It seems like everyone has a cure for the Labour Party. It is a sign of the times for the LibDems that neither the mainstream media, nor social media, are much interested in what happens next for them. The encouraging signs of a post-election membership mini-surge have even been drowned out by Carmichaelgate. But although the LibDem collapse provides welcome opportunities for the growth of the Greens, there is still a need for a strong liberal voice on human rights and Europe. The difficulty is whether the LibDems are in any state to provide it.
I used to describe myself as a social liberal. I was a member of the Scottish Liberal Party in the 1980s and Secretary-General of IFLRY, the International Federation of Liberal Youth. I have voted LibDem (or Labour) on many occasions when I lived in England, and I voted for the excellent Michael Moore in 2010. Ironically it was partly an anti-Tory tactical vote, but I didn’t really regret it, and might have been tempted again in 2015 if I was still living in Selkirk (I didn’t think the SNP tsunami would reach the Borders and I thought it was the Tories who threatened to defeat him). Indeed I regret that he, and Mike Crockart and Jo Swinson are currently off our political scene, although I hope they see it as an opportunity to run for the Scottish Parliament.
I left the Scottish LibDems in 1989, because of what I perceived to be weak opposition to the poll tax, mass unemployment and Thatcherism, rather than because of the party line on independence. As a member of Scottish Young Liberals (SYL) I had spoken at an annual conference in opposition to a Glasgow University Young Liberal called Alastair Carmichael, who proposed that SYL should give up on independence and support the senior party line on federalism. We won the vote in SYL, but I was comfortable to be a pro-independence member of a party committed to strong Home Rule. I have been a non-active member of the SNP since 1990, and was active in the Yes campaign, but I still would like to see a strong liberal voice in Scottish politics.
Of course I am biased by my historical choices, but I should be part of the demographic the Scottish LibDems are trying to win back. I don’t ask that the party supports independence, although I liked it when Michael Moore said he was not a unionist. A true liberal party would balance internationalism with localism, and would include, and show respect for, folk who supported federalism, con-federalism and Scottish independence within a federal EU. It would be a good start if the Scottish LibDems could rekindle the fire that once made them passionate supporters of Home Rule.
However, the answer to the question of how to revive Scottish LibDem fortunes does not lie with the question of Scotland’s constitution. The opportunity to be relevant on that topic has passed. It is important only in that the party must confront the fact that one reason it has lost the trust of many liberal voters is because they became illiberal in their hatred of all things SNP.
It is understandable that there would be some LibDem hostility to the SNP. Until recently they were often in competition for the same anti-Tory voters in more rural areas. And at the local level there have been plenty of examples of illiberal behaviour by nationalists to take offence with, (those on a liberal high horse might care to contemplate how they are perceived by Labour & Tory supporters). But there is a difference between competition for votes and becoming so paranoid that almost every initiative is designed as a reaction to the enemy.
I think Willie Rennie is probably a decent man, but to see him attack the SCVO and call for the resignation of Martin Sime, because they had the temerity to suggest that Home Rule should be an option in the indyref, was shockingly, profoundly and deeply illiberal. I used to like Malcolm Bruce back in the 1980s, but his more recent ranting against Alex Salmond has become deranged. And for LibDems who led the introduction of the right of constituents to recall their MP to be seeking to save Alastair Carmichael from accountability before his constituents is an embarrassment.
The fundamental challenge for the LibDems is one of trust. It was always going to be difficult for Scottish LibDems to justify going into government with the Tories and the betrayal on tuition fees was a fatal mistake. Trust will not be rekindled by self-interest in trying to defend Alastair Carmichael. Now more than ever they need to deliver honesty.
If they can do that the Tories have placed two issues on the agenda that should play to LibDem strengths even in these dark days. LibDems have a strong track record on human rights and should look to be building alliances across the political spectrum in Scotland in opposition to Tory plans. LibDems also have a positive vision of Europe that should be at the heart of a Yes campaign, although they must also beware Cameron’s trap. It is clear that his vision for Europe will be pro-business, anti-worker, anti-environment and anti-immigrant. We need a positive broad-based pro-EU campaign, not Project Fear mark II. There will be a space for liberal voices, it is not yet clear who has the credibility to make that case.