In 1987, during the merger talks between the Liberal Party and the SDP, David Steel said I was a “North of England Nationalist”. We were of course discussing how to fit the demands of Liberal and SDP negotiators from Scotland and Wales – for Scottish and Welsh autonomy within a federal constitution – with the conundrum of the much larger England.
I remembered this while watching Willie Rennie call for the No campaign to get some “sunshine” into its strategy. I never understood why the proposal for a ‘Devolution Max’ question on the ballot paper was so strongly opposed by all the Westminster lot – including Liberal Democrats – since it would have provided something positive to campaign for. I still do not understand why the Scottish Liberal Democrats are not running a much clearer and separate campaign for a federal solution which, as I understand it, would mean going just one step further than dev-max.
But who am I to comment? My involvement in Scottish politics has been minimal. A couple of branch visits when I chaired the Young Liberals. A week or so at the Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles by-election in 1965 (that man Steel again), when I ended up running the polling day organisation in Hawick. A couple of days at Kincardine and Deeside, where those of us with English accents were sent to canvass Labour voters on the housing schemes on the edge of Aberdeen (some were thinking of voting SNP, so I entertained them with Liberal theories of sovereignty, and autonomy within a federal system. It didn’t seem to do any harm, though they were more interested in getting their bins emptied).
And a couple of days at the Dunfermline by-election (that Rennie lad again). Apart from that, I’ve been to Liberal Assemblies at Edinburgh and Dundee, and Liberal Democrat conferences in Glasgow, and I did various training sessions in Scotland back in the ALC days. My wife is half Scottish and we’ve spent many holidays in the Highlands and Islands, most recently in the wonderful remoteness of Uig on the Isle of Lewis. And I’m a fervent fan of the Highland rock band Runrig!
All this is not to prove my deep personal experience of Scottish politics, but the reverse. By and large, English natives either think Scotland is part of England (my mother once came back from a Mediterranean cruise to report they had met “a really nice English couple from Edinburgh”) or recognise that, while it is not exactly foreign, it is, in undefined and mysterious ways, a bit different.
The Scottish referendum campaigns, with six months still to go, are already building an astonishing crescendo. For what it’s worth, I have felt for some time that there will be a No majority but small enough for the issue not to be killed off, and another referendum within five or six years. But it could go the other way and if UKIP ‘win’ England in the European elections in May it might tip the balance.
So I ask myself what I would do if I had a vote. I am getting requests to phone voters in Scotland, even at this early stage, but what would I say to them? I’m afraid that following a script laid down by HQ is not my style – I don’t believe that Liberal politicians should be automatons! I am not going to say things I think are nonsense, and much of the No campaign as we hear it south of the Border seems to me to be nonsense, and counter-productive nonsense.
The more I listen to the Better Together campaign, the less I like it. I was appalled by the threats by the Westminster parties, including ourselves in the person of Danny Alexander, over the pound. The view that a currency union would be out of the question, full stop, not to be discussed; and that it could not be negotiated in any circumstances; is or is not sensible policy. But as a blunt statement at this stage, it was stupid politics and anyone with an ounce of common sense could see that.
It is a perfectly reasonable argument and probably correct that the best currency arrangement for both Scotland and residual UK (rUK) is the status quo: a single currency, the pound, within a substantially unitary state. (I say “substantially unitary” because more powers are likely to slip away to Scotland whatever happens in September, and some federal or quasi-federal elements – entrenched checks and balances – are not out of the question). If it is true that the status quo is better than any of the four options put forward in the Scottish government’s white paper, that is certainly a good argument for voting No.
But to present it as a patronising threat is stupid. It’s common sense that, if there is a Yes vote, all these things will be on the table. The question for the Westminster negotiators will then not be “Can we frighten the Scots into voting No?” It will be “What is now best – or least worst – for rUK?” It is at least possible that, if the status quo is no longer on the table, a currency union is the least worst option. Or at least that it should be considered and negotiated to see whether that is the case.
I cannot see that the Noes are helped at all by posh rich English Tories such as Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne lecturing the people of Scotland on these matters. And Danny Alexander may represent a Highland constituency but I guess that, for many Scots, he is just another government minister in that remote south-eastern corner of Britain that nevertheless acts as though it has an eternal right to rule the roost over the rest of us. And if here in the North of England Pennines we sometimes feel like that about “that London” and its arrogant metropolitan ruling elite, how much more must it resonate in Glasgow and Aberdeen, not to mention on the Isle of Lewis.
So why might we have got it so wrong? When I talk to Liberal friends in Scotland, I hear a lot about Mr Salmond and Ms Sturgeon and the SNP. I hear them denouncing “the nationalists”. And often with a fervour that seems to me to go beyond reason. As I write this, Alistair Carmichael has just made his call to arms and his warning that “the nationalists” have more hunger as well as more money. Yet it is becoming clear that the Yes vote already includes many people who are not committed SNP voters, and many who consider their usual ideological attachments to be elsewhere on the ordinary spectrum.
From outside the hothouse of Scottish politics, it’s easy to forget that Scotland really is different. There is a political culture, a regional (or to Scots national) forum of politics, politicians and debate, with its associated media and the Scottish parliament and government at the heart of it, that does not exist anywhere in England except to an extent in London, where it is much more intertwined with national (i.e. Westminster/English) politics. It seems to me that this Scottish insularity has led to an obsession with Salmond and the SNP. Salmond may be a an unprincipled opportunist who would dip his granny if it served his advancement, and the SNP may indeed be full of English-hating Celtic racists and local political thugs urged on by the likes of Ms Sturgeon. I am not close enough to know.
But looking from outside, these views seem to me to be exaggerated, rather like the caricatures I might sometimes express about the Labour Party! Perhaps it is necessary to develop such myths when faced with an efficient political force led by a person of undoubted political competence and charisma. When it throws Liberals into bed with and under the leadership of our natural political enemies in the Labour Party and the Conservative and Unionist Party (its official name since 1912, when it absorbed the Liberal Unionists).
I am astonished that the Scottish Liberal Democrats are now content to be labelled as Unionists. Back to anecdotes at David Steel’s by-election (and there are many) – the Tories had strung a huge banner across the main street in Galashiels. A certain Liberal agent had a small car (a Morris Traveller?) on which he placed a step-ladder, which he climbed with a big pair of shears. The car was pushed slowly under the banner and the shears did the trick. The point of the story is that the banner simply said “Vote Unionist”.
Perhaps some conscious uncoupling is needed to create some of Willie Rennie’s campaign sunshine and the promotion of a distinctive Liberal Democrat version of dev-max. Secretary of State for Scotland Alistair Carmichael is probably one of the few members of the present government who has credibility in Scotland as an independent-minded Scot, and I think he is right to start to bang on about the positive side of the union, though promoting the coalition’s policies will not be easy in areas such as the welfare cuts, undermining of employment rights and public service cuts in general, when the view from north of the Trent/Watford Gap, never mind Hadrian’s Wall, is more of a gang of upper-class Tory right-wingers using austerity to line the pockets of the London-based elite.
To be fair, Ming Campbell and Michael Moore have been leading a call for more powers for Scotland and a federal relationship with rUK, though this is not easy when the party’s policy on devolution or federalism in England is in such a mess. Moore’s call for “True federalism [which] will allow for a system of government that accommodates for the expression of different identities within one system, but combines with it the additional influence and strength which comes from co-operation and common purpose” is spot on, but as a party we don’t know how to achieve it, which is a bit awkward at this stage of the debate.
So what do I conclude? First, that the referendum will be decided by Scots (i.e. residents of Scotland) in Scotland. And that the rest of opinionated UK should let them get on with it. Second, with six months still to go, what else is there to say and who else to say it? In which context generating scare stories from London will have less and less effect unless that is counter-productivity. And third, that Willie Rennie’s strategic sunshine is unlikely to beam out from the Better Together lot since it depends on having a vision of the future which they can’t produce because they don’t agree about it.
It’s time for our friends north of the Border to crystallise their Liberal Democrat vision for Scotland, disengage from all-party establishment mush, and join the likes of Michael Moore on a distinctive Liberal campaign trail. Or we might all be saying bye-bye.
(This article appears in Liberator 365, now out)