Times: Tavish Scott expected to see off Lib Dem rebellion on opposition to referendum

by Stephen Tall on October 31, 2009

A week ago, LDV asked the question, Is it time for the Scottish Lib Dems to back an independence referendum?, amid suggestions in The Sunday Times that there was “a growing rebellion within the party’s ranks over its opposition to Alex Salmond’s Referendum Bill.” Today’s Times reports that Scottish Lib Dem leader Tavish Scott will win overwhelming backing for the leadership line:

Senior Lib Dems were increasingly confident that a minority of “referendum rebels” would not succeed in forcing Mr Scott into a U-turn that could pose serious question marks over his continued leadership.

The issue of the Scottish government’s planned referendum will be the subject of a behind-closed-doors discussion at the Lib Dems’ one-day autumn conference today in Dunfermline. Senior figures are warning that any policy change would be tantamount to a betrayal of those who voted for the party in the 2007 Scottish election. The Lib Dems had pledged that they would not enter a coalition with the SNP unless the party dropped its referendum plan.

In the immediate aftermath of the election Mr Scott, then deputy leader, and Nicol Stephen, the then leader, carried that pledge through by refusing coalition talks with the SNP, forcing Alex Salmond’s party to opt for minority government. …

At the Dunfermline conference, however, Mr Scott may offer a compromise to the dissidents who want the party to agree to support a referendum in principle at some time in the future but not next year. More likely, though, is that he will ask Ross Finnie, one of his senior MSP colleagues, to head a party commission to examine all the party policy options on a referendum and report back before the 2011 Holyrood election.

I was intrigued by this contribution to the debate by Alistair Carmichael, though:

These discussions are not abstract or academic. They are a hard political choice for the party. Do we support Alex Salmond’s rigged referendum or do we keep faith with those voters to whom we gave a very clear commitment at the 2007 Scottish elections?”

Two points:

1) Are we really suggesting that Scottish Lib Dem voters would feel “betrayed” by the party opting to back an independence referendum? I don’t think they’d hold it against us.

2) There is a third option Alistair doesn’t mention: for the Lib Dems to back an un-rigged referendum, something which is within the gift of the party, as Alex Salmond needs Lib Dem MSPs’ support to get a bill approved by the Scottish Parliament. Lib Dem demands for a fair referendum, with the process overseen by an independent commission, would at least put the SNP on the backfoot.