Print Friendly and PDF
only search

Referendum rethink - The Liberal Democrats and the future of Scotland

About the author
Tom Griffin is freelance journalist and researcher. He holds a Ph.D in social and policy sciences from the University of Bath, and is a former Executive Editor of the Irish World.

Tom Griffin (London, OK)The SNP may not yet have the votes to get their planned independence referendum through the Scottish Parliament next year, but the proposal is certainly creating waves among their political rivals.

The Liberal Democrats announced yesterday that MSP Ross Finnie is to review their opposition to a referendum and report back to a special session of the party's Scottish conference on 30 October. 

Scottish Lib Dem leader Tavish Scott has staunchly opposed a vote up till now, but there was notable pressure for a change of stance from some Scottish activists at the UK Lib Dem conference last month. 

Blog reaction to the latest developments has come from SNP Gordon candidate Richard Thomson, who believes the Lib Dems are "all over the place on Scotland's future", and Linlithgow Lib Dem Stephen Glenn, who retorts that a referendum will call the SNP's bluff.

Underneath the partisan sniping, it's possible to detect some scope for a meeting of minds, not least in Thomson's argument that:

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.

When the Calman Commission began its review of Scottish devolution last year, Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems all supported it as an alternative to the SNP's independence agenda. In recent weeks, however, some have detected diminishing enthusiasm for Calman's proposals for further devolution in Conservative and Labour ranks.

Tavish Scott himself said as much to The Times last month:


“Right now Labour in London has only one thing on its mind and that is tax and the Pre-Budget Report (due in November). Calman does not come into its calculations. Meanwhile the Tories have made clear that they do not envisage any constitutional tinkering in its first term of office if they win power.

“I was always concerned that when Calman reported it was not going to be turned into anything tangible very soon.” 


The BBC's Brian Taylor suggests that Lib Dem review is likely to end up endorsing Scott's opposition to a referendum. It might nevertheless provide the occasion to begin a controlled shift, emphasising that the current position is predicated on real moves towards further devolution, and that lack of progress would inevitably mean opening up alternative routes such as a multi-option referendum.

The status quo would mean going into an election year as hostages of a weakened Labour Party and of a Conservative Party which still lacks a political base in Scotland.

Much better, surely, to move to a position that gives the Liberal Democrats real leverage both at Holyrood and at Westminster, revives their distinctive federalist vision, and makes them once again key players at the cutting edge of constitutional reform.

We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the
oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.