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Lib Dem weekend

Brian Taylor | 17:54 UK time, Sunday, 1 November 2009

Liberal Democrat leaders have frequently found their own party thoroughly exasperating.

Their persistent demands for internal debate; their frequent obsession with the niceties of party rules; their occasional bouts of smugness; their inherent tendency to rebel.

Tavish Scott is, himself, not that far removed in age from the Pestilential Tendency among the youth wing of his party. However, he has always been fearsomely pragmatic.

Hence his evident irritation when some of his fellow members insisted on demanding support for a referendum on Scottish independence.

Why couldn't they just shut up? A period of silence on your part etc etc

As successive Lib and LibDem leaders have found, requests for silence fall on self-stopped ears. Demands for unity simply generate still more insurrection.

So Mr Scott gave in and held an internal party discussion on the referendum issue on Saturday, in private.

Two outcomes. One, support for his position that the LibDems should oppose current SNP plans for a plebiscite. Two, the beast that is internal dissent within the LibDems has probably been sated for a while.

I imagine that, right now, the more fervent Nationalists (and, yes, there are one or two who are welcome contributors to this site) will be deploying rather sharper terms than exasperating to describe the LibDems.

But, from the LibDems' own perspective, they believe they have rebalanced to lay stresss upon their own position: which is to urge further powers for the Scottish Parliament en route to a federal UK.

As I have frequently pointed out on this blog, opposing a referendum is, politically, a very uncomfortable place to be. Hence "bring it on" from Wendy Alexander. Hence the LibDems closed doors discussion in Dunfermline.

Alex Salmond will now proceed with plans to table his Bill for a referendum, disregarding Opposition demands to drop the idea.

For Mr Salmond, this is not like the Local Income Tax Bill which was shelved in the face of sustained opposition and a contrary Parliamentary vote on the issue.

Independence is the primary reason for his party to exist. He will table the Referendum Bill and invite support - or criticism.

Should it fail, as now seems certain, he will use the issue to condemn his rivals at the Holyrood elections in 2011. In practice, that has been his fall-back position all along. In truth, Plan B was never very remote at any point.

But what of the LibDems? Their position is much more nuanced than straightforward opposition to Mr Salmond's Bill.

Of that, they say it is at the wrong recessionary time - and with the wrong question (a mandate to negotiate rather than a blunt Yes or No to independence.)

At Dunfermline, we are told that the issue was canvassed, that there were voices raised for a referendum. But, when Ross Finnie summed up by saying that opposition to the Salmond plan appeared overwhelming in the hall, there was no dissent. That position carried the day by acclaim.

Does that mean there is universal agreement as to how to proceed? No. No more than there is within other parties on this or other issues.

Does that mean that the LibDems are "all over the place" on this topic, as some assert?

No. Things were heading that way. But the critics of the leadership position have got what they demanded. A party discussion, albeit one held behind closed doors.

They have got what liberals everywhere crave: an audience, a hearing, a debate.

I believe Tavish Scott's position has thereby been strengthened on this issue - although he might have gone further and held the debate openly. As, for example, the SNP did when they were confronting a comparable dispute over whether to back the devolution referendum.

But back to those nuances.

Nuance One: the LibDems, like the SNP, hope to hold the balance of power after the UK general election next year. In those circumstances, they would include enhanced powers for Holyrood in their negotiation shopping list.

Lord Wallace of Tankerness has been tasked with dealing with the UK civil service on behalf of the party at Westminster.

It is not thought likely that the former leader of the Scottish LibDems will forget the land of his birth in advising the civil service machine of LibDem prioritites.

Nuance Two: the review of strategy in this field by Ross Finnie continues. It was not devised purely for the Saturday event in Dunfermline. But, for now, it appears that the party will lay stress on its own priorities, both in the field of the constitution and other areas.

That will certainly be the case up to and through the UK general election.

Nuance Three: the LibDems are not saying never to a referendum on independence. However, they are not even saying "maybe" at the moment. Mr Scott believes that a period of simple clarity would be welcome. So, on the constitution, they will talk about their own option of enhanced powers, of federalism.

There will be a new statement from the Scotland Office with regard to implementing the Calman proposals. In practice, it is likely to consist of action which might follow subsequent to a general election.

Mr Scott will be hoping for greater leverage for his preferences from whatever Westminster arithmetic emerges.

Nuance Four: the Scottish LibDems will then develop a position for their 2011 Holyrood manifesto and beyond. That might, in the light of events, include the position of saying maybe to an independence referendum.

But not, post Dunfermline, now. For now, expect the LibDems to argue more vigorously still for their own preference.


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