As I watched the events unfold in the Edinburgh sunshine today, as Alex Salmond and David Cameron signed the historic Agreement on the process for the Independence Referendum, my thoughts were with the man who actually put the leg work in on this.
To put it bluntly, if we’d waited for David Cameron and Alex Salmond to reach agreement, we’d be waiting until people were telling their grandchildren about the day Hell froze over. In fact, only recently the Tories were murmuring about the UK Government running its own referendum. That, believe me, would not have ended well.
Had Labour been in power, the process would have taken even longer. Their last Secretary of State, Jim Murphy, was not known for his cordial relationships with the SNP Government. There was little co-operation between the two administrations. Murphy talks in terms of patriots vs nationalists, language which I find poisonous, unacceptable and unhelpful.
It needed not just a Liberal Democrat in post as Secretary of State for Scotland to work constructively to get an agreement, but one who is known for unflappable reasonableness. It’s Michael Moore who deserves the credit for what’s becoming known as the Edinburgh Agreement.
When the SNP won their overall majority last year, they had a mandate for a referendum on independence. Unfortunately, they didn’t have the legal power to deliver it. To put the poll beyond challenge in the courts, the power would have to be devolved from Westminster. The SNP Government were clear that the UK Government should just give it to them. Mike Moore was clear that there were a few reasonable strings attached: the referendum had to be legal, fair and decisive.
The Agreement satisfies honour on both sides. From the UK Government’s point of view, the referendum will be supervised by the Electoral Commission and not a body appointed by the SNP. There will be one single question on independence alone. The SNP have won on timing – although, to be honest, it couldn’t have been held much before Autumn 2014, and also on giving 16/17 year olds the vote.
Liberal Democrats will be pleased to see that extension of the franchise and it gives a good springboard for a campaign to extend the franchise for all elections. Some party members will be disappointed that there is a single question on independence as they would have liked to have seen a question on more powers for the Parliament. However, this poll is not the only way to skin the “more powers” cat. Rather than including a difficult to define “devo max” question which may have delivered an inconclusive result, the Liberal Democrats can lead the way to developing a consensus for the next stage of devolution. We would like to see a fully federal UK and more details of our proposals will be published later this week. It will also talk about devolution from Holyrood to local communities. Further devolution and federalism would never be a second question to Scottish Liberal Democrats. It’s what we’re about.
Today’s Agreement is not Michael Moore’s first major success. The Scotland Act, passed earlier this year, gives the greatest devolution of power since the Act of Union. This was not accomplished easily. As soon as the Calman Commission report was published, the Tories tried to backtrack from it. Labour could have legislated for it but chose not to. Michael Moore had to deal with issues raised by the Tories and Labour at Westminster and the SNP, who sent a list of 6 demands for amendments as condition for their support, at Holyrood. That Bill was supposed to have been dead in the water towards the end of last year, but Mike, with his usual quiet, reasonable approach got everyone singing from roughly the same bit of the hymn book enough for both parliaments to pass it. The SNP, who had described it as a dog’s breakfast, achieved none of their demands but voted for it anyway.
There is a certain irony that the Liberal Democrats who effectively vetoed a referendum on independence at Holyrood in 2007 have been pivotal in sorting out the details of such a poll in 2012. It’s a better referendum because of our input. Not only that, but Michael Moore’s role in ensuring that 16 and 17 year olds get a vote must not be forgotten.
Liberal Democrats should be feeling very proud of our Scottish Secretary tonight for his patience, his proven ability to work with all parties in Scotland and the constructive way in which he conducts himself. Nick Robinson and the rest of the media could do with looking beyond Salmond and Cameron to the real hero of the hour.