Monday, 28 March 2011

Hugh O'Donnell quits Lib Dems

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Former Liberal Democrats MSP Hugh O’Donnell has today quit the party and announced he will instead be standing as an independent candidate on the Central Scotland regional list.

Mr O’Donnell expressed predictable concerns about the performance of the Westminster coalition, claiming that “the alliance formed in London between the Lib Dems and the Tories” is “the greatest betrayal of all”. However, he also savagely turned on Scottish Lib Dem leader Tavish Scott who he describes as “neither liberal nor democratic” and accuses of never having uttered “a word of criticism...even though the [coalition’s] contempt shown for Scotland and, indeed, the federal structure of the party, knows no bounds.” He added that Scott had abandoned his principles on such things as the independence referendum and claimed that “I can no longer be party to the control freakery, the ‘image is everything’ attitude, and the dictatorial style of doing things.”

I don’t agree with Mr O’Donnell. I’m not a big fan of the “image is everything” approach to politics. I dislike the triumph of spin over substance. But similarly, I have little time for the “loose cannons” and the “awkward squad” who claim to have disdain for superficial approaches to politics but who actually play up their image as populist but principled rebels to maximum effect. O'Donnell is far more interested in projecting a particular image than he'd have us believe.

I disagree with him on his assessment of Tavish Scott. Scott has many weaknesses as well as strengths but I wouldn’t accuse him of control-freakery. Similarly, I don’t count an openness to work with the SNP as abandonment of principle – it’s a pragmatic approach to politics. Presumably O’Donnell is of the view that the natural ally of Liberal Democracy is the Labour Party, but I don’t share that view and it’s clear many other members don’t.

On the coalition, I don’t see that Clegg had any viable alternative, especially faced with a Labour Party who were less than interested in co-operation. It’s obvious O’Donnell would have wanted the easy option of “principled” and opportunistic opposition, picking and choosing which policies to support from the safety of the backbenches. Wouldn’t we all have preferred the easy life? But that kind of approach doesn’t make for stable government and Clegg was right to pursue a full coalition.

O’Donnell has always been the populist type. He’s a man created for opposition. That doesn’t sound like a compliment but it’s designed to be. He could be a formidable opponent in Holyrood when on form, but I never thought for one minute that he would be the kind of person to be on the frontline when the going got tough. Flexibility and compromise don’t seem to feature at all in his vocabulary.

That’s fair enough. Actually, I support his decision to leave the party. He’s a loss to us, that is for sure. But if he feels so strongly, he’s better off standing as an independent. If he gets elected, then Scotland will have an additional liberally-minded, although somewhat maverick, MSP. That’s no bad thing. And if he’s struggling so much with the direction in which the party is moving to the point that he’s deeply unhappy within himself then perhaps the right thing is for him to resign on principle and go whichever way he feels best. It might have been better, however, if he'd chosen to talk through his difficulties with his colleagues and inform them in advance of his decision.

What concerns me is that this just doesn’t feel like a principled resignation. By the way O’Donnell talks, you would think that he’s had concerns for some time about a number of issues which have been largely unexpressed – publicly at least. So why the outburst now, just a day before nominations close?

No senior Lib Dems saw this coming. An MSP and a friend of O’Donnell’s told The Herald that “I had absolutely no idea this was coming. Leaving Holyrood last week we shook hands … and there was no hint of any of this.” The leadership were aware of O’Donnell’s tendency for awkwardness but did not expect such a sudden resignation.

This is surely a calculated and deliberate attempt to get one over the party leadership (against whom he holds grudges) and cast himself as the principled hero in the process. He’s estimated he’s got more to gain as an independent than a Lib Dem – again, fair enough – and announced his intention to stand alone at the right to time to gain maximum impact. It is this I have a problem with – not his resignation itself, or even his determination to stand as an independent, but the deliberate and opportunistic way he’s sought to undermine Tavish Scott.

O’Donnell’s reputation for dissent resulted in Mike Rumbles removing the whip from him last year. To infuriate Mike Rumbles – himself known for being notoriously independent and rebellious – really takes some effort. Since his suspension O’Donnell has been on a personal crusade against the Lib Dem leadership and what he considers a “dictatorial style”.

As far as I can see, O’Donnell’s resignation has as much to do with personal resentments as principle. I would have had far more respect for him if he had spoken up sooner and resigned earlier without rancour or prejudice. I would genuinely have wished him well in his future political adventures. But this cynical decision is aimed purely at damaging others, and I don’t salute it.

I also disagree with his judgement that all “true Liberals” should do similarly and follow him out of the party. “It is a party I no longer want to be part of and neither should other principled Liberals” he says. It is one thing to follow one’s conscience, quite another thing to make value judgements about those who think differently. It's patently wrong to suggest liberals who remain within the party are "unprincipled". There are many liberals within the Lib Dems who correctly see the party as the most effective vehicle for creating a more tolerant and liberal society – and more importantly won’t desert the ship as soon as the seas become a little choppy.


John Minard said...

sometimes, when someone is determined to leave and beyond rationale discussion, you just have to say "yeah, whatever, cheers, bye!"

Andrew said...

Maybe you're right John!

Stuart said...


I just noticed that someone commenting on The Guardian blog has referred to this piece:

"Since you have a continuing interest in (Hugh O'Donnell), I've looked up a response from a commentator who is closer to the events - and who, as far as I can tell, provides a fair-minded review."

Fair-minded, eh? Who would have thought it?

Andrew said...

Stuart, isn't the Guardian a bit highbrow for you?

Fair minded? Well, I try to be!

I have no issue with people following their consciences. I don't have to agree with them to respect their decison. However, if I'd been experiencing the same frustrations as O'Donnell and come to the conclusion I could not remain in the party, I would have spoken to the party leadership, my colleagues and my local party to explain my decision and why I'd arrived there. I wouldn't simply keep quiet until a day before nominations close and then unburden myself to a journalist.

There are many of who are less than happy about either the coalition and/or our leadership but there are more mature and responsible ways to deal with it than to cynically and deliberately undermine the party. It just looks petty and personal.

Allan Heron said...

Hugh's travails within the party are well known and not just recent. You say that his decision to resign is as much due to personal resentments - that may be true but that resentment applies as much to Tavish Scott as it may do to Hugh. It's not an issue that has been kept quiet until his resignation.

Tavish does run the party in an autocratic manner, and he has spent the past four years being almost entirely oppositional resulting in some poor decision making.

I was disappointed that Tavish won the leadership when he was clearly the poorest performer of the three candidates. Last night's display suggest little has improved on that score.

Andrew said...

Maybe you're right Allan and that personal resentments exists on both sides. It may well be true that the leadership have handled this badly. But I don't think the timing of O'Donnell's announcement was coincidental and is hardly the "principled" resignation he claims. It appears motivated by personal animosity towards Tavish Scott. That's understandable in itself, but I still think it would have been preferable if he had informed party colleagues in advance. Many people seemed aware of O'Donnell's frustrations, few expected a resignation.

I understand criticism of Tavish Scott but in my own dealings with him (which admitttedly are minimal) I've never found him to be so controlling and autocratic. That might not, however, be the experience of his MSPs. Even accepting this though doesn't mean O'Donnell's intentionally-timed outburst, self-promotion as an isolated man of principle and subsequent derision of liberals who choose to remain inside the party is welcome.