Friday, May 11, 2007

Begrudging Blair

The problem with not keeping up daily posts is that fellow bloggers beat me to posting more or less exactly what I would have written. Not for the first time, step forward Liberal England.

Perhaps there are a few things to add. By 1997, the Tories and the country really did need a long break from one another, and Blair is to be congratulated in putting together a non-Tory electoral force that was capable of winning repeatedly.

The only other period in the past century that the Conservatives have appeared so utterly out of tune with the electorate and incapable of governing was in the few years before and the eight years after the 1906 Liberal landslide before the first world war intervened. Blair too got Britain into a war that it would have been better to stay out of. But because the war was on a lesser scale and much further away, his party has survived intact.

Liberals should be wary of lionising the Campbell-Bannerman and Asquith administration, but they certainly contributed towards making Britain a fairer, more democratic and humane society. I don’t believe that the same can be said for Blair’s government.

My particular complaint is about the criminal justice process, where the Blair government has abandoned Labour’s liberal traditions and reduced law and order policy to a bidding war for Sun and Daily Mail headlines. Even back in the days when Labour opposed neighbourhood watch schemes, I don’t think anyone claimed they were on the side of criminals – an accusation that Labour willingly level at opponents who dare to oppose any of their criminal justice bills.

It is perhaps a bit begrudging to pick on this particular issue while overlooking independence of the Bank of England, civil partnerships or the minimum wage. But there is something deeply cynical about the way Blair and New Labour have cheapened political debate that induces such begrudgery.

Simon Jenkins encore

One point I missed in my previous post was the wrong-headedness of his comparison between the Lib Dems’ attitude to Scottish independence now and the Liberal party’s support for Irish Home Rule a century or so ago:

That the party of Irish home rule should reject so liberal a proposal as territorial self-determination is odd..

The whole point of the Gladstonian Liberal party’s position was that it saw home rule as a final settlement that would recognise Irish aspirations for self-government while reconciling Ireland to the union. The Liberal party certainly did not support Irish independence.

The Conservatives and the schismatic Liberal Unionists opposed home rule inter alia because they thought it would inevitably lead to complete separation while the Liberals saw it as a way of averting such an eventuality. In the end, because home rule was never tried, the failure to grant it did indeed lead to independence.

So there is nothing odd here at all about the attitude of the Scottish Lib Dems. In supporting a devolved parliament for Scotland, while resisting independence, they are being entirely consistent with the views of their Gladstonian forebears.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Scotland needs to break with the soggy social-democratic consensus

Simon Jenkins is one of the heroes of this blog. His guide to English parish churches accompanies us on our perambulations about the country and I have consistently admired his championing of localism. Even if he has never been very positive about the Liberal Democrats, he has always struck me as the sort of commentator we ought to be wooing.

So it is disappointing to read his attack on the Liberal Democrats in this morning’s Guardian, Nice but hopeless, the Lib Dems should call it a day. At one level it is easy to fisk Jenkins’ logic. He seems to be lamenting on the one hand that under proportional systems the Lib Dems have a ‘golden share’ in representation, putting them in the position of kingmakers, while on the other criticising us for our failure to exercise our pivotal position to put ourselves back in government. Without PR Scotland would almost certainly be governed by a permanent Labour majority under first-past-the post and direct election of the executive would have led on Thursday to power being conferred on party with less then a third of the vote.

Yet somehow, there is something in what Jenkins is arguing if you ignore the cheap jibes at the Lib Dems. The party’s Scottish leadership appears to have lost the propaganda battle over coalition-making, painting itself into a corner of appearing undemocratic in opposing an independence referendum.

It seems to me the Scottish party had two choices given last week’s results. The first was to declare that as part of a ruling coalition that had lost its majority, and having seen our own representation reduced, we had lost the election, should accept our defeat gracefully and leave it to the other parties to work out governing arrangements. Instead we have gone: ‘Well, we won’t talk to Labour, but we will talk to the SNP, but on second thoughts we’re not sure about that, in fact probably we won’t.’ All of which just makes us look indecisive.

The other option was to accept that the SNP had beaten Labour but could only govern with our participation, and made a serious show of negotiations. I heard Iain Smith MSP argue that the problem wasn’t the referendum per se, but that the SNP wanted it in four years’ time after they had had a chance to work up a row with Westminster. This seems a fair and reasonable argument. In such circumstances, it seems to me that the Lib Dems should have insisted on an immediate referendum to get the whole issue out of the way early in the parliament. Assuming that the Scots voted against independence, the Lib Dems could have then held their SNP coalition partners to actually governing, not picking fights with Gordon Brown.

However, the real problem is surely with the make-up of Scottish politics and the fact that three of the four main parties are in much the same centre-left social democratic mould. It is noticeable that the policies with which the Scottish Lib Dems have been most closely associated in government – no tuition fees, free personal care for the elderly, a smoking ban introduced earlier than in England – are all ones that could have come just as easily from Labour or the SNP or both. Although we have STV for local elections, there is little sign of a second level of decentralisation from Holyrood to local authorities.

Since the Conservatives remain a busted flush in Scotland, we have yet to see a clear set of coalition alternatives emerge. This is unlike the position in Ireland where there is a clear alternative between a Fine Gael/Labour/Green rainbow alliance and Fianna Fail.

Scotland badly needs an alternative government that challenges the soggy social-democratic consensus, but is not tainted with the historical baggage that the Conservatives carry in Scotland. Having achieved its own parliament, Scotland needs to develop its own political discourse that turns on more important things than whether there should be a referendum in four years’ time.