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The plebiscite to end all plebiscites

Brian Taylor | 16:36 UK time, Thursday, 8 October 2009

There is a story told about the previous Labour/LibDem coalition.

Labour Ministers were getting increasingly frustrated at what they saw as a lack of discipline on the part of their coalition chums.

In the interests of open politics, Jim Wallace, the former Liberal Democrat leader, invited a Labour cabinet colleague to attend a LibDem group meeting.

On thus witnessing the customary blend of hard politics and quasi-anarchy, the Labour colleague opined: "Well, Jim, you must be one hard b . . . d to lead that lot!"

The leadership of the LibDems may have changed, twice, since then. But the customary, cheery blend is still to the fore.

At the Bournemouth conference, before and since, Tavish Scott has found it simply impossible to persuade some in his party to shut up about the issue of an independence referendum.

Mr Scott it was who took a notably hard line against the referendum when the LibDems considered the prospect of a coalition with the SNP after the 2007 Holyrood elections.


Mr Scott it is who remains resolutely opposed to such a plebiscite.

He says that he is not inclined to assist with implementing the policy of a rival party, particularly when it is designed to lead to an outcome, independence, which the LibDems condemn.

But there remain LibDems - both in the Holyrood group and across Scotland as a whole - who believe in a referendum: either because they support the concept of popular decision-making or because, tactically, an early referendum could close the issue down.

Today's announcement by the LibDems that they are to review their policy on a referendum should be seen in light of the above.

The leadership wants to curtail this debate, internally - not precipitate a U-turn.
Ross Finnie has been asked to instigate a review.

That will go to a private debate at the party's autumn conference at the end of this month.

It is Tavish Scott's hope that this will allow those who oppose his strategy to have their say in the full and frank exchange which a private debate will permit.

Cul de sac

He hopes that, defeated, they then turn their attention to other matters.

This reminds me to some extent of the debate held by the SNP on whether to back a Yes/Yes vote in the 1997 devolution referendum.

Then, there were voices arguing that devolution was a con, a cul de sac.

Key difference. The SNP held that debate in public at, as I recall, a National Council meeting in Perth.

The leadership policy of backing the Yes campaign was overwhelmingly supported.

But there's more. Ross Finnie insists that he is instigating a wide-ranging review.

This will encompass attitudes to the existing referendum proposal, alternative strategies - plus a look at what might happen should another party row in behind the idea of a plebiscite.

Private meeting

That wider discussion could involve a look at preparing the ground for the terms upon which the LibDems might, in future, countenance a referendum.

Do I think the LibDems will back a referendum now? No, they will back Mr Scott.

I feel sure that outcome will be relayed to us from the private meeting.

Do I think there will eventually be a referendum? Yes.


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