Unfortunately this year I’ve not been able to attend our spring conference in Inverness. I’m not thrilled about that because conference to me is a rare opportunity to meet with fellow party activists and contribute to political debate. I was particularly keen to be supporting a topical motion advocating a second question on the ballot form for the independence referendum and would have been able to move it had other events not intervened. And so, in the sense that I’m missing out both socially and in regards supporting a cause I’m deeply passionate about, I could be said to be doubly disappointed.
But what has really disappointed me is what should have been the highlight of the opening day – the speech by our esteemed federal leader, the Rt Hon Nick Clegg. It contained a great deal of what I have generally come to expect from Clegg – not all of it bad. But it was so lacking in dynamism, so devoid of vision and full of the usual emphasis on Lib Dem achievement in government that it missed a valuable opportunity for Clegg to show he “gets” Scotland. Tellingly, he refused to mention the term “federalism” once, squandering another opportunity to lay down a distinct and progressive Scottish agenda and suggesting that the party’s hierarchy hasn’t the faintest notion of what federalist principles are.
Of course, a speech sounds very different when it’s being read from a party’s website than being received directly in the auditorium. No doubt Clegg’s oratorical skills will have helped give what I perceive to be a rather uninspiring speech a bit of life. I’m sure there were many in the hall who were inspired by it, who will cling onto the positive points that he made. I don’t doubt some will have applauded the anti-Salmond rhetoric (yes, Tavish and Willie, I mean you!). But I can’t help feeling that this was poor by Clegg’s standards. If I was a man of few words I would summarise the lengthy speech in two words: “wasted opportunity”. But, as I’m not, I’m afraid I’ll have to subject you to some further analysis.
The full speech can be found on the Scottish Liberal Democrats’ website: Nick Clegg's Speech to Scottish Conference
It even started off poorly. In his opening paragraph he referred to Bob Maclennan and Charles Kennedy as great leaders. Well, Bob Maclennan is a personal friend and we all owe a great deal to a man who ensured not only that the merger between the SDP and the Lib Dems went ahead in 1988 but that the new party was founded on federalist principles. But a great leader? I don’t think so. And I think it’s safe to deduce what Kennedy and Clegg think of each other, which makes Clegg’s words ring hollow. It simply seemed like a dismal exercise in patronising Highlanders; a misplaced attempt to woo the local liberals. He may as well have turned up in full Highland regalia - it would have been equally convincing.
THE SCOTTISH LIBERAL DEMOCRATS
Clegg started off discussing the Scottish party. I was pleased he mentioned Andrew Reeves’ sad passing last year. After that, he moved to comedy, suggesting that “what Willie Rennie has done at Holyrood is to put last May behind us and move on”. If only. We’re still very much living in the past, as evidenced by Willie Rennie himself in the bloggers' interview with him last week in which he spoke positively about Cameron and Johann Lamont but couldn’t resist taking a few swipes at Alex Salmond. We have attitudes towards other parties firmly based on the politics of the past and our campaigning machine, so dependent on the same old methods and a few staff using twitter, is struggling to adjust to new realities. Far from having moved on, we’re still having difficulties facing up to last year’s catastrophe and lack any kind of cogent plan for rebuilding.
Clegg also added that we were “punching above our weight” and “holding the SNP to account”. In some respects I’d agree, although I suspect often we forget that we have a parliamentary party of 5 MSPs and that the way to achieve tangible success isn’t opposition but co-operation. But the idea that “Willie has been running rings around Labour and the Conservatives” is ridiculous. It’s not an affront to Willie to suggest that it’s been a tough first year but that he’s acquitted himself reasonably well under difficult circumstances. That’s being realistically complimentary. Nick is simply talking tribalistic tosh when he says such things; I for one have found Ruth Davidson cuts a far more impressive figure in Holyrood than Willie Rennie does, and I’ve never seen Willie actually take on Lamont openly or even outclass her. What I have seen is Willie bringing sobriety and commonsense to exchanges in Holyrood; ever workmanlike but never spectacular. Perhaps Clegg should actually watch FMQs sometime?
He also referred to last year’s Holyrood elections as “painful”. Painful? What’s truly painful is the ease with which Clegg dismisses the disaster, At least Tim Farron, when speaking at federal conference last September, had the decency to apologise. Clegg seems to feel this is just a temporary setback, understating what this catastrophe actually means for Scottish liberalism and believing that a “take it on the chin and keep on fighting” approach will lay the basis for a liberal revival. At least he’s consistent – he said the same sort of thing last year.
It was positive that Clegg talked up the achievements of Liberal Democrats in local government, a welcome emphasis given the forthcoming local elections. I’m not too sure that improved recycling rates in Fife are necessarily the most convincing means of persuading the electorate to give us their votes, but the general idea is the right one. It’s an inescapable fact that “our councillors don’t get the same recognition as our MPs, MSPs and our MEP [and that] they are the unsung heroes of politics here in Scotland” and one that Clegg clearly recognises. But when he states that “without their good work we would not be able to make the difference we are making in Holyrood or Westminster” I must object – such work in Westminster happens in spite of, not because of, our councillors and activists. Please don’t blame them for what you’re doing, Mr Clegg.
Clegg was very keen to get onto what appears to be rapidly becoming his favourite subject – Alex Salmond (sorry, independence. He couldn’t bring himself to utter that poisonous name!) . He pointed out quite correctly that the political landscape has changed dramatically in the last year and that this presents the Scottish Liberal Democrats with “a challenge”. I won’t disagree with this statement of the obvious but unfortunately Clegg didn’t elaborate in the precise nature of this “challenge”, or how he proposes we overcome it. I was pleased to see that he accepts that Salmond has the mandate to ask the independence question; somewhat less pleased that he views the question not in terms how we can shape a positive, liberal future for Scotland but rather as a matter of whether “the Scottish people want to stay within the family of the UK or break up the longest and most successful political and social partnership of nations in history?” Sigh! Yawn!
Then he proceeded to make the usual tired economic case (curiously ignoring the current strength of the Scottish economy as a distinct entity and the various reasons for this) and emphasising the “shared culture, history and identity”. “For centuries we have crossed each others borders, married each other, raised families together” he declared. That’s true. It was also too prior to 1707. It’s also true of French and German people, or of people from various independent states across the world. My own grandfather was Polish, but I wouldn’t suggest the large number of Poles who have settled here means we need to be politically unified with Poland. While this may be a valid argument in favour of free movement of people and internationalism, it’s facile when made as a case against independence.
“I believe the bonds that bring us together are stronger than the forces that would tear us apart” Clegg concluded with a cliche. I’m afraid I’m not altogether convinced that it’s true and as for the relative strength of the political forces in Scotland I’d have to say I’d back the SNP every time. That there are cultural similarities between Scotland and some other areas of the UK, as well as a historic co-dependent relationship, is undeniably true. But that’s also true of Ireland and the UK, of the Nordic countries and of the Benelux nations: close cultural ties and economic collaboration are ongoing in spite of the countries in question being distinct sovereign entities.
Clearly learning from David Cameron, Clegg went on: “it is not for me to tell the people of Scotland what they should think.” Wow. That’s a relief! “The debate over Scotland’s future is one for the people of Scotland.” Amen, brother! “And I hope all of you will support Mike and Danny, and Willie and all of our team in Scotland in making the case for staying in the UK.” Hmm, what was that about not telling us what to think?
Clegg decided to then make it clear that he doesn’t believe in the Liberal Democrats’ constitution. Or, at least, that he doesn’t believe in a key component of it – namely federalism. As he declared earlier in the year, he’s not a federalist, but a devolutionist. I’m pleased he’s made the distinction because it shows us something of his thinking, but it’s not being exactly true to the Lib Dems’ founding principles, is it?
“We have always been a party that is committed to devolution. For Liberal Democrats devolving power is in our DNA and we are delivering that in Government.” Very true,and fine sentiments indeed, but why the lack of any real progress since devolution was achieved in 1997? Clegg didn’t say. What he did do is point out that Michael Moore (our “excellent” Secretary of State for Scotland) is leading the Scotland Bill through parliament, which represents “the biggest single transfer of power from the UK to Scotland since the Act of Union. More power for Scotland because Liberal Democrats are in power in Westminster.” Quite. But why we couldn’t have done more when in power at Holyrood? And why is opposing a second question on the ballot form - with the likely even larger transfer of power to Scotland – such a passion for senior Liberal Democrats? Again, Clegg had nothing to say.
He did talk about the Home Rule Commission. “Who better to lead that process than Ming Campbell, a statesman who commands such huge respect on both sides of the border?” asked Clegg, clearly in generous mood towards his parliamentary colleagues. (Personally I’d prefer Bob Maclennan or the Earl of Mar and Kellie, but that’s another matter.) “If the Scottish people decide they want to remain in the United Kingdom, then we can get on with the business of giving Scotland more power” he explained, “[but] we need to settle the independence question first.” Really? Why? I for one don’t see why we should. And, in any case, doesn’t this effectively render the Home Rule Commission either useless or its recommendations dependent on a negative outcome in the referendum? If the Commission exists, as Clegg suggests, simply to “look at the next stage in the relationship between Scotland and the rest of the UK” then why is it putting forward its findings and recommendations imminently, well in advance of the Scottish people deciding exactly what that relationship should be?
Clegg left many questions unanswered, such as how the Commission can possibly hope to achieve anything if it refuses to press for a second question on the ballot form or be anything other than a talking shop for a minor party. Again, a wasted opportunity to assert the value of the project and explain its political relevance.
Clegg was at his most positive and effective on economic matters. “I want nothing short of a green economic renaissance for Scotland. A Scotland where green jobs fuel a thriving economic future.” The attractive vision went further: “Scottish universities [will be] developing new green technologies for Scottish companies to export around the world, with Scotland’s young people trained in the skills they need to be at the heart of our green economy.” Sounds good? Indeed. Read on, dear friend.
Clegg looked into his crystal ball and saw “a nation with vast natural resources. A nation of thriving businesses with skilled, motivated workers. A nation at the heart of a green energy revolution.” He spoke of that green revolution as having already begun. He suggested that Scotland could be a world leader. In fact, so positive was his rhetoric that for a minute he reminded me of another political leader whose name I temporarily forget. Alex Somebody...
It was good stuff, as Clegg realised the importance not only of having positive ideas but of communicating them effectively. Here was Clegg at his best, an artist painting with broad brushstrokes a futuristic landscape of a Scotland people might actually want to live in: a Scotland that is economically strong, prosperous, innovative, creative, outward looking and at the cutting edge of an exciting revolution in the energy industry. I hope he received an ovation for that. Sadly, then he went and spoiled it all by saying something stupid like “we believe a strong Scotland is good for the United Kingdom and a strong United Kingdom is good for Scotland”- as if Scotland’s economic wellbeing is dependent upon the continued union. Yawn!
AND WHAT HAVE THE LIBERAL DEMOCRATS EVER DONE FOR US?
Clegg was keen to point out how much the Liberal Democrats have done for Scotland. But first, back to the patronising remarks and unconvincing attempts at empathy. “I know how families are feeling. And I know how people worry about paying their bills... You get up early, you work hard, you never ask for anything and yet everything is getting harder.” I have to say I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t ask for anything. More importantly, I think Clegg needs to drop this kind of talk: it no longer feels real – and it no longer works for him. “There is no magic wand that will make everything better overnight” he told us, as if condescension of the worst kind was an effective substitute for a solution. Maybe he was still thinking of his discussions with Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe...
Clegg did explain what he felt the Liberal Democrats had done for Scotland. Tax cuts aimed at lifting the poorest people out of tax altogether was something he was justifiably keen to play up. But that wasn’t all. We’re “standing up for the culture of work that is such a proud part of Scotland’s history. By making sure that work always pays. By making sure people can keep more of the money they earn. And by making sure our young people have the skills they need to enter the world of work. And for those of you whose working life is over, Liberal Democrats are on your side too.” As you’ve gathered, sentiment outweighed substance and detail throughout Clegg’s speech but he was eager to provide some specific details. “A million Scottish pensioners will receive the most generous rise in the state pension for a generation. From next month, you will receive an extra £5.30 a week.” Given that there are only 879.500 pensioners living in Scotland today I’m not sure his boast rings true, but let’s not waste time on pedantry. It is a good move, but whether it will be enough to convince elderly people we’re on their side is another question altogether.
Clegg finally drew attention to the £103million Fossil Fuel levy investment in renewable energy. “Labour didn’t do it” said Clegg. “The SNP said we wouldn’t do it. Now we have done it. Liberal Democrats in Government delivering for Scotland.” Excellent. Now all we have to do is convince the Scottish public that we’re a party worth voting for. He finished with a summary of achievement in which he commented that “we go into this May’s elections with our heads held high”. Positive fighting talk is expected from leaders, but I feel the party needs more than the “keep calm and carry on, the public will eventually reward us when they see how much we’ve done in government” mentality espoused by Clegg. I also seriously doubt that too many sitting councillors will be going into the May elections with their “heads held high”: in spite of their tremendous efforts they will realise that it’s going to be a tough fight in which we’re more than likely to haemorrhage support and lose seats. Misplaced positivity is worse than negativity.
Oddly, Clegg failed to talk about his plans to revive either the party or the more pertinent cause of Scottish liberalism. He failed to advocate the kinds of actions that would facilitate the liberal renaissance I strongly feel we need. For him, the future of our party is bound to our performance and achievements in Westminster and he can neither perceive nor comprehend the urgent need for revival and regeneration of the philosophy, the party and the brand.
This was a speech short on ideas and as predictable as it was unimaginative. It was clearly a speech aimed at pleasing the delegates, although whether it succeeded in this aim I can’t possibly say. What I do know is that this particular Liberal Democrat is feeling deflated and more than a little disappointed at Nick Clegg’s latest intervention into Scottish politics.
At least by getting these predictable, dated and clichéd arguments in early, Clegg has opened the way for Willie Rennie to say something different, something imaginative, something radical. Things can only get better, right?