Monday, 30 January 2012

Gay ex-footballer talks openly to A Scottish Liberal

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice
Dave (not his real name) is a retired football player in his late 30s who played for a number of English lower-division and non-league clubs in the 1990s and early 2000s. He is gay but has never felt the need to be open about his sexuality, for reasons which he explained below in this interview with me.

A lot has been made about the lack of openly gay footballers, and a BBC3 documentary tonight explores this and the potential reasons behind it. I spoke with Dave on the phone yesterday to ask for his views on the matter, why he has never "come out" and how he thinks LGBT representation in football can be improved.

Dave is a personal friend of mine (we met at a charitable football match) and agreed to the interview on the premise that he would remain anonymous. For this reason, all people and clubs referred to are given pseudonyms.

AP: Joey Barton has recently come out (excuse the pun) in support of gay footballers, and said that his uncle is gay. Do you think this kind of contribution will make a difference?

D: I'm not sure. The more high-profile players who make this kind of gesture are sending out a signal that it's Ok to be gay and a footballer. That's a message we need to get out. We've got to make it easier for young footballers to be Ok with who they are than it was when I was starting out. It's a different world now but football seems not to have moved on enough. I think what [Joey] has done is right but it's also well overdue, you know the clubs need to take a bit of a lead on this instead of just leaving it to players. But if this can help change attitudes and the culture within the game then I'm all for it.

AP: What would make more of a difference then?

D: Look, there are quite a lot of gay footballers. They're not all playing in the Premier League but they're out there. I was one of them. There have always been others.

AP: Always?

D: Yes, I knew of some when I was playing, I can't believe that there haven't always been gay men playing. Now, I know what you're going to ask, and that is could people like me coming out make a difference. It's a good question to ask, but I think what first has to happen is for the whole lads culture to change, for it to be easier for young guys to come out. You know, football isn't actually a very glamorous game - at least it isn't when you're playing [for a League 2 club] and people forget that for a lot of young men, who just happen to be footballers, they're just that. Young guys, away from home for the first time, trying desperately hard to both fit in and develop a career in what is a bloody difficult environment. It's literally a survival of the fittest environment, you know, it's OK to say that gay people should come out but unless these people are confident that they'll be accepted and understood why should they? If we-

AP: No, I understand that. I want to come back to that in a moment and yes, you pre-empted my question! What do you think could be done to change football to make it a more gay-friendly environment?

D: Yes, I'm wanting that to happen but you see it takes time. Obviously Joey is right to make the points he has and it would be good to see more gay footballers come out. As I said though it's not that easy and we can't expect it until things change. You know I'd like to see more clubs doing something to actively reach out to the gay community, not just with anti-homophobia campaigns but to embrace us. Get more LGBT people employed by clubs, working in community coaching and that sort of thing, that would help. Another thing is to challenge fans culture, as we saw with the Liverpool [v Manchester United] match racism isn't tolerated and quite rightly but go to any ground and you'll here homophobic comments being laughed off as banter. You see, it's acceptable to call a referee "gay", but have a go at him for being black and you've crossed the line.

AP: Do you think that racism has been effectively consigned to history then?

D: No, I'm not saying that and you know I'm not but you've got to admit that a lot of progress has been made. True, black players like Cyrille Regis, Viv Anderson and Brendan Batson helped change attitudes but there are still racists out there. There will probably always be homophobes too. But there's been a difference to how the FA and the clubs have responded to racism while next to nothing's been done about homophobia until now?

AP: Do you think the media has a role to play?

D: (brief pause) Yes. Yes, but not for the reasons you think. Justin Fashanu's been in the papers again recently, I think it's so many years since he died. The amazing thing is that when he came out as gay all of a sudden everybody forgot he was black. Interesting, eh? Make what you want of that. It's funny that since then nobody's had anything more interesting to say about him than his sexuality - pretty disgraceful for someone who appeared in cup finals and who scored for fun for Norwich City in the top flight. And whose fault is that? The papers of course. That's one reason why it would be so ****ing difficult for a player to come out- think of all the press interest. Once a few have done it they won't care any more but why should any player have to go through that? You know, all the media intrusion. If you're a Premier League footballer then you probably learn to deal with that kind of pressure, but I think some people think that's part and parcel of being a pro footballer and it's not.

AP: Do you think the media can help to challenge the lads' culture you mentioned before?

D: No, it works the other way round. The papers reflect society's values-

AP: But-

D: and that's how it is. Papers won't say anything about race now because they know they'll get hammered for it. When no-one cares who's gay and who's straight any more then the papers will have to talk about other things apart from someone's sexuality. You know, like maybe they're a good footballer.

AP: Yes, it's this I'm trying to get at. How do we normalise gay participation in football?

D: Well, it is normal. Have a look at women's football. No end of lesbians playing the game. Fact. So it's not the game that's homophobic, yeah?

AP: But it's not "normal" in men's' football. And to many people, that's what matters.

D: Yeah, big difference. Same game, different cultures - know what I mean? Of course it's normal to be gay. It's not about normalising it, it's about breaking down barriers and tackling prejudice. There's two problems as I see it - the barriers making it difficult for people to come out, and the second one is the media's obsession with sexuality. So it's not about information, or normalising, or educating people. It really is about tackling prejudices and giving players the confidence to be themselves - and I mean in a lot of ways, not just their sexuality.

AP: So why didn't you come out?

D: There's a lot of reasons. You know, it was a different era. It wasn't easy to be gay in the late 80s, whether as a footballer or not. It was a ****ing cruel world, sometimes it still is but it was worse then. I know some people will think I probably should have, but they don't know how hard it was. For starters, I'd not just be coming out to the club or even the fans but the whole bloody world. I wasn't even ready to come out to my dad! I wouldn't want to do that to my family, imagine them finding out that way. But what I really wanted to do was play football and what I did in my own time was my business. I know some of the other players thought I was a bit anti-social but as far as I know no-one ever guessed.

AP: Did you not feel a bit isolated socially...?

D: Yeah, dead right but that's what being gay was like then. So that was my main reason. But there were others too, which I only understand looking back. I was a very young lad when I signed for [football league club]. I was, what, 18. You don't really know who you are at that age. I don't even think I was comfortable with who I was until late 20s when I met John (current partner). But even then, when I was playing at [North West Counties league club] I didn't want to come out. Why not? Well, it's none of anyone's business but you have to think, what will be gained by this? Probably not very much. I mean, if a Premier League player like John Terry was to come out, well - that would be great wouldn't it? But me - not really. And I wouldn't want to anyway because I was never that good.

AP: That's not true!

D: Whatever, I wasn't good enough to come out. Because you'd have to be bloody damned good to be able to be the icon or role model you'd have wanted to be. Yeah? Because otherwise all the papers would do is see this one guy playing at [English lower league club] and think that this "only" gay player is shit, he plays for a shit team. What good would that do? It would put a load of pressure on me which I can be doing without and it could have negative consequences for gay rights in football. Might look like tokenism. So if you want to make football more tolerant, you either need a load of players coming out and making it look "normal" or you need a big name player. I just don't think it's fair to put so much pressure on a young kid, footballers have a lot to deal with without all that. I mean, can we expect them to be so emotionally mature as to handle the media attention, all the interest in their sexuality and everything that goes with it. You know if I was a manager I wouldn't want any of my players exposed to that kind of shit-

AP: Yes, but do you not think coming out now might be useful for challenging the attitudes you clearly feel are holding progress back?

D: I don't see what would be gained. People would naturally ask why I didn't do it earlier. In any case, I've been out of football for many years and I played something like 30 football league games in five years and then went to non-league. No-one will remember me and if anyone does I'd prefer it if they remembered me for [a particular] goal I scored and not for being a gay guy who was too scared to some out. Mind you, I don't hide who I am and I know there are a few people who know, including some of my former team-mates. I just don't see the point making a big deal out of it. I'm not the only gay man ever to kick a ball about you know.

AP: I know you care a great deal about LGBT rights though. Looking at the broader picture, how do you think greater LGBT rights can be achieved?

D: Yeah, I'm glad you're thinking like that. Football is only a small piece of the jigsaw and of course I don't like to see how it hasn't moved forward but things will change and if football doesn't then it will have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Key thing is to change attitudes. You know, look at the equal marriage talk coming out of you guys [political types, I think!] and you know that couldn't have happened 20 years ago. I mean, the Prime Minister saying that kind of thing. And when that happens people wake up, they listen, they realise that being gay is normal for a lot of us and they become less hostile. Most people now are perfectly happy for us to have rights that for years were denied [e.g. marriage, adopting children, giving blood] and because of that we're moving forward. That's been happening for a while. And so we see a lot more gay-friendly clubs and pubs, and people in different professions feel more comfortable coming out. What's happened in wider society simply needs to happen in football.

AP: Looking back at your football career, do you have any regrets about not coming out or doing more to challenge homophobia?

D: Andrew mate, I didn't have a football career, I was a bit part player trying to get ahead in a game I loved. And no, I don't have many regrets because I think at any point if I'd come out I would have brought on myself so much attention that would have been more than I could deal with. I do have one regret though: I'd wanted to go into coaching but was concerned that if I was ever outed then that would be the end; I mean who would want a gay guy working with kids? I let fear get in the way and that was stupid but that's how I was thinking at the time.

AP: You mentioned attitudes, but mainly about supporters and the media. What was your perception of attitudes within the game?

D: You mean other players and managers? I don't think they really care. Yeah, I think if you were "out" there's be a load of banter but I'd imagine it would be more friendly than hostile. There was a player I liked called Liam, he was definitely gay - came to us for a few weeks on trial but wasn't really any good, quick but no positional sense, but I don't think his sexuality was a problem to anyone. I've experienced a lot of homophobia in my life but never actually in football circles, which is a bit strange considering. You know, I think it's a cultural thing. There's this cultural hostility, like an assumption that football's a bit of a lad's club but that's more with fans and the media. I know there are gay footballers out there who don't come out and that's not really because of their clubs or team-mates but because of the media.

I am very grateful for the time Dave spent talking to me yesterday. I have attempted to honestly re-create the conversation here although some personal information has been removed and some sections adapted for clarity. Please do not attempt to contact me for information in respect to Dave's personal information or contact details.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

"Scotland for Marriage" petition discussed in Holyrood

The Scottish Petitions Committee has today considered the petition lodged by Amy King - a representative of Scotland for Marriage - which aims to "preserve marriage".

As you will no doubt realise, their interpretation of preserving marriage actually means preserving a very narrow and discriminatory definition of marriage. To be honest, I thought the predictably homophobic line taken would make me quite angry, but to my enormous surprise the substance of the petition just amuses me. It's hilarious.

You can read it here. It certainly is worth reading, if only for the lack of critical thinking and the way it defends spurious "facts" with even more questionable "evidence". Intolerance is reinforced with intolerance. Some of my Lib Dem friends were discussing this on facebook, with one interpreting the submission as "one of the most ridiculously homophobic things I've ever read". I disagree: it's simply one of the most ridiculous things I've ever read.

I want to get a bit angry about this. I really do. That's my regular reaction to experiencing prejudice and discrimination. But I really can't, for reasons which will become obvious as I look at in in a bit more detail.

Let's take a look at some of the claims and arguments Amy King puts forward:

1. Surveys suggesting that the public support same-sex marriage are flawed and inaccurate. Less than 50% of actually support same-sex marriage, but are more supportive of same-sex civil partnerships. Of course. If you don't like the outcome criticise the process. What Ms King doesn't tell us is the proportion of Scots who are, like her, opposed to same-sex marriage - I imagine that would represent a somewhat inconvenient truth. As for the notion that Scottish people are supportive of one form of same-sex union but not another - that can be quite easily dismissed. Most people do not spend their time intellectualising about the sanctity of marriage and who to exclude from it as if it was some kind of club.

2. Legal benefits of marriage are already available to same-sex couples, so why "redefine" marriage? That tired argument. Yawn! In that case, why the strong and sometimes vitriolic opposition to it? If civil partnerships are effectively marriages, why not upgrade them to having the same status?

3. So few people are directly affected by it. So why redefine marriage "for the whole society"? The Free Church of Scotland and the likes of Scotland for Marriage represent an even smaller proportion of Scottish society than the LGBT community. Why should society's understandings of marriage be assumed to reflect those of anti-equality groups as a default position (they currently don't). What the petitioners fail to appreciate is that governments and legislation don't define marriage in anything other than legal terms - it's social attitudes that do. They also fail to grasp that it isn't just same-sex couples that are affected, but anyone who cares passionately in the cause of equality.

4. Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie is - wait for it - "a pro-homosexual spokesperson" who "imposes [his] views on us". Indeed. I get the picture: the evil Mr Rennie is aided in this quest by the Devil, the Beast out of the Sea and the temptress Jezebel. This claim is so funny as to render a critical response barely necessary.

5. "Marriage should not be redefined for the whole of society given the tiny percentage of society actually affected by the issue...The introduction of same-sex marriage is being presented in the media and by some lobbyists and politicians as something that does not affect most of us [but] in reality, this change would have huge implications for...wider society." Hmmm. Few people are affected by it...actually, all of society is affected. No contradiction there then.

6. "Schools would be expected to promote same-sex marriage to children." No, schools are not in the business of promoting but educating. I can only imagine which school Ms King went to. This fear was expressed prior to the Civil Partnership Act being passed and to date the promised moral meltdown and promotion of homosexuality in our schools has never materialised. The argument is so dated and so discredited by evidence as to be facile.

7. Pro-homosexual story-books could find their way into schools. Obviously Ms King would close my old school down then. I remember being about 5 years' old and my teacher reading to us that wonderful gay fairytale, The Ugly Duckling - Hans Anderson's autobiographical parable of the loneliness and poor self-image he had as a gay man and his hopes for tolerance to make a way for acceptance. Presumably Scotland for Marriage would like this book to be banned? And the Harry Potter series of course as Professor Dumbledore is gay. Obviously children's stories with gay characters in them are far more harmful than those about murderous wolves, evil queens who poison stepdaughters, witches who lure children to their deaths in forests with promises of sweets and psychopathic kings who murder masses of innocent babies around Christmas time.

8. "It is not unreasonable, therefore, to conclude that same-sex marriage is an
effort by gay rights campaigners to impose their views forcibly on the rest of
society. Those who oppose same-sex marriage do not seek to impose their
views on same-sex couples."
Actually, it is unreasonable. There is, in fact, no need for "gay rights campaigners" to impose any such view on a society that is already broadly supportive of equality. As for the claim that those unsupportive of such equality are not seeking to impose their views - erm, in that case what is the point of your rather desperate petition?

9. "Defending [a narrow definition of] marriage does not affect the freedom of others to think, believe and act as they choose". No, of course not. Unless we choose to get married.

10. If same-sex marriages are allowed, then polygamy should be too. Another insultingly facile argument that equates loving and committed relationships between two people of the same sex as a route to "sexual chaos" (I love that term, it sounds rather fun). It is also claimed that same-sex marriage is a form of "social engineering" - something that hints at the paranoid motivations of Scotland for Marriage.

11. The best way for children to grow up is with opposite-sex parents who are married. Well, given my childhood I find that rather hard to believe but I'm more than aware of what the evidence suggests. It is, however, so easy to cite "evidence" of the benefits of a loving family. I would use the same arguments to make claims about the need to extend marriage to same-sex couples given its incredible benefits to children - a point Ms King doesn't think should be "assumed" (perhaps because same-sex couples are more likely to be mentally ill, according to her). The petition goes on to argue that children should ideally be brought up by their "natural parents". Oh dear. So no role for adoption there then? (I should also add that my natural father was gay - good to know Ms King approves so highly of his influence!)

12. "Many Scots find the consultation process too difficult and/or time consuming, but would want to be supportive of man/woman marriage." No doubt. And probably even more who favour marriage equality. What's your point?

13. Foreigners should not have any influence in shaping the outcome of the consultation. So, the Scottish government can't learn from experiences elsewhere and have their discussions informed by these? Does Scotland for Marriage really believe in governments working in a vacuum, isolated from what goes on elsewhere? Or are they simply xenophobic as well as homophobic?

14. Suggesting that people opposed to equality are cultivating a “discriminatory attitude” is a serious threat to freedom of speech. No, it isn't. Suggesting they're cultivating a "discriminatory attitude" is a pretty accurate diagnosis. I defend your right to say what you think and even to present it to the Scottish parliament. I also retain the right to deconstruct your arguments and demonstrate your supposed sociological critique to be little more than the reinforcement of outdated prejudice. I don't care if you look ridiculous - it is, after all, you that's saying it. Real freedom is, as George Orwell pointed out, "the freedom to say that 2 plus 2 equals 5". But I maintain that your attitudes are discriminatory, because - very simply - they make a discrimination in insisting one group of people should not be able to access the same rights as another. That, Ms King, is discrimination pure and simple - and you are promoting it.

So, if Alex Salmond's government press ahead with the furtherance of equality by allowing same-sex marriages, the result will be - according to Scotland for Marriage - "sexual chaos", schools promoting gay marriages, homosexual story books for children and the legalisation of polygamy. Yes, naturally. And gay people are responsible for climate change, the recession and the fact that it always rains on your day off.

UK government looked to overrule result of Gibraltar referendum

An interesting story appeared in today's Independent, which at first glance seems somewhat obscure and irrelevant.

Oliver Wright examines revelations in Peter Hain's memoirs that Tony Blair and Jack Straw entered into "secret talks" with the Spanish government over the future of Gibraltar. The only reason the negotiations broke down, it is alleged, is that the Spanish got "cold feet" after a "full agreement" had been reached. So not at all to do with a lack of vigour on the part of the Labour government. That is interesting.

Hain revealed that "Jack's desire to do something about Gibraltar coincided with my gut instinct that it was ridiculous in the modern age for Britain to have a colony on the tip of Spain nearly 2,000 miles away" while the Prime Minister was keen to "secure a better relationship with Spain and to remove it [Gibraltar] as an obstruction to our relations within Europe". Hain points out that the objections of the Chief Minister of Gibraltar were overruled by a government not terribly interested in "local politicians who insisted that the constitutional arrangements should not be altered".

This is relevant for a number of reasons. Firstly, as we witnessed on Question Time last week in respect to the Falkland Islands and our obligations towards its citizens, there is a continuing debate in respect to the future of British dependencies. That is a separate issue but is is too glib to suggest, as Peter Hain does, that the argument can be reduced to one about how "ridiculous" it is to retain Gibraltar in the post-colonial age. On one level I naturally agree with him, but what he and - apparently - Blair and Straw overlooked is the fact that there is a human dimension to this. Hain omits to mention Gibraltarians other than their being a "block" to European progress and speaks disparagingly about their democratically elected politicians. What he doesn't do it explain why the people of Gibraltar feel so strongly about remaining separate from Spain, the identity and pride they take in their own House of Assembly and why the UK government should feel it can ride roughshod over the wishes of that elected assembly. It seems quite ironic that, in spite of condemning colonialism as "ridiculous", the UK government approach towards Gibraltar's people constituted a classic exercise in colonial arrogance.

A key fact that Hain appears to forget is that the future of Gibraltar had been subject to two previous referenda - in 1967 and 2002. I was actually in Gibraltar shortly after the second of these and can affirm the opposition to any deals being done with the Spanish - either secret or otherwise. The results of these referenda were not in doubt, with the 99.19% and 98.49% respectively of the local population voting for the status quo.

Hain's memoirs seem to suggest that even after this the British-Spanish negotiations continued, albeit ultimately unsuccessfully. Hain could have conceded that the public verdict brought an end to the possibility of talks, but strangely he seemed not to see this as a problem - instead blaming the Spanish having "cold feet". At the time, Straw dismissed the referendum as "eccentric", with his Spanish counterpart labelling it as "illegal" and "against all UN resolutions". Presumably that includes the right to self-determination as stated in the UN Charter?

The curious thing is that the British-Spanish proposal always, in theory, required the consent of Gibraltarians. It is hard to imagine what they imagined "consent" meant if not the democratic verdict of Gibraltar's people. Perhaps the kind of "consent" Labour took for granted for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq?

Of course, this is more significant than a previous British government arrogantly overruling the democratic will of people living 1,000 miles away. It is no surprise that Westminster thinks it knows best as far as constitutional questions are concerned. But this is a lesson for the Scottish government in its dealings with their UK counterparts. It is one thing to have a democratic mandate to ask a question; another to ensure that the outcome of that referendum is respected and upheld.

I have no doubt about Alex Salmond's negotiation skills, nor do I doubt that David Cameron will be obligated to accept the outcome. What is concerning has been the actions of the Conservatives in recent weeks, rumours of legal challenges and an unwelcome emphasis on the process rather than the detail of what independence will mean for the people of Scotland. While all this will only swell support for independence, there is a danger that the Scottish people will become - in the minds of some politicians - mere footnotes in a constitutional wrangle.

If the Gibraltar experience tells us anything, its that Westminster governments tend to view these important questions of sovereignty as at best a political game; detached from the human dimension, the right to self-determination is recognised only in light of the need to retain "relations with Europe" and maintain the constitutional status quo as a means of preserving the "balance of power". The very colonial attitudes so derided by Hain are actually evident in much of his thinking; worse still, such colonial instincts lie at the heart of the Conservatives' and Labour's approach to Scotland's future.

It's vital that the 2014 referendum gives Scotland the constitutional future its people want. It's also vital that the coming debate centres on the needs of Scottish people rather than on political prejudices or personalities. For this reason, I'm hoping to put forward a topical motion for Scottish Lib Dem Spring Conference in which I will ask the party to work with the SNP and Westminster to ensure that we have a two-question referendum for the options of independence and devo-max - and to ensure that the outcome is both implemented and determined by Scottish people rather than the courts.

I hope we can have Scotland's future discussed at conference and that for a commonsense liberal approach to triumph over shallow anti-nationalism. I trust my liberal-minded friends in all parties agree.

Friday, 20 January 2012

The real problem the Liberal Democrats have with gender balance

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

I have been interested in following a discussion on Lib Dem Voice, stemming from an article written by a participant in the Candidates Leadership Programme. The programme hasn’t been without controversy, but while considering its strengths and demerits it occurred to me that however ambitious and far-reaching its aims – and however successful it is in selectively nurturing talent – a very real and more pressing danger to improving the gender balance of Lib Dem parliamentarians appears to have been overlooked.

We’ve all heard the by now familiar arguments in favour of gender balance and it’s difficult not to be in sympathy. Only 7 out of 57 MPs are female (12%), as are 1 out of 5 of our MSPs (20%) and 2 out of 5 Welsh AMs (40%). Much has been said, quite understandably, about the lack of female representation – but of course the statistics do not tell the full story. A reasonably small number of votes going different ways in the Scottish parliamentary elections last year could have seen Margaret Smith retain her Edinburgh Western seat, with the Greens pipping Willie Rennie for a regional seat in Mid Scotland & Fife and independent campaigner Billy Fox ousting Tavish Scott in Shetland. Taking that hypothetical outcome in combination with actual results elsewhere, the Lib Dems would have four MSPs, 50% of which would be female.

Would that statistic have meant that the party had finally overcome its problem with gender balance? No, it wouldn’t. It would simply demonstrate the scale of the electoral massacre. It would be ridiculously glib to make the argument that a corner had been turned. But, similarly, it would be wrong to read too much insignificance into the 20% statistic, especially as in different circumstances many of our more talented candidates such as Margaret Smith, Katy Gordon and Alison Hay could have expected a more favourable verdict from the voters.

The challenge is to look long-term rather than simply bemoan the immediate reality. It’s not good that only 20% of our MSPs are female. But what’s worse is that we only have 5 MSPs. Instead of focusing on the gender of our parliamentarians we have to be looking at revitalising the party so that it is an attractive proposition to talented politicians of the future – and, of course, the electorate. In order to secure more female representation, we have to actually increase our representation at elections and that is a challenge that requires a bit more creativity than “leadership programmes” with the express purpose of achieving a parliamentary gender balance.

Take a look at it this way. Let’s imagine the party manages to ensure that 65% of seats not held by a Lib Dem incumbent at the next General Election are contested by female candidates. That will represent progress. However, if the current opinion polls are correct and if – for the sake of argument – our support remains at about that level for the next three years –those candidates, however capable or well-trained, will have very minimal opportunity for success, while many incumbent MPs (who, lest we forget, are mainly white males) will successfully hold off challenges. We might see, quite ironically, that the Lib Dem parliamentary party becomes even more male-dominated in spite of a significant and successful move to recruit more female candidates.

The risk of this happening becomes very clear when the majorities of the seven incumbent female MPs are considered. Lorely Burt has a majority of only 175; Annette Brooke a slender 269. Others with worryingly small majorities are Tessa Munt (800), Sarah Teather (1345) and Jo Swinson (2184). Jenny Willott (4576) and Lynne Featherstone (7875) have respective majorities that are far healthier but, if the verdict of recent opinion polls were applied within current boundaries, the party would lose all of its female MPs in addition to being unlikely to compensate for their loss with gains elsewhere.

I would fancy Lynne Featherstone’s chances of defending her seat and I think it’s too early to write the Liberal Democrats off as a spent electoral force. However, as a party we must face up to this stark reality. Very little progress will be made on gender balance if our energies are directed only towards aspiring politicians rather than in defending the seats of the most vulnerable incumbents.

Again, these raw statistics don’t explain the full story. They show merely that our women MPs are more electorally vulnerable than most of their male counterparts. However, the seriousness of the situation can only be fully understood in the context of the party’s electoral unpopularity (which, far from being a product of negative reading of the polls, is something that expressed itself in devastating style in the 2011 Holyrood elections) and our understandable but foolhardy determination to accept Conservative proposals to reduce the size of the Commons to an arbitrary 600. There are principled reasons for choosing to reduce the size of the legislature, but unless this is coupled with further electoral reform it is plainly suicidal for our party to support the proposals. Boundary changes are likely to make the task of returning even the seven incumbent women more difficult: not only are many of the “big guns” such as Farron, Huhne and Cable facing uphill struggles, many of our female MPs are “defending” against notional Labour or Tory majorities. Of course, Sarah Teather has seen it all before, but the political climate will be different in 2015 to what it was in 2010 and she may not be so fortunate in regards her Labour opponent.

Even if we manage to hold two-thirds of our seats at the next General Election – something I would regard as an achievement in the circumstances – the likelihood is that we will secure very few new gains and that many of our current intake of women will be among the casualties. It isn’t altogether inconceivable that we could be left with not a single female MP. That would, until recently, have been unthinkable but is now a very serious prospect.

So, what can be done? One solution is for the party to look beyond its strategy to equip women and those from minority groups to put themselves forward for the most winnable seats – and instead also consider the most defendable seats. That might mean taking a risk on seat exchanges with popular senior male MPs opting to defend a marginal while allowing a female colleague to contest their safer seat. An example of this could be Jo Swinson “swapping” constituencies with Charles Kennedy. Obviously this strategy is problematic, not least because the benefits of incumbency are sacrificed, and Jo Swinson would probably feel a deep loyalty to East Dunbartonshire or may have little experience of the needs of a Highland constituency. But it is a thought-provoking concept, and should at least be considered if there is interest from parliamentarians. Another idea would be a policy of replacing all retiring MPs with either a woman or a candidate from a minority background. This might not go down too well with many within the party, especially if some popular MPs were felt to come under pressure to retire. In truth, it doesn’t sit comfortably with our democratic credentials. But if we simply do nothing, there is a real risk that we will become a male-only party in three years’ time and that is equally unpalatable.

I don’t profess to have the solutions. I am uncomfortable with quotas and any form of positive discrimination. I’m not entirely convinced by the Leadership Programme which, if I were to apply for it, would require me to wear either my sexuality or socio-economic background as some kind of badge - which I refuse to do. And I’m not sure that focusing so much attention on one aspect of a person’s identity (i.e. their gender) is anything but patronising.

What I do know is that all our incumbent MPs and candidates will have a better chance of success at the next General Election if our party can be revitalised and if we can actively demonstrate to voters our value at the heart of government. The real problem is that, in order to have more women MPs, we need to make electoral gains - and that requires cultivating credibility and respect from voters who think we have neither. It means forging a new identity; it means finding way to make the unelectable electable. And so what I will heartily recommend is a concerted effort directed towards articgulating a strong, vibrant, liberal message that can resonate with the public; stronger action at the Cabinet table; a re-energising of the party’s grassroots and communicating the same ideals and political courage that has earned us so much respect in the past. We have to rebuild trust with the public and distance ourselves from what is negative or toxic. Moreover, if we’re serious about political equality, the best way to achieve it is through the passionate championing of social equality.

If we can do all this successfully then we might do far more to secure a political future for more talented people within our ranks than any Leadership Programme could ever hope to. This is, of course, a long-term path I have mapped out; not entirely inappropriate given the long-term nature of the problem - but there are those who favour more imminent results. Personally, I am convinced that there is far more to the pursuit of equality than merely achieving a parliamentary gender balance (subjected, naturally, to the vagaries of voters’ unpredictable behaviour) but if the party prizes it so highly it will have to make some very tough decisions in the very near future. Very tough indeed...

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Tory MPs express hostility to "gay marriage"

I'm really not one for watching Conservative Party Conferences. But there is one thing I remember from David Cameron's speech to his party's faithful last year - and that was his wife, Samantha, offering evidently heartfelt applause when he insisted that "backing gay marriage is a very Conservative thing to do". Perhaps, I imagined naively, a corner has been turned; maybe the historic Tory hostility towards LGBT rights has finally been put to sleep.

It seems, however, that some of Cameron's MPs are significantly less enthusiastic than his wife on such matters. With the government championing an end the ban on same-sex civil marriage, it has been reported that over 100 Conservative MPs are set to revolt. The Independent quotes David Burrowes MP (who receives interns from far-right Christian "charity" CARE and is the founder of the Conservative Christian Fellowship), who believes that "there is strong opposition to gay marriage across the Conservative Party spectrum... It would open up a can of worms and a legal minefield about freedom, religion and equalities legislation. Gay marriage is a debate we don't need to have at this stage. It is not an issue people are hammering us on the doorstep to do something about." Burrowes added: "It is important that there is a reasoned debate around how we view marriage rather than about homosexual rights. It may open up old wounds and put people into the trenches; no one wants that."

He insisted he was "cautiously optimistic" that the rebels would defeat the government.

Unfortunately, what Borrowes and his Tory rebel friends are giving us is not, in fact, reasoned debate, but simple prejudice. Whether the "strong opposition" he refers to is more real than imagined I don't know, although I suspect there is a certain amount of wishful thinking on his part. I can't imagine that a section of Tory backbenchers, however large - and even with the collective support of the mighty Democratic Unionist Party - has any realistic chance of defeating the proposals which are sure to be supported by Labour. As for "opening up a minefield about freedom, religion and equality" - that's just what Burrowes and his ilk will do, while simultaneously undermining the Prime Minister's attempts to modernise the Conservative Party and reinforcing the perception that the Tories are, socially speaking, a less than progressive bunch of intolerant bigots.

These Tory MPs might see the argument as about "gay marriage" but that is disingenuous. There is no such thing as gay marriage. Marriage is marriage is marriage is marriage. Marriages are not gay, bisexual or straight. They are expressions of love between two people. At the heart of the matter is not a pseudo-philosophical debate about the nature of marriage but an altogether more pertinent question about social equality.

I can only imagine what Ruth Davidson makes of this.

In Scotland, we've experienced these quasi-arguments before. No-one is convinced by them. In recent months the Roman Catholic Church has taken every opportunity possible to portray itself as the very epitome of reaction and intolerance, demonstrating its irrelevance to modern Scottish society in the process. The Tories should take note, and perhaps take a leaf out of the Church of Scotland's book: at least the Kirk realises there are times when nothing is often a very sensible thing to do, and almost always a very sensible thing to say.

I can only speculate at the potential motives of these Tory rebels. It was sufficiently embarrassing that over 80 rebelled over Europe, but Euroskeptic rebellions are part and parcel of life as a Conservative backbencher. It's what they live for and, to a point, what some of their voters identify with. Marriage equality is another issue and I suspect that the determination to rebel stems from increasing frustration at the role of Lib Dems, coupled with Cameron's "liberalising" agenda. They see "their" party being taken from them, the attitudes they held so dear being challenged, their black-and-white worlds of social normality being irrevocably shattered as ignorance and intolerance are replaced with acceptance and equality. I pity them; to be so insecure about their own "moral certainties" must be a hugely painful experience. To be deluded beyond measure about their political relevance while lacking any insight into their pathologically flawed collective condition is an even worse situation that will only lend itself to repeated frustration.

Such a rebellion is not to be feared. There is no doubt that it will cause a great deal of embarrassment for Mr Cameron but other than that it will have little impact but to reinforce all the negative perceptions of the backwards-looking attitudes associated with "old Tories". It will be seen as proof that leopards don't change their spots, while broad support from Lib Dems, Labour and the more sober-minded Tory MPs will ensure that Lynne Featherstone will be allowed to press ahead with a full consultation on amending marriage laws. Given that there was no agreed position on marriage equality within the coalition agreement, this is quite a triumph for the Liberal Democrats and Lynne Featherstone in particular.

Relics of a previous era who would deny equality on the basis of something as superficial as sexuality will be defeated, because they deserve to be. They will drift into political obscurity for the same reason.

Meanwhile, closer to home, I hope to be attending an Equal Marriage reception at Holyrood at the end of the month. Following its own consultation, will the Scottish government have the courage to take a lead on this and legislate for full marriage equality? Like Mr Burrowes I'm cautiously optimistic but, unlike him, have more than sufficient reason to be positive.

Rennie: "SNP must clear up two question confusion"

The Scottish Lib Dems yesterday issued a press release in which Willie Rennie argued that the SNP must "clear up the two question confusion".

Rennie suggests that "SNP plans for a multi-option referendum have been dominated by cluttered thinking and flawed logic. Their method for running a referendum with two questions has serious flaws." He goes on to make the case that a two-question referendum would result in an outcome other than the one the voters want: "if 70% of people support Devo-Max and 51% support Independence then Independence wins even though Devo-max is more popular. And now I can reveal that, if they follow the 1997 model, if Devo-Max got 49% and Independence 51% then the result would be the status quo."

Now, this is very strange logic and it appears to me that the only person who is either confused or attempting to create confusion is Willie Rennie. This press release is, to put it kindly, completely disingenuous. For a start, it simply isn't true that following the 1997 two-question model would result in the status quo or that if a higher proportion of the population support devo max in a second question than opt for independence in the first question that the outcome is somehow undemocratic. These Rennie-fabricated myths are effectively dispelled by Graeme Cowie.

A two question referendum does not run the risk of giving voters anything other than what they want. The first question would ask if Scots favour independence; the second whether "devo max" should be adopted if independence is not supported. So, as Graeme rightly points out and as everyone (other than a few Liberal Democrat politicians) seems to understand, the second question only becomes relevant if the first option is rejected. A converse of the 1997 situation if you like.

I'm not confused, Scottish voters wouldn't be confused and I can see no reason for Willie Rennie to be issuing this type of press release. As for the "cluttered thinking and flawed logic" Rennie speaks of - well, it's certainly in evidence but I wouldn't be levelling that accusation towards the SNP but instead towards the "unionist" parties determined to keep a two-question referendum off the agenda.

I can understand the logic of the Conservative and Labour parties in adopting this tactic. However, I can not comprehend what Willie Rennie could possibly hope to achieve with this. So much more would be gained by working with whoever possible (the SNP and, perhaps, Labour) to ensure that a solid proposal for "devo max" is on the table and is presented as a secondary option on the ballot paper. Rennie could be far more effective in making the case for a second question than in his misguided and rather pitiful attempts to destroy it.

There is one point on which I must admit to being confused. I'm really not sure what Willie Rennie stands for. On Sunday, the Sunday Herald featured an unusually positive piece which, while not revealing much new, at least hinted at the Lib Dem leader's commitment to facilitate a devo-max settlement. A day later, he is expressing opposition to the very principle of a two-question referendum that would have the potential to make this vision a reality.

Perhaps Willie Rennie should listen to his members. I already know a few who are independence-minded, largely because of frustration at the lack of moves towards further devolution. There are still more - and this represents a much larger section of the party - who, like Graeme, will be inclined to vote for independence if the only other option is the status quo. Most Liberal Democrats do not support the current arrangements, which Henry McLeish and Willie Rennie have already described as "unfit for purpose" and "dated" respectively. Banking on supporters of further devolution voting against independence is a very risky move on the part of the Lib Dem leadership, both at Holyrood and Westminster.

Tactics apart, here is an opportunity to work in collaboration with the SNP to ensure that the hope the Liberal Democrats have for Scotland's constitutional future is put to the Scottish people in the referendum. Refusing to even countenance the idea of asking two distinct questions amounts to the Scottish Lib Dems cutting their noses off to spite their faces. We will surrender any influence or voice we have, while aligning ourselves with the reactionary views of Ruth Davidson's Tories and Johann Lamont's Scottish Labour, neither of which have had much constructive or forward-thinking to say about devolution. It's vital we take this opportunity to press for "devo-max" and become identified once again as the radical party of devolution, rather than what Graeme describes as "the third wheel of a Unionist 'no' vote".

A senior Liberal Democrat who happens to be a close personal friend has suggested I should stop talking about the referendum. I know what he means; there are other things to get my teeth into. However, so long as our leadership continues to put forward rather bizarre and counter-productive press releases I will keep on talking.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Willie Rennie: Union is "out-dated"

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie has labelled the Union "outdated and over-centralised" in an article written for today's Sunday Herald.

Rennie used the opportunity to advance a liberal Scotland, which he feels can be best achieved through localisation of decision making. He criticises the Union, while stressing that it's the government structure he's opposed to, not a continuing relationship with people from other parts of the UK. They weren't the strongest words ever penned by a Lib Dem leader, but in the current circumstances it's a useful start. He also touches on the Liberals' history of promoting Scottish Home Rule and points towards a Scotland of tomorrow which is fiscally independent while remaining within the "UK family".

In short this wasn't a particularly detailed piece and raises a number of questions, but it was promising and far more positive than what we have heard from other key Liberal Democrats in recent days. I don't accept, for example, that the Lib Dems' "track record of delivery" is strong; having achieved the creation of the Scottish parliament we haven't delivered very much since to further Scottish devolution or our vision of a federalist UK. And while Rennie wisely avoided criticising nationalism or independence, he didn't say a great deal about how his vision of a more autonomous Scotland can be achieved or - more tellingly - whether he will commit the party to campaigning for a "no" vote in a referendum.

All the same, this was a useful contribution. The party now needs to put some meat on this skeleton of broadly constructive ideas - starting with the Home Rule Commission. I also hope that Scottish Conference will have a full and proper discussion on the matter before our leadership commits us to supporting an option many liberals are fully opposed to.

Willie Rennie has, in his short piece, demonstrated three things: a) he's not Nick Clegg, b) he understands that the Union is an outdated concept and c) that to defend such a Union in a referendum campaign would amount to intellectual doublethink.

So thank you Willie Rennie for your carefully chosen words. I look forward eagerly to what you have to say next!

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Former Labour First Minister labels Union "unfit for purpose"

Former First Minister Henry McLeish today used The Herald to express his view that the Union is "unfit for purpose" and to distance himself from Labour's inflexible stance towards the independence referendum.

Echoing many of the same sentiments and concerns I did when asking if the Liberal Democrats should be associated with "a coalition of negativity", Mr McLeish dismissed the approach favoured by current Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont - one of forming an anti-independence alliance - and instead urged Scottish politicians to rethink the Union rather than concentrate on "saving" it.

He is of course right. The Union is not fit for purpose. And the current arrangements should not be championed by Scottish Labour - let alone a Liberal Democratic party that has disowned them for years.

McLeish, arguably the last Scottish First Minister to genuinely believe in devolution, warned of the risks to all parties of failing to recognise the importance of Scottish identity. He also forewarned of the dangers of being identified with "toxic" partners, of ignoring the need to change and of being perceived as campaigning negatively or using fear to "exploit ignorance". The former First Minister proposed advocating a new "autonomous Scotland, with full fiscal and devolved powers" which would be characterised by "federalism, nationality and identity, diversity and difference, reform and renewal." All in all, it seems like he's urging Scottish Labour to adopt a very similar position to the one I would like the Scottish Liberal Democrats to take up and expressing the kind of things that, until recently, you would normally expect from a Lib Dem leader.

I admire Mr McLeish's honesty and positivity, which sits in stark contrast to much of what has dominated the Scottish political conversation in recent days. I agree with much of what he says. Understandably, and not unlike my concerns for my own party, he fears that Scottish Labour will fact years of decline if it continues to view the argument on Scotland's constitutional future in black-and-white terms, but I also believe he's interested in more than the future of Labour and genuinely concerned with the need to create a more democratic Scotland. He can see that the road to further progress on devolution is not to be found in negative oppositionalism or counter-productive alliances. Whatever his motives, it's a welcome and quite significant intervention and transcends the small-minded politics of party tribalism that have been played out this week.

Naturally, it also reinforces my own arguments that the Liberal Democrats need to take a similarly positive view. I used twitter to ask why, if Henry McLeish can make such an observation, why can't Willie Rennie and the Scottish Liberal Democrats. To which Willie responded that I should read his article in tomorrow's Sunday Herald.

I'm intrigued. I hope it this will represent the best indication yet that the Scottish Lib Dems are ready to adopt a positive and liberal stance, being unaligned to any of the "sides" in the campaign and opting to use the referendum to further its own vision for a more autonomous Scotland. We'll see if Willie will simply reiterate the predictable lines Nick Clegg has provided in recent days or whether he can provide something more original. Either way, I think it will be a more than interesting read...

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Do we really want to be associated with this?

Today I've e-mailed Willie Rennie to discuss my concerns about potential Liberal Democrat involvement in any anti-independence "no" campaign.

I accept that the Scottish Liberal Democrats, as a party, will not support independence. I understand that many party members feel that independence is not the kind of thing that a federalist party with a strong devolutionist history should be promoting. But I also feel that such a party should not support the only other option likely to make it onto the ballot form - that of the status quo. Some party members find that equally, if not more, objectionable to independence, particularly as in some respects it sits less comfortably with our history and liberal aims.

I've asked Willie to consider finding the kind of middle ground Nick Clegg appeared to be promoting in his misguided "extremist" intervention. Unwise though some of his words may have been, he was making a valid point that we are not a unionist party but a devolutionist one. Not for us the closed attitudes of the Conservative and Labour parties. There are considerable opportunities for the Liberal Democrats if they are able to take advantage of them, but an alliance with any "no" campaign is likely to negate these.

There is absolutely no advantage into being tied into a Lab-Con-Lib alliance in which our distinctive voice and vision would be drowned out. We can do little for the cause of Scottish liberalism if for the next three years we are simply a minor partner in a coalition of negativity. In any case, the "no" campaign does not need us, and we don't need it. Instead, we have to find means of informing the political debate, speak common sense where necessary, to act as a sobering force, questioning detail and empowering the electorate to make an informed choice.

Already anti-independence campaigners, barely organised, have been attempting to take a lead - however inarticulately. It's been impossible to use twitter in the last few days without reading the normal lines about "ripping Scotland out of the UK" and other ridiculous stereotypes. Not only do such people misjudge the nature of the SNP, they show themselves to be the product of black-and-white thinking in regards the political nature of UK. Others - and some of them respected Labour figures - have targeted Salmond, making silly claims that he somehow lacks a mandate even to ask the question.

Then we've had the three leaders of the main parties in Westminster "uniting against Salmond" - according to The Independent. Nothing is less likely to win Scottish voters over to a cause than having Cameron, Clegg and Miliband backing it. And then there's the criticism from Labour parliamentarians who have suddenly found a voice and are urging an instant referendum in spite of demonstrating no interest in the matter for the previous decade, content to repeat the tired anti-SNP rhetoric without ever advocating a new idea or even suggesting that they understand how the SNP has successfully moved away from the simplistic arguments they naively believe they're challenging.

A unionist group on facebook created the above poster, which is so simplistic in its analysis and conclusions as to be laughable. Why anyone would be positively attracted to such propaganda, I can't begin to imagine. As for the notion of a "Unionist Party" - if that isn't an early warning to the Lib Dems to distance ourselves from this kind of idiotic political talk I don't know what is. It should be pointed out that this is not the product of a political party or an established campaigning unit, but I did see a senior Labour figure making almost identical claims on twitter last night.

Slightly more articulate, but barely any more sober, is Financial Times journalist John Lloyd who sees the pro-independence lobby and the SNP in particular as "narcissistic... with their bilious, medieval populism, slaves to a romanticized tartan past." Such people fail to grasp what drives Salmond, the SNP or non-nationalist sympathisers of independence. Other than the odd eccentric nationalist, no-one is motivated by a nostalgia for the medieval or the kitschy kind of Scottish identity so loved by foreign visitors to Edinburgh. What actually matters is the prospect of building a better society and how this can best be achieved, the role Scotland can have in Europe, future co-operative relations with the UK, creating a prosperous future and becoming a force for global good. These, and other pertinent issues relating to the nature of an independent Scotland should be at the forefront of the political conversation, not backward looking stereotypes of kilts and bagpipes - or juvenile, simplistic and tribalist dialogue coming from elected representatives who should no better.

So far, it's mainly Labour politicians who have done most of the running in recent days - apparently determined to outgun Cameron in their attempts to ensure that the SNP recruitment drive continues in earnest. The Scottish Tories, to their credit, have been more careful in their choice of words. But Toryism remains a toxic brand and however capable Ruth Davidson might be, she's singing from a completely different hymnsheet from the Lib Dems as far as Scotland's constitutional future is concerned.

We have to stop and think - will being associated with this lot be good for us? Already it's beginning to look rather acrimonious and heated - and the campaign hasn't even begun yet.

And just to show the nationalists can be every inch as unpleasant, Joan McAlpine MSP weighed in by accusing opposition parties of being anti-Scottish: "I make no apology for saying that the Liberals, the Labour Party and the Tories are anti-Scottish ... in coming together to defy the will of the Scottish people." Obviously a very sensible choice as Parliamentary Liaison officer. Lib Dem blogger Caron Lindsay responded: "We really don't need poisonous language from either side in this. What I want more than anything else is for Scotland to have a passionate and positive debate on its future."

Whatever our views on independence, I suspect little will be gained by siding - and being seen to side - with the Tories or even with Labour, who have only negativity to offer on this matter. The danger is we could sink without trace, overshadowed by the main parties and an intemperate debate we can't possibly hope to influence. A friend and fellow Lib Dem blogger, Nic Prigg, observed that it "doesn't seem like we can be grown-up about it". Well, it seems true that many can't - but the Lib Dems have the opportunity to stand aside from the hideous, shallow spectacle of political immaturity and articulate something more reasonable, more sensible, more liberal...

I hope Willie Rennie will manage to find the middle ground Nick Clegg referred to and avoid the temptation to become simply another anti-independence voice. He, and the Liberal Democrats, have so much positive to say about Scotland's future if they can only find their voice - and abandon the Lab-Con unionist fundamentalists to their tired prejudices and idiocies.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Independence Referendum announced - what Lib Dems should do next

And so Alex Salmond has announced that Scots will have the chance to vote on independence in Autumn 2014. This shouldn't surprise anyone. What it means in practice is that we will have to wait almost three years which is positive in the sense that it allows more than sufficient time for a reasonable debate, but is an unusually long time in which to plan and fight a campaign.

I'm quite enthusiastic about taking the arguments to Scottish voters but even I have to admit that after 3 years I might feel a bit of campaign fatigue. No doubt the average Scottish voter, possessing less in the way of political motivation, will tire even more quickly - especially if the campaigning amounts to little more than three years of intolerant namecalling, scaremongering and shallow debate.

Of course, while it will take some time for the campaigning groups to establish themselves, there can be little doubt on both sides that the campaign itself starts now. Already, Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie and former leader Tavish Scott have fired opening salvos: Rennie promised to "fight to protect Scotland’s future as part of the UK family" while Scott used twitter to predict "2 and a half years of fighting over Scotland's future".

None of this is helpful. As I've said too many times to remember, fighting talk like this simply plays into the SNP's hands. We don't need a fight, but reasonable argument and to be a party that can both inspire and empower Scottish voters to make their voice heard. With this in mind, I've drawn up a list of what I'd like to see the Lib Dems do in coming months - granted the party as a whole might not be as independence-sympathetic as I am but it must realise that responding to the SNP bait is counter-productive and damaging.

The first thing I want to see is the Scottish Liberal Democrats getting a bit excited about this referendum campaign, and to be obviously so. After all, we've been asking for it (at least since the SNP's Holyrood majority made it an inevitability). So we should embrace the opportunity to communicate our own vision for Scotland's future - a liberal vision that gives increased freedom to the Scottish parliament and Scottish people.

The second thing I want is for the party not to forget its federalist principles. We are, constitutionally at least, a federal party. Admittedly we've not done a lot in recent years to further a federalist agenda or to achieve further devolution (and we had our chances when in government with Labour, not least with the Steel Commission which should form the basis of current Lib Dem thinking) but here's a great opportunity to rectify that. We should ensure that we use every occasion possible to reiterate our distinctiveness from the Tories and Labour, neither of which have much of a vision for extending Holyrood's powers. Instead of repeatedly the same tired, predictable arguments about why independence would be so bad for Scotland we should be trying to sell a positive, liberal, forward-looking vision for tomorrow's Scotland - the kind that Scots might actually want to live in.

Which brings me to the third point - we need to be positive. Obvious one, isn't it? Voters are not turned on by negative diatribe and relentless personal attacks. The same goes for our attitudes towards Scotland. We need to avoid pursuing the tactics of fear or focusing our energies on everything that we perceive as "bad" about independence.

Fourthly, we should be careful not to align ourselves too closely with what is politically toxic. I know that several commenters will now wish to draw my attention to the make-up of the Westminster coalition. Yes, I know. And if that experience has told us anything it's that there are electoral implications for such alliances. We should also learn from the experience of the "No" campaign in 1997 - it was always going to find the going tough, but being led by figures such as Michael Forsyth made it toxic in the eyes of most voters - including some Tory ones. If the Lib Dems are to ally themselves with the "No" campaign, which would be fraught with dangers in itself, then they must be aware that being identified with senior figureheads from the Conservative Party and perhaps elsewhere could have significant electoral consequences, whatever the outcome of the referendum.

Fifthly, let's cut out the fighting talk. The kind of intervention from Willie Rennie and Tavish Scott was unhelpful. We don't need a fight, but a liberal party championing good liberal principles. And the status quo isn't a particularly liberal arrangement. Admittedly, if the referendum is only a single Yes/No question, then this will pose certain problems for us - we're likely to be tempted towards encouraging people to vote for one of what Nick Clegg has already termed "extremes". We can see this referendum about defending the Union (as Rennie appears to) or how best to take Scotland forward. But however we view it, we're going to achieve very little if we allow ourselves to be drawn into a "fight" with the SNP. We need to avoid all confrontational approaches if possible; not only do they not work given the SNP's almost expert adversarial performances, they are a poor weapon and usually only serve to make us look petty and tribal. On the other hand, when we are sensible, dignified, sober and calm in dealing with our political opponents (as Michael Moore was today), the SNP can be made to appear shallow and more than a little condescending. No doubt the SNP will seek to draw us into the bear pit knowing that if they can they'll invariably win, but the temptation must be resisted. This includes set pieces with Salmond in FMQs, in which we generally tend not to fare so well.

We have to remember that this referendum is about many things, but not the SNP. It has huge implications for the future of that party that Alex Salmond is only too aware of but ultimately it is about independence - and it is our role to be asking vital questions about the nature of an independent Scotland. And so my sixth recommendation is to choose our battles very carefully and, where possible, avoid addressing nationalism - instead concentrating our energies on the detail of what is being proposed, providing evidence-based concern to what will become a more complex political discussion. Ultimately the Lib Dems will be judged by their role in the referendum campaign, but also in how well they deal with more pertinent and pressing issues - not least on the economy and employment opportunities.

Seventhly, we must recognise that our principal challenge isn't with the SNP. It's with ourselves. We have to use this opportunity to recreate a distinct identity for Scottish Liberal Democracy. The SNP will have their own problems to deal with as the referendum date approaches: if it succeeds in achieving independence it will cease to be necessary; if it fails, the cause of independence will have been set back, perhaps irrevocably. Certainly if it is the former, this will present potential opportunity for the Liberal Democrats. However, in the immediate future our energies should be directed towards the kind of liberal renaissance I've spoken of previously and ensuring that the Lib Dems can re-emerge from the referendum as a credible force in Scottish politics. This won't be easy but it is far more necessary for the party to take steps towards revitalising itself than it is to provide opposition to independence (there are already two other parties doing that which, in fairness, don't really need our help).

Finally, we need to put the interests of Scottish people first. In everything we do, we must never forget that we are a federal party , a liberal party, whose purpose is to serve those we represent while building the "free, fair and open society" we so passionately believe in. Basically, we need to be true to ourselves - not slavishly following the "leadership" of questionably useful allies in a "No" campaign but by finding our liberal voice once again and expressing the kind of proposals for Scotland's future that I'm sure would resonate with Scottish people if only we could effectively articulate it.

I've made it clear enough that I'm independence sympathetic. I really would welcome an independent Scotland, and in all likelihood will vote for it. However, I remain a convinced liberal and I long for the Scottish Liberal Democrats to regain their political relevance and influence. I'm personally convinced that the best option for the Liberal Democrats in Scotland (at least if the referendum on offer does not include a "Devo Max" option) is not to formally join any of the two camps but rather champion a federal vision and ensure that instead of becoming constricted around personalities or parties the debate centres on how best to provide increased freedoms for Scottish people. That doesn't mean we shouldn't involve ourselves in the campaign, but that such involvement should be on the basis of asking the necessarily tough and technical questions rather than allying ourselves with what Nick Clegg dismisses as "extremist" philosophies.

There will be opportunities arising in the next few years for a party that is not openly hostile to independence. Any form of alliance with the Conservative and Labour parties, especially one that exists purely to oppose an idea that is arguably more liberal than the status quo, to me seems frankly unpalatable. The Scottish Liberal Democrats could do worse than maintain a position of detachment, using the referendum campaign as a means of promoting their own federalist solutions while refusing to identify themselves with either "tribe".

Will that happen? No, I fully expect that the party will fall in behind the Labour and Tory parties in arguing against independence, thereby tacitly supporting another arrangement we are ostensibly opposed to. But it doesn't have to be like that. The "No" campaign doesn't need us; likewise, we certainly don't need it.

What Scotland, and the UK, has needed for many years is a Liberal Democrat party willing to advocate a real federal alternative to the status quo. If the party can't seize the opportunity this time, why should Scottish voters be blamed for not believing we have the appetite to deliver?

SNP set referendum date

I must give credit to Michael Moore where it is due - this afternoon he put in a performance as good as any I've seen from a Lib Dem in recent months. He certainly recovered a bit of credibility for the government following yesterday's attempt to manipulate the date of the referendum and the conditions on which it could be called.

Thankfully, Moore distanced himself from the government's previous position that a referendum must be held within 18 months. Fortunately the "sunset clause" was removed and there was no mention of any date or arbitrary timescale. Which is very welcome and suggestive of Lib Dem influence in government helping to reverse a difficult situation of the Prime Minister's making, even if it is disappointing that no progress has been made on allowing all Scots aged over 16 to vote in the referendum.

Moore announced a UK Government consultation on the referendum, designed to give the Scottish parliament the legal powers it needs, which is open to "people living in Scotland and elsewhere". I'm very pleased - I'll get my Polish relatives to offer their views. But this is surely something of a pointless exercise given that every party in Scotland is calling for a referendum?

However, not to be outdone the SNP regained the initiative in typical style, announcing a date for the independence referendum. Not in parliament of course, but to the press. And not a date exactly - it's more like a season. But they have indicated an intention to hold it in Autumn 2014. As you can imagine this is causing a lot of excitement on twitter, but oddly not in the House of Commons, where no-one seems aware of the announcement! Especially not Moore, who has no appreciation that, yet again and in spite of a positive performance, he's been outmanoeuvred by Salmond!

I'm pleased - OK, relieved - that a "date" of sorts has been set. By-products of this will be some constitutional wrangling, "unionist" parties no longer saying contradictory things such as the need for both quality debate and an immediate referendum, the gradual emergence of a "No" campaign in the coming months and Willie Rennie wondering what to ask at FMQs. More importantly, it gives campaigners on both sides a target to work towards, and allows for a reasonable time in which to have the kind of debate Scotland needs if voters are to be empowered to make an informed decision.

As someone else once famously said, "bring it on"! Now, maybe we can get back to talking about something else?

Scottish independence referendum dominates headlines

Quite amazingly the issue of Scotland’s constitutional future has dominated the UK headlines over the last day. As Prime Minister David Cameron and other cabinet colleagues including George Osborne intervened on setting a timescale and the legal remit of a referendum on independence, the political debate erupted into a hostile and undignified confrontation with both sides making predictable comments accusing the other of jeopardising the Scottish economy.
For the most part it was tiresome stuff. However, there were some serious questions asked about the SNP and its plans for the holding the referendum and equally vitally the tactics of the coalition government were brought under scrutiny.

Essentially, the debate centred around the timing of the proposed referendum and whether it would in fact be legally binding, rather than simply a consultative survey of public opinion. David Cameron appears willing to offer a legally binding ballot if certain conditions are met, including a “sunset clause” and excluding under 18s from the vote – something Danny Alexander seems happy to accept in spite of historic Lib Dem support for extending the franchise to those aged 16 and upwards. Other coalition demands include no question on the “devolution max” option preferred by Willie Rennie, something that brings into question the relevance of the Home Rule Commission. It also appears that the coalition government may wish to call their own referendum if the SNP refused to accept what it was offering – as far as calling Alex Salmond’s bluff goes, this was a rather dismal attempt and underlines the coalition’s anxiety for a quick referendum. The Westminster government has no mandate for conducting such a referendum, which would surely be aimed only at clipping Alex Salmond’s wings.

A fellow Liberal Democrat blogger, Graeme Cowie, has already written clearly and concisely on the “referendum strings”. A law student, he has insights into current legal arrangements that neither I, nor I imagine many who are currently engaged in the hostile debate, have much appreciation of. He observes that all talk of any referendum being legally-binding is intellectually and politically speaking utter nonsense. He also correctly highlights that the SNP has the mandate to ask the question at a time of its choosing and that attempts by other parties to determine the holding of the referendum amount to “disgraceful politicking”. Most tellingly, he notes that what is actually central to discussions is not the referendum itself but the democratic legitimacy of Scotland’s institutions – and Holyrood in particular.

It is, therefore, inconsistent for a “federalist” party such as the Liberal Democrats to support the coalition government’s attempts to influence the outcome of the referendum. We should accept that the SNP, having a majority in the Scottish parliament, has the right to call the referendum when it likes – it has already intimated it hopes to do so in the second term of the parliament and likely to be in 2014. Alex Salmond is not obliged to time the implementation of SNP policy to suit either David Cameron or Michael Moore.

Jo Swinson commented last night on STV that “"We should have the voters deciding the outcome of a referendum, not the courts." She also added that it was vital to “give the Scottish Parliament powers it needs to hold a referendum” which she hopes will be “legal, fair and decisive”. Of course I agree. It is a great pity, however, that for several years the Liberal Democrats have refused to support even the idea of an independence referendum, even one in which we could have helped to shape the question. Labour’s Douglas Alexander, writing in today’s Daily Telegraph, said much the same thing while adding that Salmond “fears the verdict of the Scottish people”. The SNP hedging its bets around when is most likely to give it the result it wants is actually its legal right, and is no more symptomatic of fear than a UK government seeking to ensure a referendum is held as soon as possible for similar reasons.

Nicola Sturgeon accused David Cameron of “interfering” in Scottish matters. I wouldn’t use that language; as Prime Minister he has every right to make an intervention if he wishes. But surely the fact that he can doesn’t mean he should. I would question the wisdom of his intervention and his blatant attempt to influence the outcome: given his standing among Scots voters I would suggest there isn’t a surer way of strengthening the pro-independence cause than having this overbearing and unpopular man, who lacks any credibility in Scotland, appearing to dictate terms. It’s like revisiting the 1980s, with Cameron taking over Thatcher’s mantle as the best recruitment sergeant for the opposition parties (or, in this case, the SNP).

I do agree with Sturgeon when she argues that the UK government setting deadlines and threatening to run its own referendum on its own terms undermines a fundamental democratic principle. The Liberal Democrats, if we are a federal party, must recognise this and ensure that the Scottish government is allowed to do what it has an electoral mandate to do.

I have little concern for the Conservatives. They have little to lose in Scotland in any case: only one MP compared to our eleven. As Nicholas Watt surmised in today’s Guardian, Osborne is in a win-win situation. If he can hold off the nationalist threat and ensure that the SNP’s referendum is lost he will be a hero to the Tory right wing, ever the romantics for the union. But if his identification with the “no” campaign pushes Scotland towards independence, he may achieve an even greater victory – that of ensuring that the Tories in England retain power for a generation.

On the other hand, I am far more concerned for the future of the Liberal Democrats. Ever keen to claim our credentials as being a “federalist” party, we have done very little to actively promote a federal vision for many years. Even Devolution Max for Scotland is not in itself a federalist proposal. Federalism would put Scotland on an equal standing with England, which remains utterly undevolved. I’ve searched our manifestos in vain for any reference to a seriously cohesive and practical federalist vision for the UK and must conclude, pretty much as Nick Clegg appeared to do, that we are not federalist in substance or practice but devolutionist. We’ve had opportunities with the Steel Commission (a vastly bolder and more radical statement of intention than Calman) and in eight years in government at Holyrood, but stopped talking and certainly didn’t deliver anything to bring about the further devolution Scotland so badly needed. And now, in response to the very real possibility of independence, we have established a third commission – the quaintly named Home Rule Commission (Gladstone would have loved that title) – but as yet no policy or detailed direction on this matter for the public to excite themselves about.

Professor of politics at Strathclyde University, John Curtice – always someone whose views are worth listening to – thinks that denying voters a second question, or a middle way between the status quo and independence, is a hugely risky strategy. From a Liberal Democrat perspective, the assumptions that we should oppose independence in a Yes/No ballot and that voters favouring further powers would necessarily vote “no” could prove to be seriously misplaced. I, like many other Lib Dems (and even many SNP members) would happily welcome “Devolution Max” and this is clearly something a genuinely federal party should support. However, if the only options on the ballot form are what Nick Clegg describes as two “extremes”, I imagine many will vote for independence – it is, after all, a more liberal alternative than the status quo. And, as Curtice supposes, questions will be asked about whether “unionist” parties would in fact have the will to deliver any further devolution at all; certainly the Tories have no such intention while the Lib Dems’ five MSPs have little influence and less credibility than they once had. It may all hinge on Scottish Labour...

If there is no second question on the ballot paper, I will certainly vote for independence. In fairness, I probably would anyway but at least if a second question was asked I would have to seriously consider the finer detail of what was being proposed. There are plenty of other Liberal Democrat members who think along similar lines. As for the Liberal Democrats, how can we and our federalist credentials be taken seriously if, in government, we do not urge for an option on the ballot form that more accurately reflects our principles? True, this might represent an equally risky strategy to championing a single question referendum, but at least as a party we would be being true to ourselves and be able to campaign for something we believe, rather than negatively campaigning against independence.

What became very obvious yesterday is that the Lib Dems need to be more positive in their approach, especially within the Westminster government. It was also glaringly obvious that tactically and personally Alex Salmond is more than a match for David Cameron. Willie Rennie and the Scottish Lib Dems, as well as Johann Lamont’s Scottish Labour, must raise their efforts to promote a new devolution while (as Jo Swinson insisted) challenging the substance of independence rather than the process. Anything else will be political suicide: whatever the eventual referendum outcome, we will for many years be remembered for the role we played within it. The referendum will do far more do define us as a party than anything Willie Rennie says or does.

Would I rather the Lib Dems be remembered as a party of negative, cynically opportune anti-independence obsessives or the party that, while perhaps unconvinced about the merits of independence, saw the pursuit of a fairer and freer Scotland as a greater aim than defence of the status quo and did everything it could to realise it? I’m sure you know the answer.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

So, Nick Clegg thinks I'm an extremist...

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice
Apparently he does, if the quote in today's Scotsman is to be believed.

A bit of a storm has erupted over comments reportedly made by Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg while on a brief visit to Scotland. Choosing to comment personally on Scotland's constitutional future, he argued that "all the evidence suggests that [support for devolution] is the mainstream of opinion and the extremists are those who either think that we need to yank Scotland out of the United Kingdom tomorrow, or those who say there should be no further change at all".

As anyone living in Scotland - or, indeed, anyone who has taken the trouble to cast a cursory glance over opinion polls in recent months - will know, this shows Mr Clegg to be rather out of touch with Scottish public opinion. It is simply incorrect to assert that the desire for independence is somehow not mainstream, as if such an attitude was the preserve of a tiny minority of political campaigners. As I stated in my speech after the Renfrewshire North count (paraphrasing Harold Macmillan), "there is a wind of change sweeping across our nation whether some of us like it or not". More and more people - most of whom are not fervent nationalists - are beginning to consider independence as the basis for a sensible and practical arrangement for Scotland's future, and it is unwise to ignore this reality or be dismissive of it. It is more of a mistake, both factually and tactically, to allege that those who support independence in some way represent an "extreme" philosophy - as Alex Salmond later pointed out, the language is unhelpful and should perhaps be "rethought". There are many who believe independence to be preferable to the status quo and even a potentially better option than further devolution - myself and some other Liberal Democrats among them. We are not extremists and don't appreciate being referred to as such.

Admittedly it was The Scotsman who played up the use of the word "extremist", although Mr Clegg certainly used it. But the damage was done and someone as experienced and senior as the Deputy Prime Minister really should know better than to give the SNP this kind of opportunity. As Caron observed in her blog post, "by [using] the "extremist" line, it gives that lazy SNP press officer a shot at goal. Nick should maybe have talked up the possibility, touted before Christmas, of enabling legislation to clear up any doubt about the referendum result, something that if it happens will come from a Liberal Democrat Secretary of State. He could have concentrated on all the things the UK Government are doing to benefit Scotland. He should have concentrated more on us not being a unionist party." Quite true. He should also avoid creating the impression of being yet another arrogant out of touch English MP lecturing Scots on how they think. Furthermore, he could have pointed a way forward for the Liberal Democrats in Scotland, rather than taking opportune pot shots at those he perceives as our political enemies.

Nick Clegg might want to believe that "the Lib Dems vision of Home Rule represented the views of the Scottish people", but I don't find too many fellow Scots who are particularly interested or inspired by it. Most don't even seem to know about it. There are certainly far more who are inspired by the cause of independence, or by either Alex Salmond or the SNP.

Nick Clegg clearly fails to understand Scotland and indeed should leave interventions of this kind to Willie Rennie or Michael Moore. But he also fails to understand the SNP, not to mention the ways in which electorates vote. The SNP has no plans to "yank Scotland out of the United Kingdom tomorrow" and this kind of "tearing apart the union" language is almost as unhelpful to the ongoing debate as accusations of "extremism". Also, prior to the referendum in 1997 there was no great swell of support for devolution per se; it was not the kind of thing that excited people. But there was an appetite for change, stemming from dissatisfaction at Scotland's treatment during 18 years of Conservative rule from London, and people identified the "Scotland Forward" campaign as a bringer of such positive and overdue change - a notion reinforced by unpopular figures from a discredited party leading the anti-devolution "Think Twice". Perhaps some lessons can be learned from the past.

I'm not sure why Nick Clegg chose to focus on what he knew would be contentious questions about constitutional matters when he had ostensibly come to visit Dunfermline to lend his support to Willie Rennie's Youth Contract, for which the UK government is contributing £1billion. Perhaps if the Deputy Prime Minister had been wiser in both his choice of words and his choice of topics when speaking with the media, the political conversation may have centred on tackling youth unemployment rather than further uninspiring rhetoric on Scottish independence.

It is a shame that his language overshadowed some of his message, because Mr Clegg did have some interesting points to make. I was interested to see him affirm that the Liberal Democrats are not a "unionist" party - nor even a "federalist" one - but are in fact "devolutionist". That is a telling contribution and suggests that Clegg has given up on a federalist approach, although it is perhaps a sign that we can expect something a bit more adventurous from the Home Rule Commission after twelve years of not doing very much to promote further devolution. He also appeared to promote an alternative "middle ground" and increased freedom for the Scottish government. But, ultimately, his language betrayed an attitude which was as helpful as his intervention was wise. Whatever Clegg hoped to achieve with these comments, the end result is that they have proved counter-productive.

I am not personally offended by Nick Clegg's "extremist" remark. He did not state explicitly, whatever the Scotsman would like to suggest, that people who support independence are by definition extremists. What he did say was that independence is an extremist option and that the pro-independence lobby is at the fringes of Scottish public opinion. On both these counts he is wrong.

He also fails to realise that, while it is admittedly a minority view, there are Liberal Democrats who are independence-leaning. They see a liberal vision for a truly liberal Scotland and recognise that having an open mind on the question is not anathema to liberalism. In a previous conversation with Willie Rennie I argued that independence could yield benefits for both Scotland and our party that should not be lightly dismissed; I also suggested that the Liberal Democrats' best position could be in supporting whichever option gives Scots most freedoms and being open to the notion of independence even if we remain skeptical about the details. It would certainly be preferable to entrenched, cynical opposition. The Home Rule Commission is welcome, if somewhat overdue, but while it is right to formulate our own preferred option there is no place for political arrogance that refuses to even countenance other perspectives that would help bring about our liberal aims - you know, the kind of arrogance some might view as extreme.

It would be wrong to make a great deal out of this. It is nothing more than an unwise choice of words from a party leader who would have been better advised to avoid any such statements on Scotland's future. However, while Alex Salmond simply wants Nick Clegg to "rethink" his language, I would like him to rethink his attitude - to both Scotland and the constitutional question. The last thing the debate needs is for an unpopular party leader weighing in with his tuppence worth - which was only ever likely to have one effect.

I hope that, in future, Nick Clegg will leave all talk about Scotland's future to the Scottish leader - after all, isn't that what "devolutionism" (if it's a real word) is about?