Leadership defeats pro-change rebels at Scottish conference

A few weeks ago I put together a draft topical motion with Derek Young on the issue of the party’s position on a second question in the independence referendum. My motivation for doing this was primarily to ensure that this issue is debated rather than being decided for the members by the party leadership. I was also concerned that the Scottish Liberal Democrats can campaign positively during the independence referendum, that we seize the best opportunity in decades to achieve our vision for a constitutional settlement and simultaneously ensure that the Home Rule Commission has some purpose other than cynical opposition to the SNP.

Unfortunately our proposed motion didn’t receive the required number of signatures but, by fortune, Denis Mollison of East Lothian successfully managed to submit a topical motion that made it onto the conference agenda. Denis’s motion was more direct and perhaps less comprehensive than ours, but it made the same fundamental points as well as raising the issue of extending the electorate to include those aged 16 and 17. The motion called on the Lib Dem leadership to "to engage with the Scottish Government so as to get the option of Home Rule included in the referendum in a fair way” as well as to run a "positive campaign in favour" of this and to support the Scottish Government in seeking to enfranchise 16 and 17-year-olds. Hardly revolutionary, you would think, and not likely to offend.

Senior figures within the party were perfectly aware of the importance of this motion, which is why so many of them made reference to the importance of not having a second question in their contributions in the conference hall. There can be little doubt that they were anxious to persuade delegates to reject both the motion and the thinking behind it and ultimately they were successful. I have to say that myself and a number of other party members find the refusal to countenance a second question as illogical and tactically naive. I would go further: it’s also a wasted opportunity which will have tragic consequences for the party. Furthermore, it’s indicative of political attitudes whose basis is very firmly in the past; prejudices and mindsets born in a different era that not only keep us looking backwards but prevent us from looking positively towards the future.

According to The Herald, Denis (who is a professor emeritus in Applied Probability) “claimed the party would pay a heavy price for insisting on a straight yes or no to independence” and warned of the “danger of being dragged into negativity". A timely contribution, but one which was seized on and ridiculed by senior Lib Dems.

Scottish president Malcolm Bruce exposed some of the collective thinking and motivations of the leadership when he claimed the motion was a “naive response”. The reason for this? “Alex Salmond is the most brutal, cynical manipulator in British politics” he explained "You would be playing into the hands of Salmond, handing him a get out of jail free card. He loses this referendum, he goes. Do we want him to stay?" And so, this is what the debate is really about in the minds of those leading our party. It’s not about facilitating a progressive liberal settlement, but about Alex Salmond. Bruce and others are so obsessed with Salmond and his party, so stinted by resentment, bitterness and intolerance that their energies are entirely concentrated on defeating the SNP leader. How pitiful. I was clearly right when I said in November that the unfortunate cartoon was suggestive of an almost pathological dislike of the SNP: “the whole tone of what the party leadership is saying [is misguided and self-destructive]: we’re so anti-SNP, so cynically negative and so focused on targeting the First Minister personally that it’s no surprise the public aren’t attracted to our broader message.” The cartoon was simply an indicator of a misplaced logic that seems to have taken hold over senior Lib Dems as well as our campaigning strategy; what is worse is that in spite of the problem being highlighted little has been done to remedy it.

The Herald indicates that Bruce’s other contributions included comparing Scotland to a host of other nations including “South Sudan, Republic Srpska, South Ossetia, Kashmir, Basque Region, Catalonia, Chechnya, Greenland, North Cyprus, Transnistria... Do we really want the world to break up into a growing list of tiny countries nursing their grievances through the international community” I don’t see the point he’s making, unless it’s the predictable and tired argument that Scotland is ill-prepared to take care of its own destiny. Of course it may be that he is suggesting these areas claims to self-determination is questionable. Either way, the comparison is both flawed and facile in addition to being loaded with ill-disguised prejudice. If Scotland can be compared to other areas of the world, I’d suggest Luxembourg, Belgium, Moldova, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Austria, Liechtenstein, Montenegro, Slovenia and Slovakia. Those countries are either small or emergent and have their own problems, but are hardly “nursing their grievances through the international community” and there is no reason to suggest an independent Scotland would be any different.

Bruce went on to insist that it would be wrong to go down the independence route as it would disassociate Scotland from “UK institutions such as the BBC, the World Service and the Department of International Development which employs 500 people in Scotland.” Another simplistic argument, and one that doesn’t convince on any level although what this has to do with a second question on the referendum ballot, I’ve no idea.

If Bruce’s words had been misadvised and unhelpful, blinded by intolerance towards the SNP, worse was to follow in the form of Alan Reid, MP for Argyll and Bute. He compared Salmond to Stalin, insisting that “it's not who votes that counts, but who counts the votes." You don’t have to be an SNP supporter to find that one offensive. Again, this had little to do with the actual motion and everything to do with historic attitudes towards the SNP. When, in my predictions for the year, I stated that “most Scottish Lib Dems will continue to suffer from Tourette's Syndrome whenever the word ‘independence’ is whispered”, I was of course joking. But there’s a serious underlying truth that has been exposed by Bruce, Reid and others. Just as Godwin’s Law dictates that as an online discussion grows, so the probability of a comparison to Nazism approaches, my observations (let’s call them Page’s Law) have determined that as Scottish Liberal Democrats discuss anything openly, so the probability of inappropriately hostile references to Alex Salmond is vastly increased.

Fortunately there were some saner voices. Galen Milne noted that in preventing a second question the party would be "denying people the chance to vote in favour of something which a majority support." Denis, in summary, stated his desire for the party to " adopt a positive, distinctive position. Refusing to accept a second question on Home Rule is cutting off our nose to spite our face." He also reiterated "the party's long-standing commitment to Home Rule and a federal UK, the only major party in Scotland with such commitments". But it has little effect, with conference voting to approve a self-defeating campaign of negative and cynical opposition to the SNP rather than an opportunity to set out a distinctive vision for Scotland’s future that is as far removed from the unionism of the Labour and Conservative parties as it is the SNP’s nationalism. What has essentially been done is to ally the party into an anti-independence alliance with the Tories and Labour in the vain hope we will be able to persuade the SNP to do what our five MSPs want in the event of Scottish electors voting “no”. Now, Mr Bruce, that is naive.

This approach is flawed for several reasons. Firstly, it undermines the Home Rule Commission. The findings of this commission will be announced in the near future, but there will be no framework for putting them into place; any positive action from the Liberal Democrats now being dependent on a negative outcome in the referendum. Opposition to a second question has not only deprived us of the one meaningful opportunity to realise our aims, it has also rendered us and the Commission itself impotent.

Secondly, the idea that a defeat in the independence referendum will render the SNP and Alex Salmond dead in the water is wildly optimistic. Salmond’s popularity has not stemmed from his championing of independence but has occurred in spite of it. The notion of the SNP becoming a spent force if the verdict of the voters goes against it is an ill-conceived one. There is no doubt that such an outcome would create serious problems for the SNP, but there is no reason to suspect that it would signal the death of the party. On the other hand, a victory in the referendum for Alex Salmond would expose deeper questions for his party to answer and, with the SNP having fulfilled its raison d’etre and questioning its purpose and political future, there would surely be opportunities for the Scottish Liberal Democrats in an independent Scotland.

Thirdly, in allying ourselves with the Tories and Labour we have ensured that our voice, comparatively small but ideologically distinct, will not be heard. We will be perceived simply as a minor and rather insignificant partner in a coalition of negativity.

Fourthly, if the party had agreed to accept a second question, we could have campaigned distinctly for a settlement that the majority of Scots broadly agree with. There is little doubt that, should the initial question of independence be rejected, the alternative pro-change option would carry the day. The argument that independence must first be defeated before such change can be achieved is therefore nonsensical. There is, however, absolutely no reason for believing that the kind of change we want will ever be offered to Scots people in a referendum again. If the Lib Dems genuinely believe that a “no” vote will crush the SNP – what hopes are there that Labour and the Conservatives will work with us? If not, why should the SNP want to work with us? And the “vitally important influence of Lib Dems at Westminster” that Willie Rennie puts so much trust in (something he revealed during the bloggers’ interview) is not something that can be depended on post 2015.

Fifthly, the Scottish Liberal Democrats have wildly overestimated their influence if they honestly feel that, having got the independence question out of the way, we can then embrace the opportunity to facilitate the further devolution we want. It’s arrogant to state that we will work with the SNP, but only after their plans have been frustrated. That’s not pluralism. But that’s not my principal objection. The real flaw in this thinking is that we fail to recognise we are a party of five MSPs and will be until at least 2016 – and even then we cannot be sure of a kinder verdict from the voters. If we were the Labour Party then I’d accept there’s a chance this tactic could work. But we simply lack the numbers, or the ability to positively influence the other parties, to ensure that our vision is even taken seriously, let alone implemented.

What has happened is that the cause of Home Rule has been dealt a fatal blow by those claiming to champion it.

I cannot support the status quo. I will not defend it, because it is not worth defending. And yet there appears to be no realistic, liberal alternative on the horizon other than independence. It is foolish to talk of opportunities post-2014, not least because those opportunities are now dependent on the negative outcome to the referendum the Liberal Democrats have committed themselves to campaigning for. There is no guarantee that the recommendations of the Home Rule Commission, or the views of the party membership as a whole, will ever make it onto a ballot form, or will even form the basis of cross-party talks for Scotland’s future.

And so, I will be voting for the most liberal option on the ballot form – independence. I have come to believe in it not so much from a conviction that it is the best option for Scotland but that it is the best achievable outcome. I know there are Liberal Democrats who think similarly and are bitterly disappointed that an alternative pro-change option, supporting the kind of positive alternative they believe in, has been denied to them.

Unfortunately, it seems that the party leadership cares little for the views of such people, including Professor Mollison, motivated instead by its suspicion and intolerance of the SNP and Alex Salmond in particular. This episode reveals many things – the inflexible attitudes of senior Lib Dems, the willingness of the party membership to follow obediently, the lack of a sound strategy for achieving our professed objectives and a failure to grasp the unique opportunities we have been provided. But most importantly of all it demonstrates that the party has no idea where it is going – other than to do its utmost to defeat the “Yes” campaign of which I will be a dedicated supporter.


Anonymous said…
Excellently put, Andrew.
The speeches by Malcolm Bruce & Alan Reid were depressing to hear. To think my parents used to rave about Malcolm & David Steel- but clearly that was a long time ago!
I am now looking forward to working with a broad church in achieving a Yes vote.
Malcolm MacInnes
Thomas Widmann said…
I used to be a member of the LibDems, too, but last year similar thoughts to yours made me resign from the party and join the SNP instead.
I could have stayed in a liberal party that was campaigning for devo-max and was willing to discuss the merits of independence, but the LibDem leadership's unwavering commitment to Unionism was simply unacceptable to me.
Anyway, I'm actually much happier as an SNP member, and I just wish I had made the change sooner.
Sandy Miller said…
Andrew I have many views that I share with Liberals and would like to congratulate you on your very brave stand.
Independence should be seen not as a destination but as a launch pad for the sort of Scotland we want to see and I am sure you will play a part in this.
Good to see such a positive view of Scotland"s future.

Sandy Miller
Fourfolksache said…
As I have said to you before Andrew I thought Liberals were like you! We now know differently and I have to say people like Malcolm Bruce who was previously held in high regard will now be seen as the worst form of opportunist. You are lucky that the media are so anti SNP - otherwise these remarks would be headline stuff.
How can you stay loyal to these people. They are a disgrace to Scotland. Home Rule party? What a joke!
Dubbieside said…

It must now be clear that you are not a Rennie/Bruce/Reid Lib Dem. This party has left you.

Never has one man so dominated Scottish politics, both Labour and the Lib Dem conferences were dominated by Alex Salmond.

This may play well to some people actually in the hall, but I seem to remember the purpose of a party conference was to put forward ideas and arguments that would encourage more people to join and vote for partys based on what they heard.

How many people will rush to join the respective partys after this weekends efforts? The rush may be the other way.

Time for you to move on. Time to join the only progressive party in Scotland. Once Scotland is independent a truly Scottish Liberal party may emerge, but the way the Lib Dems are going at the moment 5 MSPs may be seen as "the good old days"

P.S. If I had compared Rennie to Stalin would that have made me another of those nasty cybernats? Is it ok when speaking from a conference platform? Welcome to the new Lib Dems.
Anonymous said…
I think you're missing the point- it is far better for the YES campaign to be a broad church encompassing supporters from all political parties & none.
As Willie Rennie has already confirmed LD members can campaign for a YES vote (although he would rather they didn't), that is the best way LD members can contribute. Clearly they would have no alternative if threatened with expulsion & that may turn out to be the case with some other parties.
Malcolm MacInnes
JPJ2 said…
Andrew-thanks for your accurate analysis.

As an SNP member I would, of course, be happy to welcome you to our ranks.

However, if you have the time (I don't doubt your courage) to pursue it, an organised grouping of Liberal Democrats favouring independence could contribute much to the achievement of independence.
Macart said…
Mr Page, I admire a man who wears thick socks, a tin hat and let's people know what he actually thinks. A fine dissection of the current Lib Dem position on home rule. I agree with Sandy Miller above, I also see independence as a start, not an end and am totally confused by the Lib Dem stance on the ballot. This is possibly a once in a lifetime chance for major constitutional change and you would think that all options should be on the table?
BIG AL said…
I think you should leave the LD and come and join us in the SNP. I have voted LD for most of my life (65 yr old) until they jumped into bed with the Tories. That was the end for me and now seeing Clegg and Alexander cuddling up to Dave and Co makes mr vomit! Comeon, the LD are finished, come and join a winning party, you wouldn't be disappointed!!
Andrew said…
Sorry it's taken me so long to respond to you all!

Malcolm - I hope the "Yes" campaign is a broad church because despite what some would like the public to think the debate is about more than the SNP. As for Bruce, I must confess to having had huge respect for him (I still do) but these comments were disgraceful. Steel I'm sure was worth raving about in his time but the party has moved on and in some respects not for the better.

Thomas - I appreciate many former Lib Dem members and supporters are now among the ranks of the SNP. And I understand why. Unfortunately the leadership don't seem to. Unionism doesn't sit well with me and for all the protestations that we're a federalist party we don't behave like one.

Sandy - thanks very much. Of course independence is only a destination - a stepping stone to what I hope will be a farirer and more liberal Scottish society. I've never been one for seeing independence as a desirable end in itself - but when you think what Scotland could do with that freedom...!

Fourfolksache - suffice to say that if we are seriously a Home Rule Party we are seriously misguided in how we're trying to achieve those objectives.

Dubieside - I was appalled by those comments. It makes Rennie's complaints about cybernats seem hypocritical. I don't wish to be associated with a party whose senior figures behave in this way (and it genuinely saddens me that they do). I understand your logic and there may well be a time when I accept your argument and change allegiance but I'm biding my time. I'm still a liberal and nothing the anyone else within the party does will change that. For the time being I think I'm better advised to remain within the Lib Dems as a voice calling for change - I think I'm needed more in this party than I am in the SNP!

Malcolm - I can't see the Lib Dems expelling people like myself. There are others too saying such things, albeit a small minority (including Denis). So long as we're welcome and our voice not suppressed I'll happily join the "broad church" you speak of without feeling the need to hand back my membership card. However, there may be other reasons why I may decide to resign my membership!

JPJ2 - I've looked into this, ad have so far set up a facebook group as a starting point to gauge support and lay the foundations. We'll see where it leads.

Macart - indeed, it is an opportunity - it's tragically sad that most Liberal Democrats can't see past Alex Salmond and grasp what opportunities a second ballot question would provide to our party.

Big Al - As said before, I might. I'm not averse to being persuaded. But I have no intentions of leaving just yet, preferring to fight for the cause of liberalism from within the Liberal Democrats. I'm sure I would not be disappointed in the SNP but I'm a philosophical liberal, not a nationalist.
Dubbieside said…

I do not think anyone who reads your blog would think you were anything other than a philosophical liberal. I think that the point most of us are making is that your party have left you, not the other way round.

When I was canvassing in the old mining areas in Fife prior to May 2011 I was amazed and obviously well please by the amount of old miners who told me "I did not leave Labour son (Im 65 by the way), they left me" There are obvious parallels with the Lib Dems.

Can you really foresee the party ever becoming either Liberal or democratic any-time soon?
Unknown said…

You seem to be basing your argument on a very flimsy report in the Herald.

I was there at the debate, and at the whole Conference. You could barely go for five minutes without some Cabinet minister or senior party figure talk about the need for more powers for the Scotland, for home rule, where we get to decide our own affairs as well as, as Willie Rennie puts it, sharing the risks and rewards of the UK.

I speak as someone who's preferred option is a good way beyond the status quo - somewhere between Devo Plus and Devo Max and want to see that become a reality. I share that position with I'd venture to say most people in the party, including our leaders. I interviewed Mike Moore last year and he was very clear that the Scotland Bill was only a staging post. The process of bringing more powers to Scotland would continue.

I initially wanted to see a second question on the ballot paper, but I have been persuaded by the arguments not just advanced by Willie Rennie, although he started it by getting Alex Salmond's office to admit (in what was a huge tactical blunder by them) that a 51% vote for independence would trump a 99% vote for Devo Max. You have to take into account people like Matt Qvortrup who say that a two question referendum could bring about an inconclusive result. There is a huge danger in allowing that to happen. We could end up in a very destructive place if that happens - and what worries me is that a small group of people might turn violent in disputing the result. We could end up being independent on something like 34% of the vote which isn't a great place to be.

I think that we need to settle independence first and at the same time set out a way how we're going to get to the more powers, enshrining it in Westminster legislation if necessary. There is more than one way of skinning that cat.

The Herald didn't capture the quality of that debate with thoughtful contributions from people like Katy Gordon who made much the same points as I have (on about a minute's preparation after very little sleep).

Alan Reid was not comparing Alex Salmond to Stalin. He was quoting one thing that Stalin said about the conduct of elections. Don't make it into something it wasn't.

We can achieve many greater powers and we should set our stall out about how we're going to do it. Putting it on the independence referendum ballot paper would be wrong, though. Clearly any future plan would have to have the endorsement of the people, but the independence referendum should be about that alone.
Andrew said…
Dubbieside - I don't think my party have "left me" on many other vital issues. I have different views in respect to the constitutional question but there is far more to Scottish politics than the independence referendum. In a liberal party there will inevitably be differences of opinion. Willie Rennie himself accepts this on the independence issue and has placed no restrictions on party members campaigning for either "side". IF that changes then I may be forced to reconsider my alliegances but to date I accept that while my views are perfectly liberal they are a minority view within the party and it would not be liberal to impose that view onto others or consider those of different opinions to be "less liberal" than I am.

What does frustrate me is that the DEFAULT POSITION in this debate has been no second question, rather than how best to achieve our federalist aims and to gain the most for Scottish people. It seems also that both Lib Dems and Labour conferences have been dominated by Alex Salmond. And it's the fact that party members haven't really challenged this logic obviously that I find infuriating. If this debate hadn't been had, the leadership would have committed us to the chosen course in any case irrespective of our historic commitment to achieving a federalist settlement; at least now we've had something of a debate.

I understand the parallels with Labour. Perhaps I'm still too attached to the party to make the decision that you feel makes so much sense. Maybe. Perhaps I still hope for a liberal renaissance in which both I and the Liberal Democrats can be actively involved in facilitating.

I disagree with the leadership's (and now the party's) line on this. I think it's naive, negative and likely to prove politically costly. But I'm not intending to jump ship unless I think the Lib Dems no longer are the best standard bearers for the cause of the liberalism that matters far more to me than party interests. At the moment I'm inclined to give Willie Rennie the benefit of the doubt on that score.
Andrew said…
Hi Caron,

Thanks for replying. There is so much that is interesting in your reply!

First though – I am not basing my ARGUMENTS on anything in The Herald, although I agree to having obtained the factual data from the said newspaper which may or may not be 100% accurate. My arguments are based on my belief that this move is seriously short sighted and counter-productive in regards achieving what we claim to believe in.

As for “Cabinet ministers or senior party figures talking about the need for more powers for the Scotland” – yes, I’ve heard the same for as long as I remember. But never has there been such an opportunity to achieve it and in my view (and others’, let’s be blunt) we’ve squandered that opportunity. We are not the “guarantors of change” Willie refers to but have now become backseat drivers in a coalition of negative unionism. What guarantees do we have that our longed for change will ever be implemented? What is the basis for our faith that once independence is defeated these additional powers will be taken as granted? Cameron? Lamont? I don’t think we can have much faith in either.

I know roughly what your preferred option is. It’s the same with most members of our party, which makes the decision to side with the Labour and Tory parties in opposition to the SNP more frustrating. I’d rather we’d have had something positive to identify with and run with. For the Scotland Bill to be more than just the “staging post” Moore talks about we’d need either a legally binding referendum or some serious support for such change from other parties. To be honest I don’t see who our allies in this regard could be.

I’m interested that you’ve been PERSUADED by Willie of the benefits of putting aside the second question. I don’t accept that logic because the referendum is about independence, with an alternative option to be considered IF independence is rejected. It’s not choice between the two options. Using Willie’s argument is like suggesting that in 1997 a two-question referendum should have been opposed because 51% vote against devolution would trump a 99% vote in favour of tax-raising powers. It would have been facile to have argued that and we all can see it. The basis is the same though – the second question is only made relevant by the outcome of the first. That’s not a complicated thing to understand.

Willie is keen to point out the significance of Matt Qvortrup. He’s simply one academic. If you’re interested in the opinions of academics, I’d like to ask a few questions myself. What do you make of Professor Vernon Bogdanor’s argument that Devo Max SHOULD be included on the ballot form, and his criticism of Cameron whose “recent offer of undefined extra powers if Scotland rejects independence” were described as a "mystery prize"? Also, how many academics have openly supported the Liberal Democrats’ federalist proposals? Probably not as many as have historically backed other options, but that doesn’t render our blueprint valueless.

“That worries me is that a small group of people might turn violent in disputing the result.” I hope that doesn’t happen. There’s certainly no evidence basis for supposing that it will and we shouldn’t either suppose it or fear it. Positive campaigns generally don’t end in violence. “We could end up being independent on something like 34% of the vote which isn't a great place to be.” Indeed. But that has nothing to do with the second question and that problem isn’t resolved by its absence.

Andrew said…

I don’t think the independence debate needs to be settled first, and I actually think we’re missing a trick here. Now, how do we achieve “more powers”? We had a way of selling this to the Scottish public, of being able to campaign openly for something that would be achievable and guaranteed if the voters rejected independence but supported the second option. There is absolutely no need to defeat independence first, and we’ve lost a wonderful opportunity to turn the referendum into a much broader debate about Scotland’s constitutional and political future than the focus on the SNP’s vision for independence ever could.

“The Herald didn't capture the quality of that debate” – probabl;y not, although I’d suggest Reid and Bruce didn’t help the cause much. The media were always far more likely to focus on their contributions.
“Alan Reid was not comparing Alex Salmond to Stalin. He was quoting one thing that Stalin said about the conduct of elections. Don't make it into something it wasn't.” And what was the quote? ““it's not who votes that count, but who counts the vote." The implication is obvious and the sentiment behind it is offensive. It can not be justified. Anyone with a knowledge of history understands the context of that quotation and it was far from clever to use it. Why would a liberal wish to quote from Stalin when discussing the SNP - a party which, for all its shortcomings, I still see as a democratic party – if not to make a comparison? You can not defend this. By all means defend Malcolm Bruce if you agree with him and his emphasis on Salmond, but please don’t jump to Reid’s defence on this one. He knew what he was saying. Just like Powell knew what he was implying with his “Rivers of Blood” speech.

“We can achieve many greater powers and we should set our stall out about how we're going to do it. Putting it on the independence referendum ballot paper would be wrong, though. Clearly any future plan would have to have the endorsement of the people, but the independence referendum should be about that alone.” Well, on that I think we can amicably agree to disagree. I hope that independence is achieved, otherwise I imagine we will be subjected to decades of people like myself, frustrated by a lack of action on delivering further powers, taking every opportunity to remind you that we told you so (and I’d genuinely take no pleasure in that).