The cliché has it that the past is another country but sometimes it can also seem like another planet. Listen to any Conservative and you’ll discover that the 1960’s were the root of moral collapse and that in the 1970’s you could barely get through your own front door for flying pickets, uncollected rubbish and unburied bodies. The 1980’s though, that was different. That was when Mrs Thatcher put the “Great” back into Great Britain. We got up off our knees, put the unions back in their box, walked tall in the world and liberated the people with discounted council houses and privatisation.
As a child of the 60’s and 70’s I’m as nostalgic as any who grew up suffused in the warm glow of a declining empire. My childhood passed to a soundtrack of Spitfire engines and Beatles songs and we veered giddily between Airfix models, Commando books and the soundtrack of the Summer of Love. As the 60’s passed into the 70’s and the Beatles were replaced by the sweaty shine of the pub-glam of The Sweet and now unmentionable Gary…. it also became clearer that there was something else changing. The names of the political leaders at Westminster began to enter my consciousness, Heath, Wilson, Castle, Healey, Benn, Powell, Thorpe. My sympathies fell with the man and the party in middle, Jeremy Thorpe and the Liberals.
I should confess here that not all my political choices were based just on intellectual examination of the issues and the policies of the competing parties. I thought that Prime Minister Heath and the Tories uninterested in the fairness I believed should be important (and Heath had a comb-over). The Labour leadership seemed rather unpleasant and obsessed with internal party politics (and Wilson smoked a pipe, Healy had weird eyebrows and Castle was a bit frighteningly hairsprayed). The Liberals were an odd bunch too (Thorpe looked like an escapee from a Hammer film at times) but seemed to be asking for fairness and cooperative politics.
There was something else in the Liberals which attracted me. Home Rule. Like most, or at least many, young Scots I had an ingrained sense of being Scottish. Although my father was (is) as English a gentleman as you could meet I never had any feeling that I was anything other than fully 100% Scottish. It was in the history I knew, the streets and stones all around. It just was. During the world cup of 1970 in our playground even those like me who could barely kick a ball wanted to be Pele or Rivelino, Muller or Beckenbauer, but never Moore and Charlton (and it was not just the combover thing then). If we could not play for Scotland in our heads we would play for the best in the world (as long as it wasn’t England). But this “anti-English” feeling hardly stretched beyond football. It was not something that could have been harnessed politically because it was in reality nothing more than a reflection of the political emptiness of Scotland.
With no other way to be Scottish without signing on to the kailyard tweeness of the White Heather Club the tartan bravado of “anti-English” knee jerk opposition to English football success was almost the only game in town. Or at least it was if you were not politically engaged. For the ground was shifting. The backwater of “Home Rule” was becoming a busier place. The success of Winnie Ewing at Hamilton in 1967 may have been ephemeral but it gave birth to a slogan and an idea that was worming its way into the political debate – “Stop the world, Scotland wants to get on!”
The idea that Scotland could become independent was attractive to me but I dismissed the SNP version as romantic, unrealistic and out of step with the ideological nature of real politics. It was also impossible to achieve under the current system. Even with a majority of MP’s there was no mechanism to make independence happen. And anyway there was no prospect of gaining a majority of MP’s in a UK general election dominated by Labour and Conservative parties buttressed by an electoral system which guaranteed safe seats for most MP’s results that reflected only the results of the two “big” players.
1974 and the SNP “breakthrough” changed things forever. What changed was that the Westminster based parties got scared. Their response was try and bribe the voters, not with money but with just a little bit of what they wanted. “Devolution” was born. The Labour Government unenthusiastically came up with the offer of an Assembly for Scotland which their own backbenchers tried to sink with the 40% rule. The palpable feeling that the Assembly was an attempt to fob off the voters in Scotland soaked through the whole project. It was always clear that for Labour and the Tories real politics happens in London and anything else was just crumbs from the table.
The first vote I ever cast was in the devolution referendum of 1979 and in a pattern that was to be repeated for almost 20 years I was on the losing side. Except of course I wasn’t, I was on the winning side. We just never received our prize. Shortly after the disappointment of the 1979 referendum I walked into the offices of the Scottish Liberal Party and joined the Scottish Young Liberals(SYL). I felt that the Liberals were where I would feel at home politically and they were the only party I thought actually believed in devolution as a principle. In the SYL I found a group of people who were interested in politics, in ideas, in seeking to extend debate and not fence it in. It was possible to follow ideas to their logical end and not feel bound by existing policies. In the Scottish Liberal Party I had also joined a party which seemed to take its Scottishness seriously.
I had always supported the idea Home Rule but there had never been a clear definition of where devolution ended and Home Rule began or when Home Rule would become independence in all but name. I came to the conclusion that the only sensible way to think about this issue was to start at the other end. For years the argument had been about what powers should Westminster devolve to Scotland but surely it would be cleaner and clearer to think about this the other way round. What powers did Scotland need to share with Westminster? Only thinking about the issue this way would define the limits of Home Rule. My conclusion was that what the UK needed was “con-federalism”. Scotland, England, Wales (let’s put N. Ireland to one side) would be independent states agreeing to do some things together. It might make sense to operate a single currency for example, or to cooperate on utility grids or defence priorities but these would be on a voluntary basis and negotiated between partners.
However following a debate and vote at Congress the position of the Scottish Young Liberals was clear. Scotland should be an independent country and apply to join the Nordic Council. We should turn away from the Thatcherism of the UK and look across the North Sea to Scandinavia.
The policy of the Scottish Liberal Party was Home Rule in a federal UK.
Of these three options two were, and are, pipe-dreams. Fantasy castles designed with optimistic hope but built of sand and destined to be washed away in the first wave of reality. No Government at Westminster is going to create a federal UK. A federal UK would not be any more than a pantomime chorus behind the leading player of the London city-state. Confederalism requires members to accept broadly equal status and to be willing to negotiate with goodwill. No Westminster government surrounded by the vacuous pomp of old empire will ever be able to accept Edinburgh or Cardiff as equals.
So it turns out that that callow young folk of the SYL were right all along. If you truly desire the Liberal dream of Home Rule, if you really want to see democratic accountability, if you really wish to live in a country that can engage with the rest of the world as equals, if you hope for a more decent, more liberal (or Liberal) country, if you want to break with post-colonial foreign affairs grandstanding, if you want to reject weapons of mass destruction, if you want away from the neo-liberal economics of the City and of paying tribute to the bankers and the bond traders, if you see a future of sustainable development and environmental respect, if you want to rebalance these British isles, then you really can. This time there is a real choice and a genuine opportunity to make a difference. You can vote Yes on September 18th 2014. You can ask the world to stop and let Scotland get on.
SYL Chair (1983)