Seeds planted for 'no' to independence campaign

Willie Rennie Image copyright bbc
Image caption Willie Rennie said his party would be the "guarantors" over new powers for Holyrood

An intriguing debate right at the close of the Liberal Democrat conference here in Inverness on the party's strategy anent the forthcoming referendum on independence. Each side in the argument claimed that their rivals would be playing into the hands of Alex Salmond.

The call was for a Home Rule alternative to be placed on the ballot paper, alongside the option of independence. Advocates said that, otherwise, Mr Salmond would cry foul and might win more support for his proposal to end the Union.

But the bulk of the party preferred the alternative argument, advanced with passion by their President, Malcolm Bruce.

This was to the effect that Mr Salmond simply saw a Home Rule or Devo Max (or indeed Devo Plus) option as a safety net, a parachute or a Get out of Jail Free card.

Malcolm Bruce went so far as to assert that Mr Salmond had a "damn cheek" urging alternative options when his party had played no part in drafting the plan in the Convention which ultimately emerged as the present Scottish Parliament.

In his main speech, the party leader Willie Rennie also stressed the need for a straightforward yes or no vote on independence. But he offered his squad as the "guarantors" that there would be further powers for Holyrood in the event (which he anticipated) of independence being rejected.

In that event, he offered to broker co-operation which, he said, should include the SNP - while Liberal Democrats would advance their own arguments for substantial devolution to make Scotland "a powerful force within the United Kingdom".

Campaign structure

So, here we see the nascent shape of the pro-Union campaign. Each party will outline its own priorities - but will combine with the others to form a joint team.

Broadly, that explains the rather intriguing formulation outlined in Dundee by Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont. She said she would lead a Labour campaign against independence, backed by Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown - but that this campaign force would be available to be loaned to other parties.

From Willie Rennie, less stress on a distinctive campaign structure (although major stress on their distinctive aims.) I guess, for Labour, the thinking is that if anyone finds it anathema to work with Tories then they can stick to the Lamont-led Labour vehicle.

But a pro-Union joint campaign there will be - with a steering group in charge of strategy and a day-to-day directorate running the show.

In practice, that joint structure will need to be in place or in formulation by the end of May when Alex Salmond plans to instigate the independence campaign.