Monday, September 06, 2010

What I want to see from Tavish Scott and the Scottish Liberal Democrats in the year ahead

As MSPs return to Holyrood after what's effectively their last chance to get a decent break before the elections next May, I thought it might be a good time to flag up a few things I'd like to see from the Liberal Democrat team in the Scottish Parliament.  I want to see us boldly championing what we believe in, topping the news agendas with our ideas and leading the debate on the key issues facing Scotland.

In the 2 years since Tavish Scott was elected leader, he has had some major successes.

When everybody wrote off the Lib Dems' chances of retaining our Scottish MEP, we, under Tavish's leadership proved them wrong with a well fought, positive campaign.

When Mike Russell wanted to sell off Scotland's forests, it was Tavish who led the campaign to stop him.

When the SNP wanted to stop 18-21 year olds from purchasing alcohol at off licences, the Liberal Democrats campaigned against this illiberal plan.

The Liberal Democrats under Tavish's leadership have ensured more opportunities for young people in the last two budgets.

Tavish stood up to the tabloid press and led the Liberal Democrats in support of the minimum sentencing provisions of the Criminal Justice Bill.

All this is very good, but I think there are areas for improvement. I think we were wrong to oppose the release of Megrahi. Kenny MacAskill made the right decision on compassionate grounds on the evidence he had at the time. Yes, I think there are some issues with the process as I wrote extensively at the time, but never again do I want to switch on the television and see any Liberal Democrat telling the press that they want to see somebody with terminal Cancer die in prison.

I'm also not convinced by our continued opposition to minimum alcohol pricing. I'm not sure there is a good enough reason of principle to oppose it, as there was with the ridiculously illiberal off licence plan. I don't understand why a minimum price is any more illiberal than increased duty. We've accepted the principle that it's ok to interfere in the market to change the amount people pay for alcohol, otherwise we'd advocate no duty above VAT on the stuff.

I totally get what Robert Brown, our Justice Spokesman says when he talks about how we need to work with the UK Government and that there needs to be a wide range of measures to deal with alcohol abuse in Scotland, saying:

“There is no doubt that Scotland’s abusive relationship with alcohol must be tackled.
“Current alcohol laws must be enforced. Those who sell alcohol to under age drinkers and landlords and retailers who sell alcohol to those who are already drunk should be punished. We also support moves to crack down on irresponsible price promotions.
“The SNP have taken a very narrow view of the whole process, totally ignoring much more effective solutions which would cover the entire UK, something which the coalition Government is already considering.
So far so good, but I'm not so keen on this last bit
“They clearly prefer a pricing mechanism that stops artificially at the border.”
Let's face it, it is simply not practical by reason of distance for most Scots to nip across the border to an English offie to buy cheaper booze. I really don't think there's going to be hypermarkets selling cheap booze on the English side of the border if this is passed.

I know that opposition to minimum alcohol pricing isn't the extent of our policy on dealing with alcohol abuse and now that Nicola Sturgeon is prepared to consider a sunset clause, I think it might be worth giving minimum alcohol pricing a try so long as they implement some of the other measures we want and engage with the UK Government on the issue. If the Westminster parliament takes a different path for England and Wales, the evaluation of the two approaches might even be helpful in determining future policy for everybody.

I am a little tired of hearing more about what the Scottish Liberal Democrats are against instead of what we are for. The referendum on independence is a case in point. While I personally am relaxed about the prospect of such a referendum, and I would like to see a more open minded approach to it from the Party leadership, it's not the be all and end all of the debate on Scotland's governance.

In the next year, I think we need to talk about the Calman reforms. In the run up to the Westminster election, the Tories were wriggling away from implementing Calman with more passion and intensity than a rabbit who sees the approach of the claw clippers (I have the scratches to show for that fight). The only reason there is going to be any implementation of the Calman reforms is fairly and squarely down to the Liberal Democrats' insistence on it.

But Calman isn't the whole story. In fact it's pretty tepid in comparison to what we really want - fiscal federalism as outlined in the Steel Commission report. I think we need to outline that vision for Scotland. While supporting the Calman reforms, we need to make it clear that for us they are a hard won stepping stone to a wholesale reorganisation of the way we do things in the UK, giving maximum power to the states that make up the UK, emphasising the benefits for Scotland of being part of a genuinely fair, federal system. And we need to do it in plain, clear terms and not dry constitution speak.

There were always going to be challenges in being in Coalition at Westminster, especially with the Tories. We need to clearly show how we are taking the sting out of them, how we are making the difference. I've been surprised at how my friends who aren't involved in politics have been generally positive about the Coalition.

In the run up to the Westminster election, it was Nick Clegg and The Almighty Vince who were the only people to put forward sensible plans for the inevitable spending cuts. Ok, at that point, we were saying that there shouldn't be any cuts this year - but they had to come. In the absence of much in the way of sense from the other parties, it's Tavish and the Scottish Liberal Democrats who should be leading the debate up here in a similar way. It's not enough to just blame Westminster, particularly if your party was the cause of the mess we're in after 13 years in power, Labour, or, SNP, to use the forthcoming spending cuts to try to build a case for independence to the exclusion of a decent debate on how we implement them.  Maybe we need to think about using those tax raising powers we already have to preserve some of the services we hold dear.

I expect that top of the list of our priorities will be education. Tavish is so passionate about making sure that all children, regardless of their background, get the education they need to fulfil their potential. The Pupil Premium is being introduced in England  as a result of the Liberal Democrats being in the Coalition and we need to ensure that we take a similar approach in Scotland.

Way back in 2006 we launched our Pre Manifesto. Bright Future it was called, and it talked about doing bold, radical things, like having all of our energy from renewables by 2050.  By the time the election came round, the only things being reported were that we were against a referendum on independence and in favour of an hour of PE a day for schoolkids. This time our narrative must be clear, weaving our core values of freedom and fairness through a relevant set of policies which set out what a Liberal Democrat Scotland should look like.

We're a party that's full of good ideas, with policies coming out of our ears on the issues of the day. We need to forge them into a positive, optimistic, fair programme for Government which will excite, lead and inspire.


Malc said...


I have to say that, in the main, I agree with you here.

I'd love to see all parties - not just yours - articulate their views positively: what do they stand FOR not against? If they do that, then maybe we don't really have to worry about compulsory voting, because people will become naturally more engaged with politics anyway, in a positive way.

Anyway, yep. I don't really have much to say, other than I agree. Have you thought about standing for leader?!

Bernard Salmon said...

Principled reasons to oppose minimum pricing for alcohol:
1) It's not the government's job to be setting prices for products.
2) It won't work - minimum pricing is unlikely to make much, if any, difference to Scotland's binge drinking culture.
3) It will penalise responsible drinkers, especially those on low incomes.
4) It's possibly illegal under European competition law.
5) The supermarkets will pocket the profit from the increased prices. If it's done through raising alcohol duty, money can be raised to fund projects to help cut problem drinking.

I think Labour's idea of a price floor, by which alcohol can't be sold below cost price, is likely to be a more effective approach to dealing with the issue than minimum pricing.


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