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.