Thursday, October 08, 2009

Lib Dems "To Mount Referendum Review"

Well, well, well. What to make of the news that the Scottish Lib Dems are to re-examine their position on an Independence referendum at their Scottish Autumn Conference later this month?

I dare say that the hooting and hollering will begin in earnest from both Labour and the Tories, amidst claims that they and only they can be trusted to stand up for the union. However, we should be clear. This may only be a first step towards the Lib Dems changing their existing policy, but it’s not of itself a decision to support a referendum, and it’s certainly not a declaration of support for independence.

For that reason, the SNP would be well advised to play it cool. However, the questions remain - after mounting such a staunch defence of the policy last month, why consider changing it now? And what does this say about the state of Tavish Scott’s leadership of his party?

I see 3 possibilities:

• Tavish does this to try and shore up his position. Rightly or wrongly, he believes that the membership backs him on this issue, and so asks them to show dissident MSP, MPs and candidates that the pro-referendum argument is ‘over’.
• Tavish does this from a position of weakness, having had it forced on him by unhappy Lieutenants who can see the political damage it is doing.
• Tavish has belatedly realised that telling people they can’t have a referendum is a vote loser, and is seeking to u-turn in a way which can be presented as having been as consensual and as ‘liberal’ as possible.

It’s pretty obvious that the virulently anti-SNP/anti-independence streak which exists at the top of the Lib Dems isn’t at all representative of most of their members, far less their voters. Similarly, the hard line adopted over a referendum by Tavish Scott has discomfited many, who are instinctively in favour of giving people a vote on their constitutional future.

Certainly, in my experience, it goes down like a lead balloon on the doorsteps, since most people want a referendum regardless as to how they’d go on to vote. It’s also no secret, as we learned from their recent UK conference, that senior lib Dem strategists are concerned that the longer a referendum is postponed, the more likely it is that there might be a successful ‘yes’ vote to Independence.

However, Tavish’s difficulties aside, could there be another factor at work? The Calman Commission, with Gordon Brown showing no inclination to implement even the uncontroversial bits and with David Cameron rowing away from even the merest tweaking of the financial powers, is now the deadest of dead ducks. It was always destined to be lowest common denominator stuff and as was long predicted, was always unlikely to leave the Lib Dems with anything even approaching their preferred option of Federalism.

The constitutional debate in Scotland runs on SNP petrol. Without the prospect of Scots voting for independence, arguments for further devolution lose all force where it really matters – in Westminster. For the Lib Dems to back an independence referendum would flush Labour and the Tories out on Calman, and force both parties to come up with something, and sharpish. So, there’s a sound, strategic argument for the Lib Dems to back an independence referendum as a means of achieving further devolution. But then, that was always the case all along.

The Lib Dems are all over the place on tax, all over the place on spending, and now, all over the place on Scotland’s future. While conventional wisdom would suggest that inconsistency is a bad thing, I think that most voters would welcome just such a policy change, and might just be inclined to forgive Tavish Scott for his inconsistencies on this issue. Who knows, it might even represent the first act in throwing away the shovels with which the party started digging so enthusiastically when its MPs opted to bury Charles Kennedy.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

With Respect, Mr Cameron...

Seeing as it's this blog's third birthday today, it's probably time to break the recent haitus...

...and the recent partisan claptrap about SNP participation in a party leaders' debate seems as good a place to begin as any.

Let's cut to the chase. In the UK, there are strict rules about broadcasting impartiality when it comes to politics. These don't often work to the SNP's advantage when it comes to the balance achieved between 'network' and 'regional' coverage during a Westminster election, but the rules exist, and they're there for a reason.

You would think, therefore, that if a party leaders' debate were to be proposed, that any sensible, fair minded person would have little difficulty in agreeing that the debate or debates which resulted ought to respect and reflect these rules. Ha. Mention the necessity to ensure that parties other than Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems be represented, and out sallies a hellish legion of talking heads in parliament and in print, determined to berate others for their impertinence in seeking to disrupt the binary Westminster agenda, in a vain attempt to disguise their own self interest in skewing and narrowing the debate which would result.

The most substantial criticism, if you can call it that, of including Plaid Cymru and the SNP in any debates is that they are are 'regional' parties, that they don't contest seats in all parts of the UK, or that they're not going to form the next UK government. On the first count, you could exclude the Tories, since the SNP has almost as many MPs in England as the Tories manage in Scotland (zero plays one). On the second, you could exclude every party except the Conservatives, and on the third count, you might as well tell Vince Clegg to save his taxi fare to the studio.

Now, lest anyone think I'm ditching my customary reasonableness here, let me say that I can see perfectly well why people in England might not want to see a debate involving Alex Salmond or Ieuan Wyn Jones. I can also see that a debate involving 5 or more people could quickly become unwieldy. However, if there's to be a 'leaders' debate', then over the piece it has to involve the leaders of all the main parties. Let's call it as it is - to exclude those who happen to sit in government in Scotland and Wales, one of whom just happens to be the longest-serving party leader in British politics, would be an act of base gerrymandering, which would discredit the entire process. Grist to the nationalist mill it might be, but frankly, isn't there a better way for everyone?

A separate Scottish debate involving the branch managers of the Scottish parties would be the answer to a question no-one is asking. Given the prevalence of satellite TV and internet video, it's difficult to see how any English-only debate (because let's be honest, that's all a showdown between Brown, Cameron and Clegg would be) could be kept off Scottish screens. Which is why the best way to solve this problem, once fevered brows have been cooled, would be to have separate debates in Scotland and Wales which include Brown, Cameron and Clegg.

I've no desire to keep the titanic triumvirate off English TV screens, but I have a desire to see that fairness prevails in Scotland and Wales. Voters are entitled to see how all the party leaders perform against eachother, as well as getting an idea of how they would approach Scotland and Wales over the next term at Westminster. Separate Scottish and Welsh debates would ensure that this is exactly what happens.

David Cameron has promised, if elected, to govern Scotland 'with respect'. With all due respect to Mr Cameron, I'm afraid I don't really believe him. However, he could make a good start on changing people's minds by agreeing to come to Glasgow to take part in a televised debate with Brown and Clegg against Alex Salmond.

If the UK's politicians and broadcasters can't come up with a solution to this problem which reflects the plurality of the British political system, it really doesn't say much for the prospects of that system surviving much longer. Come on, Dave. Be a man and admit you've called this one wrong. Let's see just how far that sense of fair play of yours extends...