Thursday, 12 January 2012

Why Alex Salmond rightly holds the Ace in the Unionist Pack

I've been quite bemused this week at the toing and froing between Edinburgh and London on the issue of the timing of the referendum on Scottish independence.

David Cameron made a right dogs dinner of the attempting to put pressure on Alex Salmond and the SNP to bring forward the referendum to a time of Westminster's choosing.

Westminster watchers need to remember who it was that won the election in Scotland back in May of last year. Not only did the SNP win that election, but they transformed the political landscape north of Hadrian's Wall by winning an outright majority in a system run under proportional representation - a stunning electoral achivement. They did so on the promise of calling a referendum at the latter end of this Parliament.

So I'm sorry, but Alex Salmond has the electoral mandate to do exactly what he has stated in recent days - to hold a referendum in 2014.

Is the concern for economic investment in Scotland in the current constitutionally uncertain climate David Cameron's main worry as he states or is it just a ploy to try and get at the SNP? I expect it's a bit of both but it does him and Westminster more generally no good to be seen to be attempting to force this issue with the Scottish Parliament when they have already achieved an overwhelming mandate to do exactly what it is that they state wil occur in 30 months time.

Don't get me wrong here. I don't like Alex Salmond - I never have. I despair of his brand of nationalism which for me is rather distasteful and inward-looking. But he must be putting something into the water because it would seem that a lot of people like him and it does not do the Unionist camp any good to be trying to undermine him by a British Prime Minister whose own party can only muster a single Scottish Member of Parliament.

Of course there is concern that the Union might break-up but the decision must reside in Scotland and their elected government have the moral right to call that date at a time of their choosing. 2014 of course is of particular historic significance because it will mark the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Banockburn of 1314 when Robert the Bruce crushed the forces of King Edward II. There may be concern that the SNP will use this co-incidence to galvanise nationalistic fervour in favour of a new break from England. This I'm sure will undoubtedly be the case but again I say, tough. The SNP won the election and have the mandate to choose that date in that oh so significant year if they so wish. It doesn't mean that they have a cast iron certainty of winning the referendum of course, but they do have the right to choose that date all the same.

The Scottish Liberal Democrat Conundrum
As to the role the Scottish Liberal Democrats should play in this on-going saga, whilst I don't wish to tread on the feet of my own Celtic colleagues, I have taken great interest in the many comments made on-line by them over recent days. The response to Secretary of State Michael Moore's intervention in the House of Commons on Tuesday was particularly interesting. Andrew Page, Caron Lindsay and Alex Folkes certainly felt that he made a fine attempt at clearing up Cameron's mess.

Dan Falchikov however, believes that his comments were just another example of how the Scottish Liberal Democrats need to stop digging. As he said:
"The Liberal Democrats as a party that has always backed home rule should not be seen to be impeding the properly expressed wish of a democratically mandated Scots government.
"A period of silence from Moore, Cameron and Osborne on the constitutional question would be welcome - and might buy the Scottish party some breathing space to remove itself from the unionist hook it has impaled itself on".
This feeling chimes with the sentiments made by Andrew Page who blogged:
"There is absolutely no advantage into being tied into a Lab-Con-Lib alliance in which our distinctive voice and vision would be drowned out. We can do little for the cause of Scottish liberalism if for the next three years we are simply a minor partner in a coalition of negativity. In any case, the "no" campaign does not need us, and we don't need it. Instead, we have to find means of informing the political debate, speak common sense where necessary, to act as a sobering force, questioning detail and empowering the electorate to make an informed choice".

I sympathise particularly with Dan and Andrew's concerns.

As they see it, it is a matter of being seen as a positive force in the referendum and not necessarily as being simply reactionary. After all, the Liberal Democrats are a Federal Party. So why not support the provision of a referendum question that includes the 'Devo-Max' option of greater autonomy whilst remaining within the Union? It makes it clear that the party is not stuck in the past and wants a prosperous and free-thinking Scotland which at the same time has the cushion of continued association with the United Kingdom.

As a radical Welsh liberal, it is what I would wish to see here. A strong and powerful Welsh Parliament and civic society, deciding on its own issues whilst leaving the fundamental issues of defence to a federal UK-wide government.

These things are never straight forward of course but I would sense that the Scottish Liberal Democrats have an opportunity to carve out their own unique space in this debate. Otherwise they will be painted into the same corner as the Conservatives and Labour. This of course is exactly what Alex Salmond wants and therefore must surely be a situation that is best avoided.


  1. The SNP may have a democratic mandate, but the powers to call a referendum are reserved for the British parliament under the 1998 Scotland Act. That the SNP is able to bypass the law as a trivial irrelivance is proof that Scotland's constitutional divergence from the UK requires further devolution or independence.

    Home rule should be the Liberal priority for Scotland. Now would also be an excellent time for Westminster liberals to start floating proposals for devolution to the English regions as a part of our localisation priority. Support for a federalised UK from the British liberals would be helpful to our Scottish party as well.

  2. However, there's no fairness as there is no English Parliament.

    That might wish to vote for its own Independence....

  3. I think the Liberal Democrats need to reignite their belief in a federal UK and make this more well-known. Seeing as Scottish independence is such a hot topic at the moment, it'd be as good a time as any? I agree, Mark, that we should be on the third side of this argument and in the "devo-max" camp - though it might be worth clearing up with Mr Salmond what exactly he means by "devo-max"...