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.


  1. If we really wanted to promote the Home Rule Commission we could have asked for it to be included as a second question or third option on the 2014 ballot paper. This would have given us the opportunity to carve a distinctive image and platform for ourselves at a time we need it most. It would also have given it the best chance it could have got to become reality. The idea that it could happen after a no vote in a binary referendum involves more wishful thinking than a genie could grant!

    With this opportunity squandered, going into the referendum, the choice is instead between independence or the status quo (or worse), giving those liberals who support change only one choice - independence.