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The Liberal Democrats are afraid they might win

This much we know: Scotland will have a new government, probably within the week, and Alex Salmond should be leading it as First Minister. Yesterday, the Liberal Democrat spokesman, Tavish Scott, on BBC’s Politics Show, ruled out any ‘cling-on’ coalition with the Labour rump. The only question now is whether the Liberal Democrats want to be part of the future, or part of the past.

Well it appears that they are determined to stick in the past, for last night their spokesman, Tavish Scott, appeared to rule out any coalition with the SNP even before negotiations began. This is unfortunate, because the Libdems were about to be offered a deal in which the contentious issue of a referendum on independence would be handed over to a cross-party constitutional convention or commission.

The Liberal Democrats have already called for a convention in their manifesto, so they could hardly refuse to participate in it. Tavish Scott had of course made clear he would still demand that the SNP drop its commitment to a referendum. But what they Libdems don’t seem quite to realise is that, in a sense, the nationalists already have. It comes down to a matter of simple arithmetic.

If the SNP are forced to govern alone, as a minority, which seems likely now, they would anyway have little chance of holding the independence referendum. This is because the bill to stage the referendum would be voted down by the Scottish Parliament, where the SNP is in a minority. So, why put it in the first place?

Everyone is so convinced of Alex Salmond’s perfidy that they have failed to consider the possibility that he might actually mean what he says. That he really does want to show that the SNP can run an effective administration in Edinburgh under the terms set by the devolution settlement. In fact, there is every sign that this is precisely what the SNP leader wants to do, and that he is not going to allow a referendum to get in his way.

The nationalists aren’t completely stupid, and they can read the polls as well as anyone else. They can see that, right now, there is no great demand in Scotland for formal independence. Fewer than 25% of Scots voters say they would support separation from the UK.

The vast majority would support extending the powers of the Scottish parliament, broadly along the lines proposed by the Steel Commission two years ago. That means tax, economy, broadcasting, nuclear energy etc.. That’ll do nicely. It would make Scotland functionally independent across 80% of the legislative competence of a national parliament.

In otherwords the Liberal Democrats wre pushing at an open door. They were only a couple of negotiating days away from an agreement that the next four years would be about their programme for government rather than about the metaphysics of independence. The whole constitutional issue, referendum and all, would have been hived off to the convention, where the great and the good could think profound thoughts, while the Lib/Nat/Green executive got on with scrapping council tax and promoting renewable energy.

The SNP cannot give up on its core commitment to independence, clearly – but make no mistake, it was poised to shelve it for the lifetime of this parliament. I detect no urge from senior SNP sources to force the convention to report by a certain timetable, or to come up with any particular constitutional proposal. Nicola Sturgeon has made clear that she accepts that the Liberal Democrat option of federalism would be one of those considered.

The Liberal Democrats may not want to join a government led by Salmond – many don’t like him – but they are now placed in a very odd position now if they don’t. Do they want to lose all their ministerial posts, all their influence in government for nothing? Don’t they want to implement their manifesto? And surely, if they are so concerned about the fate of the union, shouldn’t they be in there, fighting their corner, and ensuring that Salmond is bound by collective cabinet responsibility?.

But what about Salmond own fundamentalist fringe? Would the awkward squad of new SNP MSPs have bought this pragmatism, or see it as betrayal? Bill Wilson, the standard-bearer of unreconstructed revolutionary nationalism, has said there is no point in being in government if every day is not spent trying to secure liberation from the English yoke.

Well, I suspect Mr Wilson may find himself in Alex Salmond office in the course of the week, where he will find that the SNP leader is a very persuasive man. Mr Wilson will have to explain what purpose would be served by engaging in futile gestures like putting forward a referendum bill that has no chance of being adopted. I suspect even Mr Wilson can count.

Everyone assumes that Salmond is only interested in being in government so that he can create instability and confrontation with London. But needless provocation is not going to bring independence any closer. The Scottish electorate is very unforgiving of parties who think that political theatre is more important than good governance, or who believe that fomenting strife and confrontation is more important than seeking reconciliation and consensus. Look what happened to the Scottish Socialist Party.

The SNP have discovered – much as New Labour did in the 1990s – that oppositionalism is a dead end. That you have to go with the grain of public opinion rather than against it, and win trust. The New Nationalism has been as successful as Tony Blair’s New Labour. The SNP has won a truly historic election and it is eager to demonstrate that it can run a responsible government.

Now, the nationalists may fail. Their commitments are massive, and their means of delivering them limited, especially if the Liberal Democrats remain aloof. Looking down the likely candidates for ministerial positions does not exactly inspire confidence But Alex Salmond has shown in the last week that he has that sense of purpose, that sense of destiny, which is essential in a national leader.

Meanwhile, Jack McConnell and Gordon Brown have been engaging in back-room plotting to destabilise the new administration. Four days on from polling day, all we hear is the inarticulate whine of ex-Labour ministers a trying to explain why they didn’t have the nous to demand a recount of a 48 vote majority.

But you can’t reverse history in the courts of law. The Scottish Labour Party have lost the election, lost the coalition and they are about to lose their leader, Jack McConnell. Their only option now is to go gracefully into opposition, where they can sort themselves out, rediscover what they stand for, and provide effective opposition to the nationalist government which remains the only democratic outcome.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


One thought on “The Liberal Democrats are afraid they might win

  1. Twaddle – if it was the other way round and the SNP were refusing to join on a point of principle, you would be a bot more sympathetic.I thought the whole point the media keep making about politics is that no-one believes what they hear anymore and promises are made to be broken.Moribund and one-dimensional as the LD campaign was, Stephen made it crystyal clear all the way through – in public and in private – that an independence bill was a deal breaker. The SNP insitsted, the LDs said no.What’s so unprincipled about that? Better surely than the unholy rush to the back seat of ministerial cars that LDs are usually accused of coveting (something which Tavish Scott’s upbeat demeanour since May has proven was rubbish anyway)?

    Posted by Anonymous | July 13, 2007, 9:46 am

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