Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Scottish Liberal Democrats take (another) step backwards

Willie Rennie, from the little I've seen of him over the years, seems like a decent bloke, and I have a feeling he'll have more of a personal appeal than his predecessor Tavish Scott. Paradoxically, that's partly because he's less polished than Tavish, who often looked as if he was reading from a script even when he wasn't - Rennie comes across as unspun, and therefore more genuine. That's the good news for his party. But where to start with the bad news? The new leader basically had to make two big strategic calls to set the course for electoral recovery. Firstly, he needed to argue the case for the kind of substantial constitutional progress that would break the Scottish Lib Dems out of the straightjacket of being just another shade of grey, humdrum unionism. Secondly, he needed to make a psychological (if not literal) break with the federal party and its catastrophic alliance with the Conservatives. Rennie has flunked both tasks on day one - and he's seemingly done it with his eyes wide open. All he's offering on the constitution is more of the same (after all nothing's really changed, has it?), and he's incredibly offering an even closer relationship with Clegg and the gang than before. As noted here a number of times, Tavish's stance on the latter point during the election campaign was intellectually incoherent - if you wanted to know about something good the UK party had done, he was your man, but if it was something more toxic for heaven's sake go and ask them about it. But at least that showed a flickering of understanding of the kind of distancing that was required to limit the damage. Rennie, by contrast, is giving every indication of being a party leader who quite comprehensively does not "get it" at all.

Specifically on the constitution, it seemed to me that there were three gaping holes in Rennie's line of argument on Newsnight Scotland tonight -

1) He repeatedly claimed that the Calman proposals had to be adhered to because a consensus between "the parties" had been reached. That was a dubious point even before the election given that only three of the five parties in the Scottish parliament were on board for Calman, but now? Can minority opinion at Holyrood really be described as a "consensus"?

2) He stressed that Alex Salmond couldn't claim a mandate for greater powers for the Scottish Parliament, because that issue hadn't been to the forefront of the campaign that won the SNP the election. But he then curiously made the claim that the unionist parties themselves had an "overwhelming mandate" to proceed with Calman on the basis of the 2010 general election result. The difficulty there is that I'm struggling to recall Calman being mentioned any more frequently during that campaign than the SNP's plans for greater powers were during the Holyrood contest. Rennie's own logic therefore surely suggests that the unionist parties can't possibly claim a mandate for their preferred constitutional blueprint - even if we were to accept the dubious premise that the 2010 result hasn't been superceded by more recent events.

3) A key part of the rationale for claiming a "consensus" in favour of Calman was always that of a dual mandate encompassing both Westminster and Holyrood - the unionist majority at Holyrood (which was complacently assumed to be virtually permanent) was endlessly cited as being just as critical a factor as the unionist majority at Westminster, and this interpretation was made concrete by the involvement of the devolved parliament in the scrutiny of the Scotland Bill. Having made such a song and dance of the arithmetic at Holyrood when it suited the unionist case, it simply won't wash for Rennie to now claim that a Westminster mandate alone is sufficient to proceed as if nothing had changed. The logic of the previous stance surely demands that a compromise between the two parliaments must now be reached.

Incidentally, does anyone remember the glee with which the London coalition partners pointed out a year ago that their combined vote in Scotland at the 2010 election exceeded the 32.9% support that the SNP secured in winning office? They must feel so nostalgic for the days when they could fall back on that line...


  1. James, just imagine what would happen if the Scottish Liberal Democrats tried to distance themselves from the UK Coalition. Do you really think that our opponents would throw their arms round us, kill a fatted calf, and welcome us back into polite society.

    Of course not. They'd be calling us cowards and telling the world that we were trying to evade responsibility and that we were just as much the spawn of Satan as they always said we were.

    Yes, there's stuff that the Coalition is doing that we don't always like, but I think we are doing some good within it. Imagine what it would be like if the Tories were governing on their own - a lot worse.

    As for the Scotland Bill, it just seems to me to be a wee bit peculiar that we're going to spend ages trying to change the Bill when we have a referendum on independence coming anyway. The Bill doesn't come in until 2015 by which time this referendum will have happened.

    To me it seems more that it's useful to have a fight with Westminster going on in the background to ramp up the arguments for independence.

    The Scotland Bill is not what Lib Dems want - we argued for full fiscal federalism as outlined in the Steel Commission to Calman but that didn't make it into the final recommendations. Implementing Calman was in ours and Tory and Labour manifestos for the current Parliament. Yes, Scotland voted overwhelmingly SNP this time, but only a year ago it voted overwhelmingly Labour for the Westminster Parliament.

    Lib Dems insisted that Calman went into the Coalition Agreement and there may besome movement on that, but why don't the SNP just leave the Scotland Bill as is and offer something like a choice between the Steel Commission type stuff and independence, lite or otherwise, in the referendum? The Steel Commission itself is a big change and there's an argument that it should have the backing of a referendum.

    I have a feeling that we're on the brink of a major change in Scotland's constitution. Do we really need to rush it? We can afford to take time to consider things properly - and we should - and we should ordinary people involved in that process as well as politicians.

    It's a really exciting time for Scotland - why not have a decent debate and not pick fights for political advantage.

  2. Sorry James I cannot concur in your opinion of Rennie. He must be an idiot to redefine the Scottish arm of the Lib Dems more closely with the coalition. Did he not notice that his party were reduced to almost an irrelevance at Holyrood? If they keep on that road they wont need a black cab to get all their MSPs in, a Smart car will do! And I don’t think they would do any better in Scotland in a UK general election either if it were held now. That is probably a main reason for staying in the coalition to the bitter end. The long game of muscular liberalism from now on in the hope that some jam will filter down in time to keep Danny, Michael and Ming on the gravy train.

    Caron, they are already calling you cowards for rolling over and accepting the Tory agenda. Also did your ex-leader not say on national television, before, the election that a vote for Alex Salmond and the SNP was a vote for independence? Well it seems that 54% of the people who voted want independence! That angle been ditched now has it? What a preposterous statement about not beefing up the Scotland bill in light of the coming referendum. Alex said BEFORE the election that the referendum would be in the second half of the new parliament (you remember on that same televised debate). Now I know that for the Lib Dems it is a peculiar thing to actually do what you say you will, but that is one of the many things that people like about Alex and the SNP. So you would suggest we just accept the scraps from the Westminster table until then would you? You don’t think that it is a good idea that the Scottish nation should be able to borrow money (like any city council can) to get its economy going? And anyway its only a referendum not as Tavish misleadingly stated independence. The SNP are not guaranteed to win that referendum so it would surely be in the national interest to get as good a deal for Scotland as we can right now! Scotland and the SNP don’t want to join the Lib Dems in playing the long game, we really would like some of that jam right now, that’s why we voted en masse for the SNP and not for the Lib Dems.

  3. Caron, it's probably safe enough to assume that the Lib Dems' opponents will be calling them spawn of the devil whatever they do. What matters more is what the electorate think - and voters don't fall behind the jibes of other politicians like sheep. If they did, the SNP wouldn't have just got elected in spite of a sustained onslaught on their "crazy obsession with independence". A clear, consistent distancing from the UK party, in line with the principle of the federal structure, wouldn't be a panacea for the Lib Dems' ills, but it would certainly help. Rennie has just decided to move entirely in the opposite direction.

    "Imagine what it would be like if the Tories were governing on their own - a lot worse."

    I don't buy that. From the opposition benches, the Lib Dems could have blocked a number of bad things the Tories wanted to do, because there was a natural parliamentary majority against them. Lansley's NHS changes in England, for instance, which the Lib Dems are seemingly content to just tweak instead. A prime example of how entering the coalition has made things worse, not better.

    "The Scotland Bill is not what Lib Dems want"

    Well yes, that's the issue in a nutshell. You described the SNP wanting more powers in advance of a referendum as "peculiar" - but can there be anything more peculiar than the Lib Dem leader going on TV last night to defend to the hilt something his party supposedly doesn't want, and rubbish Alex Salmond for pushing for things that the Lib Dems supposedly do want?

    Incidentally, you said that the Scotland Bill doesn't come in before 2015 anyway - well, I gather that's precisely one of the things Salmond wants to change, at least as far as certain provisions of the bill are concerned.

    "I have a feeling that we're on the brink of a major change in Scotland's constitution. Do we really need to rush it?"

    Earlier, you suggested that the SNP pushing for more powers is a tactic to prepare the ground for independence. Well, some on our side might suspect that the Lib Dems forever saying "there'll be a better day" for a stronger parliament is simply a tactic to prevent change ever happening. The Lib Dems have had eight years in power in Holyrood, they've embarked on a five-year term at Westminster - if they really are, as they claim, a federalist party, when will the day for federalism ever arrive?

  4. James, I'll post this here but it's directed at Caron (on her blog she has a nasty habit of moderating posts in any way critical of the LibDems).

    At the risk of invoking Godwin's Law the LibDems are not Oskar Schindler - this nonsense that they are curtailing the Tories is purely that, nonsense.
    Danny Alexander positively revels in his role as hatchet-man as can be seen by his TV appearances, Cable hasn't the guts to pee or get off the pot, Moore is a real Toom Tabard, a slightly less oleaginous version of J Murphy Esq and as for Clegg - he is a disgrace to the name and spirit of a once great party.
    After this coalition is over, the LibDems in Scotland will be lucky if they need more than a tandem to transport their MPs back to the smoke.

    Bill Pickford