Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Building a Scottish Liberal Consensus

 The 2015 general election has seen a change in direction in the politics of the UK, yet in Scotland the change seems not far short of a revolution. The astonishing advance of the Scottish National Party- taking all but three seats in Scotland, despite failing to gain even a bare majority of the votes cast, still less the total electorate- was certainly one of the most eye-catching aspects of the election result. 

For the more avid nationalists, the general election result is proof that the independence movement has become unstoppable and that Scotland will- despite the hiccough of the 2014 referendum- become independent in pretty short order.

Yet the referendum result is hardly likely to be set aside so easily- not least because the total votes the SNP gained in 2015 is still a lot less even than the number of losing votes for Yes and it is still quite probable that Scotland - faced with a drastic fiscal deficit and dramatically declining North Sea revenue- would reject independence a second time should the referendum be repeated.

Scotland thus faces a deadlock: a Nationalist bloc trying to alienate Scotland from the rest of the UK, yet with increasingly ever less economic basis for a viable independent state. For the current Parliament, the concerns of Scotland seem set to be ignored, and the SNP has little voice and less power to influence the direction of the Conservative government. The SNP will play on a sense of grievance to promote a more alienated and frustrated Scottish electorate, yet in truth their ability to do more than irritate is strongly limited.

What then for the non-nationalist majority of Scottish voters?

For the time being the  Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats find themselves on a surprisingly level playing field: the power of the Labour machine has been comprehensively weakened, while the Conservatives have made progress, especially against the Liberal Democrats in wealthy east cast seats. Yet despite the collapse of the Lib Dems in Edinburgh, in the North east and the Highlands there are still prospects that may allow them to make gains at the next election for the Scottish Parliament. Admittedly such any such recovery would be from the depths of the greatest nadir, but still it may be that the 2016 Scottish election will be a much brighter result than the 2011 one. Meanwhile, the SNP too thinks it can make yet further gains, presumably from Labour. The result next year, therefore, seems set to be rather "unpredictable".

For what it is worth, despite the advance of the SNP at the general election, there is some evidence that SNP support may indeed do no more than hold at the Holyrood election. This opens up some significant questions as to what might be done to advance the cause of Liberalism in Scotland.

The situation for the Scottish Liberal Democrats is rather different than it is for the rest of the party in the UK at large. Firstly, Scotland already functions under a reasonably proportional regime, so the constitutional question that has so damaged the party in the House of Commons does not apply to the Scottish Parliament. As a result, the manifesto for Holyrood will need to be a far broader discussion than the laser-like focus that is now needed on the constitution at the UK level. The question is going to be one of priorities for Scotland: economic, social, and indeed political. 

Alastair Campbell suggested, after the tragic death of Charles Kennedy, that Charles was considering the prospect for a new unified progressive party to contest the elections in Scotland and take the fight to the SNP. Although each of the non Nationalist parties: Conservative, Labour and the Scottish Liberal Democrats, have ended up in the same place with one MP apiece, the momentum behind each of the parties is not the same. The Conservatives have made some small but solid progress- and as the UKIP bubble deflates, they may recover a good deal further. Meanwhile Labour is facing pressure across the board, and the legacy of decades of Tammany Hall style politics which caused the wipe-out of 2015 may yet find an further echo in 2016. Nevertheless even though the fact of fairer votes in Scotland may well limit the damage in the short term, the direction of travel for Labour in Scotland does not look good. This probably explains why Alastair Campbell, historically the most tribal of Labour loyalists- was kite-flying a "new progressive party" or even a Labour-Lib Dem alliance, which he suggested was on Charles' mind before his death.

What then should the Scottish Liberal Democrats be thinking of, as we consider the options and prospects for the 2016 Holyrood elections?

The question implies setting the goals that the party wants to take forward, and the fact is that the centre of gravity of the Scottish Liberal Democrats is still quite a fair way from that of the Labour Party. The individualist, dissident mind set of Lib Dems does not sit well with the collectivist patronage that has disfigured much of Labour's way of doing business. On the other hand the Conservative Party is now an even more bitter enemy: the utter ruthlessness of the Tory campaign against the Lib Dems has left a legacy of bitterness that will take many years to overcome. Thus, when we consider where we can find more votes, it seems clear that political alliances- formal or informal- are unlikely to work. The question then for the party will be the principles and the positioning.

From the point of view of what is right for Scotland, the left wing consensus between Labour and the SNP has got to be challenged. The statist Labour years have now been made even more damaging by the centralisation and patronage distributed by the SNP: neither is the recipe for the dynamic Scottish economy that we all want to see. The delusional economic policies put forward by the SNP as a platform for independence were deservedly rebuffed by the electorate, and yet the Nats refuse to learn the lesson. Thus the Liberal agenda is both Anti Socialist and Anti Nationalist. The Community aspect of Liberalism- promoting mutual, co-operative and local ownership- is attractive, yet difficult to distill into clear messages. Even still, local control and local ownership are clearly a necessary antidote to the centralisation of the other parties.

In the end it will be the attitude of the party that will determine whether we make progress in May. I believe that, despite the hammer blows that the party has taken in the past few years, culminating in the catastrophe of May 2015, there is every prospect that the Scottish Liberal Democrats can move forward. What the party must consider is whether we should step out and attempt a political re-alignment and, whether or not we do that, what the priorities must be for us going forward.    

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