Friday, 26 August 2011

Nick Clegg's visit to Glasgow - Scottish Lib Dems as a newcomer

"Shame on you! You have mellowed.
Coalition's turning yellow!"
Er, aye right.

It got a lot more attention than it might have done. The media storm in a teacup over an incident involving some blue paint and a relapsed Lib Dem party member and a couple of politicians meant that this meeting of Liberal Democrats got noticed unlike the many others in recent days. Thankfully Nick Clegg and Willie Rennie took this infantile assault in relatively good spirit. I particularly liked Willie's response that he always wanted a blue streak in his hair but his mother wouldn't let him!

Having arrived in Woodside Hall about half an hour before the incident, I and many others were completely oblivious to what had happened until Clegg and Rennie arrived hastily if a couple of minutes late, to get the meeting under-way and explained their tardiness in good humour.

Having joined the Liberal Democrats in April or so, I've not really got myself involved that much in local campaigning or politics, and I didn't really know what to expect from this kind of meeting. I knew a couple of faces from other places, but the first thing I was struck by was the predominant sea of grey among the local party activists, with the occasional honourable exception. I don't know whether this is a sign of youth disaffection with the Lib Dems in particular or a general trend where parties are seen as less relevant to younger generations, but it was surprising nonetheless. The second thing that struck me was the despondent mood. This is a party that's lost the fire in its belly in Scotland. We run the risk of pointing the finger at each other for who's to blame for us getting tied up on the railway line while ignoring the oncoming train.

Nick set the ball rolling with a bit of narrative on how he felt we got to where we are just now, how he felt we got a lot of the big calls right in the first year or so of government, and with an attempt to paint a positive picture of our impact in government and why a comprehensive and full-term coalition was called for in the circumstances. It was perhaps a little sycophantic at the time, but in hindsight I can see it was a pre-emptive strike at what was about to thoroughly dominate the meeting. In the first block of questions, he's immediately asked, in not so many words, how to we prevent electoral oblivion next May in the Council Elections.

This was a common theme throughout. Clegg tried to appeal to memories of the past, when you could fit all the Liberal MPs in a London taxi. He built this narrative of the appeal of populism in times of strife, and how the politics of fear will always temporarily hammer our soft vote. He spoke at length about the need to portray the uniqueness of the liberal narrative instead of simply defining ourselves against the status quo conservative and state-reordering socialist traditions of right and left.

On a UK level, this made perfect sense. We've managed to protect the liberal traditions espoused in the European Convention on Human Rights, are implementing considerable slices of bread and butter constitutional reform, have made sure that changes to the NHS and the welfare system are done more thoughtfully and with end-users at the forefront and eventually these things will pay dividends. Maybe not to those who left us in the last 12 months, but certainly to the wider electorate when the economy settles. Even the tuition fees debacle should become less of an electoral hindrance when people see it in action. It's then that people will begin to realise that what we've been saying all along (that the new system is much fairer) is true. That the Tory right have been bleating on today about how the nasty Lib Dems are... wait for it... influencing policy in government (shock!) shows that it's not all a one-way street as some in the media portray. Clegg was strongest when he spoke of his anger at the way he's been vilified by the media, and if ever there were any doubts as to his profound belief in liberal values, the foremost being the sanctity of the individual and the protection of freedom, he definitely laid those to rest.

But what worries me is that Clegg really didn't seem to grasp the Scottish dimension in all of this. Across the UK we've maybe lost half the support we once had. But in Scotland we lost 2/3 of our seats in Parliament and almost 3/4 of our share in the popular vote in the Scottish Parliamentary Elections in May. We started losing deposits in a national election in places where we used to be fighting for constituency and list seats! And the common denominator in that is the SNP. They were like a footnote to his political strategy. That's not going to work in Scotland.

It's something much more fundamental up here. We've lost our liberal narrative. And this isn't something recent; it's something that's been happening over the last 3-4 years. The type of populism the SNP use to further their agenda is held together by the linchpin of their constitutional vision. Even if people don't buy into independence, they buy into the idea of the SNP fighting Scotland's corner. Our road to electoral recovery in Scotland isn't just about deficit reduction plans and civil liberties (important as they are). We need a linchipin: an end-game to fight for that shows the Scottish people we have their interests at heart.

One of the things Willie Rennie said was that he didn't believe the SNP won the election on the basis of their constitutional argument. In the strictest sense he's right. But in a Scotland where the political party policies on other matters are relative tweaks of one another for the most part the constitutional disagreements provide the framework onto which to paint a story, vision or narrative for the country's political direction. Whatever you may think of the substance or motive behind the SNP vision, it's mostly a positive one. Where has the radical edge of the liberal case for Home Rule, social reform and consensual political society gone?

We've thrown all our eggs into the Calman Commission, what one might call a "miserable little compromise" that leaves us politically indistinguishable on the constitutionals from Labour and the Tories and dull and gradualist to the sizeable portion of SNP support who disagree with independence. If the federal party cannot change tack in government then the Scottish party should anyway. It's time we made the positive case for full-fiscal autonomy. In our own way we need to show the Scottish people that Scotland can go it alone, but that it doesn't need to. Ask for control of illicit substances to be devolved to Scotland, so that we can find a less top-down approach to solving Glasgow's heroin problem. Ask for corporation tax and Crown Estate revenue to come under the control of the Scottish administration.

Articulate the localist narrative of our policies on policing, funding of public services and economic regeneration, but place it in a context of a consensual, open and free political society. Stress the need for us to break down political barriers and not just on this island. Embrace the global society and the global economy as a triumph for liberalism, free trade and the decline of tyranny. Lead the calls for a more region-sensitive immigration policy. Devolve and develop a regionally operated work permit scheme. Make it clear that even if immigration is a problem in England (it isn't) the doors of Scotland are firmly open for business.

These aren't even radical policy shifts. But they represent an emphasis that shows the Lib Dems have a vision for Scotland. We need to tie up the loose ends and mixed messages, stop worrying about what's happening at Westminster and articulate to what it is that we as a group of liberal individuals have to offer Scottish civil society. Love him or loathe him, we are not Nick Clegg. We are fighting a different battle on different territory in a different discourse. We need to stop grasping for excuses and people to blame because if we do it, everyone else will too. We need to become the consensus builders in Scotland but paradoxically that means breaking with a lot of voices whose vision doesn't extend beyond the status quo.

To come back fighting in Scotland, we have to embrace the good things in the SNP message (and there are a lot of good, liberal things in there) but articulate them through the prism of our transnational liberal narrative instead of focusing on just trashing the rest of it. We need to show people that devolution isn't just an idea for Scotland, but an idea for Glasgow, for Inverness, for Dumfries and Aberdeen. It's not about antiquated notions of identity politics, whether attachment to one national identity or another. It's about making representative democracy more direct: allowing local people to influence the things that matter most to them.

Our values are universal ones, but devolution is how we make them matter.


  1. Good post. And thanks to Jonathan Calder pointing me in your direction too. I agree - the Tavish Scott leadership was a disaster - tying us to some sort of unionist post - which goes against Scottish liberal tradition. I wrote this a few months back and it shares some of your analysis:

  2. Colin O'Sullivan2 September 2011 at 18:46

    It will probably take us 9 years of hard work (up to the 2020 Scottish Parliamentary elections) for us to rebuild to the 2007 level.

  3. No time like the present to get started.