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?

17 comments:

Graeme said...

Every time Clegg talks about the Scottish situation I cringe. Sometimes a dignified silence is better than saying what you think...

Free Radical said...

"We ... commit ourselves to the promotion of a democratic federal framework within which as much power as feasible is exercised by the nations and regions of the United Kingdom."
(Preamble to the Federal Party Constitution)

We sound like a federalist party to me. And quite right - devolution suggests the centre generously giving up power, and a reserved power is thus one held centrally; in a liberal federal structure, the centre has the powers awarded to it by the constitution, and reserved powers are held at some lower level, which will often be the individual.

Andrew said...

We might SOUND like a federal party - and maybe it could be argued that we behave as one, but if our vision for Scotland is federalist rather than devolutionist then we really are out of sync with Scottish public opinion.

Then again, surely it is perfectly feasible to be a federal PARTY while advocating a devolutionist political arrangement for the UK? There is no reason why political settlements should necessarily follow the pattern of party structures (they currently don't).

Anonymous said...

"Every time Clegg talks about the Scottish situation I cringe."

Surely the qualification "about the Scottish situation" is a bit redundant there?

Manfarang said...

"Admittedly it was The Scotsman who used the word "extremist", rather than Mr Clegg"
So Mr Clegg was misreported.

Anonymous said...

As a member of the SNP I often wonder where I will go politically after independence and, as a natural liberal, would probably lean towards a Scottish Liberal party.
My concerns, however, are all to do with those, such as George Lyon and Danny Alexander, who are so against independence currently that they invent fictions in a futile attempt to preserve the union.
Could I be in a party with people such as these?

Andrew said...

Manfarang - yes, Clegg was misreported. I think the contribution he made was unwise but I can't see why the argument that a pro-independent philosophy is extreme (in the sense of it not being mainstream) should be interpreted by The Scotsman as a suggestion that all of such a view are extremists. But although it was the Scotsman that used the word "extremist", there's no doubt Clegg provided the ammunition and the sentiment. It's no surprise that using words like "extreme" result in this kind of situation. It could all so easily have been avoided.

Anonymous - there are many liberally minded people in the SNP; I hope that sometime in the future a Scottish Liberal Party will be a major force and people like yourself will join us. I'm not going to comment on George or Danny, but they don't necessarily represent the views of the party as a whole. I'm sure there are many other Scottish Lib Dems you could easily feel at home with.

Gedguy said...

Interesting article. Personally I would have been more happy with the LibDems if they more of a confederal instead of federal party. It sounds far more democratic to me.
What did you expect from such a newspaper? It has been misquoting people for years to enforce their Unionist agenda.
It is speeches like that [even if it was misquoted] which gets up the goat of many of the Scottish peoples. We don't like it when 'English' parliamentarians come up here and start telling us what we should do. It's bad enough when we have 'Scots' telling us what we should do. I believe it was PG Wodehouse who said: "It is never difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine".

RevStu said...

Clegg wasn't "misreported", and he - not the Scotsman - DID use the word "extremists". From paragraph 8 in the Scotsman piece:

""All the evidence suggests that 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,” Mr Clegg said."

Interestingly, nobody has made a fuss that he also called supporters of the status quo "extremists". Which, since the Lib Dems are unlikely to have any devo-max proposition on the referendum paper and will therefore be campaigning for the status quo by default, means the Lib Dems are extremists too.

Dubbieside said...

Andrew

Of course Clegg thinks you are an extremist, you are still a Lib Dem while he has turned into a tory.

Still he will enjoy his seat in the Lords after the next election, while a lot of his MPs will be signing on.

Andrew said...

Gedguy - agree re The Scotsman. it should also have been obvious to anyone (including Clegg himself) that however sensible his sentiment, and irrespective of how he might be quoted, his comments would appear like those of yet another English MP telling Scots what to do and think. Very unwise. A Lib Dem friend contacted me via twitter and said that in his view Clegg should, as leader of the federal party, have used the opportunity to advocate further referendum. Well, I'd defend Clegg's right to do that, but I would question the wisdom of it. Just because he can doesn't mean he should...

I'm also not too sure the Lib Dems should be pre-empting the findings of the Home Rule Commission. But that's a seperate matter.

RevStu - thanks for your contribution. I've looked at the Scotsman piece again and you are indeed correct. I was looking at a seperate section of the quotation and missed/overlooked this. I still don't think he was explicitly stating that people who support independence are extremists, but that there are a number of options on the table and the more "extreme" of these are independence and status quo. All the same, the potential interpretations were pretty clear.

As you also rightly point out the referendum question is therefore likely to ask the electorate to decide between what Clegg defines as two "extremes". That certainly makes Willie Rennie's task more difficult. I think Clegg's actually right in identifying the unionism of the status quo as something the party should steer clear of - in my view, it's just another form of nationalism. But use of the word "extremist" in this context was really asking for the kind of response we've seen.

I don't acept Clegg's logic that anything other than a broadly centrist "middle way" constitutes am extreme, or that simply tweaking the status quo a little is necessarily the best option. Sometimes gradualist approaches can be very effective; sometimes they can be a block on progress (think House of Lords reform). If you accept Clegg's rather curious logic, when it comes to LGBT rights, the EU, electoral reform, human rights, the Iraq War, the Lib Dems really have been the party advocating extremist views - and that's something I'm proud of!

Andrew said...

Dubbieside - if Clegg accepts a seat in the Lords then it would be rank hypocrisy given his championing of an elected HoL.

I wouldn't be altogether surprised though.

I think it;s too early to be making predictions about 2015, but it is not unreasonable to conclude that Clegg's public approval rating will impact on the chances of Lib Dem MPs to hold onto their seats. I fear for several very good MPs with tiny majorities.

Dubbieside said...

Andrew

You have had examples in May 2011.

The Lib Dem for North East Fife Iain Smith was a well thought of hard working guy. That did not stop the tidal wave of disgust that Cleggs betrayal brought down on the Lib Dems washing him away.

While 2015 is a long way away there is nothing that the LibDems are doing that will help them recover their position in Scotland any time soon, just the opposite in fact, torys little helpers do not win votes in Scotland.

Prediction for 2015 or earlier if Cameron thinks he can discard the Libs and win a majority, Moore and Alexander to loose their deposits.

Dubbieside said...

Andrew

You really think he would not accept a peerage!

Really.

Andrew said...

I think you could be right Dubbieside. Many very good Scottish Lib Dem MSPs, like Margaret Smith and Ross Finnie lost their seats largely because of Lib Dem identification with Clegg, the Tories or both. There is absolutely nothing to say that this won't be repeated in 2015. However, as a Lib Dem I have to try to be optimistic and hope that in the next three years the Scottish party at least can be regenerated and revitalised.

If the GE was held tomorrow I would fully expect Moore to lose his seat - as for Danny, well, he might struggle to be reselected as the boundary changes mean he could be competing for the candidacy of the new constituency with a certain Mr Kennedy. Still, I'm sure he can be found somewhere else to stand (maybe not even in Scotland?) should that happen.

As to whether Clegg would accept a peerage - well, I don't know him personally but I'd hope not. It would be hypocritical and entirely inconsistent with his professed passion for Lords reform. Then again, I thought John Prescott would politely refuse the invitation, but if it was too tempting even for him...

Milne said...

The Liberal Democrats want a federal UK am i right? But what has Nick Clegg as party leader done since becoming deputy pm to promote the idea ofa federalist system for the UK?

It seems to me that federalism is not really a priority for the Libdems and is unlikely to be implemented even if it was a priority. I mean, the Libdems couldn't even get the measly av change through for the same reasons: minimal public demand and intrasigence from the two big parties, Labour and Tory - who want to preserve the status quo.

Andrew said...

"What has Nick Clegg as party leader done since becoming deputy pm to promote the idea of a federalist system for the UK?" Nothing. We keep making this hollow claim that we're a "federal party", but that's just based on what the framers of the constituion wrote in 1988. Those people have moved on while the party hasn't, and the "federal" position hasn't been reflected in policy.

If it was a crime to be a federalist, there wouldn't be much evidence with which to convict Nick Clegg. I don't think it's ever been a real priority; actions speak louder than words. In Scotland we've never taken devolution forward when we had the opportunity, and the Lib Dems have never put forward anything like a federal policy for the rest of the UK.

But if the party can reclaim its historic principles and breath some life into it, then perhaps the Lib Dems can begin to rebuild rather than be pushed further to the margins of Scottish politics.