Monday, July 25, 2011

Thanks, but no thanks, Brian Monteith

When I was running my support groups for new mums, there were so many women who were finding the unwanted advice coming from all sorts of sources, but mainly their mothers-in-law, hard to cope with. Mostly it was because it went against every instinct they had as mothers, and sometimes it was clear how hurt they were at the manner in which the advice was delivered. Those vulnerable young mothers, trying to find their own way to develop their own family life, were made to feel really rubbish by people, often with their own agendas to put them down, who just had to interfere. What I used to suggest is that when an unwanted piece of advice was offered, was just to smile at whoever was giving it, look them in the eye, and say, simply, "thank you" and go on and do exactly what suited them, confident that their instincts were correct.

That's what came to mind when I read Brian Monteith's advice to the Scottish Liberal Democrats in today's Scotsman. He thinks we should go back to being called the Scottish Liberal Party, dissociate ourselves from the Coalition and should shout more about home rule.

Now, I'm not about to be seeking or taking advice from someone who was a Tory MSP for 8 years, thank you very much. Yes, I know, he's the Director of and above all that sort of thing, but there were a few low blows in that article. We're not in a marriage with the Tories - if we were it would be based on one thing only, our desire to govern in the national interest for five years to sort out the economic mess we're in - but his article does kind of have that mother-in-law put down air about it.

First of all, he gets his facts wrong. I'd have shed a few less tears if we'd returned 7 MSPs in May. Then he makes an assumption that losing two thirds of our MSPs would have been ok for us if we'd got AV. He clearly doesn't understand that there's not a single Liberal Democrat who would die in a ditch for AV. It was a mild reform that would have provided local legitimacy for the MP and was thus an improvement on the current system, but not one which set Liberal Democrats' hearts beating.

He then has a go at the Lib Dem led council in Edinburgh - which had one unholy mess to sort out when they took office and will approach next year's local elections with the Council on a much more solid financial footing than it was.

To complete the 360 degree feedback, he kicks our MPs on the basis solely of the Leuchars decision. He fails to mention that Mike Moore is responsible for a significant devolution of powers which Monteith's party would have kicked into the long grass had they been governing alone. Then there's the aircraft carriers, which Mike Moore fought to keep, and the fact that the overall military footprint in Scotland will be bigger. Not to mention, of course the fact that all basic rate taxpayers in Scotland have had a tax cut while some have been taken out of tax altogether. I can't imagine he'd be all that delighted  about the end of child detention for immigration purposes but I and every Liberal Democrat certainly is.  The Coalition may be far from perfect, but it is doing many good things.

Monteith does slightly grudgingly acknowledge that the tuition fees decision had no relevance in Scotland - but only after kicking is twice for it.

And his advice? We have to change our name to get back to our roots and put distance between us and the Federal Party. Except this is what the previous leadership tried in the Holyrood election, misguidedly in my view, and look where that got us.  I can just see our opponents in Scotland totally allowing us to dissociate from the Coalition, too. It's the one stick they have to beat us with and we have to respond robustly and not stick our heads in the sand. I have every confidence that we will get better at talking about the Coalition.Willie Rennie describes himself as anti Tory and pro coalition and is its most critical friend. I have high hopes that Nick Clegg, who knows fine that Willie gives good advice from the European and Westminster elections, will take account of what he has to say.

And as for going back to being the Liberals. Well, no, frankly. The social democratic tradition is important - and ditching it would be inconceivable for me. It's the Democrat bit of our heritage that is primarily about the role of the state in promoting a more equal and fair society and we need it in there. Joining it with the immense value that liberalism gives to the individual, and to communities, decentralising power, gives a poweful set of principles to underpin our policies. You need both sides to balance it.

The one bit where he might have a point is about articulating what we mean when we talk about home rule. We need to get the Scotland Bill through and support Mike Moore in that, but at the same time make plain that this isn't the end of the journey and what we want is proper home rule for Scotland - and we need to make it sound sexy. Alex Salmond can be pretty seductive - yes, I know what I've written and I don't mean it like that, don't be silly - when he's painting this wonderful picture about how fantastic independence would be. There is, of course, absolutely no substance to that picture whatever. When everyone else talks about our constitutional future, though, it can sound boring in comparison. We need to bring positive passion to the debate - and remind everyone that we are not a unionist party, we're a federalist party and proud of it.

Willie has been talking a lot about the costs of independence  - and he's right to point them out. But what I also want to hear from him is why he's so passionate about our vision of home rule and why it's better.

But when we look at these issues, we'll do so from our hearts as Liberal Democrats and not, thank you very much, from anyone from any other parties who have an obvious axe to grind. So, Brian - and I smile very sweetly at you, and say, simply, thank you.

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