In a quite stunning and surprising development the Secretary of State for Scotland, Michael Moore, has been cast aside in favour of Alistair Carmichael, MP for Orkney and Shetland.
Magnanimous as ever, Moore stated that it had been a privilege to serve as Scottish Secretary “at a hugely important time” for Scottish politics and expressed gratitude for being able to articulate the case for Scotland remaining part of the Union.
Moore has had his critics, but many misunderstand the significant contribution he has made to the debate on Scotland’s constitutional future. Always a rational, reasoned voice, Moore’s balanced and measured approach has been precisely what has been needed. He has not been someone to resort to the politics of simplicity or petty tribalism; moreover, he has shown his political opponents respect and courtesy and has in the eyes of many (especially in Scotland) represented the more acceptable face of the coalition. Even an SNP member remarked to me quite recently how “fair minded” Moore was in his workings with the SNP.
I generally favour the political approach of the Michael Moores and the Nicola Sturgeons of the world rather than the Alex Salmonds and the David Camerons. I accept that’s a matter of personal taste. However, Moore’s record is largely positive. The Scotland Act was, in some key respects, deficient; nonetheless Moore deserves enormous credit for ensuring is passed as it did and on implementing some overdue reform. He also deserves recognition for the way in which he ensured that next year’s independence referendum would become a reality. Without him the Edinburgh Agreement would not have been achieved so amicably.
Moore was also a cleverer operator than he was often perceived. He was one of the rare people in recent years who grasped that attempting to target the First Minister personally or launch into misguided attacks on him were likely to prove counter-productive.
It is being widely speculated that the reason for ousting Moore is to have a more combative person in the role in the run-up to the 2014 referendum. If this is correct, then it is an immense misjudgement by a government that continues to present a lack of understanding on Scottish issues. There has been talk of this before (and speculation that Jo Swinson would be offered the role), for precisely the same reasons, and it is unfortunate that not only do Nick Clegg and David Cameron not see the value in a “safe pair of hands” but that they’re willing to take risks on a more confrontational approach.
It's hard to disagree with the New Statesman in its assessment of the situation: "Moore was a formidable opponent because his measured, moderate unionism was difficult for the nationalists to deal with. For no good reason at all, the no campaign has just dumped one of its strongest cards." Unfortunately, it seems that many Liberal Democrats are oblivious to this.
Axing Moore in order to adopt a more adversarial attitude towards the SNP and Yes Scotland could quite easily play into their hands. The only people who should be happy at this news will be the SNP. A more combative Secretary of State for Scotland will have the unintended effect of giving the “Yes” camp exactly what it wants – and I have no doubt they will use this to their advantage. It may also have the effect of further polarisation at a time when the “debate” needs to be more sober-minded and sensible, focused on engaging with and empowering the Scottish public.
It’s also very surprising that Alistair Carmichael has been moved from his position as chief whip. He’s had a tougher time than previous Lib Dem and Liberal whips, but must be admired for his openness with party members. He has been replaced in his former role by Don Foster, which is another unforeseen (but entirely merited) promotion.