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?