Tavish Scott has taken responsibility for the heavy defeat that the Scottish Liberal Democrats suffered in the Holyrood election. His party’s seat tally plummeted from 16 to just 5 and across Scotland the Lib Dems lost their deposits in 25 constituencies after failing to secure above 5% of the vote. The significance of this political mauling is that the party has been consigned to the margins of Scottish politics for at least a generation.
Mr Scott, who was elected leader of the Lib Dem Holyrood group in August 2008, said: “I want to announce that I am resigning the leadership of the Scottish Liberal Democrats with immediate effect. Thursday’s Scottish general election result was disastrous and I must and do take responsibility for the verdict of the electorate.
Scots lost trust in Lib Dems
The first signs of disgruntlement between the Lib Dems and their Scottish members and supporters was when the party entered coalition with Labour in Holyrood and U-turned on an election pledge on student finance. This established in the minds of their supporters that as soon as the Lib Dems got near power their principles could be traded for influence.
The real damage was done though in 2007 when the party refused to form a majority government with Alex Salmond’s SNP. Many of their supporters feel closer to the SNP than their previous coalition partners Labour – a fact which was born out in this election when their lost support went en masse to the SNP. Having suffered a breach of trust on policy Scots then got the impression that the Lib Dems were run by London and that Scotland’s best interests were not being served by Tavish Scott’s party. This suspicion was then confirmed when the UK Lib Dems formed a coalition with the Conservatives at Westminster.
Further damage was done in terms of the Lib Dem’s role in the Scotland Bill. Former Depute First Minister Jim Wallace, as Scotland’s current Advocate General, had a clause quietly inserted in the Scotland Bill which threatens the centuries-long independence of Scots Law according to Elish Angiolini QC, Scotland’s Lord Advocate. Wallace (Baron Wallace of Tankerness) like former First Minister Jack McConnell now sits in the House of Lords and so Scottish eyes started to narrow as the idea spread that the Liberals would forget their loyalty to Scotland as the comforts of ermine and the trappings of the Lords lured them. The SNP has a policy that none of their members will take a seat in Westminster’s unelected chamber.
Before the last UK election Senior Lib Dems gave assurances that in coalition the Calman proposals would be fully implemented when the Scotland Bill went through the Westminster parliament. Leader of the Lib Dems’ Holyrood group Tavish Scott when asked if the proposals of the Calman Commission would be implemented in full he insisted: “Absolutely … no doubt”. It then emerged that powers were dropped or at best delayed from the Calman proposals, including air passenger duty, aggregates levy and the assignation of income tax yield from savings and distributions.
Although much of these moves went unnoticed by the electorate academics, trade-unionists, business leaders and opinion formers were angered by how the dignity of Scotland was being traded for position and influence.
Liberal Democrat MSPs can now fit into the same taxi and have lost their status as a national party with only two island seats being retained on the constituency vote; Tavish Scott’s Shetland and the neighbouring island seat of Shetland held by Liam McArthur. Having been reduced to a rump in Scottish politics the Lib Dems have effectively forfeited their right to have spokesmen regularly commenting on devolved issues in the media.
Commenting on the announcement by Tavish Scott that he is stepping down as leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, First Minister and SNP leader Alex Salmond said:
“I have great respect for Tavish Scott, a distinguished parliamentarian with a significant contribution to continue making, and he carries my very best wishes for the future.”
It is difficult to see a way back for the Lib Dems in the next two parliamentary terms. That long slow process must start with a root and branch review of party policy especially on the matter of an independence referendum. Many of their voters are favourable towards independence and an internal debate on whether to embrace the independence cause may be the one thing that would quickly revive the party’s fortunes. The party draws on a long tradition of home-rule campaigning and radicalism on constitutional matters. Their role in the Calman Commission, denial of an independence referendum and refusal to form a coalition with the SNP have cost the party a heavy price. They now seem consigned to at least one generation of political obscurity in Scotland.