Too little too late leaves Nick Clegg and his colleagues isolated, rather than the party of real change, writes Joyce McMillan
One bright morning last week, I received a call from a researcher on a BBC current affairs programme produced in London, asking me if I had a view about next year’s planned celebrations of the 700th anniversary of the Battle Of Bannockburn. I said that I had views, but that I thought that the re-enactment of ancient battles was not the issue uppermost in the minds of most Scottish voters at the moment, and that someone should say so.
The researcher was not pleased; he already had a speaker who was unambiguously opposed to the Scottish Government sponsoring Bannockburn celebrations, and he wanted a second speaker who was unambiguously in favour of it. I made my excuses and left the conversation, but not before pointing out to him that the kind of media coverage he proposed – a “yah-boo” argument between two people with untypically polarised views, on an issue about which most people are either uncertain or unconcerned – represents one of the key reasons why so many Scots remain so disengaged from the current referendum campaign.
In a sense, though, this kind of coverage is an almost inevitable consequence of the current structure of the debate; for if there is one supremely irritating fact about it, it is that the option preferred by the largest number of Scottish voters – some greatly enhanced form of devolution plus, within the UK – is simply not on next year’s referendum ballot paper. Its absence is partly a historical accident, and partly an affront to democracy. The accident was the huge and unexpected SNP victory in the 2011 Scottish election, which compelled the SNP government, willy nilly, into holding an independence referendum.
And the affront to democracy was the failure of the enfeebled pro-union parties to respond to the First Minister’s earnest pleas for them to put forward an enhanced devolution scheme, that could be presented as a third referendum option. They did not wish to oblige Mr Salmond, and they did not care that in disobliging him, they were also disenfranchising the vast majority of Scottish voters; and the consequence so far has been a referendum campaign in which small cohorts of usual suspects from the political parties trade insults in television studios, while the voting public snores on the sofa, or goes out to the pub.
All of which means that there is, or should be, a huge political dividend waiting for the first Unionist party with the courage, and the intellectual energy, to put a well-developed plan for enhanced devolution on the table, and to guarantee its presence in their manifesto for the 2015 UK general election; such a guarantee certainly would remove the doubts of many uncertain No voters. And this week in Glasgow, the Liberal Democrats made a serious bid to present themselves as that party, with both Scottish Secretary Michael Moore, and the leader Nick Clegg, talking of the Lib Dems as the traditional party of UK constitutional reform, the party that would drive forward the cause of enhanced Scottish home rule following a No vote.
There are at least three profound reasons, though, why those who care about the future of Scotland should handle these promises with care. The first lies in their vagueness; for despite all their fine talk, the Liberal Democrats have not finalised their proposals for enhanced devolution. Indeed in his Glasgow speech, Nick Clegg was still talking about seeking a 1990s-style cross-party agreement on an enhanced devolution scheme; as if a cross-party policy process that took almost a decade 20 years ago, at a time when Labour and the Liberal Democrats were in close political alliance, and the whole of Scottish civil society was mobilised in support, could now somehow be fitted into the eight months between the 2014 referendum and the 2015 UK general election, when the two parties will naturally be at each other’s throats.
Then there is the question of how, exactly, either the Liberal Democrats or the Labour Party – in the event of their producing a credible plan – could guarantee that those plans would be implemented. If the Conservatives win an outright victory in 2015, then we can certainly forget the whole business, for at least five years. If the Lib Dems once again enter government with the Conservatives, then there is nothing to stop them trading away the devolution commitment as part of the coalition deal; with the SNP still regrouping after a referendum defeat, and Scottish civil society bitterly split after 2014, there will be many policies supported by lobbies that look far more formidable. And even a centre-left Lib-Lab coalition would have many higher priorities to deal with; as well as a hard core of backbench MPs reluctant to waste any more time on the constitutional affairs of a nation that does not, when the chips are down, really wish to govern itself.
And then finally, there is the small matter of progress; for if more self-government for Scotland is a progressive policy, designed to devolve more power to ordinary citizens, then it is worth asking how much real commitment to it can now be expected from a party which has allied itself with what is, without question, the most right-wing British government since the early 1930s. The Liberal Democrats rightly point out the extent to which – while going along with the general trend of Tory policy – they have managed to restrain some of its worst impulses. Yet when it comes to the big picture of 21st-century western politics, there are essentially just two horses in the race. One is about the faint but worthwhile chance of creating a viable social democracy for the 21st century; the other is about colluding with a neoliberal global system that has failed, that has forced ordinary citizens to pay for its failure, and that is now pumping out a barrage of vicious and oppressive lies – about austerity, about the poor, about “tough choices” – in order to cover its tracks.
And so long as Nick Clegg remains so firmly and smugly mounted on that second horse, it is hard to believe that he has any credible interest in making sure that the first one wins the race; here in Scotland, or anywhere else.