I’m a rather late convert to the cause of Scottish independence – a conversion that owes more to pragmatism than it does to political ideology.
I’ve never been the kind of Liberal Democrat vociferously opposed to the notion of independence. In 2007 I believed that, while a prospective coalition was a non-starter due to simple arithmetic, the party was misguided to rule out co-operation with the SNP on the basis that a referendum represented a “fundamental barrier”. Neither have I ever accepted the flawed logic of previous Scottish Lib Dem leaders in consistently denying Scottish voters the referendum – an ultimately futile tactic that has made it easy for political opponents to portray us as small-minded arch-unionists and contributed in no small way to our alienating of many traditional supporters.
The leadership line for the previous few years has been more pro-unionist than the view of the party membership, and has been influenced more by antipathy towards the SNP than by either a coherent political strategy or a commitment to democratic principles. The referendum represents the fairest and most liberal option and is certainly preferable to elected politicians and Westminster policy makers deciding Scotland’s future on our behalf. I have struggled to reconcile our party’s democratic credentials with what I perceive as a poorly conceived and fundamentally illiberal approach in recent years and have become increasingly convinced that, far from being anathema to convinced liberals, independence offers significant opportunities.
Not being a nationalist, the question of Scotland’s constitutional future has always been of secondary interest to the creation of a liberal society and a fairer political system. Features of the liberal Scottish society Liberal Democrats aspire to achieve include tolerance, an embracing of pluralism, the guarantee of free expression, the fostering of autonomous choices and greater democratic freedoms. A liberal society is one in which its citizens are empowered to take greater control of their own destinies. Liberals in the UK have a history of campaigning for a fairer and more democratic voting system, a green economy, decentralisation and localism, an end to the privileges afforded to the unelected House of Lords, reducing the voting age to 16 and the fairness agenda (so beloved of Nick Clegg). For those of us living in Scotland, liberals are far more likely to achieve such objectives in an independent Scotland than within a dysfunctional Union. A British system of PR is unlikely to be achieved in my lifetime, but may well be a feature of an independent Scottish democratic system in which concerns about the House of Lords would be both academic and redundant. Similarly, our objectives on fairness, the economy, green energy, lowering the voting age and empowering communities would have a greater chance of fulfilment after independence than they would have under the status quo, which has a proven track record of non-delivery.
The preamble to the Liberal Democrats’ constitution states that “the Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community”. The key question for Liberal Democrats therefore must be “which constitutional arrangement best allows for the creation of such a society?”
The preamble also makes the claim that “we believe that sovereignty rests with the people and that authority in a democracy derives from the people. We therefore acknowledge their right to determine the form of government best suited to their needs and commit ourselves to the promotion of a democratic federal framework within which as much power as feasible is exercised by the nations and regions of the United Kingdom.” This is clearly inconsistent with the leadership’s stance in recent years but also, in theory at least, simultaneously commits liberals to the right of self-determination and “democratic federalism”.
If I genuinely felt that the Liberal Democrats were capable of achieving this “democratic federalism” I would be supporting all attempts to make it a reality, as my inclinations are liberal, not nationalist. What we have learned is that, in eight years of coalition in Holyrood and two years in Westminster very little progress has been made on the federalism front. To put it bluntly, if it was a crime to be a federalist there would be very little evidence with which to convict the Liberal Democrats. We are not the “guarantors of change” Willie Rennie disingenuously claims us to be. Even if the premise that the party is by nature a federalist one is accepted, it is naive to believe that the best channel by which to achieve the benefits of federalism is affiliation to the negative Better Together campaign, which lacks any kind of vision for a post-referendum Scotland.
We have a Deputy Prime Minister who asserts that “we are a devolutionist party”. That, of course, is not entirely true. Federalism is many things but it is not devolutionism. Jo Grimond recognised that a risk of devolution was “too much government” and that “it is no good transferring from Westminster to Edinburgh the diseases which…are bringing British democracy to its knees.” What is needed, insisted Grimond, was an arrangement that is open and accountable – “less government, better government and government nearer home”. He retained suspicions about romantic and inward-looking nationalism but also argued that, as far as Scotland’s future was concerned, “not to go far enough may be worse than going too far”. Devolution is not by nature a liberal arrangement and has a tendency to deliver over-government. Independence on the other hand, while clearly going further than federalism, does have the potential to provide both more effective local government and less government. From a liberal perspective, this has to be the best of both possible worlds.
The Scottish Liberal Democrats talk of federalism and Home Rule, which is welcome. Unfortunately, the actions of the leadership in identifying themselves with the Tories and Labour in a coalition of cynical negativity is likely to compromise both the party’s distinctive message and attempts to portray itself as anything other than committed to unionism. However, public perception is simply one challenge for the Liberal Democrats: another, more pertinent, difficulty being that the scope for achieving whatever the Home Rule Commission recommends is zero. Pragmatic liberals realise that without an additional option on the ballot form the choice is between the status quo, with no clear indication of what Scotland’s future will look like post-referendum, and an independence which offers opportunities for both Scottish liberalism and the Scottish Liberal Democrats.
There would be electoral opportunities for the Liberal Democrats in a post-independence Scotland of which the party should be mindful. It is unclear what would happen to the SNP but, even if it continued as a political force, having achieved its primary goal the Scottish Liberal Democrats could be well-positioned to benefit from uncertainty within the SNP’s ranks. Independence could prove to be an antecedent for a liberal revival, especially if the party is able to use the referendum campaign to its advantage. Admittedly, the second possibility is looking more remote by the day but it remains an inescapable fact that independence could serve the Liberal Democrats well, in a similar way to how devolution has benefitted the Scottish Conservatives.
Of course, embracing independence will require surrendering the commitment to a federal Britain in which Scotland is part. I have no difficulty with this, especially as inaction on the part of the leadership is largely responsible for undermining my faith in the achievement of federalism. While I would have preferred the party leadership to have done everything in its power to ensure an option more closely relating to our position would be presented to voters, what is precious about federalism isn’t a doctrinal commitment to it but the kind of society it can help create. Federalism, like all constitutional arrangements, is simply a tool; a means to a desired end. The focus must be on end goals, not the journey. We must be mindful that the final destination – a fairer, better Scotland in which liberal values can thrive – is so much more significant than the route by which we arrive there.
In 2014, like millions of other Scots, I will be voting on the future of our nation. I will do so from a commitment to liberal values and a determination to progress the cause of liberalism. That is why I will vote “yes”.