The Scottish Liberal Democrats conference continues over the weekend, though unfortunately I will have to leave after lunch today: barely halfway through the gathering. It means, that despite seeing so many of my very old friends, inevitably I will miss several- and of course the most convivial gathering, in the shape of the conference dinner.
As I get ready to leave, I reflect upon the current state of party politics. Relative to our immediate past, I find the Scottish Liberal Democrats in very rude health, yet I reflect that all political parties are simply shadows of what they once were. The network of Liberal clubs, Conservative clubs and Working Men's clubs which provided a social reinforcement to political activism are now long gone- transmuted into just another way to consume alcohol. The physical infrastructure of committee rooms, libraries and so on that the Victorian philanthropists bequeathed, are also now much diminished. Politics, as a mass social activity, appears to have gone the way of religion: while many may profess to be believers the fact is that many if not most are more heretic than orthodox and political observance is limited to the occasional visit to the ballot box, the political equivalent of a Christmas midnight mass.
The latest political initiative to reinvigorate the political system is a rather oxymoronic concept "organised independents", Sir Paul Judge, a former Conservative donor, has switched his funding to a new group called "the Jury Team", which will campaign to get more non party politicians elected. I doubt it will work- where local "independent" groups exist, they tend to behave in exactly the same way as the national parties. They campaign as "holier than thou", but they almost always fail to achieve their aspirations- not because of party political competition very often, but because of the pressures of their own contradictions.
That is not to say that all is rosy in the party political garden: far from it. However in the end, perhaps the shortcomings of politics could be solved were there a greater political engagement by wider society. Actually, of course, millions of people ARE political engaged, they are members of the National Trust, the give to the RSPCA or Shelter or any one of thousands of other charities. They are school governors, they create campaigns to protect their local area. Yet, for the vast majority of these people, the current menu of electable parties is simply unappealing. For me as for millions of others, there is a deep frustration that politics in their area does not represent what they believe in.
In my opinion the House of Commons is the last bastion of an anti-competitive closed market. In the largest majority of seats, there is no competition- and we should hardly be surprised that turnout in those seats is sometimes barely above 50%.
At their root, Scottish Liberal Democrats believe in a free and fair electoral system, and that is our answer to those who demand more independents- a free market in politics will ultimately lead to a a more diverse political system.
I am happy to be back in Scotland, especially in Perth, which seems to represent the better part of our solid Victorian heritage- it remains a wealthy and stable community. My party here is optimistic about their electoral future, and certainly in the face of Labour decline and SNP dithering they have every reason to be feeling positive. As for me, I reluctantly return South, but with a determination to be back soon.