SOMETIMES in idle moments I wonder what a different world we would be living in, if only the SDP-Liberal Alliance had won the 1983 General Election.

A few months ago I had occasion, in the course of some research, to re-read their manifesto, and much of it is as relevant and as apposite now as it was then. The manifesto argued that it was not just the policies of Thatcherism – or, for that matter, of the far left – that were damaging, but the whole set-up of the system of government by which decisions were taken.

Too much power, concentrated in one place, and focused in one individual at the head of one party, produced a politics of crude majoritarianism, without checks and balances, without proper accountability mechanisms, and without compromise.

Far from producing “strong and stable” government, the result of the unreformed pre-1997 system of government was brittle, exclusionary, antagonistic, out-of-touch politics. Everything was reduced to a clash between two big parties playing in a winner takes all game.

The SDP-Liberal Alliance had a remedy: constitutional reform. A bill of rights to protect the rights of individuals and minorities, no matter which government is in power; proportional representation for the House of Commons; a reformed House of Lords; devolution all round.

Power, they argued, should be spread about. Power is like manure – beneficial when spread over the land, but nauseous in a heap.

These strands were taken up shortly afterwards by Charter 88. Some of the proposals even made it – albeit in a very diluted form – into the institutional reform agenda of the post-1997 Blair government. We didn’t get a justiciable bill of rights as part of a proper written constitution, but we did get a Human Rights Act.

We didn’t get a new electoral system for the House of Commons, but we did get proportional representation for the Scottish Parliament, and later for local Councils in Scotland.

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When the LibDems finally did get into government, in 2010, it was as the junior partner in a Conservative-led coalition. Outbid, outflanked and out-voted, the LibDems lost public confidence over the issue of English university tuition fees, and from that moment the rest of their institutional reform agenda was doomed.

The 2011 referendum on the Alternative Vote electoral system was a lacklustre affair. The hard right recognised its strategic importance and threw their campaigning resources into it (had the vote gone the other way, it might well have spared us from Brexit) while the reformers were divided and demoralised by the fact that the system on offer, although an improvement on First Past the Post, was not fully proportional.

Reform of the House of Lords died, tangled up in the knots of indecision and a lack of clarity of purpose.

All that emerged from the coalition, constitutionally, was the Fixed Term Parliaments Act (at best, we can say, a mixed success) and a toothless recall mechanism which does not provide an effective means of removing an unpopular MP.

Despite these shortcomings (and underwhelming recent electoral performances) the LibDems still have a distinctive niche in British politics as the party of constitutional reform. The party’s 2019 General Election manifesto committed them to “introducing a written constitution for a federal United Kingdom”.

Even if there was little sign that they had the first inkling of what this would actually entail or how to go about it, it is, at least, something.

The question is whether the LibDems would have the same commitment to a written constitution in the context of an independent Scotland.

A party which can trace its intellectual roots back to the Great Reform Act of 1832, and perhaps even to the Glorious Revolution, should have democratic constitutionalism in its blood.

What then, are the LibDem proposals for a Scottish constitution, in the event that independence – which they currently oppose – happens? Are they going to defend proportional representation? Promote further local democracy? Insist upon a strong bill of rights? Demand effective scrutiny and accountability mechanisms?

What role will they propose for citizens’ assemblies or referendums in the new state? How do they hope to tackle, at a constitutional level, questions of national identity, or church-state relations, or the role of the monarchy?

If the LibDems want to remain a politically relevant movement in an independent Scotland, they have to start grappling with these issues – however unpalatable the idea of independence might be.

If the LibDems apply the principles they espouse, however, support for independence might not be so unimaginable.

The unavoidable choice is between a democratic, constitutional, open, European Scotland, and a harsh, closed, illiberal Brexit Britain that goes against everything they say they stand for. In any case, liberalism and democracy demand that they do not oppose the people’s right to choose in a second independence referendum.

This column welcomes questions from readers.