Friday, May 13, 2011

Rebuilding Scottish Liberalism

The past week has been a very painful one for the Scottish Liberal Democrats. The loss of excellent, long standing and hard working MSPs is a sobering experience. The Scottish electorate may have finally broken with Labour, but they appear to have chosen as their vehicle of protest a party that is based on a marriage of shrewd political populism with dishonest economics: the SNP.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats were punished for a coalition with a party that continues to drift into oblivion north of the border, the Conservatives. While tuition fees do not generally apply in Scotland, there is little doubt that the education debacle helped to undermine the credibility of the party at Holyrood.

Many Scottish Liberal hearts have been broken over the last few days.

The question for now is how to restore the credibility of the party in the eyes of the Scottish people as a legitimate political force.

Even as we relive the agony of this election result we should take heart from three things. The first is that we retain the power of our beliefs and the intellectual rigour of Liberalism- this is a coherent set of values that should inform our policy making at the very root. The second is that the political map has changed, and that while the SNP is currently triumphant, it is unlikely that the Scottish people would simply swap a Labour hegemony for a Nationalist one. Scottish politics is now likely to grow more volatile as a result, and this will give us in time a new opportunity. The third is that the Scottish people are not voting SNP because they want to separate Scotland from the rest of the UK, and the economic storms ahead are going to undermine the already flimsy case for independence still further.

It is perhaps one of the more bitter ironies of this post-election environment that the SNP government, knowing the increasing price of independence, is already seeking to water down their definition of what Scottish independence actually means. Quite clearly many Nats believe in "independence- nothing less", but is also true to say that a significant number, if not a majority, are arguing for a Home Rule position not far beyond what the Scottish Liberal Democrats have been putting forward for decades.

At the last general election, I lost count of the number of times that I was dismissed in Gordon with "I don't vote for Unionist (or "London based") parties". Although I could have told them that Clifton Terrace was quite firmly in Edinburgh, there is no doubt that the Scottish Liberal Democrats have not been able to make their Federalist ideology distinct in the eyes of the Scottish people. In my opinion the party must move to boost this element of our ideas soon.

Salmond is likely to offer a multi choice referendum, because it will confuse the issue and may allow an independence victory by default. The Scottish Liberal Democrats should make it clear- even before the SNP publishes the wording on the ballot- what it believes. In my view we should bring the word "Federalist" very much to the fore. Though a name change to the Scottish Federal Party may be too radical a step, I do think something like "The Scottish Liberal Democrats- the Federalists" might be considered. I think we should explicitly reject the "Unionist" tag, and yet make it clear to the Scottish people that Independence carries costs to our society and to our purse which are unacceptable. This, after all, puts one of the major planks of Liberalism- Home Rule- firmly to the fore. It represents a core belief of our party, and as we may well see at a referendum, it is likely to prove popular. The political argument of the SNP is dishonest if they can preach Independence but actually fight for Home Rule. While we might welcome their conversion, we should not let them face both ways. A fightback can begin if we can seize the political initiative on this critical issue.

We need to move beyond the curve in other ways too.

Salmond says he seeks an antidote to an overmighty Whitehall, but his devolution stops in Edinburgh. Local authorities remain just as powerless in Scotland as they are in England and Wales. The Liberal Democrat tradition of pavement politics is well suited to begin an insurgency at the local level. Although our defeat has been shattering, there is now the opportunity to rebuild a new cadre of local activists who, since we have fair votes, may be able to make a rapid difference in their local areas quite quickly. We should now speak up for local communities against an overmighty Holyrood. As with Home Rule, it runs with the ideology of the party and is also likely to prove popular.

In the face of what has happened, we must accept that we have allowed our political opponents to define us to the voters. In a way, the scale of the defeat gives us a breathing space, and that is where we should take some hope. The political pendulum does swing, and instead of becoming wreathed in gloom we should face the future with some optimism. The personality of our likely new leader, Willie Rennie, is a significant asset in this regard. He will be able to shake off the inevitable "Lib Dems in a taxi" jibes with his customary good humour. I remember a very bad night in Aberdeen, where after a brief coalition with the Tories we were punished with the loss of our leaders: Roy Thompson and Forbes McCallum not least. In the end, though, we were able to recover in Aberdeen, and eventually I am confident that we can do so in Scotland.

However, before we do this we need to plan for the general election. On the face of it, the SNP are right to regard their prospects against us with more than a little enthusiasm, yet in fact it is already clear that many SNP voters for Holyrood will cast their votes elsewhere for Westminster: it is a pattern we see in many other places, from Catalonia to Quebec. The challenge for the Scottish Liberal Democrats will be to make sure that instead of opting for Labour, the Scottish voters at least consider us and where we can win, they actually do vote for us. To be sure, it will not be easy, yet we do have some advantages. In the shape of Mike Moore, Al Carmichael and Danny Alexander we do have political leaders that can carry as much authority as Salmond does. We must make sure that such figures as Iain Smith are not lost to us, and as some of our older MPs consider standing down, we should make sure that they are replaced with figures of sufficient authority and credibility. Frankly, callow researchers won't cut it, we need MPs that add more than the cultish atmosphere of professional politics. It will not be enough to rely on tactical voting, which we can no longer rely on anyway; we must make a proactive case for voting for our party and our candidates, positively.

I think we should be far more grown up in the way we communicate with the voters. This is in no way a criticism of Tavish who proved in many ways a better leader than his predecessor. However we have been drowned out in our campaigning. Yet if our message has to be clear, it should not be simplified to the point of dumbing down. Our Westminster leadership made a huge mistake by not admitting the difficult choices that we had to face if we entered coalition. We have always known that trusting the Tories is a risky business, so we really should have been more upfront at the beginning about what we would have to sacrifice. In future we must be more ready to accept the complications of a question- and in my view such honesty has significant long term benefits.

We do not know what the political landscape will look like in 2015, so we should stick with our convictions and see this through. It is certainly not obvious to me that Labour under their rather shallow and shifty looking leader can escape the blame for their disgraceful actions in government. The voters may yet accept our contention that the pain was necessary and that the Liberal Democrats served their country well by taking on the risk of the coalition in the first place.

We are a Radical party and I think we must revisit our commitment to Radical traditions. Now is the time to revisit our core issues. There will be some who argue that we could now accept the "inevitability" of independence. It is a debate we might have, although in my view it would only prove the strength of our commitment to Home Rule and Federalism, but I am happy to meet the debate inside as well as outside the party. There will be some who argue we should move in a far more radical direction in public service reform. I agree, but the extent of restructuring of public services in Scotland is very much a matter of debate- I think we should face the facts of Scottish over reliance on the State head on, and it is time for us to consider radical solutions. More and more people in Scotland accept the need to reduce the public sector, but Salmond is growing used to his power of patronage: he should be harried at every turn. Every cent of the "new fiscal powers"- and the old ones for that matter- should be checked, and if appropriate criticized.

The one thing that the Scottish Liberal Democrats are not is stupid. We should bring our intellectual fire power to bear on the key issues of what the state should be doing (and just as importantly, not doing) as well as the short term debate of what kind of form our relations with England and Wales should take. I know we have the intellect and the ideology to create innovative and effective policies. I think we can relearn our skills in conveying those ideas to the Scottish people, and I am confident that the change in political attitudes in Scotland against Labour can ultimately work to our benefit.

We have a cadre of excellent activists, from Alex Cole Hamilton to Siobhan Mathers to Craig Harrow and many many others, so we can rebuild more rapidly than seems remotely possible today.

Though it has been a nasty few days, but we know our party is resilient and that Liberalism is a proud and highly successful tradition in Scottish politics. Though we must accept the lessons that the voters have taught us with all humility, we must not lose sight of the opportunities that now present themselves.

We are in politics because we believe that our ideas are a benefit to our society and our country. There will be much talk of patriotism over the next few years before Salmond finally faces the moment of truth in his referendum. His brand of cheap populism is not the same as the genuine patriotism of seeking the right solution to our social, economic and political ills. I, for one, resent the idea that those who oppose the SNP are unpatriotic. It is our major challenge now to explain to the Scottish people and to the wider world why the Liberal agenda is not only practical and fair, but right minded and patriotic too.

I already see our activists have the fire in their belly to carry the battle back to our opponents and it would be a very foolish commentator indeed who underestimated our ideas, our members and our party.


4 comments:

Lord Blagger said...

Simple solution.

Campaign for the right for England to have a referenda.

We can dump you, then you dump Wales and NI

Solved.

Well, maybe, I don't see how you are going to manage with a Barnett formula share of the debt.

Dilettante said...

I do hope that you don't end up rejecting the unionist label. Unionism is one of the best strains of British politics. Federalism is a sop to nationalism, that most poisonous and illiberal of trends.

Liberal Unionism is the best possible political cast of mind that anybody can hold, and I hope the Scottish Liberal Democrats stick to it.

Newmania said...

When it is explained to the Scots that they will have their share of ongoing pension liabilities and debt they will not vote for independence .
Mores the pity.Like most English people I have lost all interest in the union and resent the annual rip off of the Barnett formula as much as the imposition of 50 Labour MPs in a country we have no political links with
I think we would both be better off apart and if that means Scots will no longer be welcome on our screens in our courts in or Parliament, good .
That cultural asymmetry is also one up with which we have put, for too long.


Then we can leave Europe,tighten up immigration pitch out the socialists forever and have England back.

James Taylor said...

Great post although not sure re the name change bit. I had many similar thoughts which I outlined at http://jamestaylor.me/2011/05/16/is-willie-oor-john-swinney/