It can’t be much fun being Alex Salmond these days. The euphoria of May has subsided, and he’s realised that there’s nobody else to blame for his majority Government’s actions. On top of that, wherever he looks, he sees the grin of Wilie Rennie, keen to highlight any example of anglophobia, of dodging , delaying, ducking and diving. The Scottish Liberal Democrat leader has had accolade after accolade in the press for providing such high quality opposition to the SNP bulldozer.
There’s another Liberal Democrat making Salmond’s daily life uncomfortable. They don’t come more reasonable than Mike Moore, Secretary of State for Scotland. Moore was an accountant before he became an MP. Precision and detail are what he does. He’s on a mission to nail Alex Salmond’s independence jelly to the wall, this week posing six questions for the SNP to answer.
I caught up with him recently, just as he was finishing his 15th Summer Tour of his large Borders constituency. He talked for quite a while about the diverse communities on his patch, recounting every issue raised in each place. It’s clear he thrives on getting out and meeting people.
It’s as well Moore has a huge capacity for work, given that his position as Scotland’s champion in the UK Government requires him to, as he says, “fight like hell”, for Scotland across virtually every area of Government. Here are just a few examples:
The anxiety felt by people with long term conditions about the Coalition’s welfare reforms, especially the Work Capability Assessment and changes to Disability Living Allowance is shared by most Liberal Democrats. Moore has met many times with people affected by the changes and feels that he can help change things:
It’s interesting to hear directly from people that nobody thinks the old system worked particularly well
and everybody accepts that we need some reform.
What I’ve been able to do is to take specific examples of concerns back to Iain Duncan Smith and our own Steve Webb who’s been playing a blinder on these issues.
The Work Capability Assessment is at the heart of people’s concerns. We’ve changed it so that the WCA is only one of the bits of evidence that a decision maker will take into account.
There are other issues to work through and I and my colleagues are getting out there, talking to people and feeding their concerns back in.
In the wake of disappointing unemployment figures and with growth lower than expected, what did Mike have to say about the effects of the Coalition’s cuts on Scotland’s economy:
With every passing day we see more clearly the global context in which we are trying to fix our economy. We are being recognised internationally as taking the necessary action to deal with the deficit and we escape the huge interest rates being demanded of Greece and elsewhere. It’s not easy to make any of the decisions and they are challenging s for Liberal Democrats but we’re doing it because it’s necessary.
We have some huge legacy issues in terms of the way the economy was too reliant onwards the financial service sector in the south east of England. We’re now trying to support businesses across the country and across all sectors.
Moore has been in regular touch with business and has met with bankers over concerns about lending fairly. He talks about how Vince Cable and Chris Huhne have been responsive to the issues he’s raised from a Scottish perspective. He’s making a strong case for the Green Investment Bank to be based in Edinburgh.
We are making decisions which will have impact for decades and that’s a hell of a responsibility but it’s very exciting. I want Scotland to take a huge part in that.
Bleak economic news in Scotland is often greeted by an assertion from the First Minister that if he had more powers, everything would be just dandy. Moore, unsurprisingly, disagrees.
Fundamentally as a good liberal I think it’s important that we devolve all the appropriate powers to the Scottish Government – but they have phenomenal power already with the funding they give to, for example, enterprise, planning, higher education. There are broader debates about whether you should devolve Corporation Tax and we will consider their arguments.
Since then, the SNP have published their proposals for Corporation Tax, which they want to cut to 12.5%. Even they admit this would lead to a fall in revenue, cuts in services and the full economic benefits might be felt outside Scotland.
Air bases, carriers and coastguards
Scotland’s had its share of bad news in the last year in terms of the closure of RAF Kinloss, the loss of the Forth and Clyde coastguards and Leuchars changing from an RAF to an Army base. Moore has been fighting for the best result possible for Scotland. He won through on the aircraft carriers, which will boost employment in Fife and on the Clyde, and it’s clear he’s had a positive influence on other decisions.
It was widely recognised we need to modernise the Coastguard service. The Department of Transport brought forward a series of proposals for consultation. I was very much involved in the discussions. All different options were properly looked at. We’ve reached the solution that recognises modernisation but also takes on board strong evidence from Stornoway and Shetland which suggests they need to stay as 24 hour bases. We’ve moved the original set of proposals to a much better solution.
On air bases, this was a challenging situation and difficult to work through. There are huge, huge challenges coming in Fife with Leuchars becoming an Army base – but there are great opportunities there also.
(That’s a view backed up by Fife Chamber of Commerce)
In Moray, nobody will underestimate the effects of the change, but Lib Dems, Danny, me and others paid a lot of attention to the impact on communities. I’m not going to play that down and there will be difficulties. In the Scotland Office, we had a response group working with communities, the MOD and the Treasury so we could be the focal point and conduit for people’s concerns and information and act internally to challenge things and make sure all the right things were being considered. In Scotland we will have 2,500 more armed forces than before. Scotland’s contribution to UK defence will be significantly enhanced. This shows how importantly the UK Government sees Scotland.
Using the Crown Estate revenues to invest in communities
Next year Scotland’s coastal communities will benefit from a £4 million boost thanks to Mike and Danny Alexander taking it upon themselves to shake up the way the Crown Estate operates in Scotland.
I’ve wanted to make changes as there’s been a growing dissatisfaction with the way the Crown Estate operates, how it engages with Councils and other Government bodies in Scotland. I’ve probably had more meetings with Crown Estate representatives than my last 10 predecessors to change things.
Danny as a highland MP knew in spades what the issues were around the prospect of vast renewable resources coming to the Crown Estates because of offshore wind and so on and the danger that communities would be sidelined. There’s been an unsatisfactory set of circumstances for communities affected by onshore wind, and this mustn’t be the same for offshore wind. We will see substantial sums of money available for communities around Scotland and they are very pleased with the way this will work.
The Scotland Bill and beyond
The Scotland Bill goes to the House of Lords next week and Moore confirmed that there is still potential for further changes – but there are conditions:
“Any such changes have to be clear cut in what they are set achieve. They need to be properly thought through and they need not to be to the detriment of the rest of the UK.”
I asked him what happens after the Scotland Bill – after all, Liberal Democrats have a strong and positive vision of a federal UK
I’ve been discussing this with Willie since he became leader and we support and understand that our approach and thinking towards devolution doesn’t end with the Scotland Bill. We want to take the work done by the Steel Commission, which set out some key principles for further devolution, to the next stage.
At some point in the next 5 years, the Scottish people will be asked to vote on independence, and Willie Rennie has already warned that rejection of the idea is not a foregone conclusion.
I am absolutely sure that Scotland benefits from being part of the UK. Our exports to other countries in the world are about £20 billion a year in value. Our exports to the rest of the UK are about £40 billion. We get a huge amount of value from the UK, a single market that enables us to trade without
additional cost barriers and to work with each other on a straightforward basis
My anxiety is that we are entering a phase with the prospect of the referendum which creates a lot of uncertainty for businesses when they are planning their investment for the future. Like the rest of us, they don’t have a lot of detail. There are some fundamental things that the First Minister has to set out so that the people of Scotland understand the terms of the debate.
Last week the Chairman of CBI in Scotland, Linda Urquhart, said something very similar.
Rebuilding the Party
The Liberal Democrats took a huge battering here in May. Mike spoke at a special members’ forum to discuss the way forward and I asked him what he’d taken from that meeting.
That kind of gathering wouldn’t happen in any other party in the way that we held it – it was an important example of us being true to our philosophy that we talk about things, we’re open and accountable. We as ministers were conscious of the strength of feeling, the sadness that we’ve lost so many colleagues and friends in the Scottish Parliament. There’s no question that what the Coalition Government has been implementing in the last year, was very difficult for candidates. I visited every single one of our key seat candidates at least once and I knew from my own experience on the doorsteps how challenging it was for them.
What impressed me at the Forum was the courage and determination people showed to fight back. There were strong words said, but people were universally committed to getting out there and knocking on doors.
It’s clear that we have to get much better at explaining at what we as Liberal Democrats are bringing to and changing in this government. We’ve a lot of work to do and we are asking a lot of people who’ve spent years working for the party. The result in May was difficult but the resilience of the party and commitment to our principles and determination to fight back was absolute.
Mike Moore will never be anything other than reasonable and measured. He compares well to a First Minister full of bluff and bluster. His skilful advocacy for Scotland within the Government has already brought changes for the better. In the constitutional debate, he and Willie Rennie will make a formidable team, keeping the argument real and practical, but also fresh with new ideas for further devolution not just to Edinburgh but beyond, to communities, giving away power wherever they can.