On a miserable night, the Scottish Liberal Democrats were particularly glum losing 12 of 17 seats in the Scottish Parliament and falling below 8% of the vote. The elected members can now fit in a McTaxi. One, the Leader Tavish Scott has just resigned and is likely to be replaced by super-campaigner Willie Rennie.
Most of this is down to the general trend against the party. Some of it is local. Like the Welsh party, who performed relatively less poorly, it is hard to see what is compelling and distinctive about the Scottish party. It is not clear that the gap in the market labelled liberal unionism, is much of a gap.
The party promotes itself largely as sound mangerialists. The 89 page 2011 manifesto is full of good technocratic stuff. It is a reasonable Chief Executive plan for running a large Council.
But I wonder how much differs, and does so decisively from the others? Better run public services, jobs and growth are hygiene factors in the centre-ground, not differentiators.
Where there is a gap is on the pro-independence centre-right.
The SNP, a party formed by a left-right merger, absorbing the old Scottish Party, is now an almost entirely centre-left and populist party. If they do blow their 2011 success, and do so quickly, it will be on the gap between their spending rhetoric and fiscal reality.
For those whose vision of Scotland is one of a free-trading nation, competing with England for world markets, rather than deficit expansion, the SNP is not a natural home. The Conservatives are wedded to unionism and reactionary on social matters. They, us, and Labour are too easily seen as adjuncts to their UK parties. Something right now, that is particularly damaging for us.
I’m not sure with the party’s current support, how strong opinions against independence actually are; or how nuanced. Support for either Home Rule or federal relations are certainly not a novelty in liberalism, and the Liberal Unionists merged with the Conservatives in 1912. Is it entirely implausible that the mood could shift again following this election?
Generally liberals should also be fairly relaxed about national borders, or at least where change is the result of democratic will rather than coercion. It is not then clear to me, other than the accidents of history and local tribalism, why the Scottish Liberal Democrats should be staunch supporters of a No Campaign.
What they should certainly be is advocates of a democratic choice. There will be a referendum and the party’s previous flip-flopping, welcoming than against, now looks ridculous. Liberals should not appear to fear democracy, even when, like the AV referendum, the outcomes are disagreeable.
The Union it should be noted is the arbitrary result of the politics of a bank bailout following the collapse of the Darien scheme, an 18th century credit crisis. It is not obvious the end of Union would be a disaster for either Scotland or the rest of the UK. Nor indeed any devolution option between the status quo and full seperation. Electoral collapse and a leadership debate should give the Scottish Liberal Democrats room to consider those options.
It would give the party a chance to renew, provide a clear point of difference with the English Liberal Democrats, Tories and Labour, and might give them the narrative they currently lack.