Regular readers will know that I’m a huge fan of Robert Brown, our former MSP for Glasgow. I really feel that Holyrood is much poorer without his grasp of justice issues. This is the guy who stood up against all the other parties bar the Greens casually agreeing to quadruple pre-charge detention times in an afternoon following the Cadder ECHR judgement. I don’t always agree with Robert on every single issue, but I trust him 100%.
So, I view what I’m about to put before you as a major treat. Yesteday, in sunny Partick, the Scottish Social Liberal Forum took place and this is Robert’s keynote address. It’s long, over 2500 words, but, hell, it’s Sunday, and you have the time to read it. I really didn’t want to edit it down because that would be a bit like offering you a lovely box of chocolates and taking out all your favourites. And in terms of an exposition of our party’s values, it’s a treat. The photos were taken by Norman Fraser and are reproduced with his permission.
I particularly liked his description of our new leader Willie Rennie, and his comparison of our values to those of Labour and the SNP, and particularly the latter’s interactions with rich, powerful people.
There is nothing like a major defeat to make individuals and parties reassess themselves – but it is not an occurrence to be welcomed nevertheless!
My contribution this morning is entitled – “Liberal Democracy in Scotland: the Way Forward” but, in order to look forward, we first have to look back, to identify what went wrong and be realistic about the causes, to ask what sort of people Liberal Democrats are and what we believe, to examine the challenges, and to begin to plot the way forward.I have always believed that Liberalism and Liberal Democracy has been over the years a more coherent, principled and radical political philosophy by far than anything else on offer in British or Scottish politics. It is a source of inspiration and reinvigoration in difficult times, a litmus test of what is right for our country and a solid foundation for hope and optimism in our future.
Now, to say the least, these are difficult times. The disaster of 5th May cannot be understated – we hold no constituency seats in mainland Scotland, our constituency share across Scotland was 7.93% of the vote – the regional list vote 5.2% and only 2.5% in Glasgow. It is, I think, the worst result in Scotland since 1959.
It is true, of course, that a major cause of the Liberal Democrat collapse was the view taken by the voters of the Coalition Government. I support the Coalition but I take David Steel’s view on it, that “the coalition is a business arrangement born of necessity to clear up the country’s dire financial debt. It should never be portrayed as anything else.”But we have paid a huge price for the failures of our leaders to realise that trust was our strongest asset, that you can’t retain trust by selling out on our most identifiable policy, on which our MPs had made personal pledges, that back slapping on the front bench between Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander and the Tory leadership was the crassest of political blunders, and that a Coalition Agreement which works must require sign up in advance to major new policies. Suggestions that Liberal Democrat leaders agreed to sell out on tuition fees well in advance of the election because they themselves opposed the policy simply add to the image of untrustworthiness.
Nevertheless there is no mileage, in my view, in attempting to pretend the Coalition is nothing to do with Scottish Liberal Democrats, because it defines, for better or worse, our strongest public image.
And I believe it would be a huge mistake to believe that our defeat was nothing to do with the Scottish campaign or the Scottish Liberal Democrats.
The truth is actually stark and depressing and one we need to recognise. There was no substantial reason to vote Liberal Democrat at the Scottish elections. All the glossy, unread newspapers in the world, the blue letters, the targeting is no use if the central strategy and messages are not up to the job.
There was no message to set the heart racing – indeed it was difficult to discern a message at all. There was no narrative as to our view of Scotland going forward. There were no big ideas, and no obvious strategy. There was no strong connection between manifesto ideas and the core values of the Party. There was nothing for urban voters.Above all, there was the trust issue – the evil fairy begotten of the tuition fees debacle in England – which infected our supporters, destroyed our confidence and killed our vote.So where do we go from here?
Our central challenge is to rediscover our own tone and language, to rebuild that trust and to widen the constituency to which we can appeal – and to offer a more attractive appeal as a national Party than the SNP.
The first thing is for us to understand and have confidence in our political beliefs and values. This meeting today is held under the banner of the Social Liberal Forum – but can I challenge the very title of Social Liberal? Social Liberalism is Liberalism; it is Liberal Democracy. We should not allow our Party and our philosophy to be stolen from us by the New Right, by the neo-liberals, by those who believe that freedom means primarily economic freedom – the unrestricted freedom of the market, rather than the freedom of people or communities. Markets, for us, have never been “tools of unrestricted wealth accumulation divorced from any concept of the public interest”[i]
Let me quote from an article by Simon Kovar in the Liberal magazine last year which I think may help us to focus on the key themes and drivers of our cause. Simon Kovar said this:
“Successive generations of Liberal Democrat leaders and politicians, whether of the party’s left or right, have held the following in common. They have fought privilege and corruption; they have argued for a redistribution of wealth and opportunity from the rich to the poor; they have regarded the market as a (limited) means and not an (un-checked) end; and they have recognised the moral limits of markets. They have argued in support of public services and, when they have spoken of public service reform, they have meant alternative means of public provision, not privatisation.”
The late Conrad Russell believed that Liberalism as a philosophy is primarily concerned with the use and dispersal of power. “Beveridge,” he said, “trying to protect people from the giants of poverty and want, came from the same tradition as (John) Locke trying to protect them against an arbitrary king. It is a tradition of protecting individuals from the effects of arbitrary power.”
Now surely the last few years have seen arbitrary power at its most obscene.
· The Iraq War, built on American and British power, without international sanction;· The power of huge supermarket companies to undermine local economies, impose themselves on local communities, dictate terms to local Councils and local suppliers, and distort food supply chains.· Above all, the greed and recklessness of the banks which brought down the world economy, destroyed the life chances of individuals and the prosperity of nations, and handed unimaginably huge dollops of money to its top executives – banks which were too big for Governments to allow them to fail.
I am in no sense a Socialist leveller down – but I must say I find the pay package of £7.5 million paid to the Royal Bank Chief Executive obscene, regardless of the justification that it is the going rate. I also find the creep in the salaries of top executives in the service of Government, Quangos, Councils and Universities to anything up to the £1/4 million mark, often together with bonuses, to be distinctly questionable. These are matters on which Liberal Democrats should have a view because they destroy any sense of fairness and common purpose in our country.
I am a “condition of the people” Liberal Democrat – I think most of us here are. For me, equality of opportunity; enhancing the life chances of young people; balancing the disadvantage which afflicts so many, not least in Glasgow, from and before their birth; the liberating power of education; the quality of communities and the urban environment. These things are the essence of Liberal democracy, the fulfilment of our defence of the rights of the individual.
And along with the ideas I have mentioned – fighting arbitrary power, breaking down monopoly, fighting privilege and corruption, good quality public services, we can add the theory of ascending power[RB1] – that power comes from and is conferred by the people – and the concept of pluralism which means the dispersal of power and the promotion of diversity. The idea of localism which is a powerful, if ill-developed, idea in our lexicon, is linked to these themes. So is our support for the Voluntary sector – and our view of a federal future for Scotland and the United Kingdom.
And one might add that Liberalism also backs a vigorous view of the public interest – from Gladstone counting every paper clip in the Treasury, to Vince Cable warning about the debt mountain and the unsustainable prices in the housing market, from open competition in the civil service in the 1860s to opposition to a single Scottish police force in 2011. Contrast that with New Labour, a party at ease with the excesses of the filthy rich, or the SNP who take money equally readily and without scruple from Edwin Morgan, the late Scots Makar and a gay man, and from Sir Brian Soutar, the backer of Section 28; from Sir Sean Connery, who offers support to the SNP from the comfort and ambiguity of tax exile – or for that matter a party which lavishes SNP Ministerial access and bias on Donald Trump.
I have talked about values. Values should lead to our narrative – about renewing the United Kingdom and Scotland’s place in it, refocusing our identity in a post nationalist age. Home Rule means more powers for a purpose for the Scottish Parliament within a reformed United Kingdom.
We must develop and give meaning to the idea of localism. This is not, as many of our Councillors believe, just a matter of central Government surrendering power to Councils. Councils, Liberal Democrat led or otherwise, should set the local strategy but don’t always have that great a record of truly empowering local communities, social enterprises and the voluntary sector. And there must be solid, clear and attractive ideas that speak the language of the voter.
And a narrative too about young people. If young people support us in greater numbers, there is inevitable growth over the years. If nationalism is old fashioned – as I believe it is; if Labour has lost its soul and purpose – as it has – a principled non-ideological but values-driven Liberal Democrat Party is well-placed; If people are rejecting traditional politics, a community based campaigning Party has the ball at its feet; If the electorate is becoming more middle class and aspirational, if it travels more, it is more in our image.We need – and we have lost – optimism, hope and a sense of progress. We must be the Party of the future, uniting demographic, political and social trends.
Above all, the narrative should help the debate be fought on our territory, not someone else’s.
What about the way forward inside the Party? We need to reignite debate and discussion and passion about our cause, to write pamphlets and articles, to encourage new thinking, to engage with academics and others with ideas. We need to identify and take forward those ideas on the basis of our values and our narrative, hone them with the voters, challenge our Party at Conference, fight over them in local supper clubs, imbue our elected representatives and candidates with them and train our people, not least our young people, in the language and values of Liberal Democracy.
And, if the direction of these ideas is not that of the Coalition or the leadership, or the Orange Book, we need to have the analytical tools to engage in and win the arguments, to understand and debate the issues around public sector “reform” in particular, the role of the private sector and what we want for schools, and hospitals and the NHS. Because the Party is our Party, held in trust by the present leadership for the future, built on the traditions of the past.
I know there will be some people here today who take the view that the leadership are closet-Tories, that they have sold out the Party’s soul for Ministerial office, that the new leadership project is to reposition us on the centre right. I don’t share that view, but there are undoubtedly areas where the actions of the Coalition and of our Ministers seem at odds with the instincts of the Party. Coalition is a tricky place to be and a strong and assertive Party can strengthen the extent to which Liberal things – things which affect the worse off in society – happen in our Government. Liberal Democrats are not, as indeed Nick Clegg said in a major speech last July, in favour of reducing the size of the state as a matter of ideology, but equally we shouldn’t take hard earned cash from ordinary people to spend on bureaucracy, waste or inefficiency.
I confess I am uncertain how best to widen the ground on which we stand, which currently looks a bit like one of these English coastal villages where the sea has eroded the coastline and demolished everything within 100 yards of the previous beach. It is part confidence and credibility, part relevance of message, part the excitement of new ideas and modern mood music, part identifying and playing to our “constituencies” of interest – which would previously have been the progressive middle classes, the young and aspiring, women, and rural Scotland but had increasingly become a section of the urban electorate.
Our challenge has become immeasurably tougher following our defeat in May. We have, in my view, the right man to lead us in Willie Rennie – the one positive outcome of the elections, but a crucial one. Willie is already articulating our values; he is a man used to winning, and he has the combination of the common touch and personal authority which is needed for the battles ahead. Our cause will be immeasurably helped if he and we can ignite an intellectual ferment within and beyond the Party.
Our belief as Liberal Democrats was eloquently expressed in the pamphlet “We can conquer unemployment (1928):
“We believe with a passionate faith that the end of all political and economic action is not the perfecting or perpetuation of this or that piece of machinery or organisation, but that individual men and women may have life and that they may have it more abundantly.”
But let me finish with a quote, as one must in difficult times, from Russell Johnston on the importance of Liberalism. Not the one about climbing the mountain and seeing the peak, because we have fallen off that mountain. But one from the 1984 Conference in Ayr.[ii]
“Freedom,” he said, “simply for the self to do as he or she wants, if it is not joined with a responsibility to care for the freedom of others, is no more than the pursuit of privilege, the badge of Conservatism through the ages. There is no freedom for the poor.…Liberalism has within it the dream that the good and the courageous spirit that resides within mankind can be given release.It is for these things that we walk the wet streets; it is for these things that we commit our time and treasure; and it is these things that we will one day bring to pass.”
I make no apology for ending on this note, with recollection of days when Liberals were confident in their beliefs, because our cause – the cause of Liberal Democracy – remains a great cause, needed in Scotland and beyond, and is something to be confident and optimistic about.