Thursday, 29 December 2011

In which I am mentioned in First Minister's Questions...

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

I've taken a bit of a break from blogging, largely due to increased workload and family commitments in the run-up to the festive period.

In fact, so detached have I been from political developments that I was was completely oblivious to the fact that I was mentioned by Alex Salmond during FMQs on 22nd December. That is simply typical - I watch FMQs all year religiously and then miss the only one in which I am personally mentioned.

Fortunately my MSP Derek Mackay alerted me to this rather unexpected reality and I have spent the last few minutes watching last week's FMQs. Unfortunately it is not terribly interesting or even particularly entertaining, but the official report quotes the engagement between Willie Rennie and Alex Salmond as this:

Willie Rennie: The First Minister must be judged by his actions. I accept that he says that he will support the youth contract, but will he actively promote it? The answer to my question is simple. The youth contract can benefit 160,000 young people. The suspicion is that the Scottish Government is soft pedalling the policy because it was not its idea. By engaging with and promoting the policy, the Scottish Government can do something positive for young people. It also still has in its pocket £67 million from the UK Government. The First Minister can use that to reverse the cuts to colleges. He should take the steps that he can, rather than whingeing about the ones that he cannot.

The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick): Can we have a question, Mr Rennie?

Willie Rennie: The First Minister has had a great year.

Members: Yes!

The Presiding Officer: Order. Settle down.

Willie Rennie: Will the First Minister finish off the year with some good news for other people? Will he embrace the youth contract and save colleges?

The First Minister: In terms of the youth contract, yes, yes and yes again. In terms of colleges, Willie Rennie will have seen the wide welcome for the initiative and transformation fund in the college sector two weeks ago.
I confess that I have been a follower of Liberal Democrat tweeting—not just of Willie Rennie but of Andrew Page, the former Liberal candidate for Renfrewshire North and West. In looking at Willie Rennie‟s attacks at First Minister‟s questions, Andrew Page said: “Rennie‟s attacks on the SNP leadership have been weak and played directly into Salmond‟s hands while making our party appear small-minded, tribal and idiotic ... it is no surprise the public aren‟t attracted to our broader message.” In the interests of the Christmas spirit, I will disassociate myself from that Liberal candidate‟s criticism.

Willie Rennie: In the interests of the Christmas spirit, I think the First Minister should focus on the needs of the unemployed, rather than making cheap remarks about other politicians.

The First Minister: They were not my remarks; they were the remarks of a Liberal candidate.

The quote came from my blog, not from my tweets, and were in particular reference to criticism I directed towards the publication of a cartoon, which I considered offensive and symptomatic of a misguided and negative approach to campaigning within our party. It is true that I have also been critical of what I consider an unnecessarily adversarial approach towards the SNP but the quote was certainly not an assessment of Willie Rennie's personal performances at FMQs, although I don't blame Alex Salmond for using the quote in that way - the article was in the public domain; I expect it to be used (and misused). But I think it's right to put the record straight - my desire is simply for the Scottish Lib Dem leadership to expend more energies on articulating a strong, liberal message that resonates with the public than in opposing independence and attempting to score points over the SNP's more than capable front bench team. The latter is not a good tactic in any case as more often than not such attempts fail spectacularly.

What did concern me however was the First Minister's determination to use this quote for party-political interests, even when it clearly had very little to do with the pertinent question Willie Rennie had asked in relation to the youth contract.

Still, it's nice to know that the First Minister reads my tweets.

Willie Rennie's response was absolutely correct; refusing to be drawn into any kind of action which could have been construed as, well, "small-minded and tribal" he instead focused on the needs of unemployed people and highlighted the First Minister's responsiblities to tackling joblessness while refusing to be distracted from making progress on the youth contract. In taking this approach he showed the kind of positivity I hope he can demonstrate more frequently in future.

You might wish to watch FMQs on iPlayer: Alex Salmond refers to me at around the 26:00 mark. Watch out for former leader Tavish Scott's excessively outrageous response to the mere mention of my name (before the quote from my blog was read out) - it is really rather disturbing that someone of my limited influence should have this kind of impact on such an experienced politician.


Jennie Kermode said...

A sensible response. I agree with you that adversarial politics (at the expense of getting good things done) should be beneath the Liberals. It would be nice to see the SNP making a concerted effort to avoid it, likewise.

Andrew said...

Thanks Jennie. I completely agree.

Gedguy said...


Not only did I read the offending(?) blog at the time of its posting but I had listened to that very same FM questions. To be honest with you I was under the impression that you were totally disenchanted with what was happening in the Scottish(?) Libdems at that particular moment in time, whether that was your motive for doing so, or not; it seemed as if that was what you blogging on.
I know a few SNP supporters [myself included] who read your blog so I shouldn't be surprised that the SNP members are reading it as well. There is a political war going on in Scotland, just now, between the Unionists and their media lackeys and the democratically elected government of Scotland. Fair enough, I hear you say, but what sticks in the throat of those with an independence mind is the atrocious behaviour of the BBC news in Scotland. I'm sure that you are more than aware of the blatant anti-SNP stance taken by Pacific Quay. So what, you say, don't they have a right to put over their point of view? Not if it is a public service paid for by the licence fee payers of Scotland.
Anyway, gripe over. I enjoy your postings even though I don't agree with all of them. If/when independence comes the Scottish voters, who want independence, which includes a fair amount of voters who would have been voting for the Unionist parties, in the past, but have been turned off by the diatribe emanating from those same parties, are going to be looking for a decent left of centre political party that cares for the peoples of Scotland and are not just the mouthpiece of Westminster. The political fact is that the peoples of Scotland are fed up with the same old 'we're too small, too poor etc.' propaganda put out by the Unionists.
We, independence minded people, have asked the Unionists for years to come up with a positive reason why we, the peoples of Scotland, should stay in the Union. Why have you [Unionists] refused to engage with us unless it is something negative about independence? No where have I seen [I'd be happy to be directed to any site that gives a positive answer to staying in the Union] any positive reasons for staying in.
By the way, I have added your site to my blog list.


I believe that the SNP have said that after independence they will close down the SNP. Where are all those voters going to go? Worth thinking about.

Andrew said...

Thanks Gedguy.

I'm not disenchanted with the Scottish Lib Dems per se; I really feel at home in the party. I have many friends in the Lib Dems and as someone whose political views are fundamentally liberal I find it somewhere I can naturally "belong" and be myself. Having said that, I'm frustrated by what has passed for a campaigning strategy in the last few years, the current direction of travel fvoured by the leadership and the inability to learn from experience. The apparent obsession with the SNP and Alex Salmond in particular is both counter-productive, indicative of misplaced campaigning priorities and contrary to our professed desire to promote a less adversarial and more collaborative politics.

So yes, I'm disenchanted with where the leadership (both federal and Scottish) want to take the party, but I remain a liberal and loyal to the party I still believe in.

I know many SNP supporters read my blog. I often engage with some of them on twitter! Good people by and large, some of them broadly liberal! Well, I'm not a unionst and will never call myself that, but neither am I a nationalist. I currently favour Scottish independence on the basis of it being the option that will provide Scots with the most freedoms - unfortunately the moment I declared myself as not being opposed to independence there were Lib Dems telling me I had betrayed liberalism (I don't understand why an independent Scotland is such anathema to liberal thinking) and others telling me I should join the SNP. Yes, I see the behaviour of the BBC and don't applaud it. But so also do most Scottish people.

I am also fed up with the "too poor, too small" arguments; you won't hear any rubbish like that coming from me. Frankly, I'm frustrated at how predictably insular the whole debate has been, how both sides appear to see things merely in black and white and resort to simplicities rather than empower the electorate to more fully understand the complex issues at the heart of the question.

There are other Lib Dems who think like me, but we are very much in the minority. What I find quite hard to accept is the lack of progress the Lib Dems have done in championing a further reaching devolution - the Home Rule commission has come 12 years too late and can hardly be taken seriously as it isn't supported by any other party, not even Labour. We should have been seen as the party of devolution, but instead allowed oursleves to become perceived as an anti-independence party.

"Why have you [Unionists] refused to engage with us unless it is something negative about independence?" That is something that I find deeply frustrating; that the Scottish Lib Dems adopted a futile and unnecessarily hostile attitude towards the SNP that can not easily be explained. Perhaps because of the close relationship we had with Labour in the 1990s, it was naturally assumed that they, rather than the SNP, were our "natural" allies, but I think suspicion of the SNP goes deeper than that. Undoubtedly some Lib Dem MSPs have harboured a near pathological dislike of Alex Salmond and his party, but it's not one that I share.

As you suggest, the pro-status quo campaign has been deeply negative in its tactics which is both regrettable and likely to be counter-productive. It's also not been very good at painting a picture of the kind of future Scotland people might actually want to live in.

I'm going to be tackling this issue on the blog in the new year, when I have a bit more time to think clearly. In reference to your final point, I completely agree that there are significant opportunities for the Liberal Democrats in an independent Scotland, if only the current leadership could either grasp or understand them.

Gedguy said...

Wow, Andrew. My lapsed faith in the libdems has been tweaked again.
To let you know where I stand. I am not a member of the SNP but I am a supporter of their drive for independence and have even donated money to their cause. My politics range from right wing on some subjects but mostly left of centre in others. Some would say an ideal candidate for joining the Libdems but I am not even going to think of that until after independence, if the Scottish electorate vote that way; I believe in democracy and trawl the cyber-world looking for it. No luck so far.
Putting that aside I would agree with you that you are better staying inside the party and fight your corner from there because, if independence comes, a lot of pro-union politicians in Scotland are out of a job, or should be if they have any political morality. I have said this on a Scottish Tory blog which I follow:

He too is fed up with his party but I advised him to stick with it. After independence there will be a need for decent opposition to the SNP until they dismantle, which is something we don't have just now. I'm not one of those people who think that the LibDems had made a mistake aligning with the Tories to form a Government; . imagine what would happen if the LibDems were not there to take the edge of Tory policies.
I look forward to reading your blog after the New Year. Have a nice time and don't drink too much.

David Pollard said...

The Home Rule Commission may be late, but it will give LibDems a solid base for the independence debate. The question I would ask is - Would the LibDem view of Scottish independence change if English Tory Euro-sceptics forced an in out vote on the EU and won? Would we be better in a Scotland in the EU rather than in a UK outside of the EU?

tris said...

Great post.

Gedguy pointed me in your direction. He was bang on. Sensible and balanced, and just what we need. I'd be pleased to add you to my blogroll.

We must have good opposition. For the benefit of Scotland, and yes, for the benefit of the SNP too.

No party, no matter how noble their motives, should ever be allowed full reign. Look what happens in the UK when that happens.

No, with no upper house, we need good opposition, and right now we are not getting it. it is not just the Liberals who are failing us, we've had 4 years of utter negativity from Labour, and with Annabel gone, we don't seem to have the common sense we used to from the Tories.

Happy New Year. Let's hope we can all work together in 2012.

Andrew said...

Gedguy - I'm pleased I've been able to "tweak" if not fully restore someone's faith in the Lib Dems. It seems that you would be exactly the kind of person who SHOULD feel at home in our party; I personally don't see that being independence-supportive is the antithesis of liberalism and I feel that none of the so-called "unionist" parties have got their message right to date.

With hindsight, I don't necessarily think that coalition with the Conservatives was the best possible outcome, but now we're in government we have to take ownership of it and do what we can to make it work. I had not time for the various Lib Dem ministers who used conference as a platform for sticking the knives into our Tory colleagues. That's not how coalitions work - and certainly not how we worked with Labour for eight years in Holyrood.

David - I can't profess to speak for everyone, but I'm of the view that an independent Scotland within the EU would be in a much healthier position than a UK outside of it. Then again, I am very much an internationalist.

Tris - thanks for your complimentary comments. We do need a strong opposition in Scotland and for too long this has been noticeable by its absence. Annabel Goldie in fairness performed well and provided not only the common sense to which you refer but a little bit of toughness that the other opposition leaders lacked.

Davidson at the moment seems pretty toothless, while my thoughts on Willie Rennie have been expressed already. I think, like a good whisky, he will improve and mature with time. As for Lamont, it's simply too early to tell.

I'd love to see more opportunities for us to "work together". Now, if only we can convince the respective party leaderships...