The Lib Dems in Scotland face decision time

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By Bryan Samuel

The assertion that the Liberal Democrat Party is in deep trouble would seem uncontroversial, indeed Michael Moore the present Secretary of State for Scotland admitted as much in what he mistakenly thought a private moment.  They have perpetrated “the worst crime a politician can commit”; looking the electorate squarely in the eye, promising to do one thing (on tuition fees) and then doing the exact opposite immediately after the election.  

As a result Nick Clegg and his party colleagues seem to have completely exhausted their reserves of credibility and are now apparently the political equivalent of condemned men, temporarily enjoying the use of their chauffeur driven ministerial limousines instead of a last hearty meal.  Surely all that remains is for the voting public to formalise the inevitable and usher them on a short walk towards a long drop at the next Westminster election.  If so, they will have paid a high price for affording the Conservative Party an unparalleled opportunity to put their core beliefs into practice, implementing a significant reduction in public spending, using the financial crisis as justification.

The only dubious benefits the Liberal Democrats appear to have gained from this are fixed term parliaments; a failed referendum on the alternative vote system for Westminster elections, a policy they did not really want, and the seemingly unending contempt of voters.

From a Scottish perspective the Liberal Democrats’ Faustian pact with David Cameron’s Conservative Party is even more perplexing.  The Liberal Democrats are the party who could not agree to work in government with the Scottish National Party despite being urged to enter negotiations after the 2007 Scottish Parliament election and despite considerable overlap between them and the SNP in policy and political philosophy.  At that time the two parties shared manifesto commitments on for example, a local income tax and increased powers for the Scottish Parliament.

However, the Liberal Democrats could not even bring themselves to enter formal negotiations, claiming that an independence referendum was an insurmountable barrier to such an arrangement.  It was however rumoured that the snub was at least partially inspired by a Liberal Democrat ‘grudge’ provoked by SNP electorally gains at their expense.

How different things might have been  in the most recent Holyrood election if the Liberal Democrats had engaged constructively back in 2007.  We have now seen what even a minority government can achieve.  Surely the policy successes of a SNP/Lib Dem and possibly Green coalition government at Holyrood would have at least partially cushioned the Scottish Liberal Democrats from the consequences of Nick Clegg’s choice to employ a rather shorter supping spoon that was advisable in his dealings with David Cameron.

What we do know for sure is that the now much smaller group of Liberal Democrats in the Scottish Parliament have a new chance to redeem themselves in the eyes of the Scottish electorate.  With a referendum on Scotland’s constitutional future now all but certain, they have the opportunity to campaign for the most popular constitutional option.  According to the Steel Commission they actually believe in full fiscal autonomy.

In addition, if the Scottish electorate could be persuaded to endorse full fiscal autonomy in a referendum, the so called ‘Devo-Max’ option, it could be the catalyst for the reform of the entire UK constitution.  A genuine federal structure would seem to be the only logical outcome of such an event; an outcome that must be near the top of any Liberal Democrat wish-list.

It seems too much to expect that the Labour Party can be persuaded by the reasonable voices from within their own ranks, Malcolm Chisholm and Henry McLeish, to work towards constitutional progress.  They appear as yet unable to contribute positively to any debate.  

There is however a glimmer of hope for the Liberal Democrats, with Willie Rennie’s recent move to learn from past mistakes, engaging constructively on minimum pricing for alcohol.  Unfortunately, the signs on the constitution are not quite so promising.  

It is difficult to explain Liberal Democrats attitudes at Westminster other than to conclude they have gone ‘native’.  For example it would be a considerable challenge for anyone to tell the difference in a blind test, between the utterances of Danny Alexander and those of one of his predecessors as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the as yet un-humanised Michael Portillo at the height of Thatcherism.

Michael Moore was also unable to endorse his own party’s policy on full fiscal autonomy, when repeatedly asked to give an opinion on ‘Devo-Max’ in a recent BBC interview.

The Liberal Democrats at Westminster appear to be highly embarrassed by their own policy on the constitution, kicking it into the long grass by commissioning yet another review of their long established position.  This time the review will take place under the stewardship of Sir Menzies Campbell.  Sir Menzies seems intent in casting himself in the role previously played by Sir Alex Douglas-Home in the 1979 Scottish devolution referendum campaign, promising that once the issue of Independence is settled it will be followed by the offer of ‘something’ better.

As in 1979, this seems highly unlikely; but unfortunately Sir Menzies was not asked to expand on this assertion during the interview.  It seems much more probable that a ‘No’ vote or a double ‘No’ vote in the plebiscite, if the option of Devo-Max is included, will end the discussion on constitutional change for at least a generation.  

The Liberal Democrats in Scotland face a critical choice; do they continue to sit on the sidelines and watch while Federalism is consigned to the political dustbin along with proportional representation, their other main constitutional aspiration; or do they act in accordance with their principles and stated policy position, in support of home-rule?