Is a vote for the Scottish Lib Dems a vote for independence?

Will Lib Dems compromise on the issue of Scottish independence for the sake of cutting a deal for power; the issue hots up the Scottish elections, Ed Jacobs.

Tavish Scott

Amid signs, in new polling, that Labour are closing the SNP’s lead over them ahead of Thursday’s elections to the Scottish Parliament, the SNP’s mantra of independence has come to the fore in the final few days of campaigning.

During BBC Scotland’s  leader’s debate on Sunday, SNP Leader, Alex Salmond argued that if returned to power, any government he led would seek to hold a referendum on independence sometime over the next parliament. Speaking to the audience in Perth, Salmond argued:

“Even more important than whether you believe in independence or not, is to believe in the right of the Scottish people to decide on independence in a referendum.”

In his response, Labour’s leader Iain Gray outlined his case that spending the next parliament engaged in a prolonged bout of navel gazing on the future constitutional status of Scotland would serve as a distraction from the issues that really mattered. He argued:

“There is a common priority right across working families in Scotland, and that is to get the economy growing again, to create jobs and, above all, to create opportunities for our young people.

“Now he [Alex Salmond] tells us he’s going to put it [a referendum] off for the most of the next five years. That will create uncertainty which will damage our recovery and cost us jobs.”

Gray’s assertion came as new survey data for the Scotsman suggested 38 per cent of Scots feel a referendum on independence would have a damaging impact on the Scottish economy, compared with around 25 per cent who said it could improve it and around a quarter who said that it would make no difference.

The results were subsequently seized on by Labour, who have now released figures suggesting that an independent Scotland would cost the country £14 billion a year. The former prime minister, Gordon Brown concluded:

“The SNP are utterly distracted by their obsession with independence. So unpopular are their plans for separation, they are desperate not to mention it, but Alex Salmond let slip by declaring that if people vote SNP on Thursday, he will have the ‘moral authority’ to push for breaking up the Union.

“That is a profound arrogance that places a massive roadblock on Scotland’s path to economic recovery and will create a Quebec-style political and economic instability which would wreck jobs when there is an urgent need to create them.

“If the SNP spend the next five years making independence the dominating issue in Scottish politics, it will not be risk-free. Investors will look at the debates on what type of economy, currency, tax system, fiscal policy we have and say: get back to us when you have made up your mind.

“In these fragile economic times, this distraction risks the recovery, risks investment, risks jobs, risks prosperity and risks the wellbeing of the country we all love. When the banks failed, Labour stepped in to protect the jobs, the homes, the mortgages of millions. The SNP would have left Scotland floundering like Iceland and Ireland. Once again, they are the job wreckers when Labour are the job creators.”

Whilst the tussle between the SNP and Labour over independence is nothing new, what is becoming an underlying theme is the Liberal Democrats refusal to rule out the prospect of a referendum.

Officially, the party remains against a vote, with its leader in Scotland, Tavish Scott explaining:

“On Thursday, if you want independence, then vote SNP because that’s what Alex wants. He wants independence. I don’t believe in independence, I believe in Scotland as part of the United Kingdom.

“If you want independence you can vote SNP because that’s his main priority.”

Putting aside Scott’s less then robust defence of the union, within the BBC debate itself, pressed by the moderator, Glenn Campbell, on whether the Lib Dems would be prepared to accept a referendum as part of a possible deal with the SNP, Tavish Scott refused to rule it out, a stance which he used also as long ago as 2009. And writing for the Guardian, the paper’s Scotland Correspondent, Severin Carrell has argued:

“The polls repeatedly show that Lib Dem support has halved, to about 8 per cent, leaving it with perhaps fewer than 10 seats come polling day, while the SNP’s support has soared. If these polls are reflected accurately on Thursday, Salmond and the SNP will be returned for a second term with well over 50 seats in Holyrood; not enough for an overall majority of the 129-seat parliament but enough to dominate.

“Enough, perhaps, to force the few remaining Lib Dems at Holyrood to agree to support a referendum on Scottish independence in three or four years’ time, in exchange for direct influence on an SNP government’s policies.”

As voters go to the polls on Thursday, the question they will now have to ask themselves is this – is a vote for the Lib Dems a vote for independence and a prolonged period of constitutional wrangling at the expense of ministers concentrating on the economic recovery? And are the Lib Dems readying themselves to ditch a principled stance against a referendum in favour of political opportunism to strike a deal with the SNP to get them some power?

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