Sir Menzies Campbell has been announced as the chair of the Scottish Liberal Democrats’ home rule commission, first announced by Willie Rennie in September at the UK Lib Dem conference in Birmingham. There still aren’t many details about the commission, particularly its terms of reference or composition (other than Sir Ming). About all we know is that Rennie says it is to ‘set out our vision for a strong Scotland within the UK and for strong, powerful communities in every part of Scotland’. That suggests it will be concerned not just with Scotland-UK issues, but also local government ones.
This is hardly unexplored ground for the Lib Dems. Indeed, that’s both part of the problem for this commission, and part of the reason for it. Back in 2006, the Lib Dems were the only one of the unionist parties in Scotland willing to think about constitutional matters. The Steel Commission came up with a blueprint for extremely far-reaching devolution, so much so that it was used by the SNP as the basis for the ‘full devolution’ model sketched in the November 2009 white paper Your Scotland, Your Voice. In effect, the Lib Dems wrote the SNP’s version of Devolution Max. That in turn has made it very hard for the Lib Dems to challenge the SNP on constitutional matters, as every time they do they have their earlier position thrown back at them. That knot has been compounded by the insistence of Lib Dems in the UK Coalition as being effectively unchangeable. I’ve heard quite senior Lib Dem figures confirm with equal vigour and in the space of five minutes that the party is committed to the Steel Commission, to the Calman recommendations/Scotland bill in its current form, and to a federal United Kingdom. They showed no awareness of how contradictory these positions were.
The new commission has got to avoid making the mistake the Steel Commission did. That was to come up with a scheme for very extensive devolution within the Union, without having any good rationale for why there should be a Union or what it should do. The UK level, in the Steel Commission’s schema, was largely a residuum of things that either couldn’t be devolved without clearly breaking up the Union (such as defence or foreign affairs), or which it just considered were too cumbersome to handle. To be convincing, any unionist argument has got to include a positive rationale for the continuation of the Union, not just convenience.
UPDATE: I shall be talking about this on The Politics Show Scotland on Sunday 6 November: 12 noon, BBC 1 Scotland (though I think the ‘Scottish’ bit starts at 12.45), 3 pm on the BBC Parliament channel, or via the iPlayer.