Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Rennie and Moore outline Scottish vision

Secretary of State for Scotland Michael Moore MP and Leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats Willie Rennie moments ago gave their speeches at federal conference.

As speeches go, these seemed to be more about reiterating and emphasising the Liberal Democrat position rather than making new announcements.  That is to be expected.  They were confident performances, but the heavy emphasis on the independence referendum and nationalism suggests that to a significant degree we are being dictated, rather than leading, the political conversation.  Again, that is unsurprising, but as a Scottish Liberal Democrat I'd like to find more opportunities to facilitate debate on our terms and not appear as if everything we do is a reaction to what the SNP are doing.

Michael Moore was first to speak.  His speech can be separated into two distinct sections: the first a defence of Liberal Democrat action in government and the second a focus on the independence referendum.

He was keen to play up the Liberal Democrats role in creating a "fairer" Scotland.  "A belief in fairness – a society where those in need get help and everyone has the chance to get on – that is the core value of our party" he said.  This fairness agenda is "at the heart of what we do" and we are delivering positively, in spite of "not everyone north of the border want[ing] to acknowledge what we are achieving."  Fairness is clearly a key Liberal Democrat value, so I won't argue with him on that score.  What I might argue with are some of the examples he used to evidence how this quality so positively imbues government policy.

"Welfare reform is a good example" he started.  Erm, no it isn't.  That welfare needs reforming is unquestionable but the way this has been delivered, irrespective of good Liberal Democrat intentions, has been anything but "fair".  "We want a welfare system that protects the vulnerable, supports people into work and makes work pay" stated Moore.  As do I.  But that isn't, if we're being honest, what is being delivered by the Westminster coalition - as fellow blogger and activist George W Potter frequently observes.  

Moore also referred to Liberal Democrats resisting "the deep and arbitrary cuts that some would favour but we will never support".  Clearly this is an attempt to distance the party from the worst excesses of Conservatism but it avoids the inconvenient reality that, whatever our view of deep cuts, they are perceived to be happening and we are perceived to be complicit in their delivery.  Not a great example of how we are effectively standing up for fairness.

Of course, it did get better.  Moore also praised the Youth Contract, the fairer tax system with "160,000 Scots coming out of income tax altogether" and "two million paying less than when we came to office".  In regards that last claim, I'd be interested in seeing some statistical evidence not only to substantiate it but to consider the reasons behind it.  Two million Scots represent a huge proportion of the workforce.  Certainly I am paying less tax than I was in 2010 but this is due not only to government policy but also lower earnings.  

Moore was nothing if not positive.  "So, when we go to the polls in 2015, we won’t head into battle armed only with words.  We have an armoury of evidence and a record of delivery...We have shaped a fairer country. A fairness dividend, delivered by Liberal Democrats, for all of Scotland and the UK."  That does sound good.  Whether in 2015 we will be perceived as the party of fairness is another question and while I don't doubt that fairness is at the heart of the Liberal Democrat vision we face a real challenge to communicate that credibly.
Moore argued that "we have shown that even in the toughest of times, and against all the odds, Liberal Democrats have done for Scotland what Labour did not and the Conservatives would not."  That went down well with members.  It's certainly true that Labour never had the vision or appetite to build on the devolution they helped achieve.  I would however question the reference to the Conservatives: whatever we have done in the previous two and a half years, we have done so in partnership with the Tories.  It is simply unfair to argue they "would not" support what we have championed, especially when they have.  Of course they would in all probability not do so independently of coalition government, but the Secretary of State must surely recognise that the Scotland Act is in place because the Conservatives were happy for it to become legislation - whether this says more about the Conservatives, coalition dynamics or the Scotland Act itself I'm unsure.
Moore then turned his attentions to the constitutional question.  "We will strengthen Scotland within the UK...[we] believe in the devolution settlement".  Like Nick Clegg, he seems to prefer being a devolutionist to a federalist and sees devolution as "the best of both worlds" for Scotland.  He praised the Scotland Act, as I would have expected him to do, referring to "the largest transfer of financial powers from London to Edinburgh since the creation of the UK" as something that allows increased autonomy for Scots.  He also welcomed Menzies Campbell's Home Rule Commission.  
He was keen to contrast devolution with independence.  "Devolution is about strengthening Scotland within the UK.  Independence is about taking Scotland out of it."  Clearly he was angling for the Most Patronising Statement of the Obvious Award.  What else is independence?  What Moore didn't turn his attentions to was the argument that independence might also significantly strengthen Scotland.  And so his contrast was nothing of the sort.  I was waiting for an intellectual rebuttal of independence and what it would mean for Scots, but it never came.
Moore was keen to play up the benefits of the Union, however.  He intimated that "we will make clear the benefits of the United Kingdom, not just for Scotland but for everyone in the UK family.  Whether we look at the size and scale of the UK economy or our place in the international community."  Fair enough.  
"Or our defence capacity and the jobs that come with it" he tagged on, without a hint of irony.  Unfortunately I wasn't able to see Menzies Campbell's face when Moore made that comment.  Given the effect of coalition policy on Scotland's military bases "and the jobs that go with them" I think that boast is more than a little misplaced.
Moore stressed that "poll after poll" showed that most Scots were not supporting independence.  He spoke of "valid emotional reasons" such as "the quality and value of UK institutions...[and] shared cultural experience".  He also suggested that the success of Team GB at the Olympics demonstrated "spontaneous and natural feelings ]that are] more than a match for nationalism".  Why did I know he couldn't resist the temptation to refer to the Olympics?
He talked about the detail of the referendum and his optimism that it will be "fair, legal and decisive" with agreement reached on devolving the power.  I was appreciative of his determination to ensure that the referendum is "made in Scotland for the people of Scotland".  When he talked of "goodwill on both sides" it was difficult to keep a straight face, but of course he is referring to negotiations with the SNP to thrash out the detail - not the respective campaigns.
"It's not in our nature to be nationalists" Moore insisted.  Indeed it is not. But why should independence necessarily be about nationalism?  The debate is much wider and perceiving independence supporters as motivated by nationalism alone (or even at all) is simplistic.  
Moore finished off with a rallying call: "Let’s get this referendum started."  Amen, brother.
"And let’s show the people of this country that Liberal Democrats, in government, stand for a fairer Scotland in a stronger United Kingdom."  Agreed, Mr Moore, although the latter objective may be more difficult than the former.
Next up was Willie Rennie.  Free from cabinet responsibility, Rennie's speech was bolder than Moore's.  He also appears more confident and purposeful on the platform which rather sounds like a dig at Michael Moore but certainly isn't intended to be.  Rennie is also becoming more positive and spoke more obviously as a passionate Scottish politician rather than a representative of the government.  Not for him the predictable defence of coalition policy.  Wise move, Mr Rennie.  
He began by stating that there are "people writing us off".  Last year, we were being written off by the media and political opponents alike.  Indeed, I remember it.  In fact they still are.  "Although our opponents will always deride us they are privately fizzing that the Liberal Democrats will just not disappear" he claimed.  "I am not at all sorry to disappoint them.  As history shows, we have a bit more staying power than that."  Perhaps, but it's not history I'm worried about.  And as a huge proportion of our Scottish councillors disappeared only a matter of months ago I would consider that claim to be a little insensitive to those who lost their seats.  As for "five MSPs...not disappearing" - well, they're not likely to.  At least not until 2016.
But Rennie improved after the ill-judged triumphalist introduction.  Like Michael Moore, he was quick to express his support for policies characterised by "fairness".  But he went further in his vision for Scotland than the Secretary of State: not simply a "fair" Scotland but "a tolerant and liberal, understanding and compassionate country."  He referred to "popular values" that the Liberal Democrats actively champion.  This is the liberal case he wants to argue and lead.  
Quickly Rennie contrasted himself with Alex Salmond who he summarised as liking to court "the rich and powerful".  He was critical of the First Minister's apparent support for Rupert Murdoch, likening him to a mother defending her errant son.  This "revealed a politician prepared to do anything to get the support of the media - even if it meant betraying the phone hacking victims.  Dozens of innocent lives made a living hell. It was wrong, wrong,wrong" roared Rennie.  It was effective stuff.  He then criticised the First Minister for refusing to meet the Dalai Lama; something which, in his view, amounted to submission to Chinese pressure.  "It seems that whether you’ve got a billion pounds or a billion people, the First Minister will do whatever you want."  That went down well with delegates.  

"This isn't liberal government" insisted Rennie. 

He then turned his attentions to the referendum.  He avoided the kind of detail provided by Moore but he was content to similarly paint opponents in unflattering ways.  "As we approach the referendum, the danger is that the voices on the extreme will dominate the debate.  We’ve already heard from some English nationalists that they want Scotland out. They don’t value our United Kingdom. These are the allies of Alex Salmond’s SNP in their fight to break up Britain. They are working together, attending each other’s conferences and sharing ideas."  Now, where do you begin with this?  Clearly the "extreme voices" he refers to are exclusively nationalist voices.  Depicting those who favour independence as extremists is something that Nick Clegg has already done, but I would have expected better from Willie Rennie.  Going a step further and marrying the largely benign nationalism of the SNP to the dangerous, intolerant, toxic nationalism of unspecified "English nationalist" groups is a huge claim to make.  I would like Rennie to explain exactly who are these "allies of the SNP" and provide some information about who exactly is attending which conferences and where.  Rennie will be perfectly aware of what the public perception of English nationalism is and is now doubt using such perceptions to his political advantage.  He knows full well what he is doing when he draws such parallels.  He owes it to the public to explain these comments and state explicitly which groups he is referring to.  And what precisely does he mean by "sharing ideas"?  
While I don't always agree with the First Minister (e.g. over his comments in respect to News International) I find it difficult to imagine him attending an English Defence League rally, or visiting the English Democrats' party conference.
More positively, Rennie was keen to give members a voice.  "If you live outside Scotland you may not have a vote in the referendum but you do have a voice.  So I want to hear your voice in the debate about the future of the UK. I want you to show that the rest of the UK values Scotland and our partnership together.  I want the moderate, reasonable, open and welcoming voices from outside Scotland to be heard.  You can speak up for what the UK means for you...speak up for what Scotland means to you."  It is no bad thing for Liberal Democrats outside Scotland to speak up in respect to Scotland's future, although it is unwise to assume what that voice might be.  Certainly the more moderate, open and welcoming contributions the better. They're preferable to the opinions of the MSP for Shetland on this matter.  
I certainly will speak up for what both Scotland and the UK mean to me, I promise you Mr Rennie!

Like Moore, he was keen to praise UK institutions.  I didn't quite understand why he cited the NHS as a positive reason to stay in the union though.  Perhaps he is forgetting that since inception Scotland has had a separate National Health Service.
Rennie moved on to the Home Rule Commission and seemed genuinely excited about its potential.  He also provided into a glimpse into its likely recommendations: "it won’t be fiscal autonomy or devo-max. It will be Fiscal Federalism as set out in the Steel Commission." Well, that is welcome news. It's also positive to hear him using the "f word" because it has been sadly absent from so much of our thinking in recent years.  I've said it before, only partly in jest, that if it was illegal to be a federalist party there would be insufficient evidence with which to convict us.  Rennie continued: "we can expect it to recommend powerful tools for Scotland within the UK for fairness, for business and to tackle inequality." Again, excellent stuff although inevitably I'm interested in the detail.
"Ming’s report will open the dialogue on more powers with the voters and between the parties [and] I encourage Labour and the Conservatives to start their discussions to develop a new accord to put to the country in the 2015 general election."  That is the one problem with our thinking.  However positive our vision for Scotland's future, however detailed our proposals, there can be no escaping that they can only be implemented with the support of either the Conservatives or Labour.  Why should we expect such support to be forthcoming, especially in light of Michael Moore's depiction of these parties as the "do nots" and "will nots"?  The whole enterprise is doomed to failure unless at least a significant proportion of the recommendations can be put into action.  I'm not a natural pessimist, but I see little reason for believing that our Labour or Tory colleagues in the anti-independence coalition that is Better Together have any real interest in creating such a new accord for 2015.  They're more interested in picking up the pieces following the predicted Liberal Democrat electoral meltdown.  
Rennie was also keen to play up his credentials as a pluralist, citing examples of constructive collaborative work with the SNP government.  He referred to equal marriage - something he claimed was "a mark of a modern, tolerant nation...a nation that values all no matter what their sexual orientation." This is indeed something he should be rightly proud of. I was interested in his (correct) interpretation of the proposed legislation as bringing freedom to churches who wish to conduct same-sex marriages, something the Roman Catholic hierarchy overlooks with its arrogant assertions that it should determine what other denominations can do. Another example of co-operative pluralist politics was in the work done with the SNP to ensure legislation on minimum pricing for alcohol. I agreed with the Scottish Liberal Democrats' position on this, but Rennie's hope that the UK government "take[s] bold steps to deliver this change" wasn't supported by all Liberal Democrats in the hall.  There remains division within the party on whether this action is effective, and indeed whether it is actually liberal.
"Scotland can learn from the rest of the UK" said Rennie.  I won't disagree.  The reverse, however, is also true.  The rest of the UK, not least the federal party of the Liberal Democrats, can learn a great deal from Scottish politics - especially the consequences of not articulating a sufficiently distinctive message.
I wouldn't accuse Willie Rennie of doing that today.  He set out his stall and did it quite effectively.  His evident antipathy towards the SNP remains and affects his message, but there were many positives and it is obvious that here is a leader doing his utmost to provide his party not only with a distinctive voice but also a dynamic edge.  He spoke not simply of policy and values, but of purpose.  And that purpose is making Scotland "a more liberal place to live and work."
"That's what we should be about" he insisted.  Indeed, and that thinking must affect everything we do if our party is to become a significant force in Scottish politics.

*After writing this I had a brief twitter discussion with Graeme Littlejohn from the Scottish Lib Dems.  He explained that SNP MP Angus MacNeil attended an English Democrat conference and wrote tweets in which he appeared to endorse the party's view.  He also explained that while Plaid Cymru refused to meet with the English Democrats on the basis of them being an "extreme" group, the SNP had a "good relationship with them".  What exactly this means and which views Mr MacNeil allegedly endorses were not made clear, either by Graeme or The Scotsman, in which the allegations are repeated today:  I do not accept that this necessarily amounts to "aligning with extreme English nationalist voices” but I am interested in Mr MacNeil's version of events.  I am also more than interested in knowing whether Willie Rennie can produce some solid evidence confirming that English Democrats attend SNP conferences or  whether a "good relationship" between the parties amounts to anything more than a few retweets and a one-off attendance at a conference five years ago on the part of a single MP.


An Duine Gruamach said...

If it's to be "Fiscal Federalism as set out in the Steel Commission", why on earth do we need another commission at all?

Andrew said...

I did consider that myself. We Lib Dems seem obsessed with commissions!

The Steel Commission deserved better than to be kicked into the long grass. It was certainly bolder than Calman.

Anonymous said...

Hard to take a man seriously who eagerly took a position for himself that he campaigned to have scrapped entirely just before! I guess when the gravy train pulled up he couldn't resist jumping on board.


His job seems irrelevant anyway these days. Too much time on his hands.