The Liberal Democrats never do things by halves. They prefer to do them by quarters and fifths. As on alcohol pricing which seems to be wrong in Scotland but right in England. And on the constitution, where the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, Tavish Scott has called for radical constitutional change to save the Scottish economy. But not TERRIBLY radical change. The Libdems want taxation and borrowing powers for Holyrood to allow the Scottish government to finance a bold green job creation programme to counter the recession. But this is not to be confused with the SNP’s call for tax and borrowing powers and its counter-recessionary Green Deal. Oh no – that would be secession.
And don’t think there should be any kind of referendum on the Calman Commission on the Constitution, when it finally delivers the constitutional blueprint. The Liberal Democrats are utterly and completely opposed to referendums – except, er, in England and on Europe. The party is committed to a referendum on constitutional reform in Westminster, including reducing Scottish representation, in the first year of any Liberal Democrat administration. They also called recently for a referendum on withdrawal from the European Union. No, I don’t understand it either.
The Scottish Liberal Democrat antipathy toward a referendum in Scotland has never made much democratic sense, so perhaps we should welcome the fact that Tavish Scott is no longer ruling one out “for all time”. Though he isn’t ruling it in either. The idea appears to be to prevent the issue from denying the Liberal Democrats the option of forming a coalition with the SNP after the next Scottish election. The Libdems have finally realised what everyone else has known for years, that the Nationalists are actually intensely relaxed about delaying the referendum on independence. This may not be unconnected with the fact that they would almost certainly lose it, as the latest YouGov poll confirmed at the weekend. The whole point of the referendum policy was to liberate the SNP from the independence commitment – to put it into the long grass – while Alex Salmond got on with the business of governing in the Scottish parliament.
But in May 2007, Tavish Scott refused even to talk about a coalition unless the SNP abandoned its policy of a referendum on the constitution – which Salmond clearly could not do. It was an emotional spasm which now seems to have passed. Though I’m not entirely sure what has changed to clear the way for this historic compromise. Tavish and co could have remained in government; instead they opted for the wilderness. And the wilderness is a cold and lonely place.
Just consider a typical senior Liberal Democrat who is not getting any younger and yet feels he has much to contribute. He was an able minister for eight years in the Liberal-Labour coalition, and was rarely off the airwaves. Now he is, if not forgotten, then largely gone from public view. It is immensely frustrating to be a politician and not have any power. The Liberal Democrats knew what they were for back then: free personal care, tuition fees, reform of local government. Now they just don’t matter; they are the lost tribe of Scottish politics.
So, the Libdems have got to make themselves matter again, and the only way to do that is to get some kind of foothold on power through an alliance. But could it be that they are opening the way for the SNP just at the moment when the door is closing on Scottish nationalism? The latest YouGov opinion poll places Labour back in the lead in voters’ preferences for Holyrood for the first time in two years. The Nationalist minority government is becalmed, discarding manifesto promises like a sinking ship dumping cargo to keep afloat. Following the credit crisis, the whole idea of small nations with big banks trying to go it alone is discredited. Perhaps the Liberal Democrats should be making up with Labour again and looking to re-establish the partnership that delivered their greatest hits?
Well, certainly, the SNP is discovering that it is not immune to what they call “mid term blues” in Westminster – the slough that governments fall into half way through a term of office as the novelty wears off and they lose popularity. But Labour isn’t in a position to open the champagne quite yet, and the Libdems are wise to be circumspect. The financial crisis is only now transforming itself into an economic one, and Scotland is still behind the curve, as they say in the city. In places like Edinburgh people are still buying expensive cars and paying ludicrous prices for houses, like Wile E. Coyote who has run off the cliff but hasn’t succumbed to the force of gravity yet.
As the Liberal Democrat finance spokesman Vince Cable has warned, there is a 10% to 20% cut in public spending on the way, as the government tries to salvage the ruined public finances. This is going to be devastating to an economy like Scotland’s which is dominated by the public sector. The SNP Finance Secretary, John Swinney, is equally gloomy and has reportedly called on ministers to draw up a “doomsday budget” involving cuts of £2.3bn in spending on schools, hospitals and other services. The key question in Scottish politics for the medium term, therefore, is who gets blamed for the economy: Westminster, as the SNP wish, or the Scottish government. The Glenrothes by-election, and some opinion polls suggest that voters are disinclined to blame Gordon Brown. On the other hand, Alex Salmond remains by far the most popular leader in Scotland.
The battle of the cuts is unresolved. However, after this weekend I think one thing perhaps is resolved: the constitutional question. All the Scottish parties accept now that the Scottish parliament needs more powers to tax and to borrow – the difference is only one of degree. It’s devolution max all round. Independence is lying in the long grass, in a field far away, as the SNP increasingly confine their demands to “more powers” to deal with the economy. Tavish Scott yesterday called for “a true home rule parliament”. And, in time, it looks as if that is precisely what we are going to get. Though I’m not entirely sure that Gordon is on board.