Sunday 13 November 2016

Howling at the Moon? Yep.

On Saturday, the Scottish Liberal Democrats confirmed themselves as unconditional Unionists.

This is not liberal.

The Parliamentary Party turned on a motion that was itself an attempt to heal the divide between members of the party for whom the result of the EU referendum will likely compel the choice between two unpalatables. They showed a total unwillingness to listen, to acknowledge that the Unionism of far too many, especially many in the Scottish Tories, is unthinking, tribal and contrary to the interests of either people in Scotland or other parts of that Union.

They falsely accused the movers of the motion of pushing them to break a pledge they made to the electorate in May. The movers of the motion deliberately framed the motion in such a way so as not to put them in that position. Whatever your view of the merits of either the manifesto commitment against supporting a referendum in this Parliament, or the donor-seeking Scotland in Union pledge overtly to oppose any such referendum, we were very clear we would not and could not ask them to go back on it.

Yet the leadership's inner-circle lined up one after another, frankly, to tell barefaced lies to the Conference hall. They smeared those bringing the motion as unwitting nationalist conduits, for having the audacity simply to ask that they do two things. Those two requests were possibly the most painfully reasonable one could hope for a liberal and democratic party to agree to.

First, we asked them to talk to the Scottish Government, and to go to the table without preconditions and demands. We wanted them to work with their group of experts to identify possible ways of protecting Scotland's interests in the EU. Rule nothing in; but rule nothing out, until the lie of the landscape is clearer.

Their response? To say that the Muscatelli Group was a PR exercise and a ruse for independence. Never mind that a longstanding and highly respected Labour MEP sits on this group. Never mind that Sturgeon has been back-peddling on the imminence of a referendum ever since June, and has directed her focus towards single market and free movement protection since. To expect this group to have done much before Art 50 has even been invoked is disingenuous, and not even to work with them is narrow-minded.

Secondly, we asked them to bring their proposals, once the terms of a Brexit deal are known, before Conference, so that the membership could freely and openly discuss the best way forward for Scotland. The amendment they voted for removed that commitment. The leadership therefore has a free hand to ignore the concerns of the membership about whether, and to what extent, leaving the European Union alters Scotland's interests in the British Union.

Several times those of us with concerns about the party's increasingly default hostility to anyone who didn't toe the line on the constitutional question have reached out, to try to reach a compromise that lets us move forward as one liberal voice. Time and time again those requests fell on deaf ears. There is now barely any room whatsoever for even critical unionists in the Scottish Liberal Democrats. The gravity of the party has shifted, and it amounts, in essence, to a slightly more cosmopolitan Conservative and Unionist party that doesn't like Iain Duncan Smith.

Some people yesterday said that it was a mark of strength that the Lib Dems allow debates like this. In truth it was nothing of the sort. Instead of having respect for the perspective of members of their own party who disagreed with them, the Parliamentary Party treated them like pests to swatted. They opposed a motion that would have very specifically put the future positioning of this party in its membership's hands.

That membership would, in all probability, have, when the time came, reaffirmed the party's opposition to Scottish independence and may well even have extended its opposition to another referendum, even beyond the 2016-21 Holyrood Parliamentary session. But what would have mattered is that the leadership would have been obliged to justify their stance and ask the membership to back them, when all the information was laid bare and made available to the membership and to the rest of Scotland as a whole.

Put simply, they don't trust the members of the Party, and they don't trust the Scottish people.

A political party for whom both of those things are true might not become extinct, but it will also never be relevant in Scottish politics. Taking two mainland constituency seats to replace two mainland list seats isn't "winning again"; it's palliative care that writes off people who are liberal by politics to court tactical Tories.

And make no mistake, in 2021 and 2026 the Tories will come gunning for those seats. They have the money and after 2016, they have the ground operation. And when that happens, the Lib Dems really are in trouble.