Monday, 26 October 2009

Guest Post: Lib Dems - supporting a referendum?

Another guest contribution, this time from Linlithgow's favourite Liberal Democrat, Stephen Glenn. He is a Lib Dem, so be gentle with him. But he is writing about an interesting subject, so get torn in!

Malc has kindly asked me write a guest post looking at the role that Ross Finnie has undertaken, looking at the position the Liberal Democrats in Scotland on the question of a referendum. Some have pointed argued it is a sudden change in direction. This being Malc’s blog I thought I’d best do some research into the historical context to see if that argument holds water.

A Scottish Parliamentarian once rose from the green benches of the House of Commons and said:

“The demand exists, and is becoming so urgent that it will no longer be ignored. That demand is reasonable. I do not know that I should need to make that point, for the simple reason that the Scottish people themselves are so reasonable that you could not imagine them taking up such a demand unless it were itself reasonable...

“The Scottish people never voluntarily renounced their ancient Parliament. It was filched from them by methods scarcely less discreditable than those which accompanied the parallel transaction on the other side of St. George's Channel at a somewhat later date.”

No it wasn’t Alex Salmond. It was however someone who in their career represented Aberdeenshire and Kincardineshire (no, not Nicol Stephen!). It was in fact William Cowen, the Liberal MP for Aberdeenshire Eastern, moving his Government of Scotland Bill in 1913.The move was a step to fulfil Grand Old Man William Gladstone’s promise from the very start of his Home Rule campaign:

“I will consent to give to Ireland no principle, nothing that is not upon equal terms offered to Scotland, and to the different parts of the United Kingdom.”

But before the Nats jump up and down and cry out for a Scottish Free State that wasn’t on the table at the time but came in subsequent legislation. Cowen cited the backing for his bill from the Liberal Association in Scotland. In 2007 there was no discussion with the membership, which led to the refusal of the Lib Dems to even enter talks with the SNP.

Many in the membership, myself included, believed it was possible to allow a referendum without supporting the same side in that campaign as the SNP. Others considered it was possible to not have that as plank of coalition governance but leave room for the SNP to bring a bill forward. Yet the decision was taken and many in Scotland - Malc included - saw it as the Lib Dems being undemocratic and failing to live up to our name.

To 2009 then, and a new leader is in charge but the same position. A debate on devolution saw questions asked, dilemmas posed. First Kevin Lang (Lib Dem PPC in Edinburgh North and Leith) then new Lib Dem MEP George Lyon both called for a referendum in Scotland on the question of independence. I could have got up and said the same thing.

Tavish Scott was clearly flustered. In last year’s leadership campaign, one of the key separating factors between the three candidates had been their willingness to listen to the membership on key issues like this one. In fact Mike Rumbles had promised to revisit this very question with the membership in very clear terms - just as Tavish is doing now. It is not going against party policy: there wasn’t really a firm policy on the issue, and there hadn’t been a discussion about the possibility of a referendum in many leading members time within the party.

So is this discussion in Liberal/Lib Dem circles sudden? Looking at the historic context no, we’ve been having it for over 100 years. Will it, as some online Nats have been suggesting, bring down Tavish Scott? No. He’s called for the formalising of the discussion, maybe as a result of the wake up call provided in Bournemouth, maybe at the behest of others. But Lib Dems are a forgiving lot. However, what he does with the resultant consensus going forward will be the key.

The big question of course that everyone is asking is ‘What will the outcome be?’. I really don’t know. One thing I do know is that post-Bournemouth and post-announcement of this consultation more people are coming forward saying that the time for the referendum is right. There is certainly a feeling of let’s get it over with. I don't know what the outcome will be, but what I do know is that when we gather in Dunfermline on Saturday (31 Oct) to start that process, it will be an interesting session. I’m prepared to be shocked this time, if that is possible, unlike the time I was sitting in the hall back in September.

If a week is a long time in politics, how much more six of them?


Jeff 26 October 2009 at 09:48  

Nice one Stephen, I particularly enjoy the historic quotes to argue against the suggestion that this topic is a bolt out the blue for team Lib Dem.

However, I'm afraid I just can't shake the opinion that Tavish's continued steadfast opposition to a referendum means that if the membership back the SNP's bill then his position borders on untenable due to everyone knowing he's not really behind it. Also, given that a recent YouGov poll has shown pretty clearly that LDs ARE in favour of a referendum so if you stay with the status quo it may be fair to conclude that this closed doors session is little more than a slapping down exercise of the 'youthful, thrusting' Kevin Langs of your party. I rather suspect you're on a lose-lose come Saturday.

Cruachan 26 October 2009 at 12:36  

Tavish Scott said, only last weekend,
"There is no way the Liberal Democrats will be voting for a referendum on independence two months before a general election."

A clear attempt at bouncing his members into confirming the current (untenable) status quo.

There clearly is a way. The Scottish Lib Dems should have the courage of their convictions. Tell your Leader this weekend that he is simply wrong in principle and wrong in electoral tactics.

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