The Scottish Lib Dems’ ‘home rule commission’

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.

There’s coverage from BBC News here and the Scotsman here. The Scottish Lib Dems’ own news release is here.

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.

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3 Comments

Filed under Calman Commission/Scotland bill, Events, Lib Dems, Scotland, SNP, Westminster

3 responses to “The Scottish Lib Dems’ ‘home rule commission’

  1. Dennis Smith

    Perhaps there are good reasons why the Steel Commission failed to produce a positive rationale for the union – reasons which are equally likely to inhibit the new Menzies Commission. Looking for a rationale takes unionists on to shaky contitutional ground, raising questions about sovereignty and political ontology. What are the units that make up the union and what is their constitutional status?

    For example, is Scotland a nation? On a banal level the answer surely has to be yes. Scotland has a whole range of ‘national’ institutions, some of them dating back centuries. Few unionists have ever denied Scotland’s nationhood in this sense (the situation in Wales may be rather different). Self-confident Victorian Scots saw no contradiction between erecting a monument to the freedom-fighter William Wallace and maintaining a full-blown commitment to union and empire – a position that Graeme Morton neatly defined as unionist nationalism.

    Contemporary unionists seem unhappy on this territory, presumably because they recognise that nationhood now implies the democratic right to self-determination. A robust unionism should be able to handle this. Even if Scotland has the right to self-determination it need not exercise that right and unionists should be able to find reasons, of self-interest and/or political justice, for not doing so.

    But it is difficult to broach arguments of this sort without peering into the constitutional vacuum at the heart of the UK. We have no written constitution and apparently no agreed body of constitutional theory. Authors like Anthony King suggest that the old Diceyan orthodoxies have decayed without anything else taking their place. In that case, what solid premises can the new commission start from?

  2. Angus McLellan

    One problem which needs to be addressed by devolutionists is that the areas which would be retained by Westminster are those where the status quo is most obviously dysfunctional. For example. can anyone seriously argue that the Ministry of Defence, the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are fit for purpose or are delivering value for money? The Treasury too, as has been seen in past discussions of the practicalities of devolving tax powers, is a problem area. Any benefits of scale which resulted from sharing services in these areas in a more devolved or federal UK would, I suspect, be trivial in comparison to the costs of perpetuating the waste and incompetence rampant in these departments.

  3. Pingback: The independence referendum deal « Devolution Matters

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