Thursday, 26 May 2011

Bigotry and Booze

Alex Salmond has been announcing his administration's programme for Holyrood.

He highlights the need to tackle bigotry and booze.  That probably neatly sums up the key social problems that affect the modern Scotland - not the only ones - but crucial ones.

I hope the Scottish Parliament as a whole can rally round tackling these problems in a positive way, working together to make policies and legislation that emerges as effective as possible.

I think our other big social problem is our health record with death rates from heart disease and cancer high by European standards.  I hope, as the parliament develops, policies to tackle these issues emerge.  I am concerned that things like free prescriptions are cosmetic and somewhat trivial in their actual impact.  I am concerned that we are not putting more resources into things like cancer clinics like they are doing south of the border.

Salmond also discussed what he is calling the social wage.  He defined this as a pact between politicians, public services and the people.  He went on to say, "We shall deliver the social and economic circumstances that allow for people to dream, to aspire and to be ambitious - but it is for the individual to realise their dreams, to reach for their hopes, to meet their ambitions".

A fine statement, which I agree with and I hope the whole parliament can come together to achieve these ends.

Salmond also said, "Elsewhere on these isles, the tolerance of the poor is being tested - budgets slashed, priorities changed, hope crushed in the braying tones of people who claim to know best".

This is interesting because Salmond does not have to deal with the structural deficit and the economy.

If he was in full government he would have to cut many things that given the choice he would not, and to suggest otherwise is wholly disingenuous!  Remember how marginal Salmond and his administration were to being able to deal with the global financial crisis!

Expanding the fiscal powers of the Scottish parliament does not entirely answer this.  Furthermore, if there was full fiscal autonomy budgets would have to be slashed and priorities changed by Alex Salmond too!

So let us work together on the problems of Scotland.  Be positive to advocate improvements where we can and oppose where cheeky Alex is spinning us.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

What's a Special Relationship anyway?

Barack Obama addresses the Houses of Parliament today in Westminster Hall. The chatter on the news programmes is once again all about the ‘special relationship’. Or has that now become the ‘essential relationship’?

This has always struck me as something of a British obsession and of rather less concern to the Americans.

The United States is a world power and has many important international relationships.
  • China, as the new world power. 
  • Russia, although waning, is still a world power (just) 
  • Countries with enormous potential and resources like India and Brazil 
As a world power the United States needs to be at the fulcrum of geo politics which means:
  • The growth and emergence of the east
  • The dangerous instability and oil wealth of the middle east
Post cold-war Europe is less important, less at the centre of things and the balance of economic power is moving east. Also, the current American administration is supportive of supra-international bodies like the EU. Britain becomes important as part of Europe, allies but not the centre of America’s world.

In this regard the United Kingdom is just an important regional power in Europe and is not at the centre of it.

Yes, we have interests and a degree of influence around the world. However, I am not convinced we are much loved, nor, are we much hated either.

So why, post cold war, would the United States have a special relationship with the United Kingdom? We can only be one of several special relationships.

Then there is the personal element.

The UK – US special relationship has only really been there when a Prime Minister and President have been close. Think of Churchill and Roosevelt, think of Thatcher and Reagan, think of Blair and Bush (or Blair and Clinton for that matter). I’m not sure how special it was following the Bretton Woods Agreement and during the days of post war reconstruction!

Barrack Obama was brought up in Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean. He spent some time in Indonesia. His grandfather was imprisoned by the British in Kenya during the Mau Mau rebellion. He is not close to Britain.

He is an African American in a country where more and more of her people speak Spanish. Where more and more of it looks East to the Tiger economies and the People’s Republic of China. (actually they probably look West from where they sit on the globe). If his eyes are fixed anywhere else they are probably fixed on the tinder-box of the Middle East and the Islamic world.

The United Kingdom is a constant ally. Right, left or centre we are strongly of the same mindset. Our constitutional and philosophical influence on the United States is huge. Our music, film and popular culture still has some influence. We share the same language (just about).

We remain an important ally of the United States.

So let us not get too worked up about Obama removing Churchill’s bust from the oval office or being too nice to the French, he remains a friend.

Don’t forget that America is not necessarily the only show in town for us. China and the East are important to our companies and businesses too. In fact, I understand that along with many European companies the UK is in better nick than many parts of the American economy because our companies are investing in the east and can benefit from globalisation.

India has a growing influence and we have plenty of contacts there.

Europe is the corner of the globe we occupy and where most of our trade is done.

And, sometimes, America gets it wrong. Think of:
  • Iraq
  • Kyoto
  • Soft peddling with Argentina
We will not always want to follow America’s lead!

The 20th century was the American century, but in the 21st her power is just beginning to decline. The United States will remain the predominant world power in my lifetime but this will not always be so.

She is an important ally, a close ally and that goes very, very deep. This is not going to change. But the United States of America is not a special ally and we shouldn’t be hung up about that.

Monday, 23 May 2011

We didn't vote for independence - did we?

Well, King Alex is safely sworn in as First Minister and he has announced his new cabinet.  And so the  electoral cycle begins again.
Alex says it is as inevitable as anything ever can be in politics that Scotland will be independent.  The wily old dog!
There is one problem.  I don’t think we voted for independence. 
The SNP seemed to gain support as a broadly competent government of whom we should have no fear.  I don’t think their record was particularly scrutinised that deeply as Labour tried to run against the cuts – or whatever Labour were trying to do.  And the others weren’t that effective either.
The writer Gerry Hassan, writing about the Scottish Spring picked up on a deep long term transformation which has been occurring for decades.  This is a change from an age of identifying with the Labour party and seeing the world defined by the workplace, politics and class.
I think also the passing of the generations who lived through World War 2 and identified with a sense of Britishness through that experience has played its part in this transformation, and with it seen the decline of the Conservative and Unionist Party in Scotland.
Into this void has come the SNP, and during the 90s and 00s the Liberal Democrats – particularly under Charlie Kennedy.  Well, the LibDems have blotted their copybook big time while the SNP have grown.
Scotland has changed, tribal loyalties are decaying and the electorate is more volatile
The SNP positioned themselves with a wonderfully coherent sense of positivity and positioning,  A moderate left of centre party able to appeal to working class and middle class, and urban and rural Scotland.  A national party of Scotland.
Of course, the SNP also prospered from the perfect storm of a weak, poorly targeted Labour camapaign with a weak leader, and the collapse of the LibDems because they had gone with the Tories and lost credibility symbolised by the English tuition fees debacle.
So the SNP won and won big!  They have established, at Holyrood at least, two party politics of Labour and non Labour.  One party old, conservative and slightly authoritarian, the other modern, forward looking and aspirational.
But this doesn’t mean we voted for independence!
There does however seem to be support for increased devolution of power to Scotland.
Back in 2007 I for one did not foresee that the SNP were beginning to become more popular.  This may have been because I lived in Edinburgh which was not at that time an especially strong area for the SNP.  Nevertheless, their victory then surprised me.
I thought they would then follow a de-stabilising agenda seeking to undermine the relationship between London and Edinburgh.  In fact they didn’t.  They were much cleverer than that.  Alex Salmond has sought to evolve the parliament at Holyrood, little by little, into an independent Scottish Government.  Independence by stealth.
It is quite cunning and manipulative – but that is ok, that is politics.
With the SNP project has come a growing movement.  They have money, and the support of many key people in business and the arts.  With this comes resources for research, clever young strategists and thinkers.  They also have a cause.  Scratch many a nationalist and you find a hopeless romantic.  Labour have the moral high ground (or so they like to think!) The Tories fight for their values and prosperity.  So too the Nats have a cause that brings passion, people and bright young Turks.
Indeed, with many bright thinkers they are redefining what they mean by nationalism and independence.  For their thinkers Independence is about “...interdependence, partnership in these islands and more widely across Europe.”  They are talking about Scotland, the UK and Europe all still being connected but in a different and more appropriate way.
This is all very interesting.  It strikes me, as a firm believer in a federal solution for the UK and for Scotland , that the SNP may be coming round to a position I hold – maybe!
The Nats have placed their focus firmly on Holyrood.  This includes all their resources and intellectual capital.  It is another reason why they are winning at this level.
The LibDems and Labour need to use the intellectual capital they have with their Scottish contingents at Westminster if they are going to do well again in Scotland – this is especially true of the LibDems who have just taken such a pasting at the Holyrood election.
It is in fact a point I feel is important to not forget – Holyrood is Just one level of government!  Just because the SNP focus on it to the exclusion of other levels and have the agenda at the moment does not alter this fact.
This is the SNP agenda – to evolve Holyrood into a national government – which is not what most of us Scots want!
The Holyrood administration is not, for example, running the economy.  It was noticeable how irrelevant Alex Salmond was during the banking crisis and I can’t imagine how we would have coped with massive global entities like RBS or HBOS with balance sheets many times bigger than that of Scotland’s, if we had been independent!
 I therefore feel there is far more that binds us in the UK together that separates us.  I am a proud Scot and I want to see a strong measure of devolution.  At this juncture in our history I feel it is important we emphasise and celebrate that which binds us together lest we slip unwittingly into the nationalist spider’s web.
We are one island with one language – this is huge!
We are part of one economy – so many of our large companies are British companies based in Scotland.
This is nothing to say of the ties of kinship and friendship across the borders.
I also believe there are many British cultural traditions – some English in origin which have become assimilated into Scots culture like the waters of two streams merging together.
I think of things like:
·         Parliamentary democracy
·         Shakespeare
·         Morecambe and Wise or Coronation Street
Cultural things, English in origin, that have become part of our own culture.
I talked to one Nat recently who pointed out that Scotland once had its own parliament.  I know this! But it never reached the depth and the maturity that the English one did.  Nor did the Scots develop the tradition from medieval times, of rule with the consent of the people from Magna Carta, through the reforms of Henry iV, to the Tudor Settlement of sovereignty in parliament.  These natural rights of Englishmen, tracing themselves right down to Tom Paine, are part of the Scottish radical tradition.  True we have other traditions of thought and politics as wellt that are Scottish in origin, but we must not falsely separate our culture from other parts of Britain.
‘Wha’s Like Us?’ We have so, so much to be proud of as Scots for such a small nation but we should not build up a myth of superiority and wonderful traditions that are not quite as perfect as we would like.  But then sometimes nationalists do this.  Sometimes they are no strangers to a good measure of baloney!  
So there we have it.  I am concerned that the nationalists seek, through Holyrood, to drive a wedge to separate Britain by stealth.
This is not what most Scots want I believe.  A move towards a federal settlement may on the other hand be something there is support for and a basis on which we can do business.
It is important in the UK, before we run away with the nationalist fairy, that we recognise there is far more that binds us than separates us.
After all – we didn’t vote for independence – did we?

When the SNP are sometimes irrelevant

I read with enormous interest what Vince Cable had to say in the Guardian today.  I also note what Ed Miliband has been saying over the weekend.
We face some enormous issues.
Cable argues that we are facing profound long term change because of the banking collapse, the recession and the changing world economy.

He argues that some fundamentals were wrong with our economy based on consumer spending, a housing bubble, and an overweight banking system where three banks had a balance sheet larger than the British economy.   The deficit was only one of the symptoms of the financial crisis. This is a profound weakness and will take a long time to fix.

He also highlighted some fundamental shifts in the global economy he points out that the UK now takes prices from international commodity markets driven by China and India.  This means we are vulnerable to rising prices on commodity markets in a way we weren't before.

These things will be a challenge for government to put right
Miliband said, “We need a different kind of economy, fairer to the lowest paid and demanding greater responsibility from the higher paid: broader based, less reliant on financial services.”
Interestingly, and correctly, Miliband also highlighted that the problem of tuition fees began with Labour.
I suspect both Cable and Miliband broadly share the same analysis.
Cable pointed out that Labour are in denial that there is a big structural problem with the UK economy. “So we stick to this short-term, tit for tat: why has growth in this quarter been slower, the scale of cuts should be slower - there is genuine debate we should be having about how radical reforms to the financial sector should be - but there is not, from the progressive wing of politics a sustained critique or pressure and argument.”

These are big questions and I think both Cable, and now Ed Miliband, are trying to get to grips with that critique and how we can make a fundamental difference for the better.   

What of the SNP in Scotland?
The SNP administration is not the same as a government at a national level.
The have no direct responsibility for macro economic affairs.
They are not in charge of foreign policy.
The SNP administration is actually quite marginal to many of the most important issues to our lives.
They were actually shown to be powerless and rather on the fringe of events when it came to dealing with the banking crisis in 2008 and 2009.  In many ways I thought Salmond and his administration lost their way at this time.
This, I believe raises some tough questions.
The Scottish economy with its major financial institutions belongs most effectively as part and parcel of a larger national economy, not a smaller one.  And I believe that national structure should be a federal one not an independent one – because it isn’t independent!
And saying we are part of Europe does not fully deal with this conundrum. There is a national dimension in terms of economic cycle, fiscal policy, inflation and currency policy.  We fit into the Pound Sterling zone, not the German based Euro zone.
Don’t get me wrong.  I am a fan of Europe.  It is incredibly important to us now and in the future.  It is an important supra-national building block in a global economy and society.    
I am no Conservative with their Euro scepticism and outright hostility from some quarters.  This seems to me to be an outdated and unreconstructed philosophy in which I do not share.
So long term the re-engineering of the UK’s economy is vital.  In Scotland we badly need a stronger private sector so we are not so reliant on the public sector and the financial sector for jobs.  This is a big issue for the modern Scotland, as it is for all of Britain.
While there is a Scottish dimension and a role to play by the Salmond administration in Edinburgh, this is a problem that I think is best dealt with at a UK level.  The financial services sector for example is on too large a scale and organised on a national UK level and beyond for it to be purely the remit of Holyrood.
I see the potential for the misplaced romanticism of the Nats to be actually quite destructive – particularly if their game is to make believe that they are a national government until it actually becomes so.
Politics is all about context of course, but in the context of the changing world economy and the UK model, what Cable and Miliband have to say is more important than what Holyrood is doing.  The SNP has chosen to largely ignore Westminster and focus on Holyrood.  Just because the SNP has decided to focus on this context and have been swept to a stunning victory in the conditions of 2011 does not make the economic facts of life different.  In just this context, the SNP administration can at times be somewhat irrelevant - #just sayin’. 

Thursday, 12 May 2011

What is wrong with Scottish football!!

Today I am holding my head in my hands about the state of Scottish football and the problem of sectarianism in this country.   This season we have seen some absolutely dreadful actions and seen a pretty ugly atmosphere surrounding the game.  It has also exposed a greater malaise in parts of Scottish society of violence, drinking and hatred.
The situation and tensions in football are not entirely straightforward and not everything has to do with sectarianism.
First, Neil Lennon has been on the receiving end of some disgraceful and shameful bigotry over the years! This is, and has always been, appalling - the way he has been treated by some very bigoted people.
Second, as an entirely separate issue to sectarianism, Lennon’s behaviour as an adult and a manager has been pretty poor.  This complicates things.
Third, Celtic, and some of those associated with the club, have made a full contribution to sectarianism this season. Trying to intimidate referees and the SFA.  Seeking blue noses under every bed.  Trying to draw everyone into their own paranoid murky west coast world of sectarian tension.  And all of this  has been accompanied with an ongoing narrative that they are more sinned against than sinner.
Last night my Twitter feed told me a long time before some idiot decided to have a pop at the Celtic manager, that there was a constant flow of pro IRA songs in full voice from the Celtic end.  ‘Up the RA’ was blaring out across Tynecastle.
Finally, Rangers have some ghastly Orange bigots in their support and a terrible sectarian streak.
Added to this of course are some people on the loyalist side of the sectarian divide decided it was a good idea to send bombs to Neil Lennon and some other people associated with a football club and community they don’t like! Who do these people think they are!! This has been the single most disturbing and most serious episode in the whole affair.  I see the police have raided some homes this morning.  I hope this leads to finding these people and making some criminal convictions!  
I have read a number of Celtic fans this season talking about having to get out of ‘this dreadful league’.  They seem to me to want to escape some imagined great Protestant conspiracy against the Irish Catholic community and Celtic Football Club.  What absolute tosh!
I always knew bigotry was a big problem in certain sections of the Glasgow Rangers support but what I have come to realise is that there is plenty of bigotry on the other side too.  What I have really resented is the way some people seem to be trying to draw the rest of Scotland into this narrow world full of mire.  Please don’t!
This is why the ‘ned’ who apparently tried to hit Neil Lennon last night is probably a bigger fool than he will ever be capable of realising.   True, Hearts have an association with the Protestant side of the divide but have in recent decades managed to keep the rivalries to standard football tribalism and largely keep out of full blown sectarianism.  Doing what that fan did last night just throws Hearts into the mix as well! That saddens me.
Football, around the world will always come with a certain tribalism.  Anthropologists can have a field day studying this.  There is a place for this sort of thing as a safety valve in society.  There is a place for friendly rivalry.  There is probably even a place for what the writer Graham Spiers calls ‘90 minute bigotry’.  Some of the songs and chants of football teams in the English Premiership are pretty offensive taken out of context.  
There is, it seems to me, little point in over simplifying things and there is a place for some of this as a safety valve – but the sectarianism in Scotland is intolerable and has created an ugly atmosphere well beyond football!  Something needs to change.
King Alex, our newly re-installed First Minister, has already started to play a role in addressing this problem and I think he can do much good in addressing the problems.  This is one issue that unites us across the political divides and across all Scotland as a whole.  I also think many, many people associated with both Rangers and Celtic want to solve these problems too.  All power to Alex Salmond in this regard!!
One final thought.  This is tribalism and has nothing to do with religion any more!!

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

What next for the LibDems in Scotland?

No getting away from it but the results for the LibDems last week were an unmitigated disaster!

In England and Wales it takes them back to the early 90s but in Scotland it takes the Scottish Liberal Democrats back to where they were in 1979 - if not before.
That is over 30 years of incremental steps flushed down the toilet - disappeared like snow off a dyke, destroying all the advances under Ashdown, Charles Kennedy and Chris Rennard!
Someone in the blogosphere said to me before the results, that In Scotland it looks like we are finished – no-one is listening! And sure, I have already noticed the BBC completely marginalising the LibDems from their political discussion - perhaps given our derisory result this is fair!
But, there are a few crumbs of comfort.
Where we had established MPs in the UK as a whole the LibDem vote held up.  The wipe out came where we had made very recent advances in Labour areas – perhaps that is entirely understandable.
In fact, we held on in many parts of the south and the south west.
I am conscious that a 15% vote is a whole lot better than our poll ratings and not far off our typical between election ratings – albeit at a local election where we always do tons better than at a General.
Scotland is where it is most dire and where I am worried about the future.
But even here let us think some more about where we are.
This is a low water mark with a freak tide.
In these conditions there are still several seats where we achieve a large vote. Much like we had in 1979! It is imperative for the LibDems to stay engaged and active with the electorate in these areas and make sure we hold as many Westminster seats as possible and can come back at a subsequent Holyrood election.

This is of course no mean feat because some of this ground once lost could be gone forever.
A new leader will bring with it a chance for renewal.  At time of writing I am expecting this to be Willie Rennie.  We need him to have all the charisma and intellectual rigour he can manage.
The UK context

We must also remember that in the UK context - and yes Scotland is part of the UK - we are still a big party – and in a UK context bigger than the SNP.  We are also in government.

We need the LibDems to be distinctive within a coalition of two parts! We need Clegg to be our leader.

We must also beware! Beware of looking too English.  It doesn't always do us much credit here in Scotland, but to look too English is political suicide.

The LibDems at Westminster need to realise this.  We need Charlie Kennedy and Ming as an elder statesman.  We need our stronger performers like Jo Swinson and Alistair Carmichael.  We need Danny Alexander to look as bright and able as he is - and he doesn't always get this over. And we need Michael Moore to step up to the plate more than he has done. 
Our fortunes are very tied in with the coalition and the perceived performance of the LibDems and of Nick Clegg in particular.

What of Nick Clegg?

Clegg has had a torrid time - and there is a fair amount of absolute bilge written about him.  However, he has not always seemed sure footed with political nous.  Last year I was very impressed with the preparation for and the run up to the election campaign.  The website was good, the positioning was good, the party platform was good, Cable played a blinder, the launch was excellent, Clegg showed real quality in debate, and the Daily Fail et al trying to kill him off was seen off well - not least with the internet trumping the print media!  I was a little unsure of how Clegg handled the close of the campaign allowing himself to be too drawn on the who would you support afterwards question.  I felt he handled that less well than his predecessors.

Since the election I felt they handled the coalition negotiations well - but, with hindsight some mistakes have been made and Clegg seems to lack political nous at times.  The way tuition fees was handled was a huge mistake.  The way the coalition operates and the way Clegg appears as an ambassador for the Coalition rather than the Liberal Democrat's leader appears not quite right.  Someone has suggested some of this may come from working in Europe where the fighting is done behind closed doors more than our public bear-pit adversarial tradition.

Whatever the case I am glad Clegg is coming out fighting, as are others.  They need to think this through and to change perceptions.  And, I would say that Ashdown, who was an enormously successful leader, was wooden and unsteady in the early days.  So all power to Clegg who, I think, as more steel and more intellectual depth than his enemies realise.
LibDems defecting to the SNP
The SNP gained lots of previous LibDem voters.

We need to remind this group of why they liked the LibDems in the first place if they are going to come back to us. 
We lost badly because of the loss of credibility over English tuition fees and going into coalition with the Tories - still an unforgivable sin in Scottish politics.

I knew the writing was on the wall for the Scottish LibDems when three things happened in that final week. 
First, a co-worker announced they had voted LibDem last time and no-one would be voting LibDem again.  No hostility just for him a complete lack of credibility because he perceived we had gone back on our platform and gone with the Tories which he could never accept.  We had become irrelevant to him.
Second, a close relative who is also English (unlike me) announced they would vote SNP!!!  They don't like the SNP, as an English person they don't really realte to them.  But to them the LibDems couldn't really be trusted to do anything they said if in a coalition situatuion and they liked the SNP stance on tuition fees given they have kids coming to that stage in the next two years.
Third, when I read Tory Gavin Brown's good morning leaflet which very effectively put over that the LibDem vote had collapsed all over Scotland over the campaign.  It was so effective and spoke to the polls and the national mood - we had no credibility even as an electoral force in our strong areas.  This meant all those pretty bar grapphs and betting odds were de-bunked with a few words.

I knew then that even our rump support and LibDem fanboys would be washed away by an electoral tsunami.

We need to rebuild

We need to reassert who the Liberal Democrats are and what we stand for - and we need to particularly do this in Scotland.
We have been down before - the late 60s when we had only 6 seats in the entire UK.  The late 70s when we fell back from the success for the 74 elections, again in the late 80s following the bust up of the Alliance when the Greens outpolled us at the Euro-elections and the national poll ratings weer worse than now!. 

Then, as I hope now is the case, we came through because there was market demand for many to vote for a moderate left of centre party! 

There is however a problem in Scotland - that is EXACTLY how the SNP present themselves! They also have a charismatic and polical genius of a leader in Alex Salmond.  They have the credibility of being in government and being perceived as doing ok.

This is of course an easier gig.  They are the government not the junior partners.  They don't have the fall-out from a global financial storm of the century to deal with directly.

So cracking Scotland will be very hard.

We could build credibility using the local elections.  We are after all in power, with the SNP, in Edinburgh.  But this will prove difficult as the ill fated trams project threatens to derail this as the vehicle back from the brink - as local government did for us in the 1990s.  
Our future is bound up in how the public perceive the SNP over the next few years every bit as much as our future is bound to how the LibDems perform and are perceived to perform at Westminster.
The future

The SNP will have their challenges over the next few years.  However, Salmond is clealy a political genius.
The SNP were nowhere in 80s, slowly stumbled forward in 90s and early 2000s but over the last 5 or 6 years they have got professional.  I always think you can tell the party that has mementum at an election count because they have lots of young people in suits! Last Thursday the SNP had a lot of young people in suits! 
The LIbDems need to pin a lot of hope on the SNPs fortunes over the next few years or otherwise.  Will they prove to be a house of cards?

There is a tough time ahead.  While they can hope to deliver some low hanging fruit in terms of policy initiatives the deficit cuts will bring challenges.  The Scottish government will have to deliver cuts and the expenditure environment will restrict their room for manoeuvre, and possibly their room for deivery on their agenda. 
They are also Nationalists, hitherto most of Scotland is not.  Much of what they do and the national discussion will be seen through a prism of the relationship with the rest of the UK.  There is a risk that some of them will start to sound shrill! (Even if in election mode they have done so well to sound positive)
The Times on Saturday put it very well - the vote for the SNP was a vote for an aspirational Scotland, not a vote for independence.

Of course in the wave of enthusiasm and optimism the SNP may be able to change hearts and build confidence in this matter.  Time will tell.

However, I am sensing a fair amount of tosh been written about the constitutional question at the moment.  The election of an SNP government with a majority means this question will be to the fore and we will debate this a lot in the next few years - and all the options of developing autonomy.

I look forward to it.  I hope we get it right.
LibDem positioning
The LibDems have always been a non socialist alternative to Tories - and in Scotland we have been a non nationalist alternative to Labour. 
We must be clear of this and rebuild on this basis.
Never mind anyone else - we need to communicate who we are and what we are about from first principles upwards.
I believe we understand the needs to have a have a successful business environment to empower Scotland as a country and to prosper.  We also believe in having first class public services free at the point of delivery.

We are Internationalist in outlook and believe in reform and looking forward.  We are modern and aspirational and open minded.
Being green is part of our DNA and has been since it was less fashionable - we have a passionate interest in developing renewables and alternative forms of energy for the future.
We are also great believers in community politics, of decentralisation - and I think empowering micro groups out in society doing things.  The big, blunt statist solution is not for us.
We want Scotland to grow and to prosper - both as a society and as an economy.

The SNP may be similar but Salmond, rather like Tito and the old Yugoslavia, holds a disparate group together – they are doing it rather well but it may not always be so.
We have to be us.
One good thing is that Scotland's political world has been turned upside down with the debunking of Labour.  It opens up the chance to have a new politics that is not ruled by a Labour single party state.
The old tribal loyalties are dying as the generations move on.  As in the rest of the UK the electorate is far more volatile.
These changes have delivered growing success to Salmond’s SNP
In the recent past they delivered success to us in the suburbs of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen, in parts of rural Scotland - an aspirational open minded electorate.
Scotland has always done well as we our outlook in terms of science, ideas and trade look beyond our borders – and our dreams and ideas are allowed to soar.  The SNP, ultimately, may not be the best vehicle for this.
Holyrood is about to see the return of two party politics and a stale fight of little differences between SNP and Labour.

In that fray we need to take our part in the thought leadership of the nation.  We need to be clear about who we are and what our ideas are that will allow Scotland to prosper. 

I think we also need to be clear that we are very much part of the UK - the time has come to remember the things that hold us together because I believe they are rather more than the things that tear us apart.
And we must play our part in Europe - because globalisation will not go away whatever UKIP or some Tories may think.

In conclusion

There we have it.

The LibDem future in Scotland depends very much on the pereception of the LibDems at Westminster and the SNP at Holyrood.

But we must also work hard at playing a full part in the thought leadership of ideas to take Scotland forward - and then establishing a simple and clear positioning.

We need Willie Rennie to be good and our Westminster MPs to be strong and visible.

None of this will be easy but I hope we succeed - I know we will try!

Monday, 2 May 2011

Holyrood - what's going to happen?

Well we're into the home strait in the 2011 Holyrood election and what an interesting election it has turned out to be so far!

Labour has utterly failed to inspire and there seems quite a strong part of the electorate that sees them as kinda irrelevant!

This is Scotland and they haven’t a coalition to kick – take that away and they are not hated, just not very popular outside of their own support!  After such a strong showing in Scotland at the General Election what a difference a year makes! (in fact, what a difference 6 weeks makes!)

The SNP has been very successful at building a coalition of people looking for an aspirational modern Scotland.

The Greens – probably due to the unpopularity of the LibDems - looked poised to do quite well. What is untested is how much people truly support them, but clearly the pro environment consensus in politics grows year by year.

The coalition has been toxic for the LibDems and they have been crowded out of this election somewhat. At this point I think incumbency will save a couple of seats and targetted efforts will bring a percent or so better than the final weekend's polls  This would represent the difference between a drubbing or just a difficult stage they're going through.

The Tories, after a good start and some good ratings for their leader, have been crowded out a bit as well and may end up doing a little worse than they might have hoped!

In short, I think this election is going to give us a large Labour group and a large anti Labour group in the guise of the SNP.  This could be a very bad thing.  If Holyrood just becomes an SNP Labour fight many of us will be marginalised by Holyrood! Also this will smack of FF v FG in Ireland.  Two very similar parties offering plenty of bluster but short on ideas.

The Greens will gain some seats while the LibDems and Tories will be reduced to smaller groups or hang on as a small rump.

The paradox is that, in different ways, none of the parties should kid themselves.

Labour, despite national polls aren't actually well liked.

The SNP have limited support for Independence – the support is for a modern aspirational alternative to Labour – and Alex - rather than for the SNP per se.

The Greens are benefiting from LibDem fall out and general sympathy to environmental issues.  But some of them seem to think they will now replace the LibDems.  However, many of their supporters are unlikely to support their policies in any detail - quite the reverse and they have no base or philosophy for local government.

The Tories have not yet moved forward, they remain essentially as unpopular in Scotland as ever - or at least since 1987!!
The LibDems are very unpopular post coalition.  Whether this is a generational change or they can in due course remind a bloc of voters that they prefer them to other temporary choices remains to be seen!  The task for the LibDems is, I think, to rebuild as a modern aspirational party.

I thought in this election they have had some extremely good ideas eg
- regional development banks
- the commitment to green jobs, and renewables and energy
- plans to abolish the Council Tax for the poorest pensioners,
I think when people get off their soap-boxes and they actually look at what the LibDems are doing in government it is rather impressive:

 Look at the key policies of the General Election manifesto!
- fairer taxes - the tax threshhold raised massively to benefit lower paid workers and make work pay,
- a fair start for every child - a range of measures to support schooling including a delivery of the Pupil Premium to support the schooling of children from a poorer background.

- investment to create jobs in the renewables sector including the formation of a Green Bank, probably in Scotland!

In fact the LibDems have got over 60% of their policies implemented through the Coalition!

There is an argument that the LibDems in coalition in the UK achieve far more than the SNP in Scotland.  Salmond and the SNP were after all largely irrelevant when faced with the global banking crisis!

And on tuition fees?
Well Labour brought in tuition fees in England despite promising not to and would have done so in Scotland if they hadn't been stopped by the Liberal Democrats.

The SNP promised to eradicate student debt in 2007 but have got nowhere.

The LibDems managed to take many thousands out of paying fees in England - better than it was before.

In Scotland they have gained praise from student groups. "To win £15m college bursaries, and £8m for college places, in a budget which is being cut is a fantastic result.  We hope this will now end the yearly ritual of college bursaries running out and end the threat of cuts to 40,000 of our poorest students.” said Liam Burns NUS President

So, the truth about the LibDems in Government is rather better than many people perceive.  But no-one has been listening this time.

As I say, the task is to remind people why they liked them and - in Scotland to rebuild as a modern and aspirational party.

There may yet be some movement in this Holyrood election, like there was in the last days of the General Election.  I expect post Royal Wedding some of the SNP support may go back from whence it came.  The question is how much will go back.

We're in for an interesting night on Thursday!