Saturday, 7 January 2012
So, Nick Clegg thinks I'm an extremist...
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?