be made than the me-too unionism of the last few years and for Liberal Democracy in Scotland as a whole.

Matthew Kilburn said...

...and the intellectual problem of an anti-FPTP party calling for Revoke with a plurality rather than a majority was one which struck me, and which has done damage.

Dan said...

Well said!

JohnM said...

I'd hope the Lib Dems learn from the Brexit! I'd trust they would decline to support a Scottish referendum that has not been legitimised by a Citizens' Assembly. I'd wish them to say that if an instrument of direct democracy is to be utilised then it MUST NOT be used to bounce the people into this of that least worst option to suit the powers or moneyed interests that be!

I think the Lib Dems might take a leaf out of Ireland's recent experience and consider promoting the idea of a properly constituted Citizens' Assembly to hear experts, politicians, and impact statements from all sides, on an equal footing without the propaganda and risks of foreign interference. That then would decide IF a referendum is warranted and legitimise the questions (doesn't have to be just two) AND the pro's and con's prospectus behind those questions. And finally, that if more than two questions then 'sensitive democracy' is used to arrive at the answer i.e preference voting by STV.

Mark Stephens said...

A citizen’s assembly on Scotland’s constitutional future is such a good idea that the Scottish Government has set one up!