If there’s one phrase that has long bedevilled the Liberal party and its descendants, it’s ‘home rule’. What are we supposed to understand by it? And perhaps more to the point, what do modern Lib Dems understand by it?
If you go back in Liberal history to the time of the great William Gladstone, ‘home rule’ meant something. It meant the principle of self-governance for Ireland, with certain powers reserved to Westminster.
Gladstone’s idea of home rule was very similar to what we now call Devo Max. And when Gladstone stood up for this principle and fought to drive it through parliament, he was attacked in terms we recognise only too well today.
Here he is in the House of Commons in 1888:
“Now, sir, we are called separatists. (Ministerial cheers.) We are denounced as such. (Renewed Ministerial cheers.) I am glad to have any of my assertions supported by honourable gentlemen opposite, whose approval is conveyed in that semi-articulate manner which they find so congenial. (Opposition cheers and laughter.)
But we are called separatists, because we wish to give effect to the national aspirations of Ireland within the limits of the Constitution and with supreme regard to the unity of the Empire. (Ministerial cries of “Oh,” and Opposition cheers.)”
Gladstone’s refusal to be swayed from the principle of home rule for Ireland cost him the premiership and split his party. And during the long descent of the Liberal party from party of government to parliamentary rump, home rule continued to haunt it, like a Greek chorus lamenting the cruelty of the fates.
In that same year of 1888, Keir Hardie stood against the Liberal in Mid-Lanark on a platform that included home rule for Scotland. Whatever the Labour party have thought about home rule since, and whether they’ve blown hot or cold on the idea (mostly cold), they’ve never conceded Scottish sovereignty, never thought further than Devo-Max, and seldom that far.
But the Scottish Liberals have. At a ceremony in Orkney in May this year to mark the centenary of Scottish party icon Jo Grimond’s birth, David Steel quoted from Grimond’s 1983 book ‘A Personal Manifesto’.
“I do not like the word devolution as it has come to be called. It implies that power rests at Westminster, from which centre some may be graciously devolved. I would rather begin by assuming that power should rest with the people who entrust it to their representatives to discharge the essential tasks of government. Once we accept that the Scots and the Welsh are nations, then we must accord them parliaments which have all the normal powers of government, except for those that they delegate to the United Kingdom government or the EEC.”
This idea that the Scottish people are sovereign is not some subversive undercurrent in Scottish Lib Dem thinking. Far from it: it appears to be central to what they now think of as home rule.
“I’m a federalist and my views on how Scotland’s governance should work were very neatly summed up by David Steel recently: ‘The principle of home rule is different from devolution. Under home rule, sovereignty lies with the Scottish people and we decide when it is sensible to give powers to the centre on issues like foreign affairs and defence.’”
I can’t see many Yes voters disagreeing with David Steel there. The Scottish people are sovereign; they alone have the power to delegate stuff when they think it is sensible. So why on earth aren’t the Scottish LibDems backing Yes, when it would give Scotland just such power? Because if you’re a Lib Dem, life’s never that obvious. Here’s their Scottish 2011 manifesto:
“We are calling for a new, permanent home rule settlement, within a federal Britain, that will equip Scotland with the powers to build a fairer Scotland and a strong, sustainable economy.”
And here’s Willie Rennie in the preface to the Scottish Lib Dems Home Rule and Community Rule report, published in 2012:
“They were asked by our party, the Scottish Liberal Democrats, to set out the details of ‘home rule’ for Scotland within the United Kingdom.”
Now it simply isn’t possible to have that both ways. Either the Scottish people are sovereign, or they are not. Either the Scottish people have the power to delegate foreign affairs and defence “when it is sensible”, or they don’t. Either they can decide in their own time whether or not to belong to a federal Britain, or they can’t.
So which is it? Poor, ever-loyal Caron Lindsay does her best to fudge her way out:
“I don’t doubt that Scotland could flourish as an independent nation but I think that we benefit from being in the UK. The union isn’t perfect, but the way forward is to work on that inter-relationship, not ditch it completely.”
Anyone with a grain of common sense can see that “working on that inter-relationship” is going precisely nowhere. In fact, the Lib Dem federalist dream has been going nowhere for so long it now resembles an abandoned railway carriage used to house chickens. The only way the Scottish people are ever going to gain practical sovereignty is through voting for independence.
And surely that accords with Grimond’s and Steel’s vision: Get the power first, then decide how you want to delegate. If Scotland chose to vote Lib Dems into government after independence, they could set about creating whatever kind of Federation of Great Britain they want. And during the inevitable constitutional shake-up south of the border following Scottish independence, they may have a more sympathetic audience than ever before. But don’t expect such a rational, logical assessment to cut any ice.
The leadership of the Scottish LibDems will go on agonising over different versions of home rule, federalism, and devo-this and devo-that until they all vanish in a puff of orange smoke. They should perhaps hope their voters have a bit more sense.