Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg is currently visiting Scotland to speak to party members in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Unfortunately due to work commitments I am unable to attend the planned sessions, but I am very pleased Mr Clegg has both taken the time to listen to Scottish members' concerns and attempt to address some of the unique problems facing the Scottish Liberal Democrats.
Following the Holyrood elections, in whose aftermath I wrote to Clegg expressing concern that the cause of Scottish liberalism has been set back 50 years, the scale of the challenge facing the Scottish party became painfully clear. While I firmly feel part of the solution is for the Scottish party under Willie Rennie to gain a more distinctive voice ideally through affirming our technical independence from the UK party - and facilitating a particularly Scottish liberal resurgence - there is no doubt that Nick Clegg must also have a role to play.
Gavin Hamilton was at yesterday's meeting in Edinburgh and spells out some of the detail. The Scotsman was also on hand to report on Clegg's performance. As I explained, I wasn't there personally, but from what I can gather there are many positives - not least in Clegg's apparent attitude towards the peculiar predicament of the Scottish Liberal Democrats.
The Scotsman reported that Clegg showed "great humility" and expressed a willingness to "listen to what activists feel". He acknowledged the "painful circumstances" and admitted that the party was being punished in Scotland for its Westminster alliance with the Conservatives. Gavin Hamilton wrote of Clegg's "grace and resilience under pressure" as well as his ability to connect with the "day to day concerns" of Scots. Championing a pragmatic approach, Clegg focused on rebuilding trust in addition to demonstrating the importance of delivering in government.
Clegg is apparently convinced that "recent electoral setbacks are 'short-term'", according to The Scotsman. I would like to think that he is right, but the scale of recent setbacks - combined with our historic failure in recent years to communicate effectively to the public what underpins our outlook - leads me to take an opposite, longer-term view. What Clegg is undeniably right about is the central issue of trust, but I do not feel - in spite of recent improvements in the opinion poll ratings - we can simply assume that those so willing to desert our party only months ago will be easily won back. What actually happened in May was that constituencies in which the party had been working for decades to get Lib Dem MPs and MSPs elected - and to keep them elected - such as Argyll & Bute or Caithness, Sutherland & Easter Ross, witnessed the destruction of everything that had been worked for over that period. We're not talking about a minor erosion of our support base, but what amounts to a catastrophe for the local parties. Clegg predictably takes a wider, more national approach, no doubt buoyed by recent opinion polls. but to make progress in Scotland we've got to rebuild from the grassroots in those constituencies that have in the recent past provided our elected parliamentarians. Short term approaches simply won't work and Clegg, while right to be positive and upbeat, needs to temper his aspirations with a touch of realism.
The glib statement that "we have lost support, but what goes up comes down in politics" frankly does nothing to reassure me that Clegg understands the seriousness of the situation. Yes, he appreciates the immediate problem and has highlighted what some of our priorities should be but his resigned attitude that improvement in fortunes is simply part of the natural political cycle is more than frustrating. Our stock will only improve if action to revitalise the party and reconnect with voters is taken quickly.
Clegg did seem to think that Alex Salmond's leadership would be found wanting during the next few years, asserting that "the SNP offer absolutely nothing in government". I wouldn't be so unkind to the SNP - they offer far more than Clegg gives them credit for. But I sense Clegg is right in the need to take a longer-term view; there is only so long Alex Salmond can play the nationalist cards to effect and ultimately will be judged on economic matters.
There are many Scottish Liberal Democrats who have been fiercely critical of Nick Clegg in recent months. One of my own criticisms is that during the coalition talks, and in their aftermath, very little attention or thought was given over to the likely impact association with the Conservatives would have on the Scottish party - or the local parties in key Lib Dem constituencies. Worryingly, for all the positive sounds Clegg made yesterday in Edinburgh, it seems that although he recognises the huge mountain Scottish Liberal Democrats will have to climb if we are to reclaim the voters' confidence he has no concept of the localist dimension. Neither does he seem to attach very much importance to the forthcoming local elections.
I am pleased that Nick Clegg has taken the time to visit Scotland and hear for himself the concerns, fears, hopes and aspirations of Scottish party activists. I am pleased he has shown some "humility" and empathy with our particular situation. But I retain concerns that we have a federal leader who blindly believes an electoral resurgence will be inevitable part of a natural cycle ("what goes down must come up again"). History demonstrates that is simply untrue, but more pertinently it showed him to be short of the radical ideas necessary to revitalise our party and to reinject a sense of purpose.
A final point - it was thoroughly unwise of Nick Clegg to make an intervention on the release of the Lockerbie bomber. Calling for al-Megrahi to be returned to prison was a crude example of bandwagon jumping. Firstly, as I know one the Lockerbie victims' families I find it highly insensitive when any politician looks to make easy capital from what for them was a personal tragedy. Secondly, as Clegg himself admitted, this is a matter for Scots law and he should have no business in making judgements about a decision made by the Scottish government. Perhaps if he applied equal scrutiny and criticism to Conservative positions on - for example - health, the coalition government's policy positions might appear less confused...