By Leslie Clark
Alex Salmond today launched the Scottish Government’s legislative programme, with 16 bills dealing with issues as diverse as sectarianism in football to Joseph Stiglitz inspired plans for the economy. With Scottish Labour and the Tories yet to find new leaders, the unofficial title of leader of the opposition should have probably been conferred upon Willie Rennie. And in the debate on the programme, oppose he did on plans to create a single Scottish police force and on the SNP’s timidity in not pushing for an immediate referendum on independence and their silence on the costs of secession.
Most interestingly from a Liberal Democrat perspective, Rennie provided a volte-face on our previous opposition to minimum alcohol pricing by backing the SNP.
I’m not sure what new evidence – apart from the draining of Lib Dem votes to the Nats – has forced our leader to change his mind. Even so, for a party that can trace its intellectual traditions to Mill, whatever happened to the idea contained within On Liberty that “each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental or spiritual”? Adopting such an illiberal measure to tackle Scotland’s battle with the bottle is disappointing, especially considering Willie Rennie’s impressive performances in the parliamentary chamber as Caron Lindsay has recently blogged.
What does our new position on minimum pricing tell us about the future direction of the Scottish Lib Dems? And as Lenin once said, ‘what is to be done’?
In the long term, opportunities for easy ‘we’re in the moral high ground’ points to get a cheap clap on Question Time or throwing more money at society’s ills have dissipated. What Scottish Lib Dems require is a compelling narrative of liberalism, differentiating ourselves from Labour and the SNP. Both are conservative in nature in that they won’t change the role and scope of the state in Scotland; and both are left of centre nationalists in the sense that they define themselves in opposition to Westminster. The lack of pluralism within Scottish politics is deeply depressing. There is a political vacuum just waiting to be filled.
In spite of this, some tartan imposters purporting to call themselves ‘Liberal Vision’ see the Scottish Liberal Democrats’ future as applying the “fundamental principles of Liberal philosophy and social democracy to foreseeable changes in our country over the next decade.” This neglects the fact that Scotland has already had decades of ‘social democracy’. It’s failed. We don’t need more of it. That ground is already congested so we’d only be serving up the same Scotch broth in a different bowl.
There is also a need to react to Murdo Fraser’s audacious plans to effectively disband the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party to appeal to aspirational, centre-right patriotic Scots. His proposals have been criticised as a PR exercise and ‘appeasing the nationalists’ but the Lib Dems should not ignore his fresh thinking. Indeed, his vision represents a challenge to all Scottish parties. Whilst Murdo has been labelled the frontrunner by the media, it’s up to the Tory grassroots to decide. There’s a high chance his plans won’t come to fruition due a stubborn and increasingly elderly membership who equate unionism with centralisation at Westminster. A civil war, whatever the outcome, is imminent.
Scottish Liberal Democrats should try and represent these same voters who don’t wish to see the government interfere with their lives, drain more money from their pockets and are at ease with life in post-devolution Scotland. Some may label them ‘centre-right’, I label them liberals.
Unlike the Tories, our Scottish and decentralising credentials are sound (i.e. The Steel Commission) but tackling our McNannying tendencies is a must. Scotland needs more champions of enterprise and those who aren’t afraid to challenge the entrenched ‘public is good, private is bad’ pervading attitude north of the border. After all, a caring society does not necessitate greater levels of government involvement. In short, liberalism – not social democracy – should be the order of the day.
Liberal Democrats should shape the Scottish political consensus and not be bound by it. The opportunistic volte-face over alcohol pricing leaves a lot to be desired. Every Scottish Lib Dem needs an effective leader like Willie but he ought to grow some balls on the minimum pricing issue.
We should dare to be different but most importantly, liberal.