The Case For Scottish Independence: Devolution has failed – time to try something else

By Graeme Cowie 

I am a Liberal Democrat. I am not a nationalist. I identify as Glaswegian, Scottish, British and European. I support Scottish independence.

Until that last sentence, most within the Lib Dems, especially the Scottish Lib Dems, wouldn’t have batted an eyelid. Yet my experience is that final sentence leaves a great many people, especially Lib Dems, perplexed. At times I wonder whether some of my Scottish Lib Dem colleagues would rather drink a cup of cold sick than embrace the idea of Scottish independence.

Some of the negativity comes from an awkward relationship with the SNP, which isn’t wholly unfounded. But that in itself is part of the problem. The psyche of Lib Dems (though not just us) has been to equate independence with the SNP. The Greens in Scotland tried to show that’s not true, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

I have concerns about certain aspects of the SNP vision for independence. I don’t support the retention of the monarchy. I don’t think they have been honest about our legal status with the EU. I don’t think they’ve been honest about the implications of a Sterling zone (and for various reasons I think Scotland should have its own currency). I find some of their agenda to be profoundly centralising and bureaucratic.

But independence is NOT about the SNP. Nor is it about isolation, separation or anti-Englishness as some might suggest. It’s about something liberals and democrats the world over hold so dear. It’s about a better dispersal of power that reflects local needs and interests.

It would be unfair not to acknowledge the longstanding Liberal commitment to Home Rule and a federal UK. That’s a legitimate answer to the question of democratic deficit, and the way to get the “best of both worlds” as it is often put. We are told that if Scotland votes “No” in 2014 we’ll be offered more devolution. I wait with baited breath. But even if we do, in many respects, devolution has been part of the problem. Devolution isn’t federalism. It’s asymmetrical, it’s a constant constitutional compromise, and it creates an illusion of power without real responsibility at the Holyrood level. Federalism can only work if all the federal states are willing to play ball. No one’s arguing for an English Parliament. No one’s arguing for English assemblies along the same lines as the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly or the Northern Ireland Assembly.

We’ve got a Westminster-centric governing structure that is institutionally averse to a federal dynamic. Our constitution is reactionary, rather than pro-active. The result is a permanent fudge where we’re not really sure what powers should lie where, and every extension of power to Holyrood is playing catch-up to the demands of the Scottish people rather than letting them shape their own future. The latest Scotland Act represented modest new powers, barely even living up to the Calman Commission’s own recommendations. After the shambles of the 2007 elections in Scotland, it was recommended by Calman that the Scottish Parliament should take control of elections in Scotland. The Scotland Act came and went and no such power was forthcoming.

Senior Scottish Lib Dems trumpet the extension of tax and borrowing powers in the new Scotland Act. But the truth is they’re modest extensions of powers that aren’t much use in isolation. Being able to vary your rate of income tax without having control over your corporation tax or your capital gains tax rates isn’t really that helpful. And the way the Barnet block-grant formula works creates a perverse incentive. If a lower Scottish tax rate leads to more growth in Scotland and HMRC taking in more taxes, it’s not Scotland that gets those extra taxes. In fact, our revenue gets cut while the total UK revenue rises.

So the reality is that devolution is a damp squib. It serves the needs of yesterday’s Scotland, offering perpetual compromise and scarce little by way of a long-term remedy. I no longer believe that the UK is capable of delivering a radical local agenda. The chance of a fresh start, an opportunity to redefine the state, to make Scotland responsible for its own affairs, is simply too attractive for me to say no to. And with senior Scottish Liberal Democrats like Willie Rennie and Michael Moore steadfastly against a second question on the ballot paper for more devolution, I am left wondering how committed the so-called federalist party really is to Home Rule.

When given the choice between the status quo and an imperfect alternative in independence on a ballot paper, it would be negligent of me to endorse the former. Because let’s not be under any illusion here. A no vote will be taken as a vindication of the status quo by those who are every bit as nationalist as Scottish nationalists, with their fealty being to a different nation. Independence doesn’t mean Scotland is going to cut itself off from the rest of the UK; we clearly have and will continue to have a lot in common. In the round, however, it’s better to lose a surly housemate and gain a good neighbour.

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16 thoughts on “The Case For Scottish Independence: Devolution has failed – time to try something else

  1. Maist o them look like theyve jist drunk a cup o cauld sick, richt enough

  2. Andrew Page says:

    Excellent Graeme. An argument our party needs to both hear and respond to. Unusually I agreed with every word – as you point out devolution serves yesterday’s needs and was by its very design a compromise. It’s time for something better. It’s time for independence.

  3. Colin Dunn says:

    As a longtime LibDem voter, and one who decided to vote SNP in 2011 (partly due to the dreadful abandoning of proportional representation in the UK as a key policy in the face of Conservative pressure), I agree with this article. Who knows, once Scotland is independent its fairer voting system may even mean I could consider voting LibDem again.

    ** by the way, it’s ‘bated breath’ not ‘baitedbreath’.

  4. Murron says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with Colin Dunn as a once Lib Dem voter, I cannot and will not support the Lib Dems in their current position. Its important to remember this is not a vote for SNP this is a vote for an Independent Scotland, I hope we get a Yes and if we do build political parties that will do whats right for us and that may not be the “SNP Vision” but I will support them while they are pushing this campaign forward with the Greens, SSP etc

  5. Cllr David Turner says:

    why dont you set up a site Lib Dems for Independence

  6. [...] completely changed my mind later that weekend and after reading Graeme Cowies’s criticism of Willie Rennie’s stance against The Second Question today, I thought I had better explain [...]

  7. John Browning says:

    well, graeme.

    i’m glad to see that there are lib dems out there whose heads aren’t buried up tory arses.

    and, despite being a habitual SNP voter, i concur that there are some aspects of SNP proposed post independence policies that i don’t think make sense ( although my list differs from yours. mine includes the proposal of a joint military force with the rUK, the proposed consideration of basing rights for the USA, things like that. i do concur tha the monarchy should do. i also have an issue with the SNP not having taken an explicitly secular stance, and having instead proposed to maintain the status qup ante with regards to the CoS being validated as scotlands ‘official religion’.).

    perhaps something which should be considered, by yourself, and others finding themselves in disagreement with their parties views regarding scots independence, would be attempting to find out whether there are enough of you with sufficient common ground that banding together to form new political parties for a post independence scotland would be feasible?

    it’d be interesting to see what could be acheived if scotland were able to break with the paradigm of a fairly monolithic ‘only two parties have a real chance, and even then it’s basically turn about’ voting system.

  8. Erchie says:

    As a former Liberal supporter I think you are being unkind to the SNP on a couple of points, the EU thing looks straight up from the EU perspective, Scotland would be in. The SNP have had papers on use of Sterling for a few years.

    But your overriding point is true. If Independence is achieved then Scotland becomes what we want it to be, which may not be what any current party envisages

  9. Andy fae Arbroath says:

    I am not a nationalist but believe in independence and have voted LD in the past. I will consider voting LibDem again ONLY if they support independence for Scotland and cease the use of teh word “SEPARATIST”

  10. [...] being a little bit biased but Liberal Youth’s blog, The Libertine, recently published posts for and against which are worth reading if you’ve yet to make up your [...]

  11. Pete Connor says:

    It’s time for Scotland to join the world community as a full sovereign member!

  12. MrsW says:

    I’ll not vote in your poll as I’ve only ever voted LibDem once and I am far from young ;) privately I know tory and labour voters who are pro independence – its only a matter of time before word spreads that this referendum is too important to be bogged down by partisan politics – keep spreading the word.

  13. Andrew Abel says:

    Politically, I have fairly centrist views. Despite being an (inactive) SNP member and voter, I don’t agree with some of their policies (I don’t like the way they are merging the police, I don’t agree with their stance on things like the alcohol bill), and in fact have a lot of sympathy for Lib Dem views. I could never bring myself to vote for them again though, because of their view on independence and federalism. The party up here purely seems set up to oppose the SNP by any means possible, and policy has long fallen by the wayside. I vote SNP almost entirely because I support independence, and they’re the party that has delivered further devolution so far, and want to push on.

    This is a well thought out blog post, with sensible points. Firstly, I wouldn’t worry too much about the SNP “vision”. Their “vision” is independence, by any route possible, no matter how gradual. Right now, they’re trying to be all things to all people and desperately trying not to frighten the horses. Independence is about having the ability and power to choose to be the same rather than being different for the sake of being different. If the SNP come out and say something radical, they will be slaughtered for it. More so. So for example, if the people of Scotland don’t want a monarchy, then in an independent Scotland they will be able to make the decision in future to become a republic, an option not currently open to us. Its about choice, not about being different.

    Well done on cutting through some of the obfuscation that the senior Lib Dems like to throw out there though. The Scotland Act isn’t worth a damn except a baby step, and it wasn’t passed because of people who believed in it, it was passed as a means to try and stop the SNP. Nothing more.

  14. Nick Heller says:

    Good article Graeme. The drift of the Lib-Dems into a sort of warm up act for the ‘proper’ unionists is sad and sorry beyond belief. Independence offers the people of Scotland their only hope of achieving anything like liberalism now.

  15. [...] Perhaps it is easier to have imaginary and silent followers, while Scots Liberal Democrats are considering the benefits of Independence over the status quo. Andrew Page, a former candidate & Graeme Cowie, of the University of Glasgow, make excellent cases for Independence ‘here’ and ‘here’. [...]

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