Fees hike dragged Scottish Lib Dems into “political gutter” says former leader

Tavish Scott has revealed the extent to which Nick Clegg’s decision to enter into coalition with the Conservativeshas damaged the Liberal Democrats in Scotland.

As the Liberal Democrats continue their annual get together in Birmingham, the party’s former leader in Scotland, Tavish Scott, has this weekend used a series of guest articles for the Scotsman to outline the extent to which Nick Clegg’s decision to enter into coalition with the Conservatives in Westminster has damaged the party north of the border.

On Saturday it was Vince Cable’s decision to support increasing tuition fees which bore the brunt of Scott’s anger; he said the decision had dragged the party north of the border into the “political gutter”.

Scott argued:

“I will never understand why Vince Cable was allowed to make a Commons statement on the Browne Report into Higher Education funding in England on the day it was published and commit the government to its findings.

“Kristy Williams, my opposite number in Wales, and I conference called with Nick and said what would happen if the party reneged on its election promise. We both feared the electoral consequences and for the same reason.

“Despite protestations to the contrary from BBC Scotland and STV, the average Scots voter’s perspective on politics is massively influenced by “big” news. The national 10pm bulletins punch serious holes in Scots’ understanding of what’s devolved and reserved.

“So despite having an impeccable record on abolishing tuition fees in Scotland – fees imposed by the first Blair government – Scottish Lib Dems were dragged into the political gutter by the decision in London.”

Continuing his critique of the impact of the coalition on his ability to carve out an independent Scottish identity for the party, Scott argued the decisions taken over the five days in May that formed the UK government, coupled with chancellor George Osborne’s subsequent spending review in October last year, had abolished any room for manoeuvre he might once have had.

Scott added:

“Any time I asked a question on government expenditure, [Alex] Salmond had the easiest riposte – it’s all your fault, we are coping with London cuts. Trying to avoid any mention of money in the middle of a recession and holding a Government to account isn’t that easy!

“Should I have declared UDI? The thought occurred… often. I discussed strategy with valued political friends – party convenor Craig Harrow, Charles Kennedy, and in Holyrood, Nicol Stephen, Jeremy Purvis and Liam McArthur.

“My parliamentary group in Edinburgh were deeply unhappy about the London coalition. Especially those who had been in the Lib Dem/Labour coalition as ministers.”

On Sunday, meanwhile, evoking the memory of Geoffrey Howe, Scott wrote on the impact the UK coalition had had on his party’s chances in the elections to Holyrood in May this year:

“There are lessons for the Scottish Liberal Democrats about campaigning, money, people and organisation. But the year to 5 May and the campaign itself keeps reminding me of the Geoffrey Howe resignation speech in the House of Commons. He compared his ministerial role under Mrs Thatcher to being sent out to bat without pads, a bat or a protective helmet.

“That was all too true in May, but Scottish Liberal Democrats didn’t even have a box.”

Elsewhere, in Wales, ahead of her speech to the conference on Wednesday, the leader of the Welsh Lib Dem Leader has been seeking to outline the lessons the party should learn from Plaid Cymru’s experiences in coalition with Labour in Cardiff Bay, which resulted in May in Plaid falling backwards.

Arguing they had sent “mixed messages” about their impact on core policies of education, health and the economy, preferring instead to campaign on its policies concerning the Welsh language, Kirsty Williams warned:

“Those mixed messages Plaid gave out were one of the reasons they couldn’t capitalise on being part of that government. What was it about Plaid being in government that had made that government different?

“What that should tell Liberal Democrats is that if you are in government, like we are in Westminster, we need to be absolutely clear that whilst we work on issues that are hugely important to Liberal Democrats’ core voters it’s also being sure we can demonstrate to the British public at large that Liberal Democrats are making a difference on the bread and butter issues of the day and standing up and being and very clear and communicating what is the difference the Liberal Democrats in government are making.”

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.