Ming: Lib Dem MSPs should oppose independence poll regardless of conference

by Stephen Tall on July 21, 2008

An interesting article in yesterday’s Times, with former national Lib Dem leader Ming Campbell wading into the current Scottish leadership debate, and in particular the controversy over whether Lib Dems should support a referendum on Scottish independence:

Sir Menzies Campbell has warned the next leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats to oppose an independence referendum, even if the party conference votes in favour. …

Two of the three candidates in the race to replace Nicol Stephen as leader of the Scottish Lib Dems have already said they are open-minded about a ballot on breaking up Britain. Mike Rumbles has proposed putting the issue to the party’s Scottish conference next spring — if members backed a vote, then Lib Dem MSPs would help to pass the required legislation in 2010. Ross Finnie said it would be “mad” to rule out a referendum after a proper debate.

However Campbell, who is backing Tavish Scott, the hard-line referendum opponent, said it was down to the party’s 16 MSPs not its 4,000 Scottish members to decide how to vote, despite the conference being the party’s policy-making body.

“We campaigned throughout the Scottish parliament elections on the basis we were against a referendum. It was one of the issues which precluded any question of a deal between Alex Salmond and Nicol Stephen. To go back on that within 13, 14 months might be regarded in some quarters as inconsistent,” the northeast Fife MP said. “The party in parliament has to decide if it’s bound by the decision of the conference. Party policy has obviously got to be given weight, but it’s not a question of slavish adherence to policy, one way or another.”

Campbell, who stepped down as UK leader last October, also counselled MSPs against entering into a coalition with the SNP this parliament, something both Rumbles and Finnie said was possible if there was something in it for Lib Dems.

Two issues to debate this fine Monday morning:

1. Is the current Scottish Lib Dem policy of opposing a referendum on independence the right one? After all, on Europe we’ve been making the case for a simple ‘in or out’ referendum, while making it 100% clear we’d be on the pro-Europe side. Why not in Scotland?

2. Is it ever right for the vote of a party’s conference to be over-ridden by the parliamentary party? Should our elected representatives regard themselves as Lib Dem delegates in the national parliaments and assemblies, there to vote for party policy as decided by members? Or should they be able to ignore the wishes of the party in certain situations?

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I wouldn’t want MSPs or MPs to be completely bound by conference as they do need to have some independence of thought, particularly if it is an issue of conscience which this may well be for some people.

However, if the new leader does want to go against conference then they should at least make it a free vote rather than being whipped.

by Anders on July 21, 2008 at 10:32 am. Reply #

If Ming’s views are shared among the party establishment in Scotland, then in my view it would be a dangerous development for the Scottish party. We are not just a fan club for the MSPs, we’re the ones who turn out and work for them and help them get elected. While the MSPs must of course follow their own consciences, it would be remarkably unwise for them to provoke a feeling of resentment amongst their own activists. We claim to be a democratic party, but that would certainly be called into question if the MSPs were to go against the party’s expressed wishes. They would be seen as being doubly undemocratic – ignoring their own party on an issue where they’re also seen as denying the people of Scotland a vote on their future. That would strike me as something close to political lunacy.
On the issue of a referendum itself, I have said before that I’m not averse to a multi-option one, providing there are detailed proposals put forward for both independence and an enhanced devolution settlement, so people know what they’re voting on. That is not yet the case, so a referendum at this stage would be premature.

by Bernard Salmon on July 21, 2008 at 11:07 am. Reply #

2) Has a simple answer. The Federal Constitution prohibits mandates of elected representatives so Mings question of being “bound” by party policy is irrelevant.

by Hywel Morgan on July 21, 2008 at 11:28 am. Reply #

“counselled MSPs against entering into a coalition with the SNP this parliament, something both Rumbles and Finnie said was possible if there was something in it for Lib Dems.”

Shouldn’t that be ‘if there was something in it for the people of Scotland’?

by Martin Land on July 21, 2008 at 11:35 am. Reply #

You shouldn’t have retrospective legislation. If MSP’s were elected on a manifesto that said one thing I don’t think a party conference can then force them to change that policy mid term. However Conference is soveriegn so its position should be come policy for the next election. Any MSP would then need to be very clear and justify his/her divergence from that policy. Its a difficult one.

The real problem which stephen its o the head is the Federal policy on an EU in/out vote.

1. We are in favour of EU membership and so want a referendum on In/Out. The only reasons i have heard given for this is that the boil needs lancing and any one under 50 couldn’t vote in 1975.

2. We are in favour of UK memebrship for scotland but are opposed to a refferendum because we don’t do referendums on things we don’t believe in.

It just doesn’t add up. From an outsiders point of view (inexperienced but perhaps more detached) salmond is playing a blinder and the derided Alexander got it right. A referendum is inevitable so lets get it out of the way now and on pro union terms. If we keep denying it it’ll be like puting a lid of a pressure cooker. Evenually it’ll blow off.

by David Morton on July 21, 2008 at 12:01 pm. Reply #

The thing is a referemdum decision may not be a strategic one but a tactical one. We can still be against independence and campaign for that but see a referendum as an opportunity to lance that boil early.

I would be tempted personally to go for a referendum on that basis, but to circumscribe it with near impossible conditions, such as that I, born in England of two Scottish parents (and every generation before then too), who would presumably be entitled to naturalization as a Scottish citizen were it enacted, ought to be able to vote. There must be hundreds of thousands of “ex-patriate” Scots, even only living in England never mind abroad, who have a direct interest and therefore ought to be able to vote.

As I say – probably nearly impossible to administer, but necessary if you’re going to unwind the entangled threads of the Union.

by Jock on July 21, 2008 at 12:53 pm. Reply #

There again, I’m not an “Oxfordshire Nationalist”. I abhor the UK parliament anyway. We should get a say on how low-down we want our principal tier of governance…:)

by Jock on July 21, 2008 at 12:55 pm. Reply #

Ming maybe flying a kite for Tavish. Even if not, it’s a certainty that the candidates will be asked “Will you abide by the decision of conference as regards supporting a referendum on independence” in the leadership election.

They can either say yes or no. If no then they will get elected (or not) on a mandate to ignore a conference decision.

That would seem fair enough to me. Whether a candidate has the bottle to say they would ignore a conference vote on such a fundamental issue is something we’ll have to wait and see.

by Hywel Morgan on July 21, 2008 at 3:13 pm. Reply #

Maybe we should take the lead and start a branch for “ex-pat Scots”…:)

by Jock on July 21, 2008 at 3:31 pm. Reply #

Quite agree with you David the way the party ahs in recent ways look at referendae is a misnomer. We campaigned on one as approved by conference (I believe) for Europe, we campaigned against one not discussed at conference for Scotland.

Ming appears to be also presupposing that the membership will actually back a referendum if given the chance to have thier say. It has yet to be proven that they will but the more that the Leadership in Scotland seems to ride rough shod over the views of the membership the more likely it will be that any vote would go in favour of backing the calling of a referendum.

As Jock says the referendum call is not necessarily a sign that Scottish Lib Dems want severance, but merely get out from under the cloud that the current Administration casts over Scottish politics to the adverse coverage of all else.

by Stephen Glenn on July 21, 2008 at 4:23 pm. Reply #

I echo those who have said or implied that we are in a complete muddle on referendums. The annoying thing is that the lack of firm ideological or policy guidance makes us look as if we are muddled on the EU or on Scottish independence or whatever else is this week’s nomination for a plebiscite.

The arguments pro and con referendums in a representative democracy are well rehearsed, with good points on either side, but we – meaning Conference or our parliamentarians – really need to hash out a consistent line and stick with it, and with some urgency.

by Paul Griffiths on July 21, 2008 at 7:41 pm. Reply #

The British constitutional position is clear: we elect MPs (and MSPs) as individuals, and they have the right to do as they please. We then have the right to re-elect them. As party members we also have the right to stop working for them, and they can take that into account in making their decision. But this one is up to MSPs. The Labour party was forced to wake up to the reality of the British constitution in the famous exchange between Attlee and Laski (http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1316/is_n11_v25/ai_14687963) – maybe we will have to do likewise some day.

by tim leunig on July 21, 2008 at 8:35 pm. Reply #

I don’t get our opposition to a referendum. If the Scottish people want independence then they should get it. Why not give them a vote?

by Stuart on July 21, 2008 at 8:48 pm. Reply #

Ming displaying all the tactical and strategic ineptitude that charecterised his leadership of the national party.

As he so rightly points out, the absurd Lib Dem position on a referendum on independence ruled out any prospect of an SNP/Lib Dem government. It also left anyone not impressed by Labour with little option other than voting SNP.

Not surprisingly the election was a SNP Labour contest with the Lib Dems making no progress. The Lib Dems have fallen from 2nd place in Scotland(in 2005) to 4th place (latest poll)

The party is no doubt heading for a drubbing in the Euro-elections, where again the absurd three line whip to abstain on a referendum will be endless dug up by our opponents.

by Mouse on July 21, 2008 at 9:35 pm. Reply #

It doesn’t really matter about whether we believe in independence or not.

We are democrats afterall and this is coming across like we don’t trust the people of scotland to make the right decision

by Eileen on July 21, 2008 at 10:33 pm. Reply #

The Scottish Liberal Democrats painted themselves into a corner over this, and Ming is one of those responsible.
No doubt they hoped that by ruling out a coalition with the SNP over the independence issue, the electorate might decide not to waste their vote with the SNP.
However since the SNP are calling for a referendum, rather than a straight transfer of sovereignty, then you can be opposed to independence and still vote for the SNP knowing that independence will not automatically follow. As a result, much of the electorate, including previous Liberal supporters, backed the SNP.
The Scottish Lib Dems cannot be stuck in their ways. They must recognise that the electorate perceives the SNP as an alternative Liberal party, and we need to go into coalition with them rather than let them take credit for implementing Lib Dem policies.
The referendum is needed now. Now id the best time as it is more likely to be defeated. If we wait unti the Tories winthe next general election, at a time when the Scots vote SNP, need public support for independence will grow even more.

The situation

by Geoffrey Payne on July 21, 2008 at 11:21 pm. Reply #

“The electorate perceives the SNP as an alternative Liberal party.”

Really? I have no idea, but this strikes me as far fetched and perhaps even slightly complacent in its view of our (necessary)importance. The SNP appeared to be a populist, competent anti-establishment force and the Government parties looked weary. That’s a long way from thinking they’re Liberal.

And, frankly, if you think the public reckon they’re liberal, we would do better to prove that they’re not than just join them. They’re the establishment now, and they’re a pretty rotten one at that. While Salmond honeymoons, bad news has been buried left, right and centre – and on some of the policies that matter most.

The SNP didn’t want us in coalition to work with us – they wanted us there to blame us for their deeply dishonest excuse for a manifesto. For an illustration, see the council in Edinburgh.

They wanted their referendum (no surprises); we presumably ‘wanted’ them to drop their £2k cash give-away to first time house buyers (counterproductive and no money for it), to drop the writing off of all student debt (no money!), to drop plans to dual the full length of the A9, the A1, the A96, the A82 (no money) and I could go on. No broken promises from that Government – just things that they had to ‘concede’ to the Lib Dems.

It’s a close contest between the SNP and Labour party for the most illiberal – they sometimes compete literally, which is why you can’t buy a bottle of wine in a Scottish supermarket at 9:30am any more, and – if they have their way – 18 to 21 year olds will be next. I think the SNP edge it for their unapologetic accommodation of homophobes who regard ‘it’s just not natural’ as an original and coherent response to people trying to live their own lives, harming no-one.

by GavinS on July 23, 2008 at 12:07 am. Reply #

The Liberal Democrats claim to be “different” from the “main” parties – more democratic, more decentralised, power more dispersed, more in touch. Yet when push comes to shove it seems the party leadership still has far too much power. It’s outrageous that a Liberal Democrat party leader can dictatorially decide to push a whipped vote on a matter of policy where party Conference has decided to go the other way.

We got this nonsense over the Lisbon Treaty referendum and now we have the same over a Scottish independence referendum. As Graham Watson MEP said: in a democracy THE PEOPLE ARE ALWAYS RIGHT. To paraphrase, in a Democratic party, THE MEMBERS ARE ALWAYS RIGHT.

It’s time our leadership got the message.

by Andrew Turvey on July 23, 2008 at 12:41 am. Reply #

Actually, this may be heretical, but surely Graham Watson is wrong by J S Mill’s formulation? Surely a liberal government is meant to defend us against the tyranny of the majority – ie “the people” are not always right and “need” governments to override them on occasion.

by Jock on July 23, 2008 at 1:33 am. Reply #

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