Monday, 21 November 2011

More equal marriage consultation responses are needed!

From Tim Hopkins, Equality Network


More equal marriage consultation responses are needed!

Your help is needed now more than ever…

We know that the majority of Scots support same sex marriage, but we are in danger of losing the Scottish Government’s consultation response count because of very well resourced campaigns by the Catholic Church and Christian Institute (see below).

It is vital that we encourage everyone we know who supports equality to submit a consultation response to the Government, using this form:

If you have not yet submitted your own response, please do that, and please forward this call for action to everyone you know who supports equality!


14,000 people in Scotland have filled out the Catholic Church’s postcards objecting to same sex marriage. The Church is now contacting those people to encourage each of them to submit a personal response against same sex marriage, to the Scottish Government’s consultation:

The Christian Institute runs big organised lobbying campaigns against every LGBT equality measure. They have just set up an online response system for the Scottish Government’s consultation. They are encouraging their members to use it to submit consultation responses opposing equality:


Please take action now to ensure that the Scottish Government continues with its proposals to introduce marriage equality, using this form:

Thank you!

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Basil D'Oliveira CBE dies aged 80

To those of you who have little appreciation of the sport of cricket, and I know there are many such people in Scotland, the name Basil D'Oliveira may not mean much to you.

But it should. Because not only was this enormously talented man a world-class cricketer who in all likelihood would have achieved even more if his skin had been white, in 1968 the "D'Oliveira Affair" not only highlighted the injustices of apartheid but it threatened to challenge them head on. D'Oliveira, a black South African who had just scored 158 against Australia at The Oval, was dropped by his adopted country - England - from the forthcoming tour of South Africa in order to appease the Vorster government. A truly international controversy ensued in which the English cricketing authorities emerged with little credit intact as they insisted that the decision was made for "purely cricketing reasons", while D'Oliveira himself always retained his dignity and sense of reasoned perspective.

What D'Oliveira had inadvertently done by single-handedly defeating the Australians was to set off a chain of events that would ultimately lead to South Africa being boycotted from international sporting competition until the early 1990s. The Olympic team had been barred from participating in Tokyo four years previously, but it was the overtly racist treatment of an international cricketer hoping to ply his trade in the country of his birth that resulted in the popular call for longer-term actions from the sporting world. No-one seriously believed the "Dolly simply isn't good enough" quote attributed to one English selector and an enormous public outcry resulted. Following the withdrawal of Tom Cartwright from the England squad, the selectors had little option but to include the hero of The Oval.

Vorster responded with a string of barbed and racist comments, insisting that following D'Oliveira's selection the team now represented "the anti-apartheid movement" and that it would "not be welcome" in South Africa. The political controversy it sparked in South Africa was predictable, but it also inspired liberals in Britain to crank up calls for action to end apartheid.

Young liberals - including Peter Hain who initially believed D'Oliveira to have been misguided even to consider playing against a white South African team - were spurred into action by events and provided leadership in popular anti-apartheid campaigns. There is little doubt that the call for direct action against the Vorster government unsettled Jeremy Thorpe and the political establishment as a whole. Certainly the Liberal Party leadership was tolerant of the "Red Guards" - in all probability because it recognised that their call had incredible popular appeal and because, while suspicious about the remedy, the party recognised the need to advocate tackling the shameful shadow apartheid continued to cast on the world. Thorpe had, after all, been an active champion for human rights within the Anti-Apartheid Movement. The party's consistent line in condemning apartheid may have had some effect on the Liberal vote in the February 1974 election.

D'Oliveira, always opposed in principle to apartheid, was not particularly politically motivated - preferring to let his sporting talent talk for him. But liberalism and the anti-apartheid movement owes him a great deal: without his unwitting but telling contribution the South African team may well have continued to play an active role within the international sporting community and the events and political victories that led to the dismantling of apartheid might have taken longer to achieve.

It is easy to read Basil D'Oliveira's story as a tragic one; one of unfulfilled potential, a victim of prejudice and exclusion. It is certainly true that in a different time he would have won more than 44 England caps. But it is also true that his success in England created major headaches for the South African government and increased support for the anti-apartheid cause. His refusal to allow racist attitudes to hold him back and his determination to simply play at the highest levels caused the barriers and obstacles he had experienced to be broken down so completely that in today's South Africa the aspirations of young blacks to play professional sport in their own country are no longer unattainable.

D'Oliveira was, of course, the victim of injustice. But he was so much more than that: he was, in the bigger scheme of things, a victor - and the only person to emerge with credibility from the 1968 selection debacle. He continued playing professional cricket until he was 48 and since retiring has been an inspiration for many South Africans. The tolerance and belief in equality that embodied his outlook on both cricket and the world continues to provide an example to the rest of us - especially at a time when FIFA presidents are making ill-considered statements on the subject of racism in sport.

What happened in 1968 deprived D'Oliveira of achieving his dream of playing cricket in South Africa. But he lived to see another dream fulfilled; that of a South Africa liberated from the oppressive philosophy of apartheid. I'm sure he'd be the first to agree that if the former in any contributed to the achievement of the latter it was a price worth paying.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Government for the people - or the Euro?

The economic crisis affecting the Eurozone has now seen off the governments of Burlusconi and Papandreou - evidence, if any were necessary, that every cloud has a silver lining.

I shed no tears for either, but what does concern me is how the economic and political needs of the moment appear to have sidelined democratic values in favour of "stability". In both Greece and Italy incumbent leaders have been replaced with unelected economists as fears of pending financial collapse have led to faith being put in the apparent expertise of Mario Monti and Lucas Papademos, rather than in the electorate, in order to appease the markets - and to save the Euro.

So far, the move seems to have offered the markets some reassurance. It is, of course, vital that such reassurance is given if the Eurozone is to survive the current crisis. However, the notion that only political authoritarianism can provide economic stability is facile and the assertion that democracy somehow acts as an impediment to economic growth both insulting and seriously mistaken.

It could also be pointed out that, if the recession has proved anything, it is that the "wisdom" of the markets is questionable. They do not always know what is best and, although the influence of market confidence should not be underestimated, the democratic structures and practices of the EU and its member states should not be dictated in this way. International markets, after all, are by nature reactionary rather than progressive and have greater ability to undermine the Euro's future than any one of the governments of the 17 countries making up the Eurozone; the economic situation actually requires more democracy and greater imagination regarding potential solutions, not a stronger hand from proponents of the status quo.

Greece's new Prime Minister, Papademos, is seen as something of a potential saviour on account of his experience as Vice-President of the European Central Bank and as a former governor of the Bank of Greece who championed Greece's transition to the Euro. I am far from an economic expert but I would struggle to put my faith in a man who has consistently promoted the single currency in spite of the evidence that having 17 different economies being forced into mechanism with a single interest rate would prove hugely damaging in the long term for nations such as Greece. But then, his appointment owes very little to the particular concerns of Greeks and everything to the needs of his pet project - the ailing Euro.

Italy's new Prime Minister is Mario Monti, already being applauded as "Super Mario". Here is another Europhile economist whose love of the Euro defies economic logic. A former European Commissioner, he appears to have had a more interesting career than his Greek counterpart, having been involved in bringing anti-monopoly charges against Bill Gates' Microsoft and an influential voice calling for facilitating further European integration. Monti's experiences and achievements suggest he is more suited to politics than Papademos, but once the initial relief that has greeted their respective appointments eases off, there will inevitably be concerns about the lack of democratic legitimacy.

The fact that Monti was only appointed a lifetime senator on Wednesday with the express purpose of replacing Berlusconi speaks volumes about Italy's commitment to democratic values. However serious the economic situation becomes, I can not foresee any circumstances in which Mervyn King would be given a life peerage in advance of taking the reins from David Cameron. Democracy demands better than the appointment and promotion of technocrats simply to reassure the markets and aid the political ambitions of Angela Merkel.

The Italian and Greek electorates also deserve better. I am not calling for imminent elections, which would also be unsettling and destabilising to economic progress. But Papademos and Monti are where they are because Europe trusts them. While the appointments may see off the immediate crisis, there will almost certainly be difficulties further down the line when governments lacking a democratic mandate and listening only to the logic of the markets have to implement unpopular reforms.

Make no mistake - this is government for the Euro, not the people of Greece and Italy. A cynic might go as far as to suggest this is government by the EU, for the EU. Monti and Papademos should not be perceived as economic saviours ushering in a new era of consensual politics, but representatives of the elite European Order, an ancien regime striving to maintain its own significance and salvage something from its misguided vision for European economic and fiscal unity.

If Monti and Papdemos can bring some calm to European politics then to an extent the appointments will have been justified. However, the willingness to dispose of democratic principles is thoroughly disturbing and could yet come back to bite - especially if the necessary bailout and austerity programmes fail to have the desired effects.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

I'm standing for Scottish Executive Committee - please vote!

As Scottish Lib Dem members who have received their ballot papers will now realise, I am standing for election to the Executive Committee.

My friend Caron blogged yesterday that the way forward for the Scottish Liberal Democrats is to "be awkward, wearing our hearts on our sleeves and not letting anyone put us in the corner". I couldn't agree more and, if that's the kind of Liberal Democrat you want on your Executive Committee, then I'm pretty sure I meet the criteria!

I'm not into indulging in an internet campaign of self-promotion and you won't find any facebook groups called "Andrew Page for Executive Committee" or the like.

But these are challenging times for Scottish Liberal Democrats and it's absolutely vital that we elect the right people with the vision, the awkwardness and the unwillingness to be put in a corner that Caron rightly identifies as so important to our political future. We also need people with an understanding of our past as well as the nature of our current challenges; people with the courage of their convictions with a positive political outlook. But, most importantly, we need Liberal Democrats who are ready to stand up and be counted even when it's uncomfortable, who won't conform to a robotic orthodoxy, who aren't afraid to take on the attitudes that hold us back and who are unafraid of honesty.

There are some good candidates on the list. There are tough choices to be made in these important internal elections - and not only for Executive Committee. But this is a time like no other in the history of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, and we need the right people on board to take the party forward.

So I would encourage our members to vote, and to think carefully about the kind new direction for party that their votes could help to create. Of course, if I am elected to the Executive Committee I will do my very best to...well, be myself!

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Don't like our strategy? Don't tell me, tell Willie Rennie!

There has been a considerable reaction to Tuesday's blog post - Is this the stupidest cartoon in Scottish political history? It seems I struck a chord with many and touched a nerve with others; while not anticipating the level of the response I am pleased I appear to have kick-started a rather interesting and overdue discussion about both the strategy of the Scottish Liberal Democrats and their attitude towards the SNP and Scottish independence.

I'm going to reproduce a lot of the comments that have been made in various forums, as well as some of the messages I have received in recent days. What has become astonishingly clear is the frustration of many Lib Dems towards the leadership's negativity, as well as the number of former liberals who have found a new home within the SNP. The "cartoon" was received extremely negatively, even by Lib Dem members who were questioning the judgement of its publication and (in some instances) their membership of the party.

Comments from Lib Dem members and supporters:

“Excellent post by Andrew. It's about time someone called out HQ on this relentless negative SNP bashing. Are we really so poor on reasons why people should vote SLD that we resort to tactics that we actually went to Court over in Oldham?”

“I'm not sure whether it is the stupidest cartoon. It is indicative of a party that has yet to produce much consistent confident leadership over same-sex issues. Policy generated by members has been fine. Gaffs and scandals by senior party members have been numerous.”

“For what it is worth, I've not renewed my party membership. It is as much these issues that I'm uneasy about as the coalition.”

“Andrew's a decent guy. I met him at Conference and he's one of a significant number (myself included) who really can't understand the leadership's obsession with the SNP at all.”

“An excellent post and one that certainly sums up my own feelings. If HQ have so much spare time on their hands maybe they could actually consider a new positive narrative for our party which addresses the key question - Why should people choose to vote SLD.”

“As a party member it worries me that someone at HQ thought this juvenilia was worth putting out. Beyond that, it worries me more that much of our campaigning has been relentlessly negative and personal without in any way offering an alternative vision for Scotland.”

“I've also considered my membership. There is nothing or little positive coming from the top. No inspiring message or vision. It's like Willie is under direct instructions by Clegg/Alexander/Moore to go hard against Salmond nonstop just to win brownie points from the press. There is a difference between holding government to account and tasteless propaganda. I hope people at SLD HQ have this read this eloquent blogpost.”

“As a longtime member of the party and former candidate for in Scotland and Westminster I was pretty appalled at the poster. It hints at some of the worst aspects of US political campaigning and is not in keeping with either the tradition or the spirit of the Lib Dems.”

“Last night's disaster proved to me the Liberal Dems in Scotland have lost the plot. Rennie is out of his depth as are Moore and Alexander - they care more for themselves and their own future than they do for the people of Scotland. Last night I joined the SNP because they are the only party with a realistic view of Scotland's potential and future”

“Well said. When I left the party I didn’t rule our rejoining at some point, but at the moment I can’t see myself even voting Lib Dem unless there is a change in tone of the message – which as you point out highly negative and overly critical of the SNP”.

“Your article reveals good liberal thinking...”

“A good blogpost, encapsulating what appears to be the general consensus on that dreadful cartoon”

“The SNP shouldn’t have a monopoly on independence!”

“I would suggest that Andrew is more instinctively a 'Liberal' than a Libdem robot climbing the slippery rope, than he understands. This piece reflects old fashioned Liberal views on society and its conduct - maybe he is channelling the ghost of Jo Grimmond ....”

and just in case you thought it was all positively supportive:

"I have to say that Andrew's blog comment is the very acme of over-reaction. Its one thing to be critical of a schoolyard-level snipe and quite another to indulge in a massively dramatic production of horror and disgust."

“While I can see the obvious errors involved in the publication of this cartoon, I'm not going to condemn colleagues for one mistake when I've seen them work hard and long hours, putting in excellent effort in the past. Nobody would ever have wanted to put the leader in this position and I'm absolutely certain that they will learn from this for the future.”

To which I will respond that my motivation wasn't simply expresing anger towards a distasteful and insensitive cartoon. The real issue I was attempting to address is the extreme negativity running through our message, of which the cartoon is merely a symptom. I'm not simply asking for Lib Dem HQ to be more careful in how they produce and release propaganda, but to completely rethink their message and the tone of what the party is saying. This is the latest in a long line of unnecessary assaults on the SNP, which only serve to strengthen Alex Salmond and make Scottish Lib Dems look petty and silly. As I've observed in the last week, many members seem to agree...

Also, a fair number of SNP members and supporters took the time to make their own views known (a surprising number of them being former Liberals):

“Let's not forget that people in the Lib Dems sat down and spent time working out this pathetic piece of garbage. They are perhaps even more infantile than the Labour Party.”

"I tend to agree with your assessment of Liberal "little Labourism" & its queer anti-Nat pathologies."

“I used to vote Lib Dem, but they stopped talking about home rule and became unionist”

“More positive discourse like this Is badly needed in politics. Time to put the horrendous media and Westminster style of Politics in the bin."

“I hope the fool who dreamt up the ridiculous "cartoon" reads your article and apologises for the damage it has done on so many levels.”

“I slag the Lib Dems a lot, and have done for years, I think its the sense of betrayal more than anything else, given that I agree with some of their principles. But when it comes down to it, their hypocrisy on independence frequently disgusts me, to the extent that I hope that party is obliterated. However, this is an excellent piece by a Lib Dem member.”

"I very much understand your frustration at that silly poster - if such an infantile act had been done by the SNP, heads would have rolled. It really shows a party who has lost its way and sense of reasoned political coherence."

“Whatever happened to your party? I would expect this sort of 'tripe' from Labour but not the Lib Dems.

“I would be happy to return to a Liberal Party who could define what they stand for and a series of clear policies which seek to achieve it. That is not the case with the Libdems either in Scotland or the UK overall so, for now, I have lent my support and vote to the SNP because they know what they stand for and have a clear plan on how to achieve it. If you really want to see a Liberal Party revival there needs to be a clear understanding of what we mean by 'Liberal' in the Scottish context and a clear idea of how we will achieve it.”

“Eloquent, moderate and well reasoned. Need one say more? I look forward to a multiparty movement for independence”

“Nice to see such positivity from a different shade of the spectrum. “

"The constant negative line taken against the SNP be it in this or saying no to SNP polices for the sake of saying no makes you look opportunistic, petty and frankly more interested in yourselves than Scotland. I find Willie Rennie, in combination with Michael Moore, to be an appalling advert for the Lib Dems in Scotland. Both come across as blinkered unionists devoid of ideas and integrity."

“I'm glad you saw fit to write this very eloquent, thoughtful and hard-hitting response to what was clearly a very irresponsible deed. Sadly, however, I'm uncertain as to whether the Liberal Democrats in Scotland will ever recover from dire consequences of their own actions over the last two years.”

Andrew, you are to be applauded for your honesty and your integrity in posting this critique of the situation. Serious debate in the run up the referendum is required from all corners of our political spectrum. There is no place for the yah-boo politics of this flyer and thanks for condemning it."

“I'm an SNP member but had always respected your Party and hoped for a day when PR would give you a fair place in politics. But your party's attitude to coalition with an SNP minority government and the subsequent behaviour like Wallace's over the North Sea territorial line andin coalition of people like Moore and Alexander have damaged you almost beyond redemption. I hope there are more like you and you can take your party back?”

“Andrew you have shown more political vision and leadership in this article than Willie Rennie has in 6 months.”

"As a natural Liberal but a supporter of the SNP I am heartened to hear that there is still a small candle of true liberalism at the heart of the party in Scotland as demostrated by Andrews article and many of the responses to it. That candle is in real danger of being extinguished by the boorishness or the current leadership (Moore and Rennie in particular). I truely hope that the party does survive the referendum and that it flourishes in a new and confident independent Scotland."

“Just think, after Independence, you could be the first Liberal Prime Minister of Scotland!”

“I came over from NNS to read your blog and I was pleasantly surprised. I did not expect honesty from what I consider your party to be a Unionist party. For the sake of independence I implore you to stop being honest and continue with the rabid lies that originate from the Unionist parties because your summing up of the situation is spot on. I look forward to the time when all politicians follow the will of the constituency rather than their party line.”

“A brave and honest post”

“I respect you for taking a principled stand on this though, Its not often one does stand up and be counted.”

“Andrew has hit several nails bang on the head.”

“It seems to me the leadership of the Libdems focussed entirely on hating the SNP and Alex Salmond in particular.Personally,I dont understand why the Libdem leadership is so anti-independence,to the point it would not allow a referendum in the past parliament”

Willie Rennie's challenge couldn't be more obvious. A softening of our approach towards the independence question in combination with a less adversarial form of politics would be a positive start on our road to recovery; it seems obvious to me that our recent attitudes (as much as the unpopularity of Nick Clegg) have alienated many who have traditionally voted Lib Dem.

A Labour supporter added "I couldn't agree more. I know SLDs having a rough time but this surprised even me." While a Morton fan, over on the supporters' forum, posted a link to "a forthright and honest article by Lib-dem activist Andrew Page".

Other commenters, of unknown political affiliation, weren't slow in expressing themselves either:

“Andrew - you deserve the appellations liberal and democratic. You have my respect for a courageous and principled stand.”

“Is this the stupidest cartoon in Scottish political history? Agreed in regards tone of LD media recently”

"I am less concerned about this cartoon slipping through the net than I am about the existence of the net, behind which presumably there must be a lot more of this kind of drivel. What a waste of energy! Given the Liberal Democrat's current standing in Scotland and the upcoming local elections, surely they should be expending every iota of available effort trying to communicate a positive message about what they stand for instead of this guff."

“Some great points there, and all well put. Andrew is exactly right to feel angry about this so-called 'cartoon'; it's so ill-considered in nature that it's almost inconceivable that someone in a position of authority at a political party looked at the completed image and thought, 'Aye, that'll get 'em riled.'"

"A rational and measured response. Well done Andrew, your party does not deserve you."

I think the Liberals' problems run exceptionally deeply. I have been interested in politics all my life and, quite frankly, I have no idea what the Lib/Dems really stand for and I certainly don't like the apparently childish way they have been acting in the Scottish Parliament either.

I have had a conversation with Willie Rennie about this and the various issues I perceive to be at the heart of it. Private conversations with the party leader should remain just that, but Willie did admit that "I set the strategy and agree the message content and tone. If you disagree with any of the party's message and strategy then that's my fault...If have any specific suggestions in the future don’t hesitate to [contact] me at any time."

I would invite all those within and outwith the party who have concerns about the direction, purpose, vision and strategy of the Scottish Liberal Democrats to get in touch with Willie and make your feelings known. It seems that there is a groundswell of support for a positive, less adversarial and more collaborative political direction being championed by our leadership, as well as a desire for a more professional campaigning unit. It also seems there is significant apprehension about the stance adopted on the independence question, while some have expressed understandable fears about the actions of the coalition in Westminster and the Scottish party leadership's apparent willingness to be its mouthpiece. So, while I appreciate the many messages I've received both supportive and otherwise, I would ask you to take Willie up on his challenge and forward him your own constructive ideas and suggestions for rising to the various challenges ahead.

Friends, it's over to you...

Saturday, 5 November 2011

A lesbian is elected leader of Scottish Tories - is it really a big deal?

Ruth Davidson is the new leader of the Scottish Conservatives. The first openly gay Tory leader, 32, emerged victorious over Murdo Fraser - whose grand vision to reinvigorate his party's fortunes was to disband it.

I have noticed that there has been much made of Ruth's sexuality in the media, not all of it accurate - such as the announcement that she is the "first gay leader of a UK political party". I can only imagine what Patrick Harvie makes of that. The Daily Mail is also keen to highlight her sexuality as super-significant, leading with the headline "Tories elect lesbian kick-boxer as new Scottish leader". As a passionate advocate for both LGBT rights and a more inclusive political system, I welcome the fact that the Tories have had the courage to elect Ms Davidson; only ten years ago this would be unthinkable. It demonstrates that the Conservative Party's attitudes towards LGBT issues have progressed a little since 1999. Whether this will coincide with a more proactive approach towards LGBT equality remains to be seen, but I am cautiously optimistic her election could coincide with a shift in outlook among the Scottish Tories. It will be rather hard for Tories to express the kinds of anti-LGBT prejudice they've historically been associated with when their future is dependent on the leadership of an openly gay young woman.

I am, however, disappointed that many have found nothing more interesting to say about Ruth Davidson than the fact she is a lesbian. Why the fixation with this aspect of her life? While the Tories' refusal to pay much attention this this fact perhaps says a great deal about that party's changing perspectives (although I suspect it might have more to do with a rejection of Fraser by the more conservative elements of the party), the media obsession with this small detail is suggestive of an inability to share such an inclusive attitude. Why do people have to be definied by their sexuality? And surely in a genuinely tolerant, open society such things become irrelevant? No-one really should care that Ruth Davidson is a lesbian - shame on sections of the media that think it's the only interesting thing about her.

What really matters? Ruth Davidson's sexual preferences or her ideas for Scotland's future? Hmmmmm..

Actually, I'm more surprised that the Tories elected as their leader a proud Glaswegian!

Scotsman journalist David Maddox announced on twitter that Ruth's election made the Tories "the progressive party of history" - also pointing to the election of Disraeli as the UK's first ethnic minority leader in 1868 and that of Thatcher as first woman leader in 1975. That really is an absurd thing to suggest. True, in Scotland they've elected two women is succession, one of them openly gay. But does that in itself make a party progressive? What I can say is that Mr Maddox's emphasis on labelling people according to their sexual preferences hardly stands up to my definition of "progressive". His historical argument is also flawed; Disraeli and Thatcher were hardly great champions for ethnic minority or women's rights.

What can be deduced from this result is that the Scottish Conservatives seem more adept at electing women and minority leaders than other parties. I can only surmise why this might be the case. Perhaps the fact that they don't use patronising all-women shortlists or promote "positive" discrimination allows more women of real leadership calibre to emerge? Ruth succeeded without any such "help", and despite only having been an MSP since May.

Ruth Davidson is an interesting individual - for many reasons aside from her sexuality. She's the first leader of any Scottish party to be a product of the media era, and has previously worked for the BBC. Will this mean the Conservatives become more media-savvy; can her evident presentation skills compensate for her relative political inexperience? She's also, in seven very brief months, been embroiled in a number of controversies - even before being elected. Her determination to ride out the storm and her stiff resolve in difficult situations bodes well for her futrure - and is far more worthy of media attention than interest in her sexual orientation.

There are tough challenges ahead for Ruth Davidson. Her campaign centred on revitalising the party (in stark contrast to Fraser's determination to wind the Scottish Conservatives up and found a new centre-right party) but, now elected leader, she has to both communicate a radical vision for how to actually do this, while taking on those within her party who genuinely felt that Murdo Fraser had the right ideas for the party's future when he argued that "we don't need a new captain, but a new ship". She will also have to detoxify the Tory brand in Scotland - the fact that she is a young, gay woman brings a sense of the party having woken up to the modern era, but it will take more than that to remove the memory of Thatcher's legacy from the minds of Scottish voters. Plus there's the challenge of the SNP's rise and current standing with the public and the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence, during which she will (predictably) be going head-to-head with Alex Salmond, arguing for the status quo.

The real challenge, however, is how to build on Annabel Goldie's considerable achievements as Conservative leader. For all the Scottish Tories' lack of appeal, Goldie successfully presented herself as a skilful and forthright debater as well as an amiable, likeable and down-to-earth person. Goldie was the acceptable face of a party that is still judged for its negative legacy of the 1980s and 90s. Whether Ruth Davidson can foster a similarly positive public image remains to be seen.

Friday, 4 November 2011

By-election victory in Inverness South

I have received some unexpected but welcome news from John Thurso and Martin Hayman. Carolyn Caddick of the Scottish Liberal Democrats emerged victorious in a close-run contest with the SNP in Inverness South, a huge boost to the party in advance of the local elections next May.

The full result and breakdown can be found here, on Highland Council's website.

There are some interesting observations to make. Firstly and most obviously, that the Liberal Democrats are still very much alive in their traditional heartlands and that we can win by-elections. It also demonstrates the importance of campaigning for every vote and fighting local elections on local issues. But there are some other interesting observations to be made, especially if we compare the result with that of 2007.

The first preference votes cast in 2007 were as follows:

Crawford (Independent) 524
Haycock (Independent) 353
Holden (Labour) 671
MacDonald (Conservative) 413
Pedersen (SNP) 1058
Prag (Scottish Liberal Democrats) 902

What we have seen here is the almost complete disintegration of the independent vote. Independents traditionally do very well in the Highlands and form the largest group on the council. I am not in a position to determine why this particular candidate fared so poorly and can only speculate that this was either because of their stance on key local issues or, more likely, the product of a "squeeze" in a contest between the Lib Dems and SNP. But finishing behind the homophobic Scottish "Christian" Party is a failure in anyone's book and what seems fairly certain is that the collapse in the independent vote worked to our advantage rather than that of the Nationalists.

It is also startling to see how poorly Labour performed. Labour have yet to master the art of opposition, either at Westminster or in Holyrood and as a result have struggled to re-assert themselves - it is worth pointing out that this by-election was held as a result of the resignation of Labour councillor John Holden, who was recently convicted of fraud. While the STV system we have in place in Scotland means that this "Lib Dem gain from Labour" can not be interpreted as the dramatic fall from grace that such a result in England could be, it is certain that the party finishing only 230 votes behind us last time weren't even at the races. There was evidence of tactical voting against Labour, with many former Labour supporters choosing to vote either Lib Dem or SNP. And this in spite of concerns about the Lib Dems' role in the Westminster coalition and the very recent reverses suffered by Lib Dems in Highland seats at the Scottish Parliamentary elections earlier this year. A strong second place was the very least Labour should have expected given the Lib Dems' current perceived weaknesses. Serious questions must be asked of the local Labour campaign.

It may be, of course, that confidence in the local Labour Party has dipped following Holden's conviction, but evidence elsewhere (not least Barnsley and Oldham & Saddleworth) is that Labour voters are apparently forgiving of the indiscretions of former elected members. Or at least they don't hold such misdemeanours against new Labour candidates wishing to succeed them. Perhaps Highland electorates are made of different stuff.

Whether this is symptomatic of a wider shift in the Highlands away from Labour and towards the Lib Dems is uncertain. In these kinds of contests, there are usually very strong local factors in play which determine the final outcome. It would be very unwise to read too much into it, other than that the SNP will be hugely disappointed - on the basis of the 2007 result alone they could realistically have expected to have won this contest quite comfortably.

Scottish Liberal Democrats are justified in taking encouragement from this result. Of course, this one result does not in itself constitute a fightback or a turning point. But we should be uplifted by the outcome, while being realistic about the need to redefine our message and building strong local campaigns.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

How many Lib Dems does it take to change a light bulb?

Inspired by Caron Lindsay on facebook, and being the kind of person who can laugh at themselves, I suggested these:

a) None. Lib Dems don't change anything.
b) None. The blub has to be given the liberty to change itself. We'd deny it the referendum to give it the freedom it needed though.
c) 1000 - one to do it, the other 999 to point out that Alex Salmond didn't do it first.
d) None. Lightbulbs, like communties, can't be changed - simply regenerated.
e) It's funny, but since the Holyrood elections it's been very difficult to find any Lib Dems around...
f) None. The Big Society will do it.
g) Remember Iraq! We're against lightbulb regime change!
h) Is it the blub that needs changing, or is it us?
i) It doesn't matter...the lights went out on us last May!

Please add any amusing (and hopefully original) ideas below!

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Is this the stupidest cartoon in Scottish political history?

It’s certainly one of the most ill-considered, misguided, offensive, juvenile and plainly idiotic political stunts ever attempted by a mainstream political party.

As a Scottish Liberal Democrat member and activist I am frankly appalled that we have resorted to such shameful gutter politics that reflect badly on our leader, Willie Rennie, and the party as a whole – as well as Scottish politics more generally. This attempt at satirical humour at the expense of First Minister Alex Salmond is misjudged to say the very least. But it is also deeply offensive, irresponsibly indulging in scaremongering of the worst type and in shockingly poor taste.

The “cartoon” suggests that Alex Salmond, for whom I have enormous respect, has sinister designs for an independent Scotland which include virtual dictatorship, the death penalty and the suppression of LGBT rights. This is not funny – not even remotely. Neither does it say much for our supposed pluralism. It’s also seriously flawed – not only has Salmond been supportive of LGBT rights and is opposed to the death penalty, an independent Scotland (which I am currently minded to vote for in a referendum on the basis of increased freedoms for Scots) would not belong to the First Minister at all but the people of Scotland.

It’s useful to put this excuse for a political message into some kind of context. Alex Salmond is currently touring the Middle East, promoting business links and exploring possibilities for the future of low-carbon energy. Following a meeting with Qatari business leaders, he is reported as stating that there are “remarkable similarities” between Qatar and Scotland, which is what the cartoon seized on. However, what he actually said is far more interesting:

"As nations, we both have considerable expertise in oil and gas production, but as we look to the future and a low-carbon economy, we must increasingly develop new technologies. We discussed the remarkable similarities between our respective nations. Although both Scotland and Qatar have common strengths in the oil and gas sector, we are both seeking to develop our low carbon energy industries. This is where Qatar's focus on becoming a global knowledge hub links well with Scotland's considerable reputation as a world-leading education nation."

I see nothing in that worthy of ridicule. In fact, it is a positive vision for Scotland as a centre of a global move towards low-carbon economics and sounds more than a little similar to a statement issued by the Cabinet Office following a visit Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg made recently to Qatar:

“The Deputy Prime Minister and his counterpart discussed the deep cultural and economic partnership between the UK and Qatar, including our strategic relationship in the energy sector. This meeting signifies the importance the Government places on building close ties with Gulf partners."
And so what Salmond has been doing is playing up Scotland’s role in forging a global green energy economy. That sounds to be like something he should be praised, rather than derided, for. It certainly should not be an opportunity for any party to disingenuously misrepresent what he said in pursuit of political advantage.

I spoke about this with both SNP and Liberal Democrat friends on twitter last night. Most agreed that while it was Halloween this release was uncharacteristically horrific. However, I was surprised to find that one or two defended the cartoon, arguing that is was simply “humourous” and that “we might laugh at it if it was on the cover of Private Eye”. Well, I for one wouldn’t, because it isn’t funny. And I’m not going to defend something which is stupid and petty, not to mention embarrassing.

It’s concerning on other levels too. I’ve always been critical of Willie Rennie’s apparent obsession with the SNP and Alex Salmond in particular. That’s not to say that attacks can’t work, and good political satire (you know, the kind that actually makes you laugh) can be devastatingly effective. If you’re going to throw a few punches you really have to make sure they hit the target. To date, Rennie’s attacks on the SNP leadership have been weak and play directly into Salmond’s hands while making our party appear small-minded, tribal and idiotic. It’s not just this one misguided poster, it’s the whole tone of what the party leadership is saying: we’re so anti-SNP, so cynically negative and so focussed on targeting the First Minister personally that it’s no surprise the public aren’t attracted to our broader message. Where is the pluralism we supposedly embrace? The rational discussion? The positive vision? All this is lost in Rennie’s view that opposition leadership requires adopting an aggressive negativity towards the SNP government.

I refuse to defend the indefensible, especially when it demeans Scotland, her people and her politics. Liberal Democrats should be better than that. And the public need to see us being better than that.

What is also worrying is that the party thought it would be acceptable to release the cartoon. Willie Rennie, speaking today on Good Morning Scotland, explained that it had been published on one of his days off; however, he admitted that “"Although I did not approve its publication I accept responsibility for it. It has been interpreted in ways that were not intended. It has now been withdrawn. I apologise."

Which begs the question: how was it intended to be interpreted? The implications were more than obvious, as should have been the ramifications to any PR or advertising executive worth their salt. It should have been plain to see that this would lead to exactly the kind of reaction we have seen, with further self-inflicted damage caused to the party’s image in Scotland. I am genuinely concerned that what passes for a PR/Communications department at Clifton Terrace seems to find this insulting propaganda both funny and acceptable, while not foreseeing the potential damage it would cause.

I hope some serious questions will now be asked. Who thought this was a good idea? Why can’t the party consider the ramifications of an action before embarking on it? And why is it so determined to indulge in a campaign of negativity towards the SNP?

Mr Rennie admitted to being rightly “embarrassed” by the cartoon which had not been approved by him. “It wasn't right and it shouldn't have gone out", he explained. "It is actually not right to compare countries like that in the way that we did”. Quite. In a separate message to myself, he apologised and assured me that he is working on ensuring future approval of communications is more tightly controlled. This is welcome, but it amounts to putting the genie back into the bottle. The damage has been done, the party looks like an amateur campaigning outfit (to put it rather politely) and it is plain to see that the quality of some of our staff is not perhaps what it should be.

I was horrified when I saw the cartoon. It is unwise on so many levels. However, on reflection, I am more concerned with what this says about our party in Scotland – our strategy, attitudes, professionalism, public perception and direction – than I am about a misjudged joke. The party is surely in crisis when our media staff are resorting to this kind of tactic. It's not quite the "responsible" or "grown-up" politics we've been championing in the recent past.

Of course, this overshadows the Liberal Democrats’ far more newsworthy announcement of a "home rule" commission, as Rennie admitted this morning. He is right of course. But it also highlights the deficiencies at the heart of the Scottish Liberal Democrats’ campaigning mechanism. Lessons must be learned.

I will be utterly honest and confess that this, in combination with Willie Rennie’s acceptance of support from CARE, has caused me to reconsider my membership of the party. I am pleased that Mr Rennie took the time to respond to my concerns which has gone some way to reassuring me, although his explanation offers further reasons for concern. The only thing that has prevented me from returning my membership card is that none of the other parties are sufficiently attractive to me as a new political home.

On a positive note, the only way has to be upwards. Perhaps we could employ someone with a better grasp of campaigning strategy rather than the clown with a questionable sense of humour. In the meantime, can we cut out the unnecessary anti-SNP rhetoric, adopt more constructive and pluralistic relationships with other parties and forge a new positive, liberal message?