Sunday, September 20, 2009

Lang and Lyon back Referendum on Independence

I sat down to watch the debate on Devolution from Liberal Democrat Conference in Bournemouth a bit grumpily because I had forgotten the time and missed Alistair Carmichael's opening speech. In virtually any debate, I'd always class Alistair's contribution as the best, even if I disagree with him. He's down to earth, natural and funny and really good at these Conference speeches.

I was pleased to hear Kevin Lang, PPC for Edinburgh North and Leith, being called to speak, just behind Edinburgh West's talented organiser Bev Hope. Kevin, too, can always be relied upon to deliver a passionate, well argued speech. I remember calling him at Scottish Conference to speak on Local Government finance cos I thought he'd bring a new and fresh perspective to the debate and he did.

He certainly didn't disappoint today, outlining how proud he was to be a Scottish Liberal Democrat, to be part of a Party who had helped form and frame devolution, helping to build a Parliament elected by a fairer voting system which had delivered the abolition of tuition fees, free personal care, the smoking ban and the like.

What he said next surprised me, though - he came out and said that he thought that we should have a referendum on independence. Like most Liberal Democrats, including me, he is passionately against devolution and pro a federal UK, but he feels that the last thing the SNP want is for their bill to pass now. He thinks that, like we wanted an in/out referendum on the EU, to take the argument to the likes of UKIP and the Tories, we should have the same debate on Scottish independence.

It was all good, cogent stuff. What I didn't expect was George Lyon MEP to stand up and make virtually the same points, and then adding that "Calman is the antidote to the virus of independence."

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out that this is not the same line that our MSPs have taken with this Bill. I don't know to what, if any, extent Lang's and Lyon's comments are the precursor to a change in that stance.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago that I was quite relaxed about the prospect of a referendum on independence. I think that where George and Kevin differ, is that they want a straight in/out referendum as opposed to a multi option one.

If the Party is to change its line, then I think there are two things it has to take into consideration. First is the promise we made to our voters in 2007 that we would not support a referendum on independence. Once we had taken that position, it would have been wrong to immediately renege on it which is why we very quickly gave up the chance to be in Government.

How could we justify a change in our stance? I think it's possible. First of all, I think our voters are generally opposed to independence, and if we look at the referendum as an opportunity to get rid of the prospect of independence for a generation, then I think that they might see the logic in what we are doing. I also think that a good number of the people who voted for us are actually quite relaxed on the issue and some are actually in favour of a referendum at least.

The other issue, of course, is cost. We've had Nick Clegg talking with refreshing realism about how there will have to be cuts in public spending - savage, he called them -and you have to wonder whether this is a luxury we can ill afford. I don't want to see hospital wards closing, or the vital Forth crossing not being built, or schools not having the equipment they need or people being homeless for longer just to have the referendum. There has to be a way of funding it that doesn't impinge on the delivery of vital frontline public services.

What I would say to Kevin and George, however, is that we must not sleepwalk into a referendum complacently assuming that the option for independence will be defeated. That's certainly the most likely outcome but we can't take it for granted. The pro independence campaign will be slick, sexy and superficial. Gazillions will be spent presenting a lovely feelgood vision of an independent Scotland where there will be no poverty, illness or unhappiness. The alternative campaign will have to be better.

It will not be enough to advance negative, fear inducing arguments. There are so many positive reasons why Scotland has and can continue to flourish as a partner in the union. Of course we need more devolution, but the path to a sustainable and prosperous future lies in being a part of that United Kingdom.

Maybe it's time for the rest of Scotland to take the SNP on at its own game and show them how to have a meaningful national conversation.


Unknown said...

Interesting point about the cost of a referendum. I hadn't thought about that. Maybe we could speak to David P and get a well known supermarket to sponsor it? :-)))

Calum Cashley said...

Opposing a referendum certainly wasn't a manifesto commitment, and I can't remember the peg being struck during the campaign, when was that pledge made?

Sounds like you're going to be surprised by the number of Lib Dem voters that support independence.


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