Where is the "liberal" in "Better Together"?

To say I'm not the most committed devotee of Better Together, the official campaign opposed to independence, is something of an understatement.

This has not, however, stemmed from a personal position that is diametrically opposed to Better Together's principal objective. For many years I had advocated a referendum, imagining that I would probably vote "no". After all I am a federalist, not a nationalist. I had hoped any referendum on Scotland's constitutional future would be framed - to some degree - by the Liberal Democrats' policies and proposals for further empowering the Scottish Parliament and introducing a federalist settlement for the wider UK.

The opportunity to have the debate on our own terms evaporated in 2011 with the SNP's majority victory, although the reluctance to even entertain the notion of a referendum was a product of the mistaken belief that such a result was an impossibility. It is in this context that Better Together should be judged - rather than making a case, the terms of the debate are such that they will necessarily be forced respond to the SNP/Yes Scotland proposals. This was inevitable; however, in doing so they have surrendered their responsibility to make "the positive case for the Union" and instead wholeheartedly adopted the negative tactics of cynical opposition.

It did not have to be this way though, although the early signs were far from promising. In January 2012, I asked why the Liberal Democrats would wish to be associated with a campaign choosing to adopt a negative and unnecessarily adversarial strategy: "the danger is we could sink without trace, overshadowed by the main parties and an intemperate debate we can't possibly hope to influence. The Lib Dems have the opportunity to stand aside from the hideous, shallow spectacle of political immaturity and articulate something more reasonable, more sensible, more liberal..."

The Better Together approach has been pretty consistent in the intervening two and a half years. It has been embarrassing, not to mention frustrating, to see Liberal Democrat friends adopting a near uncritically supportive stance as far as Better Together is concerned.  Unquestioningly reposting BT materials on facebook and twitter, irrespective of how disrespectful, ill-informed or divisive they could be, has been alarmingly common. Many jumped to the defence of Ian Taylor in a way they never would for Brian Souter. Others have relentlessly defended the indefensible, with the tired line that "it's not negative to ask questions of the SNP".

We've even heralded the wisdom of a former chancellor who, only a few short years ago,  was being reduced to a blithering bundle of nerves on the floor of the Commons by Vince Cable.

The inescapable fact is that the "No" campaign has never seriously attempted to be anything but negative. You might argue that it's a sound strategy, but it's wrong to deny the reality. If, however, it was only the negativity of Better Together that was an issue, I'd probably have less of an issue with Liberal Democrat involvement.

As I predicted - and it gives me no pleasure to be proved correct - we have lost our voice entirely. Aside from a vague and rather meaningless commitment to greater powers for Holyrood from the three Better Together parties, we've been very much a party on the periphery. That's not to say that many of our members have not been tireless activists, but that our distinctive liberal message has not been communicated. It was always going to be this way.

If you want to see what Better Together is about, consider their slogans, messages and broadcasts. We have the "UK OK" catchphrase - stunning in its reinforcement of the mediocre nature of the Union. Then there are its messages - focused on personalities, dismissing SNP ideas rather than advocating any of their own, demanding answers while providing none, and often resorting to undignified and juvenile asides (e.g. "Alex Salmond is a big fearty") - usually playing the man and not the ball. As for broadcasts - and they have been of one standard throughout (shall we say they are not in the same league as the SDP party-political broadcasts?) - let's take a look at the latest work of genius which neatly encapsulates everything that is wrong with the campaign.

For those who haven't seen it, fortunately YouTube is on hand to preserve the evidence. It was so unconsciously patronising and sexist, that it has led to the former convenor of the Scottish Lib Dems, Sandra Grieve, announcing she will vote "Yes". Grieve, who was also a member of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, referred to the broadcast as "the straw that broke the camel's back...but I've been increasingly uncomfortable with what I experience as a condescending smugness from Better Together." Former Lib Dem MSP Margaret Smith also attacked it, slamming the portrayal of a woman "who didn't know the name of Scotland's first minister and left all her political thinking for her husband to do." It certainly was both sexist and condescending. But it was also amateurish, devoid of any conviction, shockingly old-fashioned, unimaginative, confused, immature and with little regard to what actually might happen after September 18th. In short, it is an epitome of everything Better Together is. Another Lib Dem member branded Better Together "No2AV all over again", although No2AV were a far superior and more professional campaigning outfit.

I was encouraged to see many Lib Dems speak out against this foolish broadcast. It isn't hard to see why people who have given so much to a campaign are disappointed when that campaign produces backward-looking and illiberal material like this. And yet what is more disturbing is that this is simply typical of what Better Together has become. There is nothing faintly liberal about its message or its philosophy. It promises nothing that a liberal can take pride in. It has not even given our party a platform from which our own distinctive vision can be communicated. It is more than disappointing that there has been such little opposition from Liberal Democrats to the way Better Together does business until recently, when it is evidently too late to reconsider our involvement.

Many criticise our party for "selling our soul" in order to enter coalition. Whatever the truth behind that claim, at least we have gained something from coalition. It is very difficult to see what we have gained in practice from association with the tribalism, negativity and opportunism of our Labour and Conservative counterparts in the "no" camp - and we have most certainly exchanged our "soul". For what? For a dysfunctional Unionism we claim not to believe in? I understand why many Lib Dems may vote to retain the Union, but I genuinely fail to see how it has been to our advantage to align ourselves so completely with this unholy alliance.

Many Liberal Democrats have served Better Together well; perhaps too well. But it has not served the interests of our party. As the polarising debate has become ever more toxic, adversarial and personal we've found ourselves being drawn into it; even defending the kinds of politics we would have at other times considered an affront to democratic conversation.

There is nothing inherently "liberal" about Better Together. It is, at best, an embarrassingly backward-looking organisation with little innovation on the campaigning front and even less in the way of original ideas for creating the kind of Scotland in which we all might want to live. Better Together has stated that Scottish voters will have to justify how they vote to future generations of Scots, and they are quite right in this regard. Personally, however, I'm more concerned with having to explain to future Scottish liberals why our party so slavishly supported a regressive - and, frankly, illiberal - campaign to the detriment of much we aspire to.


Anonymous said…
The only liberal in BT is in illiberal. Bank rolled by the rich & privileged trying to protect the system that serves them & pays them well, they cannot see they are defending the indefensible (in terms of supporting attempts to change it for the better of the people- both inside and away from the UK)
Ian said…
Well said.