Sunday, 30 December 2012

Merger and Resistance: History repeating itself in Andorra

I have something of an interest in European politics which may not be immediately obvious given most of my writing is quite Scotland-centric.

I have been sufficiently intrigued by the politics of the small principality of Andorra recently to read a little about its recent history.  It really is quite a fascinating study for various reasons, not least on account of the complex democratic system that such a small nation has in place.

I have to confess my principal purpose in researching Andorra's political system was to explore the relationship the country had with the EU. It is intriguing that a nation that is not a member of the EU should adopt the Euro as its currency, largely on account of relationships with its neighbours.  I was also interested in the constitutional anomaly that while the 1993 Constitution of Andorra provided for a democratic modern state respecting human rights and international law, it also allowed for the continuation of the strange practice by which the position of Head of State is jointly shared by the president of France and the Catalan Bishop of Urgell.

Quite uniquely Andorra can claim to be the only nation with two heads of state - one elected and the other appointed by the church of a foreign power.  In the the form of the French president, Andorra also can lay claim to being the only country whose elected head of state is chosen entirely by the popular vote of a neighbouring nation.  It is an odd arrangement, owing more to tradition that the near pure democracy inherent in the system of election for the General Council.

Politics in Andorra have in recent years been dominated by the Liberal Party, our partners in both the Liberal International and the ELDR.  In 2009, however, following 15 consecutive years of Liberal Party rule, the Liberals entered into an alliance known as the Reformist Coalition to see off the threat of the Social Democratic Party.  It was ultimately unsuccessful, with the SDP emerging as the largest party in the election but crucially one seat short of an overall majority.  This led to significant difficulties in approving the budget and an early election.

The alliance continued into the new parliament and ahead of new elections in 2011, with another stalemate beckoning, sought to extend its progressive collaboration by making overtures to the SDP.  What followed was essentially a merger between the Liberal Party and part of the SDP - plus United for Progress which had been a member of the Reformist Coalition.  The new name of the merged party?  The Democrats.

And just to reinforce the feelings of deja vu, many members of the SDP opted against merger and are continuing the fight, led by the Owenesque personality of Jaume Bartumeu.  In spite of his political experience he led his continuing SDP to crushing defeat in 2011.  Even more intriguingly, disgruntled members of the Liberal Party who did not agree to the merger to form the Democrats have decided to create a new continuing Liberal Party and contest the next election. Their new president, Jorge Gallado, was elected by a special conference at which 30 members were present.  He already seems something of a Michael Meadowcroft figure, intellectual yet charismatic - although his party seem more interested in debating a construction of a new mosque than they do the realignment of Andorran politics that Gallado seems to yearn for.  The new Liberal Party has not been accepted into the Liberal International.

It will be interesting to see which, if either, of the "continuing" traditions emerges as the principal challenger to the Democrats.

All this sounds incredibly familiar.  Why any political leaders would wish to relive the difficult experiences of 1987-1990 I cannot comprehend.  You might have thought the Andorrans would learn the lessons from British politics - or at least the histories of our Liberal and Social Democratic parties.  I wish the new Democrats well, although I would warn them to consider carefully the potential ramifications of entering into any future coalitions with the conservative Unió Laurediana...

Saturday, 29 December 2012

My top posts of 2012

I haven’t been quite as prolific in my blogging as I was last year and for a couple of months abandoned it completely.  However, this hasn’t deterred people from reading my ramblings – these are the most popular (or at least most read) posts of the last year.

1)  Better Together campaign launched.  I was less than impressed with the launch.  I'm still less than impressed with Better Together.

2)  Willie Rennie must provide evidence of SNP-English Democrats link.  The Scottish party leader used federal conference to allege that the two parties are "working together" and "sharing ideas".  I suggest, in the absence of firm evidence, that he's misleading conference.

3)  Illiberal Scottish council silences 9 year old girl.  I am angered by Argyll & Bute Council's unnecessarily authoritarian actions.

4)  So, Nick Clegg thinks I’m an extremist .  The deputy Prime Minister suggests that those who support independence are "extremists".

5)  Leadership defeats pro-change rebels at Scottish conference.  A call for an alternative alternative to the constitutional status quo was roundly defeated.

6)  Do we really want to be associated with this?  Why would any liberal want to associate themselves with the negative tribalism and ill-considered rhetoric of the unionist parties, I ask.  "Why can't Lib Dems stand aside from the hideous, shallow spectacle of political immaturity and articulate something more reasonable, more sensible, more liberal?"

7) Gay ex-footballer talks openly to A Scottish Liberal.  I interview a friend who is both gay and a one-time professional footballer.  

8)  David Steel's wife supports Scottish independence.  Judy Steel seems an unlikely rebel.

9)  First Minister booed at Olympic celebrations.  Alex Salmond was indeed booed in Glasgow's George Square but I refuse to draw much significance from it.  He is a Hearts fan after all...

10)  Lib Dem bloggers quiz Willie Rennie.  The Scottish leader agreed to be interviewed by a panel of bloggers.

And they are my top ten posts of 2012.  The top posts of 2011 can be viewed here.

My predictions for 2013

And so another year draws to an end.  It’s not been the best of years for the Liberal Democrats, with less than impressive performances in local elections and parliamentary by-elections and with our ambition of achieving long overdue reform of the House of Lords kicked into touch by a Prime Minister more concerned about his own backbenchers than he is the relationship with his coalition partners.  

But it’s also been a year in which Scottish leader Willie Rennie has shown a little more of what he’s capable of, in which Nick Clegg issued the famous (and, when put to music, hilarious) apology and in which Michael Moore has demonstrated what an asset he is to the Scottish Office and the party more generally.  It’s been another year in which conference again proves itself to be the flagbearer for liberal values, sending out clear messages to our parliamentarians on secret courts – and a year in which equal marriage came a step closer, in no small measure due to Liberal Democrat determination.  

Of course it will be one that most Liberal Democrats will be happy to put behind us.  From a purely political perspective, we’ve had better years.  However, this was also the year of the Olympics, Andy Murray winning a Grand Slam title, Bradley Wiggins’ astonishing successes, The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, Manchester City winning the premiership and England losing to Italy on penalties in Euro 2012.  So, all in all, 2012 has been a memorable year for many of the right reasons – on a personal note the birth of baby Xanthe in July is the obvious highlight of a year that was something of an emotional rollercoaster.

In previous years I’ve made my own predictions for the coming year, which are generally more entertaining and slightly more accurate than those made by the Mayans.  This year, I’ve decided to do it again and share with you my own thoughts about what the new year will bring.


The Liberal Democrats

The Lib Dems will continue to do poorly in by-elections, trailing behind UKIP and the Greens.  The media will present this as evidence of electoral meltdown, in spite of the fact that the party never had a political base in these constituencies nor any realistic hopes of winning.  Nick Clegg states that these embarrassing results will be a thing of the past once voters begin to grasp what an important job we’re doing in government.

Everyone will continue to look to Tim Farron as a potential new leader, especially The Guardian, The Independent and Liberal Left.   Farron will be at pains to stress his loyalty to the current leader, while pointing out that our current difficulties are temporary and that eventually we will be rewarded when the public begin to grasp what an important job we’re doing in government.

Late in the year we will come third in a by-election, with Nick Clegg pronouncing that a corner has been turned and that voters are now beginning to grasp what an important job we’re doing in government.

The free vote on the Equal Marriage proposals will see some Liberal Democrat MPs vote against the party line, causing internal conflict and with the MPs concerned vilified by many party members and activists.  The legislation will pass but the myth of Lib Dem unity on the matter will have been utterly compromised.

Liberal Left will drift into relative obscurity, save for the conference season when its shrill near deification of Beveridge and distorted historical views of Gladstone are allowed to form the basis of a misguided attack on the party’s current direction.  More influential will be the Social Liberal Forum, who will be increasingly perceived as the party’s conscience and more intelligent in respect to choosing their battles and in the way their criticisms are expressed.  

Relations with the Conservatives will become even more strained, most notably on Europe.  Clegg will, however, remain determined to see out the five-year term – arguing that voters would never take the party seriously if it withdrew from the coalition and that, in any case, voters will reward us when they begin to grasp what an important job we’re doing in government.

In Scotland, Willie Rennie will provide determined leadership in addition to a welcome relief from the usual entrenched tribalism on display at Holyrood.  Rennie’s problem will continue to be in communicating a positive, distinctive and forward-looking vision when his voice is either largely ignored by the media or drowned out by the negative rhetoric of our “partners” in Better Together.  

The differentiation strategy will be largely ineffective, not least because they way in which it is carried out suggests a government divided against itself and a rather desperate junior coalition partner.  It amounts to little more than a statement that “We’re not Tories y’know!”  and will simply play into the hands of Labour.  Well, it would if they had the sense to capitalise on it.

The Conservative Party

The Prime Minister will continue to pander to the whims of his party’s right wing.  The liberal values and co-operative approaches he once claimed to champion will be shown to be little more than a pitiful, if regrettably successful, attempt to persuade Liberal Democrats that partnership would be in their interests.

The Conservatives will indulge their obsession for the EU, demanding referenda on our future relationship or at the very least a renegotiation of our terms of membership.  Rather than challenge this idiocy, Cameron will agree to making a half-hearted attempt to secure renegotiation that will please no-one and alienate everyone including the usually loyal Nick Clegg who is spitting feathers.  

Nadine Dorries will continue making intemperate contributions from the backbenches, restricting such interventions to matters surrounding gay people, abortion, the EU, abortion, being on the TV and abortion.  Towards the end of the year she will form a new breakaway party...of one.

George Osborne will not be moved on his economic strategy even though it is evidently not working.  Objections from some Liberal Democrats to the effects of austerity will be used to further justify the government’s economic direction to Conservative MPs.  

Some Conservative MPs will form a group determined to wreck the planned bill for Equal Marriage.  They will be led by Bill Cash and Peter Bone and will claim to speak for a “moral majority” in spite of being little more than a public embarrassment for the Prime Minister.  Ultimately their efforts will be in vain.
Peter Bone will be revealed to be a closet homosexual and, to pre-empt the press, releases a statement in which he admits to his gay identity.  He also reveals that when the law is changed he will marry Brian Souter immediately.

The Labour Party

Ed Miliband will embark on a strategy to woo disaffected Liberal Democrats.  It will go something like this: “Your party has let you down so come to us so we can parade you at our conference as some kind of trophy.  You should consider yourself very lucky and privileged that we should reach out to you in this way.”

Miliband will struggle to present himself as Prime Minister in waiting.  On the other hand Chuka Umunna, quite unintentionally of course, looks more like a future leader with every passing TV interview.  

Ed Balls will appear less and less credible as shadow chancellor and will struggle to communicate a coherent alternative economic strategy – not least because he doesn’t have one.  Labour big beasts such as Alistair Darling and Ed Miliband’s older brother who everyone seems to have forgotten about, will put pressure on the leader to replace Balls with someone of calibre, economic experience and political competence.  Instead he appoints Caroline Flint.

Labour will do well in parliamentary by-elections – largely in safe seats where incumbent Labour MPs have stepped down after being disgraced for mishandling their parliamentary expenses.  

Unfortunately for Labour they will be increasingly seen as a reaction party, opposing virtually everything proposed by the government but not able to formulate any positive ideas of their own.

Johann Lamont will continue to prove that under her leadership Scottish Labour is little more than a party of tribal reactivists whose loathing of the Liberal Democrats is secondary to their pathological hatred of the SNP.  Lamont will herself extend her own differentiation strategy, intentionally reshaping or discarding good Labour policy to distinguish her party from Alex Salmond’s evil nationalists.  The fact that she’s defining her party by what the SNP says and does will be completely lost on her.

The Scottish National Party

It was a difficult year for Alex Salmond and his party.  Labour staged a fightback in the local elections.  Salmond’s popularity has dipped a little although his public approval rating remains higher than every other political leader.  Support for independence remains static.  Things won’t improve greatly in 2013, but the SNP will continue to dominate Scottish politics and – more importantly – the political conversation.

Nicola Sturgeon will prove to be the star of Scottish politics, not only on account of her more obvious political skills but also due to her success in handling her infrastructure, investment and cities portfolio.  Her comfortable debating style, evident understanding of how issues affect people and her personal warmth will have an obvious appeal to those who dislike the perceived arrogance of the First Minister.  Her destiny as the SNP’s leader-in-waiting will not be questioned.

The SNP will dominate Yes Scotland in the same way that Labour dominates Better Together.  Unlike Labour, the SNP aren’t comfortable with this (or at least the suggestion that Yes Scotland is merely an extension of the SNP’s campaigning machine) and Yes Scotland will make overtures to pro-independence groups within other parties and none.  Independence will remain high on the political agenda, and lack of clarity on detail will cause some significant headaches for Alex Salmond.  

The debate on Scotland’s role within the EU will not go away and what should be a complex question of Scotland’s future relationship with the rest of Europe will become reduced to a political football and a juvenile argument about who did or did not say something and what they meant or did not mean by it.  In all this it will be easy to lose sight of the fact that Secretary of State for Scotland, Michael Moore, is in a position to obtain crucial answers in respect to Scotland’s position in the EU.  It will become even easier to forget that what really matters is that whatever the outcome of the referendum, Scotland is better off in the EU.

Unemployment in Scotland will fall slightly, leading to the SNP making wildly overreaching claims about their responsibility for it. 


The civil war in Syria will come to an end, with President Assad fleeing into exile.  The new government will be made of opposition leaders, most of whom are former Ba’ath Party devotees who defected at an opportune time.  Like the new government in Egypt, the Syrian administration will have limited respect, or use, for democracy.  The inappropriately named Arab Spring will have finally burned itself out.

Concerns about the Pope’s health abound later in the year.  Even greater concerns abound at the fact that Cardinal Keith O’Brien has an eye on the papal mitre.

President Obama will struggle to keep the US economy under control, something that doesn’t stop Ed Balls from aspiring to create an American-style economy as a basis for British recovery.   On an international front, Obama will regrettably achieve very little this year although some progress will be made in Afghanistan.

The Eurozone will survive but huge difficulties remain.  Greece will increasingly resent the harsh realities of imposed austerity and will consider withdrawal from the Euro and potentially the EU.  Many Italians on the other hand feel that the solution to their nation’s economic woes is to re-elect Silvio Burlusconi as Prime Minister for the 56th time.  Some people never learn.


Celtic will win the SPL and Manchester United the Premiership. 

Morton will come agonisingly close to being promoted to the SPL, losing out to Partick Thistle by one point.  St Mirren will somehow avoid relegation yet again.

Albion Rovers will be relegated from Division 2, thus not having to “entertain” Rangers and their fans at Cliftonhill in the following season.  Every cloud has a silver lining.

Roberto Mancini will be dismissed at the end of the season in which Manchester City win nothing.  Rafa Benitez will be sacked next week after his team fail to beat QPR by the same margin with which they overcame Aston Villa.  “We scored only seven goals, it isn’t good enough” insists Abramovich.

My predictions for previous years can be found here:

Predictions for 2012 (stunningly accurate!) 
Predictions for 2011 (not so stunningly accurate)  

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Equal marriage: freedom of religion or politically motivated authoritarianism?

And so – first the good news.

The very good news.

As a photographer I will shortly no longer have to hear the discriminatory phrase “according to the law of this country, marriage is the union of one man with one woman” when working at weddings.  As a believer in, and advocate for, marriage equality this is indeed very welcome.  I am absolutely delighted that marriage is being redefined – as it has of course many times previously – to enable same-sex couples to have the same legal rights to marry as opposite-sex couples.

Culture Secretary Maria Miller’s announcement today was not entirely unexpected.  What was somewhat surprising is the degree to which she appears determined to appease Conservative backbenchers and religious traditionalists.  I am genuinely shocked and concerned at the weakness and insecurity Conservative ministers have demonstrated on this issue, which in turn highlights how grateful we should be to Lynne Featherstone and our Liberal Democrat parliamentarians for their dedication and energies, which have ensured that equal marriage legislation is all but set to become reality.

It is not, however, the legislation I would have either hoped for or envisaged.  On the first count, I accept that being in coalition with a party that boasts amongst its parliamentarians such luminaries as Peter Bone and Nadine Dorries, some form of compromise was inevitable.  But the compromise that I foresaw was not a legalised form of institutional homophobia or a licence to discriminate on the superficial basis of sexual orientation.  I suspect many other progressive Christians are equally disturbed by this unexpected development, not least those who are members of the Church of England.

Ms Miller intimated that the government will “explicitly state that it will be illegal for the Churches of England and Wales to marry same-sex couples”.  Read that again.  

It will be ILLEGAL 


I still can’t quite believe it.  Even her justification didn’t make any sense: the Church of England had “explicitly stated” its opposition, she claimed, so therefore it was only right for the government to “explicitly” reinforce the Church’s entitlement to legal exception. 

She wasn’t using that logic when pressing the Church of England to rethink its internal democracy after the furore over women bishops.

So, let’s get this right.  Ms Miller is only capable of seeing the Church of England, and therefore looking at the wider issue, through the prism of institutional authoritarianism.  She doesn’t view the church as a collection of individuals with widely differing views on this and many other matters.  She doesn’t see the gay Christians, the progressive movements within Anglicanism such as Inclusive Church or the many clergy who have taken a stand for marriage equality.  She has listened to a vocal minority, and assumed – wrongly – that they speak for the majority.  And so the Church of England, which contains so many more inclusivists than – for example – the Plymouth Brethren, will be legally barred from conducting same-sex marriage against the wishes of many of its members and clergy while hardline evangelical churches will be able to “opt” to marry those they actively discriminate against.  It’s an absurd situation whereby those most in favour of legislation are banned from participating while those most vehemently opposed have the option to perform same-sex marriages should they at some point before Hell freezes over decide they want to.

My friends, who are committed Christians and members of the Church of England, I’m sure would love to be married in their own church but will be legally prevented from doing so.  That is not in the spirit of religious freedom that supposedly underpins these proposals.  It also asks why, given the proposed legislation will not force any church to conduct same-sex marriages and that there is provision for an opt out, it was necessary to go as far as to make it illegal for one specific church to even consider allowing itself the opportunity to do as other denominations will be legally permitted. Make no mistake - this is quite different to the issue of women bishops.  The Church Synod won't be able to make another decision in a few years' time.  That right has been taken away from them by legislation supposedly promoting religious freedom.  

It seems that there are a number of political motivations behind this misguided proposal, not entirely disconnected with the Church of England’s identity as The Established Church.  Whatever her reasons, Miller has gone too far and risks creating potentially divisive tensions within the Church which will not now be permitted the luxury, as in the case of the Church of Scotland, to embark on a period of sober reflection on the way forward. 

I can only imagine this is Maria Miller’s revenge for the Church of England’s refusal to accept women into the bishopric.  Clearly she wasn’t too pleased with the outcome and is now determined to render the Church socially irrelevant.  Or perhaps she was simply highlighting the urgent need for the Church of England to be disestablished and for its historic unmerited privileges to be revoked.  If today has shown anything it’s that a liberal society is a secular society, and that such a society can only be achieved if the established church is afforded precisely the same freedoms as any other religious organisation.

We’ve heard throughout the debate so far that marriage equality is a “conscience issue”.  I don't actually agree – for me it’s a basic question of human rights.  But if we’re going to promote it as a conscience issue for parliamentarians, why can’t the same logic be used when applied to the Church of England and its clergy?  As the Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan explained, “it should be left for us to opt in or opt out."  Another leading Anglican, the Bishop of Leicester, criticised politicians encroaching into the sphere of religious freedom and warned of widening divisions between “political classes” and the Christian faithful while former Bishop Richard Harries was eager to put on record the significant level of support equal marriage had within the Church. 

Miller’s interference represents the very worst kind of politics.  Not only is it authoritarian and arrogant, but also totally unnecessary.  The legislation as proposed by Maria Miller should be resisted because it is by nature homophobic.  It allows – in fact, it compels – an organisation to discriminate against an already oppressed minority on the basis of something it cannot change.  It will be legislation that reinforces discrimination and that does so purely on the grounds of sexual orientation.  For all the positives contained within the proposals, Liberal Democrats must oppose this heavy handed and ham-fisted approach from the minister.  It runs contrary to everything any liberal thinker believes in. 

There is little question that momentum is with the progressives and that marriage equality is now a virtual certainty.  It is supported by the Liberal Democrats, almost all of the Labour Party and a fair proportion of the Conservatives.  I want to see marriage equality become reality – I’ve long campaigned for it.  But I don’t want to see it delivered with these shameful conditions attached.  I believe that sometimes political compromise is not only necessary but inevitable - even desirable - but in this case there really is no need for this divisive, discriminatory and frankly illogical proposal from Miller.  Rather than celebrating the pending advent of marriage equality, Liberal Democrats should be considering how to ensure the legislation is carried without unnecessary exceptions being applied for the Church of England.

I’m not convinced the Church of England actually wants this exception, other than perhaps as a means of avoiding a fraught internal wrangling on the issue against which the battle for gender equality would pale into insignificance.  I hope that, in addition to liberals across the political spectrum standing up for real religious freedom, many Anglicans also join the fight for freedom from government interference.  Already I have spoken to a number of Anglican Christians, none of which welcome today’s announcement at all and suggest Miller has made a catastrophic mistake.

Among them is the Very Rev Kelvin Holdsworth, the Provost of St Mary’s Cathedral in Glasgow, who urges his colleagues in the Church of England to “refuse to [conduct] any weddings until there is equality.”  In his blog he urges them to “put a ban on banns. The time is coming for you to stop doing weddings. Once the new legislation is passed, if your denomination cannot or will not opt in then the time has come for you to stand up for what’s right. If you support equality, do something about it and show us what you are made of.

I agree with Kelvin.  If the Church of England hopes to regain its relevance and role at the heart of British society it must heed his advice.  It must also take on those within its midst who, in their misguided evangelical piety, actually destroy the very thing they claim to be so determined to save.  But it must go further still – in the words of former Bishop John Spong, “reformers cannot just tilt against the windmills of antiquity.  They must develop new visions, propose new models, chart new solutions.”  Within those new visions must be a new inclusiveness, in which all people – gay and straight, religious and atheist, can feel welcome and accepted in a church that actively reaches into our communities and whose desire to help forge a new interconnected and all-embracing society resonates with the public.

That, of course, is a matter for the Church of England.  A matter in which I have interest, but a matter for the church and for the church alone nonetheless.  A matter in which government ministers would be wise not to meddle with simply to appease a few loose cannons on the Tory backbenches or to reinforce historic privilege on the part of the Church of England.

And so while there was much to be pleased about in today’s announcement, we cannot rest on our laurels and wallow in smug self-satisfaction in what we as Liberal Democrats have achieved.  Indeed, the fight is not over however substantial those achievements are.  We must continue to press for real, full and unconditional equality and (as my party membership card reminds me) the creation of a liberal society - something that doesn’t seem to feature in Maria Miller’s thinking.  

Monday, 3 December 2012

Do the Liberal Democrats have a political future?

This is a slightly extended version of an article I wrote for Better Nation, naturally focusing on the Scottish party.  It is shared here in the hope that many of my fellow Liberal Democrats will engage in the debate.  

This question has inevitably been asked following the party’s poor performance in last week’s by-elections – most notably in Rotherham where the Liberal Democrats finished in eighth place with two per cent of the vote.

What results from Middlesbrough, Croydon North and Rotherham actually tell us about the Liberal Democrats is minimal.  These are constituencies where Liberal Democrats never did well, even in the supposedly good times.  Middlesbrough (and its predecessor constituency Middlesbrough East) has not returned a non-Labour MP since 1931.  The same is true of Rotherham.   Croydon has been Labour held since 1992.  That Labour won comfortably should not be remotely surprising.

That hasn’t stopped many in the media predicting the imminent death of the Liberal Democrats.  The Daily Telegraph has claimed Rotherham to be the worst ever result for a major political party, clearly forgetting Inverclyde - a constituency in which we had controlled the council until 2007.  Nigel Farage has joined them, making the grandiose claim that UKIP are now the “third force” of British politics, himself conveniently forgetting the various nationalist parties or Respect, the one-man party that has been able to do on multiple occasions what UKIP never have: win a parliamentary seat.

It has been quite astonishing to see how the media have bought into UKIP’s spin.  What these by-elections have shown is that UKIP is never likely to become any kind of force in domestic politics, third or otherwise. They are not the SDP.  Rotherham was certainly a by-election they could and should have won.  The former MP stepped down in disgrace, his reputation and that of his local party in tatters.  This, combined with the child adoption scandal and virtually anonymous and poorly-resourced local Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties, gave UKIP a real chance of making a breakthrough.   

The Independent claimed that UKIP was now “within touching distance of mainstream politics” on the basis of securing 22 per cent of the vote in a single constituency.  George Galloway must be positively an establishment figure by that logic.  If the result says much at all, it is that voters in Rotherham prefer authoritarian parties.  It suggests very little that should lead portions of the media to make claims for our impending political death.

Undeniably the result was spectacularly poor from a Liberal Democrat perspective.  But what it doesn’t actually do is tell us anything we didn’t know previously.  Clearly we are no longer the beneficiaries of public anger towards the establishment, as we are now very much part of it.  The identity as a “none of the above” party, which to an extent the Liberal Democrats have been responsible for cultivating, has been consigned to history – with protest votes now going to various parties perceived as best placed to overthrow the incumbent party.  Certainly that role we sought for ourselves has now been usurped.  But these by-election results do not reveal this to us, they merely underline an already obvious reality.

The media are right about one thing, and that is that the Liberal Democrats are in mortal danger. The Scottish parliamentary elections and the local elections across the UK have demonstrated a pattern, which shows little sign of being reversed.  Not only is the party suffering electorally, it has been struggling for cultural and political relevance particularly in Scotland.  A growing insecurity is becoming evident in the public words of some of our key parliamentarians.  But that danger is not that we will be wiped out electorally; it is, rather, the very real risk that the Liberal Democrats and the liberalism at our heart may be reduced to a marginalised irrelevance dwelling on the periphery of British, and Scottish, politics.

John Curtice has estimated that, in 2015, the Liberal Democrats will be reduced to 15 MPs.  Using data from all elections since 2010, I calculated a figure of 23 – i.e. 1992 levels.  In constituencies where we are the Conservatives’ closest rivals, or they are ours, we look set to do well.  That may not appear too disastrous until we consider the implications for the Liberal Democrats in Scotland: both Professor Curtice and myself have a single Scottish Lib Dem MP surviving the potential massacre – Alistair Carmichael.

The reasons we find ourselves in this position are numerous, and more complex than mere association with the Westminster coalition – although that certainly has contributed to the scale of the problem.  Inflexible and outdated campaigning methods, financial difficulties, a lack of distinctiveness on policy matters and leadership whose message struggled to resonate with the public all contributed to some degree to the disastrous Holyrood election results.  The SNP’s slick, professional and ruthlessly effective campaign further highlighted our deficiencies.  Since then, there has been little evidence– in spite of positive rhetoric and a few good performances from Willie Rennie in FMQs – that we are capable of turning this around.

Part of our problem in Scotland is inevitably the coalition and therefore in looking to the future we must look beyond 2015.  Whatever realpolitik demanded of Nick Clegg following the indecisive 2010 General Election, it was obvious that there would be significant ramifications for Liberal Democrats in Scotland – where any relationship with the Conservatives would inevitably be construed as treachery.  How long this perception will endure is uncertain, but it is not necessarily irreversible.  Accepting that a significant setback is likely in 2015 and building for the years beyond is far from the worst approach the party in Scotland could take.  It would certainly be preferable to the fierce defensiveness we’ve seen to date.

The best way for the Liberal Democrats to ensure they have a future is by demonstrating the need for a strong liberal party in the heart of politics.  In the last few weeks, issues such as secret courts and media freedom and shown how vital it is that liberal voices make themselves heard.  I, for one, have been impressed by Nick Clegg on these matters.  Of course, what impresses me as a party activist does not necessarily have similar effects on the public but championing an active, vibrant liberalism, especially in relation to issues of public liberty, is likely to be far more effective in recreating our social relevance than endless defence of participation in government.

Part of our problem is that only around eleven per cent of people identify themselves as liberal.  In a sense we have electorally overperformed for decades, persuading many to vote for us in spite of – rather than because of – our liberal credentials.  Populist positions on such things as the Iraq War and Higher Education funding have in the past helped to take our appeal beyond the philosophically liberal but we cannot rely on such issues in the future.  But the truth is that people identified less with our policies than they did with our character.  We were the nice guys of politics.  We cared.  We could be a bit of a gadfly party at times, but that was part of the appeal.  Moreover, we could be trusted. So, while proving ourselves to be the authentic voice of liberal democracy is necessary we also have to find new ways of reaching out to those who at one time would have willingly supported us.  We have to speak their language, invest in the issues that concern them and show we’re listening.  We have to find ways to show we can still be trusted.  As Boris Johnson has done so successfully, we must also learn how convince people that we actually like them.  It's quite simple, but if we don't like them why should they like us?

What we must avoid is becoming inward looking, focusing on our own pet projects such as PR, Lords Reform or federalism.  Naturally, I believe in all of those but recognise two things: they are all virtually unachievable and very few voters are enthused by them.  While Liberal Democrats are wildly excited by the federalist ambitions of the Home Rule Commission, neither the public nor the media are particularly interested and the former seem not to understand our position at all – something not made clearer by identification with Better Together.  And of course the “debate” on federalism and Home Rule was an internal one, relating to but never engaging with Scottish voters. We must reconnect with voters, and in doing so must utilise our best assets: parliamentarians such as Charles Kennedy and Jo Swinson who are more popular individually than the party as a whole.  Alistair Carmichael and Mike Crockart similarly are highly personable MPs whose profiles and inate humanity should be more effectively used for the party's betterment.

Neither can we afford to be backward looking.  The past is the only dead thing that smells sweet, and never more so than when the road ahead is both rocky and steep.  Instead of clinging onto what has worked for us before, we must open ourselves to new possibilities; new ways of thinking and doing.  We must change or die.  We have to relinquish the stifling attitudes that hold us back, based as they are on the politics of a different era.  Instead, as a party the Liberal Democrats should step boldly into a new era - an era in which many of the definitions of the past are up for discussion and reformulation.  That does not mean abandoning who we are as liberals; it means redefining and representing that liberalism to appeal to the needs of an ever-evolving world.  We have a choice between the stultification of the past (with its stale ideas and entrenched prejudices) and a fresh, invigorating air of the future.  

We have to create a new identity for ourselves.  That of "a party of government" is woefully inadequate given that continuing in government is not only not guaranteed but looking increasingly unlikely and that, here in Scotland, we've been relegated to the ranks of minor opposition.  But similarly we cannot return to our former identity as a repository for protest votes or as a home for those with a dislike of the political establishment.  Neither can we be the anti-Tory Labour-lite party of the 1980s and 1990s.  We must ditch that and change our language and campaigning strategy accordingly.  We must create a new identity while retaining our core purpose of facilitating a liberal society.

We also need to become the party of what we're right about.  That sounds easy doesn't it?  Too easy.  But it's true: where might the cause of federalism now be if we had championed it with more enthusiasm in the last two decades?  And on the issues on which we've been consistently right - the European Union, human rights, immigration, LGBT rights, civil liberties, and the environment - why don't we allow ourselves to be more closely associated with what are, after all, good liberal policies?  Admittedly there's political risk in championing a fit-for-purpose EU against the backdrop of anti-EU rhetoric, as there is also on several of these issues.  But it is a risk worth taking - I for one would rather us be the party of Europe with a distinctive and positive vision than a party afraid to admit to our pro-European credentials.  We have to be intellectually honest to ourselves and the voting public.

We also need to re-assert our identity as the party of localism.  Not the near nimbyist localism so often associated with the party, but a radical new liberal localism, an empowering and dynamic localism.  In rebuilding the party we must avoid unnecessary emphasis on the party institution, instead promoting a new politics of inclusivism and pluralism, harnessing the energies of those outside of party politics such as charities, independent organisations, trade unions and businesses.  A new realignment if you will, based not on tribal allegiances and prejudices but on a progressive, more collaborative basis for political conversation.

The Liberal Democrats’ problems are legion, but that does not mean the party has no future.  Much depends on Willie Rennie, and on the degree to which he can set his own agenda.  He will realise that if he can personally regain the trust of Scottish voters, so too will his party.  He will need no reminder of the importance of asserting our liberal credentials at every opportunity, but perhaps struggles to see new opportunities to reach out.  That sounds like a criticism, but isn’t – it’s the inevitable consequence of a tired campaigning mechanism and inheriting a party banished to the periphery of Scottish politics. 

I'm not advocating resuscitating a dead party.  For a start, we are far from dead.  What I am suggesting is that we embrace the radical reformation that will be required if we are to become anything more than an irrelevant relic of a once vibrant liberal movement.  We must, in the first instance, move beyond the narrow base of what has become established thinking - particularly in regards policy and campaigning.  The party has to be released from the straightjacket of conformity - something both The Orange Book and Nick Clegg have attempted to do, with varying degrees of success.

That of course is only a first step.  But without that first step we cannot embark on the exhilarating journey into the future.

The Liberal Democrats have to demonstrate that the party is relevant.  A few poor by-election results will then be insignificant.  We need those distinctive, honest and trusted voices to again make themselves heard.  We must re-engage and revitalise our party if we are to have any future at all. We have to dare to be different.  We must again be that gadfly party.