I wrote this for Holyrood Magazine 27.2.12: http://www.holyrood.com/articles/2012/02/27/party-conference-special-state-of-the-parties/
Things were much simpler for both of these parties in 2007. Yes, Labour had suffered a shocking defeat in the Scottish Parliament election and this took some time to adjust to (perhaps four years in some cases) and, yes, the Liberal Democrats removed themselves from executive office for the first time in eight years.
However, both parties had to do little to survive and they largely took this to heart. As it turned out, the institutions of the Scottish Parliament did not require them to get involved in the day to day business of Scottish policymaking.
They seemed to cooperate little with the new SNP Government or take an active role in the committee process. Rather, they felt able to bide their time, waiting for the SNP to slip up and, at least in the case of Labour, return to government in 2011. Most importantly, the independence referendum issue gave them both an opportunity to assert their power. The ‘unionist’ parties commanded a majority of parliamentary seats and this majority, combined with cross-party agreement, would make sure that any independence referendum bill would fail. Further, the backdrop of the economic crisis provided the perfect justification for such an approach – the time is just not right; surely we can’t have the distraction of a referendum of independence when there is so much economic uncertainty! Instead, less dramatic constitutional change would come from the Calman Commission and then the new Scotland Bill, proposed by the UK Government and amended and approved by the Scottish Parliament.
Then the 2011 election changed everything.
It came as close as you might expect to wiping out the Liberal Democrats and reduced the once-dominant Labour to a party with almost no policymaking influence. Most importantly, neither Scottish party could play the same gatekeeping role on the independence referendum. Consequently, the annual conferences of both parties must surely be rather humbling and perhaps quite depressing experiences.
The Liberal Democrats may feel particularly bitter in Scotland, because they were the clear losers from the UK party’s ‘win’ in 2010 and its decision to enter the UK Government. They are also tied to some extent to the attitudes of the Conservative-led UK Government position on the independence referendum. Therefore, its main speakers will have to choose between a series of bland and vague speeches on the preservation of the Union, some relatively safe distractions on issues such as the legality of the referendum, or a clearly defiant tone expressing disbelief and frustration with the attempt made by the UK Government to control the timing and substance of the referendum process – an attempt perhaps made worse by the need to have a Liberal Democrat face attached to the day to day publicity and negotiations. Surely, in private, they are telling their UK colleagues that the only way to achieve a ‘yes’ vote is to annoy enough voters in Scotland by reminding them that the Conservatives, supported by the Liberal Democrats, are back in government and ready to interfere in Scottish affairs – but time will tell if they are also willing to say it in public. They have a similar quandary regarding the issue of a second question on further devolution. The Liberal Democrats were, in many respects, the most active party on constitutional change, producing the Steel Commission report in 2006 and calling for a fundamental review of the devolution settlement – along the lines of the original Constitutional Convention. Instead, what they got was a rather traditional UK Government-financed Calman commission and a Scotland Bill subject to little public influence.
In private, many may feel that the referendum gives them the opportunity to return to the more substantial debates on devolution that took place in the 1990s rather than simply be given the chance to reject independence for two years. Time will tell if they are willing to insist on this process in public rather than merely focus on what is wrong with the SNP’s plans or try to get attention by asking Alex Salmond if an independent Scotland will keep the Queen.
Things are perhaps simpler for Scottish Labour who are driven more by their scepticism regarding the need for further constitutional change and their general fear and hatred of the SNP. Perhaps surprisingly, Labour quickly became the most prominent ‘status quo’ party after devolution; one of the most likely to reject calls to revisit or change the devolution settlement. This is perhaps an understandable position when Labour was in office in Scotland until 2007 and in the UK until 2010. However, it seems to be less and less tenable as time goes on. UK Labour recognised recently that it needed a form of party devolution to give its Scottish leader the appearance of more autonomy in Scottish affairs – but this took years and years of pressure from MSPs in Scotland. They simply do not have the time to make such a grudging and gradual shift of approach to constitutional change. Johan Lamont has engaged recently in a new version of Wendy Alexander’s ill-fated ‘bring it on’ statement, trying to put pressure on the SNP to hold a referendum as soon as possible and portraying any ‘delays’ as a sign of Alex Salmond’s cowardice. Or, she has portrayed the issue as something to get out of the way; “to have the referendum now to confirm once again, that devolution is the settled will of the Scottish people and nothing else.” This strategy is a mistake. To some extent, it is a gamble that will pay off: a one-question referendum is unlikely to produce a ‘yes’ vote unless accompanied by a remarkable degree of SNP serendipity. Yet, it is also a gamble with costs since it reduces Labour, yet again, to a party that spends the bulk of its energies trying to persuade people to reject change rather than to present a more positive image of the party and devolution. The referendum lead-in provides unionist parties with the opportunity to present a more positive vision for the value and future of Scottish devolution; to debate its achievements and consider how it can improve or become more successful in the future. Instead, in the absence of demand for a second question, the unionist parties will be stymied by their need to hold the (largely UK-led) party line and to make simplistic statements about the dangers of separatism. All of the major parties know that independence from 2014 no longer means setting a country adrift from the UK and the rest of the world. Rather, the world is increasingly interdependent and further-devolution is becoming increasingly similar to modernindependence.
Wouldn’t it be good to witness more sensible and less sensationalist debates between the main parties based on that understanding of the world?