Sunday 28 October 2012

Speech to Scottish Lib Dem Conference

Not long back in the door after Scottish Lib Dem Conference and the follow-up Liberal Youth Scotland event in Edinburgh. Major news includes the formal approval of the Home Rule Commission headed up by Ming Campbell. I make little secret of the fact I support going further than the party, up to and including independence, but felt I had to support the proposals of the Home Rule Commission as they are a significant improvement on the status quo or what is being offered by others in the event of a "No" vote in 2014. Here is what I said:

"When we commissioned this report last Autumn Conference, I warned against two things.

Firstly, I feared it would leave us in a state of limbo on the constitutional question, stating unequivocally that the party opposes independence, but not doing enough, while we waited for the report, to demonstrate to the Scottish people we were not content with the status quo. I think we must acknowledge that in the past 12 months we have spent rather too much time 'doing down' the SNP, much though there is to criticise, and not enough distinguishing our attitude from that of Labour and the Tories.

My second concern was that the Commission would remain behind the curve of Scottish public opinion, failing to build enough on the work of Lord Steel some six years ago. On that point, I am pleasantly surprised. Ming has prepared an ambitious cocktail of new law-making and financial powers, which would give Scotland the kind of autonomy enjoyed by other sub-state units across Europe. Though this 'fiscal federalism' is not my ideal preference, it represents far more substantial progress than the Calman Commission.

Few fair-minded Scots would reject these powers in the event of a 'No' vote in 2014. Nevertheless, I feel we should keep an open mind to going further. Full fiscal autonomy would give Scotland the tools that it needs to secure a more liberal and socially just society. Does it really make sense, for example, for Holyrood to be responsible for health issues like addiction, but not control the drugs laws or alcohol and tobacco taxes in Scotland? Where is the logic in retaining welfare matters, like housing benefit, when the Scottish Government is responsible for the provision of social housing?

In a similar vein, I strongly support the review of the Barnett Formula. For too long the ability to deliver a federal relationship in the UK has been constrained by the structural flaws of ad hoc devolution.

To give proper effect to that, of course, we need a codified constitution. This presents an opportunity for us to commit the UK not just to decentralisation, but to human rights and social justice too. We need our own equivalent of the fundamental freedoms protected in perpetuity in the US constitution, rather than leave such important things to the whims of back-bench Conservatives who would repeal the Human Rights Act. It cannot be right that we give our UK Parliament unlimited power to trample on our liberties.

This is a once in a generation opportunity to write a constitution, whether for a federal UK or an independent Scotland. It is a chance to restate the values of our nation. To make sure this happens, Lib Dems must be prepared to work with all parties, including the SNP. For this question, as Donald Dewar put it, 'is about more than our politics and our laws. This is about who we are and how we carry ourselves'.

I support this motion, and urge you to do too."

Wednesday 3 October 2012

Conference is about Democracy - let Yes Scotland in

The Liberal Democrat tradition is a proud one when it comes to democracy. We don't just value it as a system in the wider political arena, whether in response to Scotland's democratic deficit in the 1980s and 90s, or to reform of the Westminster institutions and electoral systems. We do genuine internal party democracy too. Just look back at our week in Brighton, where journalists and commentators alike continue to be perplexed by just how intensely relaxed our leadership are about us openly discussing things from assisted death, to the government's troubled civil liberties agenda and even the economy. We are a party who believe that disagreement, debate and deliberation creates a more open politics generally produces better outcomes.

Herald article (online, retrieved 3rd October 2012)

That's why it annoyed and saddened me to see an article in yesterday's Herald online edition (and presumably the main paper too) reporting a story that the Scottish Lib Dems had rejected an application from Yes Scotland to have a stall at our conference, on the same commercial terms as other organisations who frequently pitch up at Dunfermline once a year. The public statement from the Lib Dems was to the effect that as a party we don't support independence, and the article in question had overtures that we had suggested insufficient spaces were available to accommodate them.

At the basic level, I doubt there was ever a serious issue with capacity. Having been at the Vine Centre for last year's Autumn conference, I see no reason why a solitary additional stall could not be worked into a floor plan. The reason, therefore, seems to be a question of political messaging.

I can understand a political party wanting to be able to push its own policy platform. We have the Home Rule Commission reporting to Scottish conference, and Scottish Lib Dem HQ will no doubt be keen to push that, firstly as an alternative to independence, but secondly to differentiate us from those on the No side who have little to offer Scotland other than more of the status quo. But rejecting Yes Scotland's approach to be involved in our internal debate (and their money!) strikes me as evasive towards the democratic principle and not a particularly liberal way of engaging with the debate either.

Even if this perception that Yes Scotland was trying to trip us up were true, they are more likely to get favourable press attention complaining of a shut-out just outside the Vine Centre with a handful of activists than they are with a pretty mundane stall at a party conference where, if I'm honest, most attendees will be voting No no matter what. In truth if the Yes Scotland campaign wanted to distract the press from the Home Rule Commission, not giving them a formal platform inside the centre, with clear rules and terms of use to abide by, actually creates the media story in the first place. The negative implications of Yes Scotland pulling off a stunt having been given the opportunity to turn up at Conference would fall squarely on them, as they could not accuse us of shutting them out from debate. The media attention such a stunt would attract would lead to more cameras on Willie Rennie, and more opportunity to publicise the Home Rule Commission and show him and the party to be the standard bearers of a popular middle-ground.

If we wanted to give the Home Rule Commission a bit of space to get its own media attention, we could have said to Yes Scotland that we'd be happy to accommodate them at our Spring Conference instead, perhaps even involving them in a fringe event on whether independence was better or worse than home rule or a federal settlement. We could have shown ourselves to be an open and inclusive party not afraid to fight our case, but equally not combative for the sake of it.

That is why I signed a letter to the Herald newspaper urging the Scottish Liberal Democrats to reverse this decision. This was not about trying to undermine the party or the leadership, but about asserting our liberal values of speaking up when we feel people are being shut out of the democratic process of debate and deliberation. Not all of us who signed the letter are even in favour of Scottish independence, and among those of us who are, some are a lot more reluctantly in favour than others. Some of us are in favour of the Westminster coalition, and others are against. This is principally about changing a mindset within the Scottish Party that everything coming from the Yes Campaign or the SNP is a trap. It's harmful towards attempts to develop our own distinctive policies and actually it's harmful for getting those ideas out into the public domain.

We are not rebels. We are not grumbling for the sake of it. We want strong liberal and democratic voices in Scotland. We don't think the other parties are capable of offering it. We don't want the Lib Dems to go the same way.