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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.

14 comments:

Jennie Kermode said...

Thank you for this. It's good to see a LibDem voice raised in favour of, well, a liberal and democratic approach to this.

I have two major concerns where the referendum is concerned:-

1. It is absurd that three of the major parties should object to offering the option of devo max when it is the one thing on which there is a strong public consensus.

2. Whatever the eventual result of the referendum, we are all going to have to live and work together afterwards. Looking for compromises rather than polarising debate will make that much easier.

One more point - looking at the unionist poster you've pictured here, I am struck by the apparent vanishing of the Greens.

Andrew said...

Thanks Jennie,

A liberal and democratic appraoch is the only one befitting of our party!

Yes, the option of devo max should be on the ballot form. That would give the Lib Dems something to fight positively for and would help us articulate a voice distinct from all the other parties. We then really could be the party that represents the majority view rather than a shrill reaction. The SNP would also benefit; as it stands if the referendum is lost the cause of independence is set back almost irrevocably for a generation at least - with a devo max option it could move forward with some confidence if it secures the consolation prize.

I don't really know where Labour are now, but they're not really a party of devolution, whatever positive work they've done in the past. The Tories have set their face against anything beyond what is currently set out in the Scotland Bill.

And yes, of course we all have to live together, both before and after the referendum. There should be no room for acrimony if we're to have the reasonable debate everyone says they want. Plus the Lib Dems should be almost expert by now at forging compromises!

And naturally I'd prefer if the debate was calm, measured, sober and tolerant - but my mum has just told me that if I believe that I'm stupider than she took me for.

I didn't think about the Greens - it's a stupid oversight from whoever is responsible for the poster. Patrick Harvie's party is pro-indy of course but there is a concern that they might lose their voice, being eclipsed by the SNP's message. It will be a shame if it happens because a strong voice of non-nationalist support for independence needs to be heard.

Andrew said...

A view from a Welsh Liberal Democrat:

http://johnmarkcole.blogspot.com/2012/01/why-alex-salmond-rightly-holds-ace-in.html

I naturally agree with his summary: "the Scottish Liberal Democrats have an opportunity to carve out their own unique space in this debate. Otherwise they will be painted into the same corner as the Conservatives and Labour. This of course is exactly what Alex Salmond wants and therefore must surely be a situation that is best avoided."

Fourfolksache said...

Very good article but I'm afraid a lot damage will have been done by the Liberal contribution to the debate after Moore's statement. Ming Campbell and Mr Thurso were significant in this respect!
By the way where was your ex leader - he is the only one to have clean hands so far??

auldacquaintance said...

As I've said before, I don't think the LibDems are doing themselves any favours whatsoever by the current stance. In fact, I think it almost utterly insane to align so closely to both the Tories and Labour on this matter.
In the past I would have seen the LibDems and the SNP as not too far apart from each other on many policies,and I would not have credited them acting as a Tory shield. In Scotland, since the days of Thatcher,that is about as toxic as you can get,although Labour through their increasingly authoritarian right wing views, are now incredibly somewhere North of Genghis Khan.
To align so closely to either is political suicide in scotland.
The SNP are by no means choir boys either, but at least they have positioned themselves as Scotlands voice, so they are more acceptable by far.
The Greens, as I told Patrick Harvie,have in my opinion missed a trick by not promoting some form of Fiscal Autonomy.
Given the chance to vote presently in an election, I would struggle on deciding who to vote for, but I know for sure who I wouldn't vote for, Labour,Tories or LibDems. I suspect I am not alone with such a perspective.
The matter in front of us is too big to be playing party politics with. The result of the referendum will have huge implications for the future of Scotland,no matter which way it goes.
I can't unfortunately see any of the main parties actually being grown up eneough about it, to give it the proper discussion and debate it deserves. That is a grievous mistake,and all of them are letting the people down by behaving like a bunch of unruly Infants defending their little fiefdoms.
If they cannot rise above their pettiness then they do not deserve to represent the people,for they do not have the peoples Interests at heart. frankly, that is an utter disgrace!
Every party representative should be free to argue and vote how their conscience tells them, Westminster should butt out, this is a matter for Scotland to decide,and given that the SNP have the mandate to call and form the referendum,they should be allowed without any restrictions to do so, preferably with the oversight of the European Union monitors, to ensure absolute fairness, transparency and clarity.
Other than that, It is for the people of scotland to decide. End of Story.

Andrew said...

Agree fourfolksache. A lot of damage has unfortunately been done. More managed to recover a bit after the Prime Minister's unnecessarily ham-fisted intervention - that's not saying I think he was perfect (far from it) but he managed to put in a surprisingly good performance in difficult circumstances. Campbell I don't think will help and to me seems the wrong man to head a "Home Rule" Commission - what chance someone with a genuinely open mind and a bit of political foresight?

As for our former leader (Kennedy) he seems to be lying low at the minute. I'm not too sure if much can be drawn from this other than his interests lie elsewhere at this time. He's taking a bit of a back seat from frontline politics and, given our current predicament, who could blame him?

Andrew said...

auldacquaintance - there's a lot of sense in what you say. I agree with most of it, particularly the insanity of allying ourselves to the Tories and/or Labour. I am personally of the view it would be political suicide, even if the referendum were to go the way of the unionists. The Lib Dems would gain absolutely nothing.

There were two reasons I wrote this (much of it was copied from an e-mail I sent to Willie Rennie): a) to urge Willie to detoxify the Lib Dem brand and b) to call for some calm and reason to enter the debate. Whether either of those will actually happen I can't say, but I'll keep on talking and hope people listen.

govanite said...

I respect the principles of Liberal Democracy so let me say this first, I am a strong supporter of an Independent Scotland.

My question then: Do you really want to be the standard bearers for David Cameron's referendum victory & triumphant re-election at the next UK General Election ?

Andrew said...

Govanite - easy answer to that question. No. And I hope Willie Rennie doesn't want that either.

Craig said...

Andrew,

You are a rare species, a Liberal Democrat who still understands what the party is supposed to stand for.

I hope you will forgive me posting an extract from my blog on this. I apologise for the strength of the insult; it expresses a feeling of deepest betrayal:

"Most shameful of all is the position of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, and their continued slide into unreconstructed unionism. I have explained before how the Liberal party’s very political identity was forged in opposition to unionism, how Gladstone fought a massive battle for Irish Home Rule, how Rosebery helped invent modern Scottish nationalism and Lloyd George fought huge battles for at least partial Irish freedom. Being the antithesis of the “Conservative and Unionist Party” is a vital part of the raison d’etre of liberalism as an independent political force in this country, and why for years organised liberalism survived largely in the Celtic fringes.

The political institutions descended from the old Liberal Party have now been taken over by political careerists with no ideological connection to, or interest in, the beliefs of their predecessors. Their only interest is personal power and income.

When I announced I was leaving the Lib Dems for the SNP, a very senior Lib Dem and friend of long standing tried to persuade me otherwise. I explained the party’s enthusiastic unionism as something completely antithetical to its traditions, something which this individual did indeed understand. He said the party remained strongly federalist. I asked whether that meant it would campaign stongly for the “Devolution max” option in a referendum. He replied that certainly, it would.

Yet we now see the Lib Dems are party to a coalition attempt to use legal pretexts to keep the devolution max option off the ballot paper, let alone campaign for it. The Lib Dems have become, as a party, lying, deceitful, untrustworthy bastards completely alienated from their ideological heritage. The good people remaining captive within the institution should leave now."

Andrew said...

Well Craig, there's a lot in that and it's clearly heartfelt. I'm not remotely insulted. I understand fully why you felt the need to leave the Lib Dems and join the SNP. And I agree that we have to move away from what is, in effect, what you describe as "unreconstructed unionism". That isn't who we have been as a party, its contrary to liberal tradition and it's a cause we shouldn't even be seen to be championing. We should leave that to the Tories and Labour.

It's not too late for the Lib Dems to change course, to adopt a new stance, to revitalise the historic support for genuine Home Rule (at the very least devo max) and distance themselves from the kind of shallow unionist thinking we've been hearing this week from our Tory "allies".

Thank you for your contribution, which I am sure will be read by many in the Liberal Democrats. I hope eventually we can recreate the kind of party that people such as yourself can feel a pride in and be part of.

Anonymous said...

My father was a regular Liberal voter when Jo Grimond was the leader.

He would never have voted for the current Lib Dem Party in Scotland who have abandoned all long standing Home Rule principles.

I would not have thought that after last May's humiliation the strategy would have been to sink lower.

I am not a Lib Dem supporter but it saddens me to see my father's party sink so low!

Anonymous said...

If you feel the way you do I don't understand why you are part of the party at all. Become independent or form a new party with like-minded people. If your principles and beliefs and those that you thought the party held for so long are so easily abandoned then there's not much point in you being involved at all. Politics should not be about the "Party above all" and the Party welfare should not be your guiding concern and aim. The political party should be an association of people who hold certain principles and beliefs to be true. You have demonstrated that you do not hold to that and your leader takes a very different view on very important issues.

Time to leave that group. I don't think you can honestly argue against this if you look within yourself.

The principles you speak of have long since been abandoned, so that can't be the reason to cling on desperately to the party label and membership. You fear the tarnish of a Tory alliance (but would be happy to do it if you could come out without lingering stain??) but that tarnish was etched in for a generation when Lib Dems pulled down their trousers and bent over for the Tory rule in Westminster, where they have since managed to appear equally tragic, pathetic and meaningless. You are beyond mere labels and don't need to bend your beliefs in corkscrews to suit and conform to a label (in this case "Scottish" Lib Dem or Lib Dem) and continuing to do so over time is only foolish and self-defeating, unless the sole aim is to keep on a comfortable and predictable career ladder.

About the only chance I can see of Lib Dems having any relevance or showing any backbone and principles at all is if the "Scottish" Lib Dems actually were a real party, rather than the pretendy wee B-team party that doesn't actually have any powers or independence (HA!) to act on its own (which interestingly rather heavily reinforces the independence argument again...). In reality "Scottish" Lib Dems are no more "Scottish" than any Westminster based party. They must obey their Westminster overlords, leaving dissenters like yourself irrelevant and out in the cold while your leader holds hands with the Tory leadership and sells his soul for a token position of power, betraying all who voted for the Lib Dems (never again!). It said to all - vote Lib Dems, get Tory. Forever more, for many.

When they (the "Scottish" Lib Dems) are an independent party from their Westminster mummy, let go of those apron strings and actually show they have the courage and ability to do this then maybe they'll be worth their salt. But they'll have to show such courage and distinctiveness in Westminster and Holyrood. It will take maybe a generation of honest work and proven difference to show that they can do this, however. It won't brush off with more spin and empty rhetoric from your leaders. Otherwise we can only expect more disgraceful spinelessness as shown with the Tory wedding and bedding.

The question becomes - do you have integrity to stick to the principles you claim you have and does the rest of your ("Scottish") party or even your own principles even if they are different from said groups?

Ironically the best chance you have of being a true "Scottish" Lib Dem party and being able to express your own version of Lib Dem ways, which you clearly feel are distinct from the leadership in Westminster, is in an independent Scotland, where your "Scottish" Lib Dem party will be truly Scottish and not named as such because they could rustle up some crowd-pleasing accents to secure some extra seats like most "Scottish" parties ("Scottish" Labour, "Scottish" Conservative, both of which even the EU frowns upon for being misleading names).

[cont]

Anonymous said...

[cont]

The Lib Dems have had decades to prove themselves and have failed. They put the icing on the cake and then flushed it all down the U-bend when they betrayed the voters first with a coalition with Labour in the Holyrood and now more recently with the same betrayal magnified and compounded in Westminster with your party's Tory bedfellows. All pre-election promises become dust, showing the electorate that you cannot trust a Lib Dem's word.

It saddens me, but as such I see no reason to vote for Lib Dems ever again. They have stuck to no promises and have betrayed anyone and everyone at every chance to grab on to the merest intangible whiff of power. There is no reason to trust them. On top of that they have achieved a sum total of hee haw. Their current traitor's coalition and now abandonment of the party's own long-held principles being the most bitter of pills that your party expected everyone to swallow.

There is no reason to vote Lib Dem and frankly I doubt anyone can give a good one that isn't purely to keep the Tories or Labour out of their region. When the best you can hope for is claiming you are "the lesser of two evils" then it's time for re-evaluation. Personally, I don't wish to vote for anyone with such an attitude. It only makes them sound irrelevant.

When Scotland is independent and Scottish Lib Dems are a true reality and also independent then maybe I'd consider voting for them again. Until then I don't see the point. I hope you'll get a chance post-independence for your party and for Scotland as you sound like an okay fellow. Maybe you'd finally be able to do some real good and express your own thoughts for and in the position on that day. It could well be the best thing for you.