Friday 6 May 2016

A Counterintuitive Liberal Opportunity

A superficial look at the Scottish Parliamentary election results would suggest that Scotland has divided along Nationalist and Unionist lines. Two unexpected and impressive victories by Willie Rennie in North East Fife and Alex Cole-Hamilton in Edinburgh Western have made us harder to dislodge and re-established a core for our party. It is tempting not just to attribute that to the marshalling of a tactical Unionist vote but to act accordingly.

This should not be a reason now to be cautious: to justify Unionist opposition for opposition's sake. The fact that the SNP have failed to win a majority offers us an unexpected but critical opportunity to maintain our relevance in Scottish politics. It makes the fact that the Greens have overtaken us in seats less of a problem than it otherwise would have been.

All of the talk will be about what deals the SNP can do with the Scottish Greens. But the split of the independence vote in this election represents a fundamental fault-line that is not so easily bridged as people might think. Especially on taxation and macroeconomic policy there is much that separates the SNP and the Greens. It doesn't seem plausible to me that John Swinney will swallow much of substance of the Patrick Harvie tax-plan, or his uncompromising approach to the energy sector.

It is also true that this minority SNP government will not be like the 2007 one. No longer can they rely on the Tories to waive through their budgets on the promise of a few more bobbies on the beat, like they could under Annabelle Goldie. The Tories positioning themselves as the main opposition, and the SNP having vilified cooperation with the Tories during the independence referendum, has burned those bridges.

Against that backdrop, the Liberal group of 5 MSPs, who maintain their status as an official "group" at Holyrood, can make a constructive, liberal and centrist, contribution to this Parliament. We can be the pragmatic reformists: the "better Union" power-brokers that the SNP can, and ultimately must, do business with.

This doesn't just make sense from a policy perspective. Sure, it can keep the SNP from their worst authoritarian excesses and stop self-defeating economic policies of the Malthusian left from holding Scotland back. But it makes sense from an electoral perspective too. It's time, much as it pains some Liberals, to try to heal the rift with liberal Nationalists after our immensely damaging sulk post 2007. If we do this, we can secure significant concessions on our core priorities, especially mental health and education.

This minority government also buys us time that we frankly did not expect to have to shore-up our response to the constitutional question. Holyrood's Committees, including its Devolution Committee, are no longer subject to majority SNP control. We can now work internally, with less timidity, on the detail of what is actually needed to deliver a federal Britain. We can afford to be bolder with our ideas now that a second independence referendum is unlikely to feature in this Holyrood parliamentary term. This will be the long-term route to the Liberal Democrats not just to dig-in like "cockroaches" as Tim Farron once put it, but actively to rebuild our Parliamentary presence into double-digits.

The Labour Party now faces an existential crisis in Scotland. If we seize the opportunity to work with the Scottish Government, we can make ourselves genuinely indispensable to the national debate, on both bread-and-butter and constitutional issues, and fill the gap they have vacated. If, on the other hand, we retreat into our bunker, the victories of Willie and Alex will have been phyrric.

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