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Liberal Democrats lose the plot

Pity the Liberal Democrats. Ok, you might find that difficult, many do. But as they prepare for their UK conference , this once proud political party is in a dismal state, with a crisis of leadership at almost ever level.

Sir Ming Campbell is being portrayed as a geriatric nightmare; Nicol Stephen is little boy lost; even Edinburgh Council is a mess over school closures. The party is being flattened by the Brown bounce in Westminster; outmanoeuvred by David Cameron in English Tory marginals; elbowed aside by the Salmond machine in Holyrood.

Yet, it could have all been so different. Liberal Democrat politicians were offered positions of power and influence in the Welsh executive, the Scottish government and even in Gordon Brown’s cabinet. But in each case they declined to participate on the grounds that the other parties somehow weren’t good enough for them. In Scotland they wouldn’t even sit down with the SNP to discuss the possibility of a partnership. It is some achievement for a party that believes in proportional representation and co-operative politics to have walked out of three governments even before it served in them.

In Holyrood, as the party fortunes fall, tempers rise. Their normally level-headed deputy leader, Tavish Scott. has taken to accosting hacks – well me – in the Garden Lobby and accusing us of giving them unfair treatment. I had said that the party had lost the plot, and his behaviour rather confirmed it. Curiously, I don’t recall him complaining when I used to say that the Liberal Democrats had inspired most of the legislative achievements of the Lib-Lab coalitions. Labour MSPs used to berate me for being a “bloody Libdem”, now they just call me a card-carrying nationalist and “Salmond lover”. But I digress.

The reason why splendid isolation is not good for the Scottish Liberal Democrats is pretty clear from the recent opinion polls. You Gov in the Telegraph put them at 14% and a Daily Mail poll put them down at 8%. When they are out of government, it is very difficult to think of what the Liberal Democrats are actually for. They are an insignificant political force. In office, they meant something, made decisions, got policies enacted, like the Borders railway, which signalled to the voters that they punched above their weight. Now they just punch the air. And they don’t do that very effectively.

You just need to look at them. Ex Libdem ministers wander the lobbies like lost souls. The stentorian Ross Finnie looks like a deflated balloon, yet he was one of the longest serving ministers in the Scottish Executive and one who had a lot of respect from civil servants.

In an attempt to recapture lost glory, they’ve been looking to form some kind of shadow administration with Labour, but I would beware the motives of the other lot. They may be taking them by the hand the better to take them by the throat. Many Labour MSPs still resent their former coalition partners for resisting their vote-winning law and order policies, rejectng nuclear power, being equivocal on Trident and Iraq, and basically being a crowd of middle class bleeding hearts.

Anyway, it’s not quite clear what Liberal Democrats would do in Wendy Alexander’s big tent, since the they support most of the SNP’s policies, like local income tax, constitutional reform, abolishing graduate endowment etc., rather than Labour’s. About the only SNP policy they don’t support is the referendum on independence and that isn’t going to happen anyway. This was always the absurdity of their refusal to sit down with Alex Salmond to discuss a coalition. The Liberal Democrats opted out of power and influence because of a non-event. Now they are the non-event.

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?


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