Within days of the Scottish elections in May there were stories appearing in the media about the questions the SNP should put to the Scottish people in its promised referendum on Scottish Independence. Whilst the SNP had won a majority in the election even the SNP would admit that was not and still isn’t a majority of Scots who back full independence from the United Kingdom.
There has been a lot of talk about “Independence Lite”. Surprisingly, one of the proponents of this idea is the former “fundamentalist-nationalist” Jim Sillars. He recognises that there are still benefits to maintaining strong links to the United Kingdom that benefit Scotland in the short, medium and long terms. These links are based on issues such as currency, monarchy, international relations and defence. Other media stories highlight the research done by Prof James Mitchell who conducted a number of interviews with senior SNP figures where, again, Independence Lite has become the favoured option.
It will be a difficult position to argue against because, at a stroke, it negates several of the usual positions against independence. The arguments about issues like a different currency, a different Head of State, and passport controls at Gretna will be pushed onto the back burner. What the SNP is offering is basically the Scotland we have right now but one with the ambition to do things for itself, a Scotland that does not need to look to England and Westminster constantly for new powers and permission to meet the needs of its people. Try arguing against that on the doorstep during the independence referendum.
That’s not to say that Independence Lite will resolve these things. Many SNP commentators and bloggers cite potential future referendums on things like the monarchy and currency. That is the genius of this approach – get the fiscal powers that you want and delay the more difficult “real independence” questions. With each new referendum Scotland could move further away from what was the UK.
The response by those parties seeking to maintain the current constitutional position are slowly but surely delivering the referendum result to Alex Salmond. I have yet to hear an argument from anyone opposed to independence that presents a positive ambition for Scotland remaining in the UK. All the arguments are negative ranging from Scotland being unable to bail out the banks to Scotland being unable to pay its welfare bill to the old arguments about currency & passports. Even now we have government ministers hectoring the SNP about “getting on with the job” in Scotland when the SNP have been trying to seek new powers to aid them to get on with the job in a better way. Again, that’s not going to play well on the doorstep during the referendum campaign.
The Scottish Liberal Democrats, through its predecessor parties, has a long history of supporting home rule for Scotland. In fact, it is the only party that can claim to have consistently supported Home Rule for over a century. However the party’s reaction to the SNP has not been to offer a different vision and ambition for Scotland but instead a full-blown retreat into the crudest Unionist arguments. This is despite the fact that there is a third option on the table. During its first term in office the SNP conducted a National Conversation on Scotland’s future where independence was one option but another was increased powers for the Scottish Parliament. This is the line that the Scottish Liberal Democrats should be advocating. We are a federal party and seek believe in a federal United Kingdom.
It is true that in the Coalition we are delivering most of the Calman Commission proposals and that will result in great changes in the fiscal powers of the Scottish Parliament. There has, however, been a better option to build upon for some time. The Steel Commission proposed moving towards full fiscal federalism where Scotland was responsible, and therefore accountable, for all the taxes raised in Scotland with agreed payments to the UK for non-devolved expenditure like defence. Not dissimilar to the SNP’s argument is it? In fact, what it does do is deliver everything that the SNP are asking for just now but without taking a single step to leaving the UK. Why are the Scottish Liberal Demorats not taking this stance? As the report of the commission clearly states:
“The objective is to grow the Scottish economy in a way which is increasingly sustainable, raising more revenue ourselves in a higher wage, lower unemployment, high knowledge, modern, liberal economy and society, where we are able to utilise our whole potential workforce and to eliminate the current challenge of the excess number of people who are not in education, employment or training”
The Scottish Liberal Democrats should embrace this statement and offer support for full fiscal federalism for Scotland. This presents a positive ambition for Scotland but also a positive ambition for a United Kingdom.