Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Lib Dems' Big Huff

Tom Gordon, in today's Sunday Times, has lifted the lid on the fatuous posturing from the Lib Dems about why they can't sit down and talk with the SNP re a coalition for Holyrood. Now, Tom is not always the easiest guy to deal with, but he's certainly not in the habit of printing anything which he knows to be untrue. For that reason, pay particular attention to the quote attributed to the Lib Dem present at their first Holyrood group meeting since the election:

'The decision to rebuff Salmond's overtures to support the SNP in a coalition was swift.

'Amongst those most fiercely opposed to a deal were Tavish Scott , the party's deputy leader, and Mike Rumbles, an influential backbencher. "If Nicol had made a deal with the SNP, even if the referendum was off the table, there was a fear that Tavish and Mike would have walked," said one of those present. "There was a power struggle going on between Nicol, who wanted another coalition, and Tavish, who wanted no deal at all costs.'

So there you have it. If that's the true state of play within the Lib Dem group at Holyrood, then they've probably done the SNP a favour by walking away from a deal. The question for the future is, once the Lib Dems have ensconced themselves in fourth party obscurity on the backbenches, will Tavish have the guts to take Nicol out, or does he just want the power of leadership without the responsibility that goes along with it?

UPDATE: Here's a typically erudite and reasonable, albeit slightly different take on events, from veteran journalist (and, for what it's worth, former Lib Dem parliamentary candidate), Neal Ascherson.


Caron said...

Richard, as you know I'm a Lib Dem who by disposition would much rather deal with the SNP than Labour. I've spent my life fighting Labour and have had to, shall we say, bite my tongue rather a lot during the last 8 years. I do think the Labour/Lib Dem coalition did deliver a lot of good things - getting rid of tuition fees, free eye and dental checks, STV for local government, free personal care, commitment to new Forth crossing.

Given my tolerance of the Labour coalition, I would expect that anyone with an antipathy towards the SNP, no matter how pathological, would work through it in the interests of good and government for the country.

To my mind the intelligent and pragmatic thing for Alex Salmond to do would be to take the referendum away - either by guaranteeing us an opt out or by agreeing to be bound by the outcome of a constitutional convention. The way I hear it the constitutional convention idea only works if there is a referendum on independence at the end of it.

There has been nothing in the conversations between the leaders, as I understand it, that would suggest that there is any flexibility in the SNP position.

You might be interested to know that I helped with a lot of election casework during the campaign, and not once did I ever have anyone ask about independence. People outside the SNP aren't actually that bothered about it, in the same way that they aren't bothered about Europe or PR:-)

Richard Havers said...

My bet would be that Tavish is biding his time although I wonder if the skeletons in his cupboard will rule him out?

Richard Thomson said...

Hi Caron,

There's a quote regarding home rule made by (I think) a former Scottish Liberal MP from the 1950's to the effect that 'A view is held no less sincerely just because it's expressed quietly and reasonably'. I thought it was in one of Chris Harvie's books, but the more I think about it, I probably remember it from Andrew Marr's 'The Battle for Scotland', which I loaned out some years ago and never seem to have had back.

In any case, it's as apt now for independence as it was back then for home rule. Polls show a significant body of opinion in favour of independence, even if people do rank other issues as being of greater importance to them right now. It's a desire held no less sincerely for being expressed quietly and reasonably.

Support for independence isn't going to go away simply because parliament is reluctant at present to ask the question. Sooner or later, the fates will conspire to bring the issue to the fore, either through the numbers of pro-referendum parliamentarians elected or through a response to eventual public demand.

The ST article appears to indicate that even if the SNP had done what you suggest and formally dump a commitment to a referendum, it would still have been 'no deal'. I've no doubt that the preferred SNP outcome would have been for a referendum to feature in a partnership agreement. However, if that wasn't possible, then I'm sure a deal could have been reached which exempted the Lib Dems from supporting a referendum. However, we'll never know now since the talks, even with a prior commitment from the SNP to no preconditions, were strangled at birth.

A convention would have allowed the Lib Dems to work on their sadly neglected proposals for federalism, which never seem to have grappled with the fact that England is too large to make any such arrangement work, and has so far resisted moves towards regional government. From an SNP view, it would have let us make the intellectual case for greater powers which we have arguably neglected in recent years, even if people decided only to accept that case up to a point short of independence.

The biggest failure of the 1980's Constitutional Convention was its determination to exclude certain viewpoints from the outset, and to exclude consideration as to how any scheme could be wrung out of a Westminster Parliament, which was at that time set on maintaining the status quo. Any new convention surely has to be free to consider every possible constitutional option for Scotland, and to consider how these powers might be won, again in the face of a reluctance from Westminster to yield them?

You can have more powers for Holyrood without a referendum, but you can't do it without at least having the tacit consent of a majority of Westminster MPs. Independence is a different kettle of fish, but short of some kind of dramatic shift in opinion elsewhere, the only legitimate way in my view to achieve it is for a majority to show they are in favour of it in a separate vote.

Sorry for going on about this, but independence is not an illegitimate viewpoint to support. As a legitimate option for Scotland's future, people should have the opportunity to give their views on it in a referendum, as free as possible from party political considerations. I and many others could have lived with not putting the question in the next four years, but it seems that even that price was too high for some people outwith the SNP to accept. It's a shame, because were you to cut the SNP in half, you'd find a streak of good old-fashioned Scottish Liberalism running right through us.



Caron said...

My argument has been based on the fact that we said that we would not agree to a referendum on independence on many occasions before and during the campaign. I am not opposed in principle to the idea, only to my party committing political suicide by having a "read my lips, no new taxes" moment.

The fact remains that at no point was any concession on the referendum ever offered, nor any indication given that if there were full blown negotiations then there could be some movement on the idea.

In some ways it would have been pretty heartbreaking to go through the negotiations and see in black and white how much common ground there was, draw up a really constructive partnership agreement, only to have to walk away because of the referendum issue.

Richard Thomson said...

I think everyone in the SNP accepts that it would have been impossible for the Lib Dems, having been marched up to the top of the hill on the referendum issue, to then have marched back down again. People accepted that, and were prepared to compromise in talks. This was indicated in a (pretty obvious)coded form in public (the SNP's preferred option was reiterated, but the Lib Dem demand was very pointedly never dismissed, subject of course to talks taking place), and I'm sure this was put across quite explicitly in these phone calls too.

The demand to rule things out prior to talks was completely unreasonable - nothing more than a piece of brinkmanship - and the Lib Dem leadership knew this full well. Normally, you could see it as a transparent attempt to try and hirple the SNP negotiation team in advance, but given the revelations in the Sunday Times, it seems it was nothing more than a ploy to stop negotiations from even happening, which would then have been sabotaged on other grounds if they had proceeded.

But, just for a bit of fun, let's make the unlikely assumptions that the ST article is total mince, and that Tavish was positively jumping for joy at the prospect of working with the SNP. The easy thing to have done would have been to turn up to talk without any preconditions, as the SNP offered. It would then have taken less than 5 minutes for the Lib Dem team to work out whether any compromise was possible - quicker than it would have taken to finish a cup of the St Andrew's house coffee.

There was a lot of worthy talk about the 'new politics' and the 'New Scotland' at the start of devolution, into which some of us in the SNP have invested a great deal. 10 years ago, for instance, a lot of us took on the refusniks in our own ranks, who wanted nothing to do with devolution and who found it easier to rant about supposed Westminster perfidy than to do anything so vulgar as to go out and win public sympathy for the SNP case.

The modernisers won hands down. However, at the first hint of anything other than Lib/Lab coalition in perpetuity, the new politics is being shown up as so much wind. I'm disappointed, and angry, that such an apparently unrepresentative clique within the Lib Dems have rendered a deal impossible and are now trying to pin the blame for this on the SNP. it seems that despite playing by the rules and being prepared to park the referendum, some still see the SNP as untouchable, and are able to regard to regard the wishes of Scottish voters for a progressive consensus in government as being secondary to the upcoming Westminster powerplay between Messrs. Brown, Cameron and Campbell.

I appreciate you debating this with me. I think, from our exchanges, that had it been left to us, we'd have had some kind of deal quite happilly :-)