01 November 2009

Has the meaning of 'Democrat' changed?

Well, yesterday was, as we know, the super-secret meeting of LibDem High Command. Well, I'm over-dramatising there - it was the Scottish LibDem Conference and like all conferences, the shindig was members-only. So that in and of itself wasn't a big thing. But one of the matters being discussed was the independence referendum. This is what Stephen had to say beforehand:

If we had taken courage in our convictions that Scotland is better with a stronger parliament but within the UK we should have made sure that was asked of the people, either before 2007 or by getting involved with the SNP working on what we agree with and forming the words of their referendum White Paper so that it was not rigged. Giving the people the right to determine their own future is what we stand for.

In my opinion, and sadly many who may vote for us, what 2007 was a betrayal of was our party's constitution and the name Democrat that exists in our title. Calling those of this view a minority of rebels may prove dangerous, it often is a sign that the leadership is actually quite scared that they are losing the argument.

He also quoted the Scottish LibDem Constitution:

We [the Scottish Liberal Democrats] believe that sovereignty rests with the people and that authority in a democracy derives from them. We therefore acknowledge their right to determine the form of government best suited to their needs.

You'll notice - as he himself admits - that this principle jars somewhat with the LibDems' refusal to support a referendum. But, with the party's MEP, a key Parliamentary Candidate and a number of activists and even some MSPs making the call for the party to revise its approach, there was hope that the majority of LibDem supporters who want a referendum might just get their way.

But this is what Stephen had to say this morning:

Actually what came out of yesterday was that that the party was opposed to this particular referendum.

Ah! So self-determination and democracy only carry the day when you approve of the question that's being asked - marvellous!

But this is the problem. Here's the question that the SNP wants to ask:

I agree that the Scottish Government should negotiate a settlement with the Government of the United Kingdom so that Scotland becomes an independent state.

Stephen is under the impression that such a question is less than clear. Now the wording is long-winded - that's to prevent the Bill from falling foul of the Scotland Act, I believe - but take another look at the end of it: so that Scotland becomes an independent state. Seems pretty clear to me. It's in the indicative mood, FFS! The full question highlights process - negotiation - and result - an independent Scotland. To suggest that people might not understand what the conclusion of any negotiations would be following a hypothetical 'Yes' vote is akin to accusing the Scottish electorate of being illiterate. Read the question. The meaning is obvious when you do.

But, let's face it, the specific question isn't the issue. No question would be satisfactory, with the possible exception of: Do you honestly think that it would be better for Scotland if it were ripped kicking and screaming away from the rest of the UK, with a Berlin-esque wall erected between the Solway and Firth, TV signals from England blocked, your job and money sent South, and everyone forced to behave like they're on a shortbread tin?

The honest truth is that the LibDem Leadership's primary objection to the question is that people might answer 'Yes' to it.

And again, there's usually something said about the 'timing'. 2010, apparently is the wrong time to have this discussion. But let anyone who thinks that this issue will be re-visited after the next Holyrood election be under absolutely no illusion whatever: 2011 will be the wrong time. 2012 will be the 'wrong time'. So will 2013, 2014 and 2015. Whenever a referendum is proposed, it will be the wrong time for the Leadership.

So let's be realistic: when the LibDems say they don't have an objection to a referendum, the truth is that they will have an objection to any referendum proposed by the SNP. And there'll be no negotiation on the matter: rather from the get-go, Alex Salmond has been sufficiently careful to allow himself wiggle room so that he can negotiate a conclusion. Neither the wording nor the timing need be set in stone and the suggestion has always been made that a third option of extra powers for Holyrood (where the LibDems sit in terms of constitutional policy) could be offered. But no. There's never been any hope of negotiation. It's not 'this' referendum that's the problem at all. Any referendum on the subject will be 'this' referendum.

It was like that in the aftermath of the election. The LibDems wanted the SNP to ditch their key election pledge as a pre-requisite for negotiations - and there was me thinking that you had the negotiations specifically to discuss what policies did and didn't go forward! - then blamed the SNP for the talks not going ahead for not meeting an outrageous, impossible demand.

Then there was the Budget, when the LibDems refused to have any sort of talks about the Budget unless it included a 2% cut in Income Tax. Again, trying to get what they want before negotiations begin, and flouncing out when they couldn't say what budgets they'd cut to pay for it. Then when the Budget fell, they blamed the SNP for not negotiating after they made an impossible demand and refused to budge from that position.

It was the same on LIT, where instead of discussing the situation with the Government, they could have secured the variability they wanted. But instead, they just kept carping from the sidelines then blaming the Government when it was obvious that a Bill just couldn't progress.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: the LibDems remind me of that snotty-nosed little brat you knew at Primary School (there's one at every school), who'd grab your arm and move is so that it hit another part of you, all the time whining, "Why are you hitting yourself?", until eventually (in most cases) they did it to the wrong kid and ended up dangling from the school railings by their underpants.

But let's look at a wider point - all of the references to the Bill go along the lines of Alex Salmond's Referendum Bill. Note how it's personalised. But in every reference the LibDems make to the FM or the Governemtn, there's an element of contempt which I just don't get when on so many issues the two parties sing from the same hymn sheet.

They want fairer local taxation. So do the SNP. They hated the idea of tuition fees. So do the SNP. They want a fairer voting system - and the timing is perfect to discuss that element of the constitution, apparently - and so do the SNP. They want the troops to come home from Iraq and Afghanistan. So do the SNP. They want a fairer pension. So do the SNP. They're horrified at the erosion of civil liberties under Labour. So are the SNP. They wanted bridge tolls abolished. So did the SNP. They want a nuclear-free Scotland. So do the SNP.

And yet, for all that, this row over the constitution - which is supposed to be a needless distraction according to the LibDems - is blown up into such a gulf that the Liberal Democrats despise the SNP with a passion bordering on instability to the extent that they'd prefer to work with Labour.

So for all of their so-called principles, they'd rather work with the party of the unfair Council Tax, of tuition fees, of a rigged voting system, of bridge tolls, of PFI, of ID cards and detention without trial, of nuclear power stations and Trident, of Afghanistan and Iraq.

And what did they get? STV in Council Elections (I can just hear householders all over Scotland saying "I'm skinning myself for Council Tax again but at least my vote for my local Councillors actually counts!"); tolls abolished on just the Skye Bridge - it was a legal loophole that saw them abolished on the Erskine Brige - but no movement on the East Coast bridges until the SNP came to power; and a fudge on tuition fees, which saw the payment due date move back and for a lot of people, could have actually seen them pay more than they would have done upfront (for example, my upfront tuition fee bill came to £250 in First Year, £100 in Second Year, and nothing thereafter). Again, it took an SNP Government to abolish them. And when the LibDems had a chance to demand LIT, they didn't bother, yet now they blame the SNP for not implementing it when it couldn't get majority support in the Chamber, and claim they're the only people who genuinely want LIT despite not lifting a finger for it in 1999 or 2003.

There's a pattern emerging: for illiberal, undemocratic Labour, the Liberal Democrats will drop their keks, but they'll nail them to the mast when dealing with the SNP, to the extent that they'll try and find a way of worming out of a policy that even their supporters are calling for. And yet their supporters will swallow it.

So the Liberal Democrats will continue that "betrayal of the party's constitution and the name Democrat" as long as living up to it would mean working constructively with the SNP - no matter how many key figures within the Party they have to slap down.

But I suppose we should be grateful that there have been no expulsions over the matter: Neil Craig knows what happens when you say things the party establishment doesn't find comfortable. So do Martin Ford and Debra Storr.

Booting out people who disagree with the established view, and denying the Scottish people a say on their own future - some Democrats!

I'm sure we could have them under the Trades Descriptions Act...


Anonymous said...

Ah but then Storr and Ford weren't booted out, they resigned because they didn't agree with the majority. Absolutely the right thing to do if you have strong feelings about an issue.

Anonymous said...

The truth is that Tavish's leadership, like Gray's, has been a complete disaster for the Lib Dems.

He has presided over dwindling votes, zero influence on policy and has now once again painted himself into a corner where he's competing for staunch tory votes.

The whispers that surround Gray are now enveloping Tavish, I don't expect to see either after 2010.

Cruachan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cruachan said...

"But in every reference the LibDems make to the FM or the Governemtn, there's an element of contempt which I just don't get when on so many issues the two parties sing from the same hymn sheet".

Sad but true, it is the very consensus on the key policy issues you raise that makes the Lib Dems more desperate to distance themselves from the Scottish Government on the matter of a Referendum. "Product differentiation" is as vital in politics as it is in retail.

Strangely,(and self-destructively) in their attempt to distinguish themselves from the SNP, the Lib Dems have engineered a situation where they have lost the opportunity to have a distinctive voice.

It would not suprise me if we see a fair few defections in membership from the Lib Dems to the SNP in the coming months

Stephen Glenn said...

Actually Will as I pointed out the question leaves the right of the people to decide what form of government is best suited to their needs not in their hands but in the hands of politicians. The question is question is actually waiving the right of the people for self-determination, there is no proviso to return with whatever is negotiated to the people.

To talk about democracy and TBH our voters did vote for our MSPs on the platform that they wouldn't agree to a referendum in this parliament. That was put to a vote, to include, which I was on the minority of at party level. But it was time limeted even then.

Fact is the SNP have yet to reveal just what an Independent Scotland will actually mean in essence. There is no framework that they have yet laid out to take to the table.

Yes there is the possibility that the question may be answered yes by some who are willing to see what the negotiation leads to but not to vote for independence.

What is wrong with a question.

"I believe there should be an independent Scotland?"

Why is not being asked? That would be a referendum on an independent Scotland there is no confussion on the intent. If that was the question there may well have been a different result yesterday of 2 hours of discussions.

Yes, there was more discussion on this that some of the more complex issues in our own constitution managed.

I could pick holes in many thing you have said not least LIT (put I've done a lot of that already).

Will said...

Stephen, what's provided is a question which details the outcome as well as the process - the clearly stated outcome being independence. The SNP submission to the Scottish Independence Convention detailed a second referendum being held on an independent Scotland's constitution, then a further vote on the Euro. In terms of the rest, that's been a part of the National Conversation - from which your party has excluded itself - and the rest will probably be a part of the upcoming White Paper which the LibDems may as well not bother reading having already decided their approach.

Seeing as the question tells you where negotiation will lead, your assertion that "there is the possibility that the question may be answered yes by some who are willing to see what the negotiation leads to but not to vote for independence" is utterly ludicrous - that would be like voting for a Scottish Parliament in the hope that its first act would be to dissolve itself.

And the question you propose is a better one, but would definitely fall foul of the Scotland Act, being directly on the constitution. The circumlocution turns the question to 'What should Scottish Ministers do?' and is legal. Or, at least, more likely to be legal.

Another key question is this - how can you say that there's no proviso for this or that as justification for your decision, when your party has just decided to vote against a Bill that hasn't even been published?

It's up to you to explain why a position that wasn't acceptable yesterday morning now is acceptable. It's up to you to explain why the principles of democracy and self-determination only kick in when your party fancies the timing and the question. It's up to you to explain why, if the principle is sound but the details need work, your party still won't seek to engage in meaningful, constructive dialogue to settle those details.

JPJ2 said...

It rather looks a if the Lib Dems have scrambled around and found a sticking plaster to cover over their internal differences on the referendum.

I am sure that if it is legally possible the SNP would have made any reasonable changes they could to the question-but the Lib Dems have to try and hold their party together and so, locked away in their private bubble, have come up with their major objection being that the referendum is somehow "rigged".

Well, the Libs have history of blowing themselves virtually out of existence by nobody really understanding what they were for-which is why they ceased to be one of the 2 major UK parties in the 20th century.

I am now very optimistic that only incumbency gives the Lib Dems much hope of saving mainland seats in Scotland at the GE and 2011.

I suppose Scott and Carmichael may be safe in Orkney and Shetland but not many other Lib Dems will be.

Such wipe out in Scotland could not happen to a more deserving and pointless party.

Cruachan said...

"Fact is the SNP have yet to reveal just what an Independent Scotland will actually mean in essence."

Will has set out the challenge for you and your colleagues very well.

All I would add is: what part of Independent State do you not understand, really. "In essence" Scotland would have full equality with every other nation on the face of the planet. Not hard is it.

Anonymous said...

Mate, as an englishman I'd love to see a fully independent Scotland!

Anonymous said...

My dear anonymous (mate),
You don't need to live here to have a say; just get yourself a postal vote. SEEMPLE