Friday, 27 May 2011

What the Church of Scotland said this week about gay ministers...and what it didn’t

Last week I blogged about the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly – and the need for it to make the right decision on the ordination of gay ministers, both in the interests of an inclusive church and for LGBT rights in Scotland.

The General Assembly met to discuss the issue on Monday, after which a great deal has been written in the press – much of it speculative and contradictory. So what was actually decided on Monday – and is this really a step forward or a further example of an undecided church sitting on the fence?

Firstly, I’d like to deal with what was reported in the supposedly responsible media (i.e. The Scotsman and The Herald). The Herald, taking the sensationalist line it has adopted throughout, reported that “Kirk split looms as members vote to back gay ministers”, arguing that “the result throws up the prospect of schism within the Church” and quoting from a Lewis minister who likes to use the word “liberalism” as a term of abuse and appeared to have an apocalyptic vision of Scotland’s churches being forced to induct swarms of gay clergy. The Scotsman, more soberly but equally inaccurately, led with “Kirk lifts ban on appointing gay ministers” and focused its energies on unravelling the confused logic of the verdict as well as the human rights issue at the heart of the matter. It chose to quote a more liberal minister from Orkney, who stated “I can’t go on living with discrimination.”

Effectively, to understand precisely the nature of the challenges facing the Church (and attitudes within it) is was necessary to read both reports – it would also probably have helped if the press were prepared to speak to some ordinary C of S members for whom the sexuality of ministers pales into insignificance compared to their leadership skills and compassion.

But it’s not strictly true to say that the Church of Scotland has “lifted the ban”. The Guardian roared that the Kirk "had voted to allow gay minsters". If only it had. What has actually happened is, according to the church’s website, far less radical. It has - wait for it - “vot[ed] for more dialogue”. That seems a bit strange to people like myself who have argued for a more open debate within the church with limited success. I hope the "dialogue" the church is seeking is more constructive, more inclusive, more engaging and less polarised than what we have witnessed in the previous few years.

Essentially, the General Assembly voted by 351 voted to 294 to adopt a position of “acceptance for training, induction and ordination of those in same-sex relationships for the ministry.” It also voted, by a margin of 393 to 252, to allow gay ministers ordained before 2009 to be inducted into pastoral charges – a move obviously designed to ensure the right thing is done in respect to the Rev Scott Rennie. However, while this move away from the Church’s “traditional” position is welcome, the reality is that all the Kirk has done is to “decide on a trajectory” (according to its report) and to have instructed a further two-year theological Commission to prepare a report for the 2013 General Assembly on issues of same-sex relationships.

So no – there is no ban that has been lifted. Instead, we have a further two years of indecision. It’s not what I would have wanted or voted for. The Church has, however, at least agreed not to inhibit induction of ministers such as Rev Rennie who was ordained prior to 2009 – and this bodes well for the future.

The problem with the Kirk’s position is the inconsistency of it. The General Assembly has decided, predictably, to put off making a real decision for as long as possible. They’re following a “trajectory” instead of mustering the courage to abide by their convictions and do something genuinely positive here and now. In doing so, the General Assembly has decided that a church can have a gay minister so long as that person has been ordained for two years and is “openly” gay. This final stipulation demonstrates how intellectually unsustainable the Kirk’s new position is, and how it continues to retain a discriminatory nature. Why this restriction? What about bisexual people? What about gay people who don’t wish to declare their sexuality openly? I certainly don’t feel the need to openly discuss mine, and neither should I.

I am pleased for Scott Rennie and I hope there will be many more gay Christians becoming ministers in the future. I want to be part of a more inclusive church. But whether any gay people will be ordained in the future depends on decisions made in 2013, and so the optimistic headlines in The Scotsman and The Guardian are well short of the mark.

I would like to make a few points about the decision and the process. Firstly, I am disappointed but not altogether surprised by the compromised verdict, and it least it is a step in the right direction. It will be difficult for the General Assembly in 2013 to deny opportunities to gay people when there will already be some actively serving as ministers. And it is certainly vastly preferable to other options the Church could have taken.

Secondly, I am concerned that the Church continues to interpret intolerance and discrimination within its ranks as expressions of “traditionalism”. It is not, and a failure to recognise this gives bigotry some semblance of respectability. Evangelical fundamentalism is a relatively new phenomenon and probably owes far more to the culture of the Holiness movement in the nineteenth century than it does any particular interpretation of scripture. The “traditions” of Christianity as I understand them are love and inclusivity (as witnessed by Christ himself) and a willingness to serve – the kind of things promoted by Scott Rennie rather than his detractors.

Thirdly, it was notable what the General Assembly didn't say. There was no official change in the position that homosexuality is intrinsically sinful. It also refused to be drawn on what exactly it means when it allows for those who are "openly" gay and in same-sex relationships opportunities to train while arguing that "no decisions have yet been taken" about inclusiveness in the future. Is the Kirk really willing to open up training opportunities now, only to deny graduates access to the ministry further down the line?

Fourthly, the General Assembly examined and debated intensely for over six hours on Monday. From what I gather, it seems it was keen to base its decision-making, in part at least, on a document it commissioned on “the biological basis for sexuality”. If the Church of Scotland wishes to embroil itself in scientific arguments then that is its business (although I am also aware that some fringe churches in America use a biological predetermination of sexuality as evidence that homosexuality can be “treated”). But in focusing on this, surely it is overlooking the fact that action isn’t required because gay people are biologically “different”, but because it is unchristian and unethical for the Church to continue in its discriminatory practices? Or perhaps even because inclusiveness is a positive thing that increases the Kirk’s social relevance?

I am hugely disappointed that the General Assembly’s decision was not the more progressive one. But it is clear that momentum is now with the progressives rather than the self-styled “traditionalists”. For that we should all be grateful.

Was I the only person underwhelmed by Obama's speech?

I have a lot of respect for the US president - far more in fact than I have had for any other serving US president.

I was naturally pleased that in the last week he has visited Ireland and the UK. That he should make a historic speech to MPs and peers in Westminster Hall is particularly fitting at a time when many have questioned the wisdom of the relationship between the UK and the US. Obama is undoubtedly a gifted orator with abilities far beyond most of those occupying front bench positions within the Commons. He can excite and enthuse in a way few politicians can. He's also by nature both confident and positive, something I personally admire far more than his oratorical skills, and therefore I was keen to hear what he would be saying to the assembled group of politicians in Westminster Hall (where I once gave a speech during a meeting on protecting NHS services organised by Dr Richard Taylor).

As might be expected, Obama's optimism shone through. It was the kind of speech we've come to expect from the president, speaking up the relationship between our nations and forecasting new opportunities in which we could, in alliance, retain global leadership. His delivery was flawless; his intervention on some key issues (not least in addressing questions about the changing world order - a hot potato British politicians seem afraid to touch) was bold and timely. But I was left feeling underwhelmed by his speech, which for all its flair and eloquence felt like a pat on the head from the master. "Good doggy, there's a good boy. Go fetch!"

The British media have been largely uncritical of Obama's speech. This is unfortunate. Of course, there was so much positive within it, and I personally enjoyed the way he is so comfortable taking on pessimism and negativity. I'm not going to analyse the full speech in any depth but, for all the positivity and the "Yes, we can!" attitude, in some respects Obama asked more questions than he answered. While he sees the emergence of China and India as economic powers a product of Western values, and by implication welcomed new players in a changing world arena, he said very little about the relationship we should have with such powers instead focusing on developing a UK-US "indispensable alliance". Why should it be indispensable, and why so exclusive? What economic benefits would it necessarily bring? And why do we need to continue to "lead" the world, especially given the economic progress of the aforementioned countries? Does Obama still cling to outdated concepts of hegemony and colonialism?

Similarly, the president appeared to give little thought to relations between the UK and the EU. How will any strengthening of the relationship between our countries affect that between ourselves and our European partners?

I was least impressed with his statement on Afghanistan. I know he needs to be positive, and to signal that he is optimistic for imminent resolutions to long-standing problems. I welcome him having the courage to openly address the matter, but his assertion that we "are preparing to turn a corner" to my mind smacks of blind - and probably misplaced - optimism. There is nothing to suggest that bin Laden's death will damage the Taliban, or provide the catalyst for forging a new, peaceful Afghanistan. The nation's history and divisions are far more complex than that.

Also, Obama spoke of the need to double investment in Higher Education. I don't necessarily disagree in principle, but surely he was aware of recent controversies and of the fact that the UK can not currently afford such an investment? Why did he feel the need to stir up that particular hornet's nest?

My principal concern is that Obama - and, sadly, many of our own politicians - are keen to talk about new realities but less keen to embrace them. The world has changed since the 1950s. The UK and the US do not "lead the world" - at least, not in the same way they used to. And yet, there remains this strange reluctance to accept the inevitability of change or to realign ourselves with the new powers. It seems that successive presidents and prime ministers treat the "special relationship" as an article of faith; either under the delusion that the UK's and the US's world dominance is given or because of an unwillingness to accept the unpalatable truth that we are being eclipsed and our positions as "leaders" undermined. Obama is right that we should not be fearful, but is incorrect to assert that the way forward is to reinvent the old. While I support a closer working relationship between our nations I was concerned that Obama avoided mention of the many problems that have afflicted the "relationship" in recent years. Positive visions for the future, even those based on a misconception of our value to the world, are good and well - but they don't negate the need to deal with the problems of the past.

Obama's speech can be viewed in full on the BBC website.

I find the esteem in which he is held by the public over here quite incredible: he has, unbelievably, a higher approval rating than either Cameron, Clegg or Miliband. It strikes me he's the kind of leader many in our country would love to have, and I can fully understand why. He has what party training programmes and discriminatory shortlists can never produce - character. It should not be surprising therefore, that MPs and Peers were going to such lengths to meet the president afterwards, seemingly feeling themselves privileged to be in the Great Man's presence.

My friend Lord Roberts of Llandudno, on Facebook, asked "shall I wash my right hand? - I shook hands with Obama!" That, apparently, was one of the more sober reactions. Fellow Scottish Lib Dem blogger littlegrumpyG observed that "our politicians swoon over the President of the United States with his 26 car motorcade and rush for a handshake with him as though they will, by osmosis, soak up some of his charisma and apparent wisdom. [Obama] is a political rock star. Just touching him can make the blind see, the deaf hear and Ken Clarke awake from slumber. But please, have a little decorum. You are elected politicians, there to serve the people, debate the laws of the land and occasionally, very occasionally, get on the six o’clock news...Scottish Tory MP David Mundell, for example, will never wash his right hand again after jumping over three rows of chairs and giving Black Rod a dead leg just to thrust his sweaty palm towards the President. Floella Benjamin, a Lib Dem peer, went one further by hugging the President which she later gushed about on Twitter."

This is, of course, embarrassing. But it also demonstrates another unwelcome truth - that our supposed "mother of parliaments" is so short of people with the capability to reach out to the public. It's also short on quality debate - you'll find a more considered and intelligent level of political discussion at the Pullman Tavern in Kilmacolm.

The real challenge for our politicians in the aftermath of Obama's speech is not how best to strengthen working relationships with the US but on how our politicians, their parties and democracy itself can reconnect with the public in the same way that Obama seems to able to. Improving the quality of debate rather than simply raising the volume, as most British MPs do, would be a useful start.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Revisiting my predictions

In January I made predictions for the coming year. Almost five months in, I decided to take a look at them and see how accurate (and otherwise) they have turned out so far!


On politics, I predicted that the Oldham and Saddleworth by-election would be closer than many people imagined. It was – so not a bad prediction. Unfortunately I also happened to state that this would show that ”the Lib Dems are far from the brink of collapse”. I’m not too sure I can take too much credit for getting that one right.

I also forecast that “attitudes towards the Lib Dems will slowly change over the year, both among the media and the public.” Yes, they have. In Scotland at least, people have gone from being angry towards the Lib Dems to seeing them as electorally irrelevant. A huge task lies ahead for Willie Rennie.

I predicted that the coalition would survive the year, while tensions between the grassroots and the leaderships would be heightened. So far, I’m being proved right on that score. Sadly, I was clearly overly optimistic in predicting very modest losses for the Lib Dems in the Holyrood elections and for the Greens to increase their representation – although I am not too upset at being proved wrong in my assertion that Labour would win comfortably. I think I was spot on in relation to Tommy Sheridan – but I think any sensible person would have made the same calculation.

I correctly foretold the outcome of the AV referendum, which I always thought would never excite the public, while also getting it right on Labour’s inability to decide what their policies are (as witnessed in Scotland where policy positions seemed to change from one day to the other).


St Mirren and Morton did, indeed, both escape relegation quite comfortably. Well done to them! And Rangers did win the league on the final day of the season, although the controversy I was referring to actually occurred in an earlier Old Firm game. Why is this kind of thing so sadly predictable?

Finally, and most importantly (being my main reason for writing this) I am absolutely thrilled that my prediction for my own team – Albion Rovers – was almost entirely mistaken and probably based on several years of disappointment. Yes, we were not promoted automatically, losing out to a very talented Arbroath team. But,we’ve just won the play-offs!!! We won!!! Our first promotion since 1988 (when Maclennan and Steel were joint leaders of the Social and Liberal Democrats). After 23 years of misery - finally this! I now know what it feels like to support a successful team!!!

And the best thing was beating Annan Athletic (my wife’s team) in the final. Not that I’m gloating, I wouldn’t do that. Honestly.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Will the Kirk make the right decision on gay clergy?

And so, the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly gets under way in Edinburgh. Unusually, this year what is being discussed is likely to attract more than a little interest from the media – not least because on Monday church leaders will spend the day discussing the report by the Special Commission on Same-Sex Relationships and the Ministry. I don't normally write on religious issues, but the importance of the Assembly's verdict is such that I feel compelled to speak out in advance.

The special commission, established two years ago after the General Assembly voted by 326 votes to 267 to appoint openly gay minister Scott Rennie to an Aberdeen church, issued a report a few weeks ago and recommended a number of “trajectories” the church could take.

Following the unnecessary controversy surrounding Rev Rennie’s appointment, the Kirk reversed its original decision and instead announced a two-year moratorium on any further appointments of openly gay ministers until the special commission completed its report. Now that the report is complete, the Kirk must now make an overdue decision that will not only affect Rev Rennie and other gay clergy, but gay rights more generally and the church’s standing within Scotland.

So, what does the report recommend? Nothing frighteningly positive to be honest. The first “trajectory” is to implement a ban on gay people training to be ministers — despite such discrimination being illegal. I have concluded that this has been recommended as an option simply to placate some of the traditionalists and will not be taken seriously. The second is to allow people in a same-sex relationship to train for the ministry but set up a theological commission to come up with a definitive answer in 2013. This is the option I can see the church taking – more sitting on the fence and refusing to make a firm decision.

The General Assembly is not necessarily bound by the recommendations of the report and is free to consider other possibilities, such as welcoming gay people as ministers. The church has many gay members and the report recommends that “people who are homosexual by orientation should not be barred from membership of the Church or taking up leadership roles in it”. So why should there be a distinction made between the membership and the clergy? The position is not only morally reprehensible, it is intellectually unsustainable. Homosexual orientation is acceptable, apparently, but homosexual relationships are not – at least for ministers. I don’t comprehend this: why would we not want gay people to give expression to their sexuality in loving acts? Why don’t we use the same criteria to judge same-sex relationships that we use to judge whether heterosexual relationships are whole?

The report recommends Christians “should not be hostile to homosexuals”. That’s nice. But short of the positive, tolerant and inclusive message I was hoping for. It also states that the Church “should regard homophobia as a sin”. This again is welcome, but inconsistent with the thrust of the “trajectories” it recommends, which are both by nature promoting discrimination. This is a confused stance theologically and simply demonstrates how the church has been rendered intellectually impotent by the fear of division on homosexuality. The Kirk simply lacks the ability, or the will, to make a firm decision.

As someone who has campaigned for increased LGBT rights and has a Christian faith (I attend my local Church of Scotland, although irregularly) I have a message for the General Assembly. It is this: you need to be strong and stand by your convictions. You made the right decision two years ago and you have back-pedalled, bullied and intimidated by those who refuse to accept your progressive and tolerant approach. "Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him." (James 1:12). Instead of persevering you have buckled under the slightest pressure and have succumbed to the temptation to take the easiest of options (i.e. to pass through the wide gate, Matthew 7: 13).

The confused doctrine of separation currently being advocated in the Kirk is a false gospel and a form of spiritual apartheid. Labelling a section of society as inherently “sinful” on the basis of orientation is dehumanising. How can you speak to people about a God who loves them when you actively treat them as second-rate or when you suggest that value and personhood lies in only one expression of sexuality?

Those who advocate continued discrimination towards gay people, or any other minority, are defending the indefensible. Because discrimination of this type is evil, evil beyond question. It is immoral and unchristian. I can not see how such treatment is consistent with the message of Jesus Christ who said “inasmuch as you did unto the least of these, so you did to me.” (Matthew 25:40) The Jesus I read about is not likely to collaborate with those who persecute an already oppressed minority.

The Kirk’s current position may be confused, but it continues to actively promote discrimination. And it is a form of apartheid, because it discriminates against people on the basis of something they can not change. Enforcing celibacy on ministers of homosexual but not heterosexual orientation is logically unsustainable. It also undermines the church’s moral position, as oppression naturally dehumanises the oppressor as much as the oppressed.

Instead, the Kirk should be awakening an instrinsic sense of worth among all people as children of God. It should be witnessing on the side of the weak, the powerless, the exploited and the discriminated against. If people are created in God’s image, as the church believes, to allow such people to suffer is not simply wrong, it is blasphemous. As Desmond Tutu insisted, homophobia is a “crime against humanity”; it is “to spit in the face of God."

Scott Rennie is certainly a more devout man than most who called for action to be taken against him. The only concern the church should have in respect to gay clergy is whether the individuals concerned can lead effectively. If the church is serious about its mission to be an instrument of peace then it should make the only logical and sensible decision at its disposal. Rejection of discrimination is an obligation implicit in the profession of Christian faith. Jesus Christ identified with the downtrodden, the prostitutes, the drug addicts and homosexuals – so too should his professed adherents.

Scotland needs a new Kirk – non-segregated, tolerant, inclusive, participatory and just; a powerful witness in a new Scotland of one people living together. The General Assembly has an important choice to make: does it opt for further indecision or courageously move to outlaw the oppressive and unjust discriminatory practices it simultaneously opposes and champions? The Kirk has the power to drive Scotland forward on the matter of LGBT rights. If only it knew it. If only it knew what to do with it.

The real need for Lords reform

Never in the field of political endeavour has such little been delivered and so much promised.

I am, of course, referring to reform of the House of Lords, which is not only overdue by decades but – on the basis of what we witnessed in the “other place” on Tuesday – looks likely to become derailed by party tribalism on the part of Labour and resistance to change on the part of some Conservatives.

That Nick Clegg presented the draft Bill allowed Labour MPs the opportunity to make fun of the Deputy Prime Minister. They sense he is a figure of ridicule at the moment, and targeted him personally in the same way that the No2AV campaign sought to make mileage from his popular image as compromised and unprincipled. Forgetting their own party’s claim to be progressive, and their supposed commitment to reforming the Lords, Labour MPs opportunistically expressed resistance to the proposed reforms – more on the basis of a misguided quest to bash Nick Clegg than on any intellectual grounds.

It will be interesting to see where Ed Miliband takes the Labour Party. Many Labour MPs would love to see Nick Clegg’s Bill defeated, out of spite rather than principle, while a number of Conservatives opposed to reform will also welcome its failure. The easy tactic for such people is to deliberately allow the Bill to run out of time. Miliband showed little leadership on the issue of AV (which he ostensibly supported) and a failure to show a little more authority on this matter could lead to a similar lack of constitutional progress. If Miliband can not get his party to unite not only will Labour look like a party divided behind a weak leadership, its claims to be progressive will appear questionable at best. Progressive reformers within the Labour Party may feel the need to find a political home elsewhere.

Cameron, however, seems to understand that the reforms are necessary and – more significantly from the Conservative viewpoint – has decided that another pitched battle with the Liberal Democrats in a similar vein to the AV debate could be potentially destructive to coalition unity. He seems determined to rebuild trust between the coalition partners and ensure that Liberal Democrats retain the incentive to co-operate in government. I have far more faith in Cameron’s willingness to assert himself than I do Miliband’s, but I’m not convinced he has the ability to persuade renegade Tories to fall into line. And I suspect he will carry little weight in the Lords, where Tory peers are reported to be fiercely opposed to reform.

As yesterday’s Independent explained, it is in the interests of all three party leaderships that the Bill is successfully passed. Cameron and Clegg understand this. As for Miliband, I fear he is torn between political opportunism and his personal convictions.

In all the furore, it is easy to miss what is actually being proposed. The “revolutionary” changes are perhaps not so revolutionary. In fact, there seems to be very little objectionable in them – unless you happen to be the kind of Liberal Democrat who takes a real interest in constitutional matters. The White paper is proposing reducing the size of the second chamber (to 300) with 80 per cent of members elected under an unspecified system of proportional representation and serving 15 year terms. 20 per cent of the Lords will remain appointed, including crossbenchers and bishops, whose number will be reduced from 26 to 12. It’s broadly positive and, as all three parties made some commitments to Lords reform in their respective manifestos, should be non-controversial.

However, some legitimate questions have been raised, such as whether the proposals would create a House of Lords that is the preserve of party apparatchiks. This echoed the findings of Prof Anthony King who recently argued that a "democratically legitimate" House of Lords would "inevitably consist almost entirely of a miscellaneous assemblage of party hacks, political careerists, clapped-out retired or defeated MPs, has-beens, never-weres and never-could-possibly-bes". I can understand this concern and don’t dismiss it, but it can not be taken seriously as an objection, especially since the benches in the second chamber are currently occupied by retired party hacks, former MPs, generous donors and the like. At least under an electoral system, such individuals will be made accountable to the public. Another question was asked about the public appetite for change, citing the example of the AV referendum, but that is in some respects irrelevant. I don’t imagine that many of the public have the same interest in this issue as I do, or that they are remotely excitable by constitutional matters. But neither do they show any particular passion for much of what is discussed in either the Lords or the Commons – and I feel strongly that while interest in the detail may be limited, the public care for democracy and want their politicians to be accountable.

A third, more pertinent question, came from Frank Dobson. He asked: "Does the Deputy Prime Minister not agree that a sounder approach would be to decide what we want the House of Lords to do and what its functions should be before we decide how it is made up? Otherwise, we are in the situation of picking the team before we have decided what game it is going to play." A highly relevant question and one which begs a better answer than the one Clegg provided: “We already know the role of the House of Lords—scrutiny and revision”.

I was discussing this yesterday with Bob Maclennan, the former SDP leader and a proponent of constitutional reform. We both felt that the proposals set out in the White Paper do not go far enough and are particularly concerned about the continued presence of “Lords Spiritual” – i.e. bishops – in the reformed House. We’re of the opinion that this could have been handled better by the respective party leaderships, especially Labour’s. But we both also share Dobson’s view that the starting point for debate and for the shaping of a new House of Lords should be its role rather than how it is constituted. Arrogant assertions about our democratic system (however correct they might be) can not and should not be the basis for constitutional change.

Maclennan wrote last year, as part of a collection of essays in honour of Shirley Williams, a well-informed and intellectually challenging piece entitled The Lords Renewed. It was essentially a blueprint for a more accountable and democratic second chamber that. Given the current debate, it requires serious consideration – not least because it deals with the objections of Prof King and others, and provides a coherent response to Dobson’s line of questioning.

Maclennan begins his essay by insisting that “choices for reform and their probable consequences need to be made more explicit...the overriding purpose of reforming the House of Lords should be to enhance its capability, and that of parliament as a whole, to serve the public needs.” He examines the role of parliament which he describes as “not only provid[ing] decision makers for government but influence the process of decision. To accomplish this task there is a need to adapt the parliamentary institutions to equip them for the new contemporary political challenges.” He considers increased parliamentary workload merits reform; the cross-territorial impact of devolved government, the growing work of Select Committees in shadowing their departments and the increased parliamentary responsibility stemming from the Treaty of Lisbon have overstretched MPs, he argues. “The reform of the second chamber will offer the best opportunity to reconsider the functions of both chambers with a view to ensuring an appropriate division of labour”.

Having made the argument for change on the basis of pragmatism rather than democratic deficit, Maclennan turns his attention to the risks of marginalising the second chamber and it becoming a “mere echo-chamber of the House of Commons”. Considering elections, he supposes that “by election by the public the new chamber will enjoy a new democratic legitimacy” but concedes that if the subordinate role of their unelected predecessors is maintained, the new peers will be unable to tackle the problems of Commons overload and “the tendency of political power to be centripetal will not be checked.” Democratic legitimacy, in other words, is not the end game. The real purpose of reform is to strengthen parliamentary accountability as a whole, increasing the influence of the Lords and devising a more effective cross-House interface. After all, why would anyone wish to be elected to a second chamber whose role is distinctly “secondary” and subordinate to the Commons, a disempowered arm of parliament with limited legislative and investigative roles? It would only attract the kind of candidate Prof King fears.

The House of Lords has historically been merely complimentary to the Commons, but an empowered second chamber should do more than replicate the work of the Commons.. A reformed chamber must be awarded a more distinct role and have greater influence and authority. Maclennan admits that “this will depend upon its standing and the quality of the contribution of its members to scrutiny and debate”. And so, while elections are useful, and we would naturally prefer a system of PR to be used, the White Paper is ignoring the more vital question of parliamentary regeneration. It creates a reformed chamber which would be distinctly second-rate in its functions and unlikely to attract the calibre of individuals needed to ensure its effectiveness. As Maclennan wryly observes, “a smaller reformed chamber with real and discrete powers “ will “more readily attract the calibre of candidate required to improve the quality of governance”. The converse is not only true; it is a pre-requisite. The only means of avoiding the undesirable predictions of Prof King is to adapt and enhance the role of the Lords, as a body and as individuals.

Maclennan, having adequately made the case for changing the role of the House of Lords finally turns his attention to the potential lack of expertise in a reformed new body. This can be countered, he proposes, by the establishment of a Council of State consisting of a small number of expert appointees (from the political sphere and beyond) at arm’s length from the government with a rolling membership. Its role would be providing pre-legislative scrutiny and mainly advisory, including proposing amendments, “but with no power of decision or to obstruct the will of either elected chamber”.

Maclennan’s essay is both succinct and detailed. It is impressive in that it refuses to take the usual Liberal Democrat line that democratic reform is necessary for its own sake. Instead, he has a vision for a new, more accountable and fit-for-purpose British democracy in which the Lords can play a renewed and reinvigorated role. This is the purpose of constitutional reform: strengthening the way in which democracy works, not simply improving democratic structures.

Unfortunately the White Paper is largely focused on the structural. It proposes little more than the status quo with increased democratic legitimacy. It does not deal with adapting the roles of parliamentarians; neither does it examine the means by which the functions of each House can be reformed in the public interest. In this sense, the White Paper is limited in its scope and imagination and represents a missed opportunity to deal with many of the issues that will inevitably arise.

However, while those with a passion for such matters (like myself) are naturally disappointed with the scale of the reforms outlined by Nick Clegg on Tuesday, there is little doubt that they represent a welcome and overdue step in the right direction. The thrust of the government’s proposals is right, even if there has been obvious compromise in retaining the Lords Spiritual and a 20 per cent appointed chamber. It is infinitely more satisfactory than current arrangements and I genuinely hope that the Bill is passed, with Labour support. It is, after all, people like myself and Bob Maclennan who find more in principle to disagree with in the White Paper than the likes of Ed Miliband and those who oppose for opposition’s sake.

* "The Lords Renewed" is featured in Making the Difference, edited by Andrew Duff.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Rennie is new leader of Scottish Liberal Democrats

Willie Rennie is the new leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats.

He was elected unopposed, which is hardly surprising in the circumstances.

Rennie was for me the obvious choice to succeed Tavish Scott who resigned in the aftermath of the disastrous Scottish parliamentary elections. While he is new to Holyrood, he has served as MP for Dunfermline and West Fife; during his time at Westminster he became well known for his leadership on defence issues. He has also served as chair of the Lib Dem campaigns and communications committee – experience which should stand him in good stead for spearheading a liberal revival in Scotland.

Rennie’s opening remarks as leader both excited and disappointed me. I am very pleased that he has promised “a return to community politics”; while liberalism is about a great deal more than community politics here is a welcome commitment to rebuild the party from the grassroots upwards. This shows he understands the nature of the problems facing the party in Scotland and that organisational regeneration and reconnection with communities will be needed if the party’s fortunes are to improve. It is also encouraging that he is “determined to see that strong Liberal voice flourish... standing up for the values that Scotland holds dear.”

However, more negatively, he hasn’t quite grasped why Liberal Democrats should continue to play a role in the UK coalition government. Says Rennie: “it is vital that people understand what the coalition is about - for me, it is about stopping the Tories doing their worst."

Er, no it isn’t. I hope we can act as a moderating force on the Tories, but it’s not why we’re there. We’re in government because it was the responsible choice; we’re there to make tough decisions and to imbue government policy with a strong liberal character. We’re in government to implement progressive policy and to help create a fairer, better Britain. Our role is far wider (and more important) than simply frustrating the Tory party - which would hardly be a positive approach to adopt towards one’s coalition partners. It is a shame that our new leader seems so keen to identify the party with an anti-Tory position, as if our political raison d’etre is opposition to the Conservatives. As I’ve argued previously, this is a major factor in our loss of a distinct identity (especially in Scotland) and I fail to see how defining ourselves by hostility to other parties either supports our claim to value plurality or helps facilitate the liberal renaissance I’ve been advocating.

I was also concerned that Rennie was so keen to attack the SNP, pledging to "stand up to the SNP bulldozer." I personally don't care for this type of negative tactic: leadership is about more than taking pot shots at the opposition. More pertinently, he should perhaps have been less churlish and more focused on the need to work collaboratively with people of all parties to forge a better Scotland - especially given the common ground we share with Alex Salmond's party on key policy issues.

There is no doubt that of the four MSPs who could have succeeded Tavish Scott, Rennie is easily the most experienced and capable. Perhaps I should be getting excited at the prospect of a new leader, with new ideas and the willingness and commitment to take the party forward. But I can’t. I’m not convinced that a change of personnel at the top, however useful and timely, is in itself the solution. I’m also not convinced that Rennie – or anyone else – has any coherent ideas in respect to how to revitalise the party. And his appointment raises more questions than it answers. How will he differ from Tavish Scott - and how does he plan to be more effective than his predecessor? How does he propose to make constructive use of the limited opportunities afforded a rump opposition party? What are his plans to build a distinctive identity for the party in Scotland? And will his tactics in Holyrood be principally oppositional (as suggested today in his references to the Tories and the SNP)?

There are some significant issues affecting the Scottish Liberal Democrats that not only are larger than the question of who occupies the leadership but also the parliamentary party. Rennie, understandably, chose not to focus on these today but instead to deliver the fighting talk. That is fair enough and I’m sure the membership will appreciate it. But Rennie faces a challenge quite unlike any previous leader in our history: that of completely rebuilding, re-energising and reinvigorating a party that was very nearly annihilated electorally.

Rennie can not afford to fail. The stakes are so high. Our party’s future requires him to be inspirational and innovative, as well as being able to regain the trust and respect of the Scottish people. He also has the task of rebuilding and making the party relevant at the same time Labour is facing similar challenges, but without the same platform on which to do so. It’s something I fear even the great Jim Wallace would have struggled with, but something on which Willie Rennie must deliver.

And so, while I can’t get overly excited at the prospect of new leadership, I am cautiously optimistic that Willie Rennie has the experience, insight and strategic understanding to rejuvenate our party - especially if he steers clear of the temptation to engage in negative oppositionalism. He’s certainly the best candidate for the leadership at this time and it is vital our members unite behind him.

The BBC website is keen to point out that Rennie is a previous runner-up in the Scottish Coal-Carrying Championships. I’m not entirely sure of the political relevance of this obscure fact, but if he can carry his party as well as he carries coal bags – and deliver the promised return to grassroots politics – we have every reason to be positive.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

The case for a Liberal Renaissance

ren•ais•sance (r n -säns , -zäns , r n -säns , -zäns , r -n s ns)
1. A rebirth or revival.
2. A revival of intellectual achievement and vigour

I have been reading the views of a number of Scottish Liberal Democrat bloggers and activists over the last few days. It’s been interesting to see how each of us is dealing with the reality of defeat in our own way. Some of us talk about the pain and the heartbreak, while others speak in vague terms of a fightback. Some, like the outstanding Alex Cole-Hamilton, revert to humour to diffuse the sense of disappointment. We’re all trying to be positive which in itself is quite an achievement.

Unfortunately, while some of us have been keen to play up the important role the Liberal Democrats will continue to play in the future of Scottish politics, there have been few serious attempts to get to grips with the reasons for the catastrophe and there has been a complete failure so far to articulate any proposals for rebuilding. Any “fightback” requires structural as well as strategic change – and certainly a great deal more than mere positive thinking. It requires more than Nick Clegg’s remedy of “dusting ourselves down” and saying the same things, only louder.

We have to begin with a diagnosis of the problem – which, as I’ve explained previously, is wider and deeper than public dissatisfaction with the coalition government. We have to turn the spotlight on ourselves, rather than simply blame Nick Clegg – however much his personal standing has negatively contributed to our current difficulties. Instead of daubing the wall with whitewash, as Nick Clegg’s e-mail seemed to suggest, we have to seriously face up to not only the unpleasantness of current reality but the nature of it and its causes.

I have come to the conclusion that we don’t need a “fightback”. Not in the accepted sense of the word at least. I don’t doubt we will continue to fight, but a fight doesn’t necessarily guarantee positive outcomes. We can fight our way to another defeat – and what will have been achieved? What we need is a liberal renaissance – a rebirth not only of our party but of the liberal philosophy that underpins it. It is only via a renaissance, rather than a fightback, that we can regain our cultural and political relevance. A renaissance will see us reconnect with our communities, reinvigorate our liberal message and revitalise our party on local as well as national levels.

I fear our leadership may prefer to remain unrepentant, adopting a “Churchillian” attitude of brave defiance. Recent noises within the party of the need to be seen as “a stronger voice in government” on one level are hugely concerning. It suggests we’ve not listened – that all we have to do to win the public over is shout louder. It would be foolish and negligent, and demonstrates an unwillingness to listen to the electorate – it also suggests an ignorance of the need for more drastic, further-reaching action.

The televised debates that led to “Cleggmania” could have kick-started a liberal renaissance. Unfortunately, in the circumstances raised expectations only led to increased disappointment. But the need for a revival has been there for some time, and I don’t accept the arguments of those who feel that all we have to do is withdraw from the coalition or replace our leader and our problems will be automatically remedied. As a party we’ve been struggling to convince the public of our relevance for some time, as evidenced by the way we were seen as first and foremost an anti-Tory party rather than one of radical, dynamic liberalism.

A liberal renaissance must begin with healthy self-criticism and an admission of having made mistakes – which is far more attractive than the relentless self-justification with which the public associate our leadership. It also must begin not with fighting talk, but an acceptance of reality: if we cut ourselves off from reality we will wake up in a foreign country – one we don’t know and will never understand.

There is an old Kikuyu proverb: no matter how long the night, the day is sure to come. We can be positive of this, but only if appropriate actions, rooted in honesty, are taken now. And such actions include an innovative plan to rebuild and regenerate, intellectually as well as organisationally. How can anyone believe that any liberal renaissance, or electoral fightback, will not require intellectual renewal and confrontation?

I have noticed that many observers have written the Liberal Democrats off as “dead”. If the party is indeed dead, then it is surely one of the most extraordinary corpses around. The indications are that the post-mortem is not yet required, but emergency surgery might be. We have been weakened but are not beyond recovery.

What is needed is a short period of considered reflection – not a pointless navel gazing, self-justifying orgy of self-pity but a time for constructive analysis and forward planning. We have to move beyond the natural temptations to define ourselves by the coalition and our role in government, and must plan for the future not in terms of rethinking electoral strategy but in revitalising our party from bottom to top.

A liberal renaissance will involve invigorating and rebuilding. It will require healing internal divisions. It will depend on new grassroots development, especially in our rural communities, and must be rooted in a commitment to a radical liberal philosophy. The path ahead is not an easy one: hard and painful challenges lie ahead. We will require commitment, patience, imagination and new ways of thinking. But facilitating a renaissance is the only way forward, and infinitely preferable to the misguided inclination to simply dig in our heels, take it on the chin and keep on fighting.

Annabel Goldie steps down as leader of Scottish Tories

So, Super Alex Salmond has not only won an incredible landslide victory in the elections to the Scottish parliament. He's also seen off three leaders, with Tavish Scott, Iain Gray and Annabel Goldie tendering their resignations during the last few days. Quite an achievement.

Who says Scottish politics isn't interesting?

Ms Goldie, my Conservative opponent in Renfrewshire North and West, has decided to step down after what she described as a "disappointing" election for the Scottish Conservatives. "For the opposition parties, we will all have to adjust to the new realities," she said. "It will be a test of our mettle and resolve to be an effective opposition. For me, and for my party, we will play our part [but] I believe that the time has come for the torch to pass and I can confirm that I will not be a candidate. I want my successor to have the maximum time for him or her to shape the party and its policies and to lead the opposition at Holyrood."

Quite a change from her attitude the previous weekend when, during a televised debate in Perth she graphically described how she hoped to be a moderating influence on either Salmond and Gray, keeping them "in order".

I don't buy this "disappointing election" rhetoric. The Conservatives lost two seats - not too bad for a party who has been heavily criticised for its role in the Westminster government. And the Conservatives were unusually positive during a campaign in which it became more apparent than ever that Ms Goldie is an asset the party can ill afford to lose.

In fact, I was discussing the Conservative leadership at the count with the candidate for Renfrewshire South and his agent. We have all been aware of mutterings in the press and elsewhere calling for Goldie to stand aside. But we agreed that currently she is as invaluable to her party as Alex Salmond is to his, and that there were no outstanding candidates lining up to replace her.

Ms Goldie is an accomplished performer and debater. During the televised debates she consistently outperformed Scott and Gray, and infused her sometimes tough policy statements with her own kind of humour. She clearly has a way of reaching out to people that is not normally associated with Conservative leaders.

There has been speculation that David Cameron has "pushed" Goldie to resign. I can not possibly deduce how much truth there is in such a claim. But I would make two points: firstly, if that is true then David Cameron has no understanding of Scottish politics. As Alex Salmond points out, "although her party lost ground I believe they would have lost more had she not been leader." Secondly, if anyone should be blamed for the "disappointing" Conservative campaign (which, when compared to the Labour and Lib Dem results, actually looks positively miraculous) then it is not Ms Goldie but David McLetchie, who shouldn't have been allowed to lead any further campaigns after his fruitless efforts at the General Election.

I am sorry that Annabel Goldie has resigned because she still has so much to offer Scottish politics. Even those who disagree with her warm to her and hold her in high regard; to put in bluntly she is the acceptable face of Scottish Conservatism.

I wish her successor the best of luck. Living in the shadow of Annabel, I suspect they'll need it.

MP Cairns dies

The Labour MP for Inverclyde, David Cairns, has sadly died after a short illness.

Mr Cairns was admitted to hospital two months ago suffering from acute pancreatitis. Like many of his constituents I naturally believed that he would be back to his duties within a few weeks.

I liked David Cairns, although we had our differences - most obviously on electoral reform. No-one can deny he was a hard-working local MP, and on a number of occasions I have been impressed by the lengths he has gone to on my behalf. I also appreciated his liberal stance on many social and moral issues and the innate decency of the man makes his passing all the more tragic.

Mr Cairns, a former Roman Catholic priest, believed in a more inclusive church and this was evidenced in the work he did for LGBT rights within the Socialist Christian Movement. Openly gay, Cairns also was passionate about tackling the problems of HIV and AIDS, chairing the all-party parliamentary group.

He famously quit as Scottish Office minister in 2008 insisting that while "the worst day of a Labour government is better than the best day of a Tory one" he could not continue to serve under Gordon Brown's leadership.

Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray described Mr Cairns as "a man of enormous dignity, courage and outstanding intellect". I would add that he also had an incredible sense of humour and was far more human than many of his parliamentary colleagues. Personally, I apprecated surprisingly liberal voting record and his obvious determination to work in the interests of his constituents.

My thoughts are with his partner and his family at this sad time.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Dear Nick, the cause of Scottish liberalism has been set back 50 years

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Nick Clegg sent an e-mail to all candidates and activists after Thursday's elections:

Dear Andrew,

I wanted to get in touch immediately to thank everyone who has worked so hard in the elections. This was always going to be a challenging time. For the first time in most of our memories we were fighting as a party of Government – and a government dealing with the economic mess Labour left us in.

But there is no getting away from the fact that this has been a bad set of results - both the election results for the Liberal Democrats and the referendum outcome. I am certainly deeply disappointed. I know many of you are too. I am especially disappointed that so many hardworking and dedicated councillors, MSPs, AMs and campaigners have lost their seats.

I think it is clear that we need to do more to show people in the party and beyond what we are doing in Government and, perhaps more importantly, why. Because we are achieving a great deal. The BBC estimates that we are implementing 75% of the policies of in our manifesto, compared to just 60% of the Conservative manifesto.

Of course, as Liberal Democrats, we are all bitterly disappointed that the referendum on the Alternative Vote has been lost. We will always remain passionate supporters of reform. But we must respect the will of the British people. This time, we were unable to convince them of the merits of this particular change.

We've taken a knock. But I know from experience how resilient we are as a party. For my entire life, people have sought to write off the Liberal Democrats but we've always defied the critics and bounced back. We'll do so again. We'll get back up, we'll dust ourselves down and we'll get on with what we have to do. We have gone into a Coalition Government in the interests of the country. We have a mountain to climb to bring back prosperity, jobs and hope to Britain. But it is a job we've started and it is a job we will finish. And to do it, we’ll need your help and support.

Nick Clegg MP
Leader of the Liberal Democrats

My response is as follows:

Dear Nick,

Many thanks for your recent e-mail and for your expressed appreciation of the hard work myself and others put in to take the Liberal Democrat message to Scottish voters.

Yes, it was a difficult time and we knew it would be. We recognised there would be challenges and that the election results would not be what we might have hoped for. But even the most pessimistic of us did not foresee the scale of the defeat, our reduction to a mere rump in the Scottish parliament (we have one seat fewer than the Scottish Socialist Party won in 2003) or the loss of people with the calibre and gravitas of Ross Finnie and Margaret Smith.

These results aren’t “bad”; they’re catastrophic. To lose in our heartlands of the Scottish Highlands, Fife and Argyll & Bute is itself a bitter pill to swallow. To have lost them in the way that we did and to have seen the product of decades of local activism wiped out in a single night is devastating. As a former constituent of the great Ray Michie, I appreciate the immense energies and efforts that were expended to hold seats like Argyll & Bute – and then to ensure such constituencies continued to return Liberal Democrat MPs and MSPs. To have lost everything we fought for can not be dismissed as a “bad” result or a “deep disappointment”.

Our candidates were not defeated in Scotland because of our policy platform or our record in the Scottish parliament. Similarly, our MSPs were not rejected by the electorate because of their own failings or achievements – but because of the way in which the Westminster coalition is perceived in Scotland. It is more than ironic that MSPs such as Margaret Smith, Ross Finnie and Jeremy Purvis – who campaigned tirelessly for free education and were instrumental in eradicating fees in Scotland – should be punished for the party’s u-turn on tuition fees in England.

Nick, I believe that you made the right decision by entering into coalition with the Conservative Party. It was not my preferred option, but I understood you did so acting in what you believed were the best interests of the country. I have never questioned the wisdom of going into coalition and I have defended it on more occasions than I can remember. However, many of the decisions the coalition has since made I find more difficult to defend. The coalition’s direction on education and health are incoherent at best; at worst diametrically opposed to the kind of policy Liberal Democrats are accustomed to promoting.

You state that “the BBC estimates that we are implementing 75% of the policies of in our manifesto, compared to just 60% of the Conservative manifesto”. That might be so. I don’t doubt we are doing many positive things in government. But the voters did not reject us for what we’re doing right. They’re not angry about the 75% of the manifesto being implemented, but the perception that we’re being dishonest; that we’ve exchanged principle for position.

Nick, I would like to suggest a change of tactic. No, I’m not asking for the Liberal Democrats to withdraw from the coalition (not yet, in any case). No, I’m not suggesting you step down as leader. What I would argue is that you need to be more proactively selling the principle of coalition, rather than defending your achievements in office. Even from your e-mail it is easy to discern the party’s tactic of taking credit for sections of policy, as if success in government is determined by “victories” over the Conservatives. This is neither responsible nor an effective tactic. What we should have done from the beginning, instead of artificially playing up the Liberal Democrats’ role on lesser policy achievements while the more crucial ones were badly handled, was to be far more honest about the nature of coalition government: that it naturally requires compromise and collective approaches to work.

I am concerned that you appear to be labouring under the naive belief that we will be rewarded for “taming the Conservatives”. I welcome our moderating influence in government. But that that isn’t what we’re there to do: we exist to promote liberal policy. Firstly, electorates don’t reward, they punish – as we’ve discovered in the last few days. Secondly, hedging our electoral bets on being perceived as limiting the excesses of Conservative policy seems a dangerous game to play. Not only does it not appear to be working, it implies a certain disregard for the principles of coalition.

The coalition is currently under intense strain on a number of issues – not least NHS reform. That the bill was not opposed by any of our MPs during its initial two readings not only evidences the influence of party conference but also neatly encapsulates the lack of policy scrutiny that must exist within government. I wouldn’t imagine I should advise you on how to proceed in government, but what I do know is that unless we change our tactics and the way we communicate with voters the electoral devastation we witnessed last week will not be an isolated event.

I don’t believe that patronisingly telling the public how much of our manifesto has been translated into government policy will be effective in reversing the negative perception of our party. We need, in my view, to begin a rebuilding exercise from the grassroots upwards. Certainly, in Scotland, it is difficult to see a resurgence in our party’s fortunes without local parties being reinvigorated and revitalised.

You will surely be aware that your own public standing was at least partially responsible for the results of both the elections and the AV referendum. We were arguably “unable to convince the public of the merits of this change” precisely because we’ve been unable to convince them that you are acting in their interests. This is a perception we have to change, and will not be done by protesting how large our influence in government has been.

Nick, we have to admit when we’ve made mistakes. We must also not be afraid of changing course where necessary, and must be better prepared to listen to people rather than try to persuade them of our own rightness. On Thursday, the people spoke – and in Scotland at least the message was that Scots no longer feel the Liberal Democrats represent them.

I hope our leadership will learn from this. Unfortunately, your e-mail hardly gives me reason for optimism. You can not simply dismiss this catastrophe as “a knock”. It’s electoral meltdown. I would also hope for a more constructive approach to facilitating a fightback than blind faith in the party’s “resilience” and a resolution to “dust ourselves down and get on with what we have to do".

As a Liberal Democrat candidate, I felt it a privilege to take the positive and distinctively Scottish message of our party to the electorate. I attempted to focus on issues of local and Scottish interest, but many voters seemed more interested in discussing their views of the UK coalition, which were largely negative. Many people seem to agree with the Liberal Democrats, but they don’t “agree with Nick”.

I am not going to dismiss the Scottish election results as “bad” or “a knock”. This has set the cause of Scottish liberalism back fifty years. Many of my friends and valued colleagues have lost their seats, their deposits and in many cases their willingness to continue.

What required is not a sympathetic but self-righteous e-mail, but a new approach to government and a rigorous strategy to renew our party.

Yours Sincerely,

Andrew Page
Former Liberal Democrat Candidate for Renfrewshire North and West

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Which way forward for the Scottish Liberal Democrats?

After the devastation, the analysis began. There has been no shortage of individuals expressing views on the Liberal Democrats’ spectacular collapse in Scotland – from gloating Labour activists (who really should concentrate on their own difficulties) to our outgoing leader.

The Herald subscribes to the view that this result represents punishment for being too closely allied with the Conservatives in Westminster. The Guardian claims that the Liberal Democrats were “slapped, kicked and left for dead...flattened in Scotland, their share of the vote reduced to numbers so meagre they were last seen [back in 1988].” This is, of course, absolutely true. The negative perception of the coalition, especially in Scotland, has been utterly destructive and it is bluntly ironic to see the likes of Ross Finnie and Margaret Smith – who campaigned tirelessly for free Higher Education – become the victims of the backlash against Clegg’s u-turn on tuition fees in England.

Caron Lindsay, a Liberal Democrat blogger and political commentator, used the pages of today’s Scotland on Sunday to assert that “our coalition with the Tories was the major, but not the only, reason for our downfall”. This is completely correct. The coalition made Tavish Scott’s task as Scottish leader infinitely more difficult. But it is not the only factor behind our reversal of fortune and the “Clegg factor” can not be allowed to obscure the failings of the Scottish party, the shortcomings of its leadership or a number of other issues much closer to home. Blaming the catastrophe entirely on the unpopularity of the coalition is tempting, especially as this hypothesis contains more than a grain of truth. But it isn’t the whole picture and unless Scottish Liberal Democrats can identify some of the more complex reasons for their downfall the “recovery” Lindsay refers to will evade us in the same way that it has evaded the Scottish Conservatives in UK elections.

Unfortunately, while recognising other factors, Caron Lindsay doesn’t explain what these are. This is a lost opportunity to recognise publicly some of the critical mistakes we have made as a party during the last few years.

Cynically opposing the SNP’s proposed independence referendum for short-term political gain was not the most astute decision and only played into Alex Salmond’s hands. He was able to argue, with some effect, that the unionist parties were denying Scottish voters the choice on their nation’s future. The SNP’s failure to deliver the promised referendum actually prospered Salmond’s party and rather than defeat the campaign for independence, opposition to a referendum actually strengthened its case. The Liberal Democrats, and also the Conservatives and Labour Parties, failed to recognise the opportunities that lay in supporting a referendum on Scotland’s constitutional future during which they could have played up the benefits of Union. Instead, they were tempted by the trappings of short-termism and overlooked the broader consequences.

Liberal Democrat strategy has been characterised by complacency for some time. Not the kind of complacency we’ve witnessed from the Labour Party, but it is nonetheless real. In our heartlands, such as the Highlands, parts of Aberdeenshire and Argyll & Bute we have taken voters for granted for too long. We thought it was enough to point to good local councillors and to stress our opposition to both the Tories and independence. Our once strong and distinctive rural policies became less so, especially as other parties incorporated them into their manifestos. We gradually came to believe that parts of Scotland, such as Caithness & Sutherland, were impenetrable fortresses which could never be taken. And in doing this, we took our eyes off the SNP.

We also expressed our complacency through our mistaken belief that the electoral system for the Scottish Parliament ruled out the prospect of any party gaining an overall majority. It was this naive belief that allowed the Lib Dems, and other parties, to think they could ensure that an independence referendum bill would never be passed. More crucially, Liberal Democrats put more trust in the electoral system than the electorate and felt that a minimum level of parliamentary representation was virtually guaranteed. And in doing this, we again took our eyes off what the SNP was doing.

Another problem was our willingness, for so long, to be perceived as a Labour-lite party; a friendlier alternative to the Conservatives. In the 1980s, this was understandable. I remember as a 10-year old the euphoria of Ray Michie winning Argyll & Bute for the SDP-Liberal Alliance. Michie was an incredible candidate and a formidable MP. But it was true that her support owed as much to the unpopularity of Tory incumbent John MacKay as public identification with liberal values. Being equated in the public consciousness as an anti-Tory party helped us win by-elections in the early 1990s and throughout the decade that followed this became more entrenched, with elaborate voting exchange schemes being established between Lib Dem and Labour voters in key constituencies to ensure the election of non-Conservative candidates. For a while, this made sense. But, regrettably, this came to define us as a party in a much stronger way than did our opposition to tuition fees, the Iraq War or any of our manifestos. Not only did the public recognise us as an anti-Tory party, we were happy to go along with this perspective and exploited it to our own advantage.

The Liberal Democrats exist for more than simply to keep the Tories out of power, or to keep Labour in. Personally, I have little time for either of those parties now although there was a time when I valued the close working relationships we had with Labour. We have our own distinct and unique platform, which is the creation of a liberal society – a praiseworthy aim but one which has for the last 30 years or so been secondary to the electoral strategy of presenting ourselves as the alternative to Conservatism. It is, therefore, not simply the coalition government’s actions that are to blame for our loss of support, but our unsustainable cultivation of an “anti-Tory” image which could only work so long as any potential of working with the Tories was unthinkable. We encouraged so many people to vote for us, not for our liberalism, but on the back of a crude appeal to those willing to vote for “anyone but the Tory”. We can only blame ourselves for our public perception of representing little but an alternative for those who don’t like blue.

We’ve also had obvious but largely undocumented internal difficulties. Hugh O’Donnell’s resignation might have been characterised by opportunism, but hinted that relations between MSPs and the leadership were less than harmonious. We’ve also suffered from losing key personnel in recent years, such as Nicol Stephen and Jim Wallace – while the SNP benches contain some exceptional talent, we have struggled to replace the intellectual rigour and sharp wit of Wallace in particular. Losing Ross Finnie, Robert Brown and Jeremy Purvis further deprive us of our most capable political thinkers.

The leadership of Tavish Scott posed its own problems. His style was often criticised – apparently, so I’m led to believe, by his MSPs – but it’s not simply his style that was the problem. He struggled in his contests with Salmond and, while an obviously decent and honest man, he had no idea how to rid himself or his party of the stigma of association with Nick Clegg. I don’t necessarily consider him a weak leader – as others did – but it became obvious that his leadership was not an asset to the party in the way that Wallace’s had been. He seemed incapable of inspiring, too easily dismissed as irrelevant and at times seemed as if he was an auto-pilot. I feel for him as the electoral catastrophe owed a great deal to the actions of Liberal Democrats in a different parliament, but he never seemed certain of how best to handle what Kennedy calls “mission impossible” and appeared like a passive observer of events rather than a dynamic leader with a vision.

So, what is the way forward for the Scottish Liberal Democrats?

Caron Lindsay argues that “Scotland needs a strong Liberal Democrat voice. We must emphatically stand up against the SNP when it shows its strong illiberal streak. Liberalism is an inspiring, people-centred philosophy and we need to offer our ideas to deal with what matters, such as providing affordable, decent housing, tackling poverty and improving Scots' health and well-being.” We need to be true to what we are as a party. We are a liberal party; this is what makes us distinct and relevant. We have to move away from being simply a convenient depository for protest votes and for those in non-Labour seats who don’t like Tories.

This doesn’t require “reinvention” but simply being honest to who we are. In parliament, we have to take the opportunity to be good in opposition. It sounds simple but, as Tavish Scott demonstrated, it isn’t quite as easy as it looks - especially when our status has been relegated to that of a fringe party. Good opposition will require not only strong and imaginative leadership, but also a robust strategy and a willingness to work with others to achieve goals. We must do more than just “stand up to the SNP”. We must also stand up to the opportunism of Scottish Labour, and the backward-looking policies of Annabel Goldie’s Conservatives. One thing we can no longer afford to do is oppose ideas simply on the basis on party-political opportunism. Liberal Democrats have an opportunity to use the Scottish Parliament to develop a strong liberal message and set out their ambitious and progressive vision for Scotland, while working with those of all parties – where possible – to see it put into practice.

We’ve got to talk far more about the issues that actually matter to people. In fairness to Tavish Scott, he was doing this in areas of Scotland where the future of the police force was a significant matter. But too often we’ve made a lot of noises about issues such as AV, which frankly is not the kind of thing most Scots get excited about. It would be a mistake to now define ourselves by opposition to independence: it simply isn’t consistent to claim that talk of independence is a “distraction” while putting all our efforts into fighting it. Independence doesn’t excite most voters, so the party must begin to prioritise what does in order to remain relevant.

We have always been most comfortable as a party of protest, but our inability to adjust to new realities is one of the reasons we’re in our current predicament. Scottish Liberal Democrats should move forward, out of this comfort zone, and stand by our principles and our decisions. On the UK coalition, while not everything will be to our liking, we can ill-afford to get on the defensive or – worse still – advocate withdrawal from the coalition. We would not regain credibility but would instead become a laughing stock. We need to be committed to the coalition, while instead of playing up Lib Dem “victories” in government to justify our involvement become more adept at explaining the inevitability of compromise in the national interest.

Let’s make one thing clear – the public are not punishing us for the coalition per se but our perceived role within it. Some may like to think that, arguing that any co-operation with the Conservatives is akin to collaborating with Satan. These people have such a retarded view of the Conservative Party, are usually tribalists whose politics are dictated by a hatred of one party and view our own role in politics as merely keeping out the Tories. But most people understand that the decision to enter coalition was taken with the best intentions: it is not the coalition itself that people are angry with, as witnessed by the Conservatives doing so much better than Labour in the English local elections. No, it’s the perception that Liberal Democrats have been dishonest, especially over the tuition fees issue. It’s the feeling that Nick Clegg has sold out principle for position. Alex Cole-Hamilton might have argued that defeat is acceptable in return for ending child detention, but it’s not the 75% of our manifesto being put into practice that people are protesting against. It’s the appearance of dishonesty they don’t like and Nick Clegg in particular.

As Caron Lindsay rightly observes, “dissociating ourselves from the Westminster government is not an option”. We might not like everything the coalition is doing, but distancing ourselves from it and disowning what is, after all, our government would be irresponsible. The best option is for Scottish Lib Dems to remain critically supportive of the coalition while formulating a separate and distinctively Scottish message, focused on Scotland’s unique needs – to quote Lindsay, “asserting our difference” while speaking out when necessary on the issues that matter. We must also realise that our role in coalition is not to stop the Tories being Tories but to be ourselves. The same honesty of purpose is true of our new role in Holyrood.

There must be a rebuilding process. This can not be done on a national basis, but on a local level from the grassroots upwards.
Any attempts at a top-down approach towards revitalisation will ultimately fail. Associations must be empowered to create and take control of local initiatives, not only to rebuild the party’s appeal but to attract people to that party’s cause. I’m not advocating a rigid adherence to the “localism” of the Trevor Jones era (especially in places like Argyll & Bute) but it is vital to work from the bottom up, connect with people, attract local talent into the party and create a distinctive local, as well as national, appeal for liberal democracy.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats have to again become the party of rural Scotland, while avoiding re-creating themselves as the party of the Celtic fringe. There is no easy or quick way to do this, but I feel local solutions will serve the party better than national or federal ones. The party also has to again appeal to all sections of the community and therefore must learn to more effectively articulate its liberal positions on issues such as crime, justice, the environment, immigration, the NHS and job creation. Our manifesto for this election was progressive and well-conceived, but its message either didn’t reach the voters or they were already too disillusioned with the party to pay any interest.

Perhaps the Scottish Liberal Democrats’ greatest misfortune was not to have held Gordon constituency in 2007. Why Alex Salmond chose to stand there is anyone’s guess. If only we’d managed to hold the seat, the history of Scottish politics would have been entirely different.

There are significant challenges ahead for the Scottish Liberal Democrats. But with these challenges come opportunities. The first step is to accurately diagnose the problem, which is far more complex than some in the media would believe. Our difficulties run deeper than the public image of Nick Clegg and the Westminster coalition. But the real challenge is how to respond, to provide strong opposition and to rebuild not only the party but the spirit of Scottish liberalism. The Scottish Liberal Democrats have to be honest to what they believe and be true to both their convictions and character. We have to not only learn from our mistakes, but admit to them. We have to work for change where we can, even being awkward where necessary, but not resorting to opposition or change simply for the sake of it. I can relate to Caron Lindsay's desire for a "bold, audacious" party, but I also want us to be radical, engaging and something of a gadfly presence in Scottish politics.

There are others who disagree, I know. Martin Shapland, National Chair for Liberal Youth, feels that the party should become "as ruthless as Tories, as tribal as Labour" to bounce back. As someone who dislikes tribalism and values pluralism, I don't relate to his idea of moving the party forward. I also don't think this would genuinely appeal to voters. I would go further and argue such an emphasis would condemn the Scottish Liberal Democrats to a generation in the political wilderness. Mr Shapland only sees the tactical; those like him who view a fightback exlusively in terms of top-down political strategy will never understand that rebuilding from the grassroots upwards is imperative if the party is to both survive and retain its identity. The party can't afford to be backward-looking and tribal: Scotland urgently needs the "new politics" Mr Shapland seems to have rejected.

I wish the incoming leader every success in his endeavours to take our party forwards, and pledge my personal support.

Tavish Scott quits as Scottish Lib Dem leader

The news, when it finally came, was hardly surprising.

The leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, Tavish Scott, has decided to stand down following what The Herald terms a "disastrous" election for his party. "Disastrous" is perhaps understating it a little. Make no mistake - this was a massacre on a scale not witnessed in UK politics since 1997. The big questions following the catastrophic collapse were not about analysis of the actual result, but in asking how the Scottish Liberal Democrats can move forward and whether Tavish Scott is the right man to lead us into the future. Mr Scott has decided to answer the second question directly, insisting that "the party needs a new direction, new thinking and new leadership to win back the trust of the Scottish's for the party now to decide how to move forward and I think that's best done with a new leader."

Scott was quick to blame the "Clegg effect" for the Liberal Democrats poor showing and while this undoubtedly had a significant effect I personally find such an explanation to glib and simplistic. Clegg's unpopularity would not have had the same potency if the Scottish leadership had succeeded is communicating their distinct policy platform and Scottish agenda to voters. Similarly, if Scott had been more convincing during the televised debates, if the media weren't so easily persuaded to write him off as an irrelevance or if the Lib Dem campaign had been better prepared for the SNP's tactical genius (in marginalising the smaller parties in the regional vote while persuading their supporters to vote for them in the constituencies) the scale of the defeat would in all likelihood have been not quite so devastating.

Tavish Scott has achieved a great deal in his political career of which he should be justifiably proud. I found him easy to like, but recognised his limitations as a leader. A fellow Lib Dem blogger confided that they were pleased Green leader Patrick Harvie was excluded from the televised debates because he would have easily out-performed Scott. I took an opposite view on Harvie's absence but I fully understood why Lib Dem supporters didn't feel inspired by Scott's oratorical or debating skills.

Nick Clegg said of Scott that "He has been an excellent and energetic leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats at an extremely difficult time, as well as a good friend and colleague. I'm sure he would have done a brilliant job leading the fight back for the LibDems in Scotland but I fully respect his decision." I'm not too convinced about the last part, but perhaps Clegg owes Scott more than kind words given that it is the way the party is perceived in Westminster that undermined the efforts of the Lib Dems in Scotland.

Charles Kennedy was more sober-minded. Reflecting on "mission impossible", he surmised that "Tavish is one of our country's most talented politicians and his response today is characteristically honourable. It deserves to be met by a response at a UK Liberal Democrat level which is similarly honest."

The Scottish Liberal Democrats are now looking for their fourth leader in a little under six years. What the party needs is innovative and inspiring leadership which can make effective use of our role as a minor party of opposition. What we can not afford to happen is for the Liberal Democrat voice in Holyrood to become more marginalised or for us to become perceived as a Labour-lite anti-independence party.

I wish Tavish Scott the best for his future political career. I am sure he will continue to be an excellent MSP for Shetland; he is also being considered as a potential Deputy Presiding Officer in the new parliament, which would be an appropriate opportunity for him to utilise his obvious talents to better effect.

An election for the leadership is likely to be held later in the year; current frontrunners are Willie Rennie and Liam MacArthur. In the interim, Jo Swinson will be acting leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Holyrood Elections 2011: Renfrewshire Results

There are some huge stories waiting to be told about last night's Holyrood election drama. In fact, the overall result (as yet to be confirmed) is so incredible, so utterly unpredictable and so far-reaching in its potential ramifications, that in the next few days I will be reflecting on what it means for the Liberal Democrats, Labour, the SNP and Scottish democracy as a whole. It is surely not only a stunning victory for the SNP (the scale of which went against even the most expert of opinions) but evidence of the folly of designing an electoral system with the explicit intention of preventing an SNP majority administration.

I will inevitably be providing my views on the national picture when the dust settles, but for the time being I think it's sufficient to concentrate on the local results in Renfrewshire.

As Liberal Democrat candidate for Renfrewshire North and West, my chances were - to put it moderately - rather limited. I noticed early on in the election that the bookies had Labour candidate, Stuart Clark, as a dead cert for becoming the next MSP with odds of 1/66. The SNP's Derek MacKay's chances were, apparently, 25/1. This is something I picked up on in hustings meetings and when speaking to voters: elections in Renfrewshire consist of weeks of campaigning, polling day, the count and the Labour candidate being declared the winner. It's the kind of constituency in which the proverbial monkey would normally be elected if wearing a red rosette. This is what's wrong with our voting system, I argued - it doesn't matter how good the likes of me or Derek MacKay might be, the odds are always stacked against us. Wouldn't it be good if we could get a surprise result in Renfrewshire?

Despite my expectations of a Labour victory, I'm delighted to be proved wrong. Firstly, this is a huge blow to the type of arrogance that saw Labour treat our local constituencies as its personal fiefdoms. Labour's sense of entitlement and complacency were punished last night and I must confess to being moderately amused to see Douglas Alexander admitting he's "had happier nights". I suspect the SNP haven't. Secondly, Derek MacKay is a thoroughly decent man who deserved to win: he is not only an impressive figure but a deeply human person who I am sure will be a huge asset to both Renfrewshire and the Scottish Parliament.

From a Liberal Democrat viewpoint, I'm not going to suggest that the result doesn't hurt. It does. Hugely. I put a lot of effort into this campaign and while I had no expectations of victory I had anticipated a more respectable level of support. With a very small team (we were a man and a dog, and most of the time the dog was chasing me) campaigning was often a lonely experience but the scale of the loss is not easy to accept. It's galling to know that so many of our talented and capable MSPs have lost their seats - the loss of people of Robert Brown's and Ross Finnie's calibre is not only devastating for our party but removes some of the most articulate spokespeople for Scottish democracy from Holyrood. It's tough to come to terms with the position in which our party finds itself; even Labour's astonishing meltdown provides little comfort. But the greatest personal disappointment is to see our positive campaigning locally go so completely unrewarded.

I know my friends Eileen McCartin (Paisley) and Gordon Anderson (Renfrewshire South) deserved better from their respective campaigns. Eileen is a particularly experienced local politician with a reasonable personal vote but even that collapsed as many of our voters deserted us for the SNP. Gordon's relentless energy and determination merited a better outcome. Obviously there are a number of factors influencing the result but my initial feelings are of deflation and disappointment as strong local candidates who have consistently stood up for liberal values suffer for decisions made in another parliament.

But let's not forget this was the SNP's night. They put in a stunning performance here to gain not just one Renfrewshire seat but two. Rather than simply reflect on our own difficulties, it's right I should offer Derek and George my congratulations and my best wishes for the future.

The results from Renfrewshire:

Renfrewshire North and West:
Derek Mackay (SNP) 11510
Stuart Clark (Labour) 9946
Annabel Goldie (Conservative) 5489
Andrew Page (Liberal Democrats) 550

Renfrewshire South:
Hugh Henry (Labour) 12933
Andrew Doig (SNP) 10356
Alistair Campbell (Conservative) 2917
Gordon Anderson (Liberal Democrats) 702

George Adam (SNP) 10913
Evan Williams (Labour) 10665
Gordon McCaskill (Conservative) 2229
Eileen McCartin (Liberal Democrats) 1783

My speech following the declaration (it's always a tough thing following Annabel Goldie):

To paraphrase Harold Macmillan, there is a wind of change sweeping across our nation whether some of us like it or not.

I'm absolutely speechless - and I'm sure some of you would prefer it if I remained that way. But there are some points I would like to make.

I would like to praise the positivity of our candidates in this election. It's also good that nationally most of the parties have sent out a positive message. I'm naturally a positive person, which is why I look forward to developing a positive relationship with our new MSP.

I don't know what the final outcome of this election will be. But I know what I want it to be. I hope it will be a victory for the people of Scotland, who will get the government, parliament and local MSPs they deserve.

As I'm sure Derek MacKay knows, MSPs belong to the people - not the people to the MSP. I can guarantee that as a Liberal Democrat activist I will continue play my part to ensure our MSP acts in the interests of local people on key issues.

MSPs come and go. Leaders come and go. Elections are won and lost. And while there may be those who think otherwise, I know that this great liberal movement of ours will continue to play a dynamic role in shaping Scotland's political future. Of that I am utterly confident.

I would like to thank my friends and my wife for the support they have offered me throughout this campaign and offer my congratulations to Derek MacKay.

As for the many SNP members and supporters who felt my talent could be more effectively utilised within their party: many thanks for your encouragement and compliments, but I'd prefer remain a critical friend, stay put and help move the Liberal Democrats forward.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Scottish Manifesto Watch: Labour and the SNP

It seems sensible to consider these manifestos together as sections of the media are convinced that the battle between these two parties is all that matters in Scottish politics. It is almost improbable that either Alex Salmond or Iain Gray will not be the next first Minister, so it’s not only useful to examine the contents of the respective manifesto – it’s absolutely vital for anyone who has an interest in the likely policy direction of the incoming government.

In the case of Scottish Labour, it’s curious that their manifesto contains commitments which, only weeks ago, were completely alien to Labour Party policy. For example, Fighting for what really matters promises to “maintain A&E services at Monklands and Ayr hospitals”, “no up-front or back-end tuition fees for Scottish students” and “freeze council tax for the next two years”. It’s not always a bad tactic to take the populist option on key issues only days before an election campaign, but it makes the whole feeling of Labour’s manifesto somehow fraudulent. Scottish Labour have spent years opposing the very policies they have been advocating for the last few days.

In terms of presentation, the Labour manifesto is truly atrocious. There must be graphic designers in Scotland who don’t feel that Cold War era / Monty Pythonesque artwork is fitting for the cover of a progressive party’s manifesto in the 21st century. It gets steadily worse, however. Despite being a whopping 91 pages in length, Fighting for what really matters is policy-light and looks more like the weekend supplements of tabloid newspapers. Full of pictures and celebrity endorsements, it fails to inspire – unless you are genuinely impressed by Queen of the South manager Kenny Brannigan’s expression of support for Iain Gray. No, thought not. The SNP, on the other hand, understand the importance of professional presentation and their product, entitled simply and optimistically Re-elect, is certainly more visually impacting. In a mere 44 pages it outlines the SNP’s vision concisely and comprehensively and typifies the kind of professionalised style we come to expect of the SNP. It is let down, however, by the inevitable emphasis on Alex Salmond and other senior figures. That Salmond is a huge asset is undeniable, but the SNP should take note that personalising the manifesto, in a similar way to the Conservatives in 1945, doesn’t necessarily yield the expected result.

Let’s take a look at policies. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Labour actually had some, even if they were largely borrowed or stolen from other parties. I’m not too sure that this will help Iain Gray. Too little distinctive ground on policy between Labour and the SNP doesn’t give anyone much of a reason for wanting to elect Iain Gray as the next First Minister...

We’ll start with the economy. Like the Socialist parties and the Greens, Labour want us to go back to 1945. They’re critical of cuts they describe as “ideological”. More importantly, they plan to “rebuild our economy, so that it is fairer, greener and buoyant with opportunity. We will make the Scottish Parliament a place of action, to stand up for young people and set out a new agenda. With the Green New Deal, the Scottish Future Jobs Fund (SFJF) and the apprenticeship guarantee, we will put job creation front and centre of all we do”. Which sounds very positive. More specific pledges include a minimum wage of £7.15 per hour, 10,000 work placements for young people through the SFJF and “robust efficiency savings” (which, of course, are not ideological!)

The SNP, on the other hand, have a detailed - and, it seems, more considered – plan to “deliver new jobs and new opportunities for Scots”. They have ambitious plans to re-industrialise Scotland, to invest in new growth markets and provide increased support for small businesses. Like Labour, the SNP aim to tackle youth unemployment and have proposed that “Community Jobs Scotland will provide 2000 new work opportunities in Scotland’s third sector, a £10 million investment in young people’s futures as part of our wider youth employment and training support.” It might be tempting to think that this is less ambitious than Labour’s SFJF but that would be unfair: this is simply one link in the chain of the SNP’s plan to restore Scotland’s economic competitiveness. There is more detail in both parties’ manifestos including welcome proposals for facilitating investment in innovation from the SNP and Labour’s pledge to build a prosperous future. There is, needless to say, much common ground. The chief differences are not in the wider policy but in the level of detail outlined in the manifestos : Labour’s too often resorts to generalities and their proposals at times appear to be hastily thought out. More tellingly, the SNP are keen to depict a future Scotland in which our hopes and aspirations can be fulfilled, while Labour are more keen to denigrate and criticise today’s Scotland and paint a negative picture of our nation in a similar way to Cameron’s portrayal of Britain as “broken”.

On health, Labour promise to give patients “the right to see a cancer specialist within two weeks”. That is welcome, but it’s effectively the only substantial positive pledge they make. They also propose a new Scottish National Care Service which, broadly speaking, appears similar to what the Liberal Democrats proposed in the 2010 General Election, although I would like to see some further information in respect to costs and operational detail. It may be a positive idea, but COSLA has already come out against it so perhaps needs considering in more depth. Labour also promise “no compulsory redundancies for NHS staff [and] to maintain the focus on the highest standards of care for patients.” They want to save money by centralising administration (reducing the number of health boards) . They also make some extremely useful observations about the need to eradicate healthcare associated infections, tackling health inequality and moving towards a new system of preventative healthcare. Unfortunately, however, on the first two points at least Labour have no serious suggestions as to how to make improvement.

The SNP’s emphasis is on facilitating well-being rather than on services. But they have more discernably practical ideas on tackling health inequalities, especially in regards deaf and blind people. The SNP is opposed to privatisation of the NHS, is unsurprisingly committed to retaining free prescriptions and has plans for Family Nurse Partnerships which “provides substantial nursing support to mothers in the final six months of their pregnancy and continues to give support for two years thereafter”. I like the sound of this, as I do much of the SNP’s manifesto, but would be interested in establishing how such a radical new service can be adequately funded.

There are two areas I would like to contrast between the two parties: their approaches towards mental health and alcoholism. On mental health, the SNP say simply that “Improving the quality of life of those experiencing mental illness is vital to doing just that. We are sympathetic to calls for a new Mental Health Bill and we will consult on what should be included as part of the wider development of a national Mental Health strategy.” The current Mental Health Act is unfit for purpose and urgently needs replacing, and the thrust of the SNP’s rhetoric is positive but it is frustratingly lacking in specifics. Labour, on the other hand, stress the need for improvements in advocacy provision, action on eating disorders, more effective use of “talking therapies” and support for people with Alzheimer’s. This isn’t quite the full package of reform I would like but it is an unexpectedly positive set of ideas from Scottish Labour.

Labour’s attitude towards alcohol differs to that of the SNP. Labour plan to pilot Alcohol Testing and Treatment Orders and “ensure those who have serious alcohol problems get the help they need”. This is positive, but too much of the rhetoric in the manifesto is negative, using terms such as “cracking down” and “abusive behaviour”. Labour appears not to grasp the relationship between alcoholism and mental ill health or that the best way to eradicate the former is to invest heavily in combating the latter. The SNP recognise the problem and believe their proposals for minimum pricing will go some way to dealing with it (something also proposed by the Liberal Democrats in our 2010 general election manifesto – I still think it’s a good policy). I don’t question the evidence base behind this proposal: I used to work in A&E and understand the human and social consequences of not reviewing Scotland’s relationship with alcohol. However, while minimum pricing would be a positive step, it is in itself only a small measure with limited scope for effectiveness. Instead, there should be a serious conversation about how best to introduce a range of measures to reduce alcoholism and its effects - which should surely include Labour’s sensible proposals to support individuals out of alcoholism.

I don’t intend to go through every section of the respective manifestos, highlighting the minor but sometimes significant differences on policy issues. Many of the differences are simply a matter of presentation (on which the SNP wins easily). But there is one key difference between Labour and the SNP – their approaches to crime.

Labour play on public fear, pledging to “crack down on knife criminals. We will take strong action and introduce mandatory minimum custodial sentences for knife crime in Scotland. We are very clear – if you carry a knife, you should go to jail.” This is, in a word, irresponsible – it’s also not evidence based, as initiatives such as No Knives, Better Lives are actively reducing knife crime. Labour’s “tough” approach comes through elsewhere – they hope to extend the discredited and unworkable ASBOs to “crack down...on anti-social behaviour”. This sums up Labour’s attitide towards evidence-based policy. While there are some interesting ideas to “make prisons work properly” - i.e. saying the same things as the Liberal Democrats but less coherently and without the same conviction - Labour’s attitude towards crime is simply reactive. They seem to have gone backwards from Blair’s famous “tough on the causes of crime” statement; more focused on picking up easy votes than creating solutions, Labour are playing the politics of fear. It isn’t clever.

On the other hand, the SNP’s approach to crime is more considered and far more reasonable. On knife crime, they “will extend the tried and tested methods that work in reducing knife crime. We have doubled funding for the highly successful ‘No Knives, Better Lives’ scheme, a project that has seen a 35% drop in knife crime through raising awareness of the dangers of knife crime amongst young people, and will roll it out across the country.” The emphasis on education and crime prevention might not win votes but it’s the responsible approach. The SNP also realise that ASBOs don’t work and instead plan to “extend and enhance the CashBack for Communities scheme, which has taken £40 million of the ill-gotten gains from organised crime and invested it in sport and cultural projects for young people in exactly those areas that are worst affected by crime and deprivation.” It’s not entirely dissimilar to our own proposals for community-centred means of tackling crime and anti-social behaviour. The SNP also plan to increase the use of Community Payback Orders, which is something I would welcome as a means of ensuring the justice system actually works effectively.

I could continue to go through each section of the parties’ manifestos comparing each of their policy platforms in detail. There is no need to do that. There is clearly a great deal in both with which Liberal Democrats can identify – especially on education and in particular with the SNP when it comes to Green matters. In fact, there is a certain amount of common ground between the SNP’s and Labour’s manifestos – not to mention that each in its own way seems like an uncosted shopping list. The real difference, and the reason I dislike Labour’s manifesto so much, is the disparity between the SNP’s positivity and Labour’s campaign of fear and cynical negativity. It’s not so much Labour’s policy for Scotland that I struggle with as Labour’s attitude towards Scotland – and Scots. Their manifesto isn’t bad; it’s just that its overriding cynicism undermines much of the useful policy ideas they’re putting forward.

While its manifesto has a regrettable emphasis on personalities and seems more like a polished publicity product than an agenda for political change, the SNP has at least put together a programme that will appeal to those with aspiration, ambition, hope and belief. Where I disagree with it, it is largely because I don’t feel the party goes far enough in its solutions, or because I am unsure how many of the ambitious initiatives can be funded.

In one sense, it is disappointing that there are very few big issues dividing the main parties – or at least the Lib Dems, Labour and the SNP. On another level, it is proof of the broad social democratic consensus that exists in Scottish politics. Given Labour’s abject negativity and lack of professionalism in either their campaign or their manifesto it won’t surprise me too much if the latest opinion polls prove accurate. Negative visions don’t deserve to win elections, and Labour definitely doesn’t deserve to win this one.

Having now reviewed five manifestos, I would rank them in the following order:

1) Liberal Democrats
2) Green Party
3) SNP
4) Labour
5) Conservative