At the weekend, the Scottish Liberal Democrats leader Tavish Scott gave an interview to a group of Lib Dem bloggers meeting at the party HQ in Clifton Terrace for an ‘unconference’.
Devolution and independence referendum
I kicked off with one of the main issues in the news at the moment: should there be a referendum on Scottish independence, and hence should the Liberal Democrats be supporting one?
Tavish was scathing about the idea of a referendum, calling it an SNP trick which the party shouldn’t go along with. His argument was that there is one pro-independence party and there is a vote coming up in a few months at the general election. If people want independence, vote SNP and if they don’t, don’t. No need for a separate referendum vote, particularly at a moment when it would take money and attention away from the pressing issues of economic recovery.
Tavish was keen on strengthening the powers of the Scottish Parliament because, “for a Parliament, just as for a council, to be responsible to its electorate it has to be accountable for both sides of the balance sheet.” In other words, the Scottish Parliament needs more responsibility for the raising of the funds which pay for the expenditure that it controls. He argued that, “at least half of Scottish Parliament’s income should be controlled by Scottish Parliament.”
As for any implication for England’s constitutional status caused by devolution, Tavish said, “England has to sort out what England wants” and that he is “entirely relaxed” about the creation of an English Parliament if that’s what England wants.
On the vexed issue of the proposed Donald Trump golf development, with the resulting fallout amongst Aberdeenshire Liberal Democrats, Tavish Scott took an emollient line. He didn’t believe that the Scottish leader should impose a solution on such local questions but he believed the events were “really unfortunate” and that people should have been able to debate and disagree with each other in a less fractious way. He also said, “I hope people will rejoin the party”.
Tavish Scott spoke in favour of fixed election cycles for the Westminster Parliament. “It’s a bit like interest rates” – the timing of general elections shouldn’t be matter of day to day political judgement. Though the ironic outcome of the Prime Minister’s refusal to move on the issue is that, “Gordon Brown will go do in history as the Prime Minister who made the wrong call and then had two terrible years.”
On STV, Tavish was asked what lessons he would draw from its introduction to Scottish local government. He strongly welcomed the way it broke up stranglehold political control year after year for parties with a minority of the vote, but recognised that no electoral system is perfect. If STV were to be adopted elsewhere he suggested it should be done with more flexibility over ward sizes – allowing both smaller and larger wards than the Scottish system permits.
Internet in politics
Although he has come to using the internet and social media in particular relatively late in his political career, Tavish Scott very much recognises the importance of the online world to modern political campaigning: “the blogosphere is one of the most important aspects of making sure your political message is out there”.
He was though somewhat cautious about some of the online traits of Scottish politics. Scottish politics itself “is a pretty rough trade in Scotland at the best of times”, with comments on blogs and websites often brimming with personalised poison.
I also asked why Tavish is a Liberal Democrat. As with Nick Clegg, his answer heavily stressed education. Though his stories of the importance of education in his far flung island constituency are rather different from Nick Clegg’s stories of education in inner city Sheffield, both make the same point – that education is central to giving people the opportunity to making the most of their life.
However, it was electoral reform and the question of fair votes that first attracted Tavish to the party: “I was first brought in to the party because I was so appalled by the outcome of the 1983 election.” An interest in fair votes led to a passion for fairness in society more widely – and so an emphasis on the issues of tax and education. “What drives me most now is that on education and on governance things are going so dramatically wrong … I see utter inequality absolutely the case in 21st century Scotland” he said.
The solutions though must involve devolving power: “I hate this more and more centralisation”. Not just Labour but also the SNP were to blame he said. “I’ve really been taken about by just how much the SNP has centralised … They are more centralising than Labour”. Would the Conservatives be any better? No – “Cameron is an utter phony on localism”.
Yes, it’s true he’s dressed up as a Viking.