Independence Referendum announced – what Lib Dems should do next

This week Alex Salmond signalled his intention to give Scots the chance to vote on independence in Autumn 2014. This shouldn’t surprise anyone. What it means in practice is that we will have to wait almost three years which is positive in the sense that it allows more than sufficient time for a reasonable debate, but is an unusually long time in which to plan and fight a campaign.

I’m quite enthusiastic about taking the arguments to Scottish voters but even I have to admit that after 3 years I might feel a bit of campaign fatigue. No doubt the average Scottish voter, possessing less in the way of political motivation, will tire even more quickly – especially if the campaigning amounts to little more than three years of intolerant namecalling, scaremongering and shallow debate.

Of course, while it will take some time for the campaigning groups to establish themselves, there can be little doubt on both sides that the campaign itself starts now. Already, Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie and former leader Tavish Scott have fired opening salvos: Rennie promised to “fight to protect Scotland’s future as part of the UK family” while Scott used twitter to predict “two and a half years of fighting over Scotland’s future”.

None of this is helpful. Fighting talk like this simply plays into the SNP’s hands. We don’t need a fight, but reasonable argument and to be a party that can both inspire and empower Scottish voters to make their voice heard. With this in mind, I’ve drawn up a list of what I’d like to see the Lib Dems do in coming months – while this is understandably an issue that arouses strong emotions, we must realise that responding to the SNP bait is counter-productive and often damaging.

The first thing I want to see is the Scottish Liberal Democrats getting a bit excited about this referendum campaign, and to be obviously so. After all, we’ve been asking for it (at least since the SNP’s Holyrood majority made it an inevitability). So we should embrace the opportunity to communicate our own vision for Scotland’s future – a liberal vision that gives increased freedom to the Scottish parliament and Scottish people.

The second thing I want is for the party not to forget its federalist principles. We are, constitutionally at least, a federal party. Admittedly we’ve not done a lot in recent years to further a federalist agenda or to achieve further devolution (and we had our chances when in government with Labour, not least with the Steel Commission which should form the basis of current Lib Dem thinking) but here’s a great opportunity to rectify that. We should ensure that we use every occasion possible to reiterate our distinctiveness from the Tories and Labour, neither of which have much of a vision for extending Holyrood’s powers. Instead of repeatedly the same tired, predictable arguments about why independence would be so bad for Scotland we should be trying to sell a positive, liberal, forward-looking vision for tomorrow’s Scotland – the kind that Scots might actually want to live in.

Which brings me to the third point – we need to be positive. Obvious one, isn’t it? Voters are not turned on by negative diatribe and relentless personal attacks. The same goes for our attitudes towards Scotland. We need to avoid pursuing the tactics of fear or focusing our energies on everything that we perceive as “bad” about independence.

Fourthly, we should be careful not to align ourselves too closely with what is politically toxic. I know that several commenters will now wish to draw my attention to the make-up of the Westminster coalition. Yes, I know. And if that experience has told us anything it’s that there are electoral implications for such alliances. We should also learn from the experience of the “No” campaign in 1997 – it was always likely to find the going tough, but being led by figures such as Michael Forsyth made it toxic in the eyes of most voters – including some Tory ones. If the Lib Dems are to ally themselves with the “No” campaign, which would be fraught with dangers in itself, then they must be aware that being identified with senior figureheads from the Conservative Party and elsewhere could have significant electoral consequences, whatever the outcome of the referendum.

Fifthly, let’s cut out the fighting talk. The kind of intervention from Willie Rennie and Tavish Scott was unhelpful. We don’t need a fight, but a liberal party championing good liberal principles. And the status quo isn’t a particularly liberal arrangement. Admittedly, if the referendum is only a single Yes/No question, then this will pose certain problems for us – we’re likely to be tempted towards encouraging people to vote for one of what Nick Clegg has already termed “extremes”. We can view this referendum as about defending the Union (as Rennie appears to) or how best to take Scotland forward. But however we see it, we’re going to achieve very little if we allow ourselves to be drawn into a “fight” with the SNP. We need to avoid all confrontational approaches if possible; not only do they not work given the SNP’s almost expert adversarial performances, they are a poor weapon and usually only serve to make us look petty and tribal. On the other hand, when we are sensible, dignified, sober and calm in dealing with our political opponents, the SNP can be made to appear shallow and more than a little condescending. No doubt the SNP will seek to draw us into the bear pit knowing that if they can they’ll invariably win, but the temptation must be resisted. This includes set pieces with Salmond in FMQs, in which we generally tend not to fare so well.

We have to remember that this referendum is about many things, but not the SNP. It has huge implications for the future of that party that Alex Salmond is only too aware of but ultimately it is about independence – and it is our role to be asking vital questions about the nature of an independent Scotland. And so my sixth recommendation is to choose our battles very carefully and, where possible, avoid addressing nationalism – instead concentrating our energies on the detail of what is being proposed, providing evidence-based concern to what will become a more complex political discussion. Ultimately the Lib Dems will be judged by their role in the referendum campaign, but also in how well they deal with more pertinent and pressing issues – not least on the economy and employment opportunities.

Seventhly, we must recognise that our principal challenge isn’t with the SNP. It’s with ourselves. We have to use this opportunity to recreate a distinct identity for Scottish Liberal Democracy. The SNP will have their own problems to deal with as the referendum date approaches: if it succeeds in achieving independence it will cease to be necessary; if it fails, the cause of independence will have been set back, perhaps irrevocably. Certainly if it is the former, this will present potential opportunity for the Liberal Democrats. However, in the immediate future our energies should be directed towards the kind of liberal renaissance the party so desperately needs and in ensuring that the Lib Dems can re-emerge from the referendum as a credible force in Scottish politics. This won’t be easy but it is far more necessary for the party to take steps towards revitalising itself than it is to provide opposition to independence (there are already two other parties doing that which, in fairness, don’t really need our help).

Finally, we need to put the interests of Scottish people first. In everything we do, we must never forget that we are a federal party, a liberal party, whose purpose is to serve those we represent while building the “free, fair and open society” we so passionately believe in. Basically, we need to be true to ourselves – not slavishly following the “leadership” of questionably useful allies in a “No” campaign but by finding our liberal voice once again and expressing the kind of proposals for Scotland’s future that I’m sure would resonate with Scottish people if only we could effectively articulate it.

I am a convinced liberal and I long for the Scottish Liberal Democrats to regain their political relevance and influence. I’m personally convinced that the best option for the Liberal Democrats in Scotland (at least if the referendum on offer does not include a “Devo Max” option) is not to formally join any of the two camps but rather champion a federal vision and ensure that instead of becoming constricted around personalities or parties the debate centres on how best to provide increased freedoms for Scottish people. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t involve ourselves in the campaign, but that such involvement should be on the basis of asking the necessarily tough and technical questions rather than allying ourselves with what Nick Clegg dismisses as “extremist” philosophies.

There will be opportunities arising in the next few years for a party that is not openly hostile to independence. Any form of alliance with the Conservative and Labour parties, especially one that exists purely to oppose an idea that is arguably more liberal than the status quo, to me seems frankly unpalatable. The Scottish Liberal Democrats could do worse than maintain a position of detachment, using the referendum campaign as a means of promoting their own federalist solutions while refusing to identify themselves with either “tribe”.

Will that happen? No, I fully expect that the party will fall in behind the Labour and Tory parties in arguing against independence, thereby tacitly supporting another arrangement we are ostensibly opposed to. But it doesn’t have to be like that. The “No” campaign doesn’t need us; likewise, we certainly don’t need it.

What Scotland, and the UK, has needed for many years is a Liberal Democrat party willing to advocate a real federal alternative to the status quo. If the party can’t seize the opportunity this time, why should Scottish voters be blamed for not believing we have the appetite to deliver?


This piece featured on my blog, A Scottish Liberal, on Tuesday 10th January.

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