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.