Party Presidential candidates Tim Farron and Susan Kramer were at Scottish Liberal Democrat Conference in Dunfermline last Saturday and both made a good impression on everybody. They were each given a chance to speak in a debate of their choice during the day and made very different choices. Susan chose to speak in the pre-manifesto debate, but acknowledged that our policy in Scotland was our business and focused on how she saw the role of President and the contribution she could make. A safe and solid choice, you could say, one which gave the representatives the chance to hear her pitch for the presidency. She talked about improving communication within the party to make sure that our distinct message was not lost. She spoke about how she was prepared to travel up and down the country to listen to grassroots members. I couldn't fault anything she said as it all seemed to be complete common sense.
Tim, on the other hand, took a very big risk, diving feet first into the most controversial debate of the day, on whether the Scottish Party, having always advocated free education and delivered the abolition of tuition fees in office, should introduce some sort of graduate contribution. Now, either Tim took a calculated risk, as he'd spoken to so many people by the time the debate came round, to have assessed the mood of the room and how it was likely to vote - a good skill in itself, or he just piled in there and stood up for what he believed in. Either option shows good qualities. He got up there and basically told us that while the amendment under discussion would be an improvement on the "basket case" of a system they had down south, it would be a massive step back for us and we shouldn't take it. He also talked about the "immense credibility" our record in Government had given him as a northern campaigner and then MP. He also mentioned that Westmorland had once been in the Kingdom of Scotland and offered his greetings from an occupied part of our country.
I spoke at length to both of them - and actually gave Tim a pretty hard time, almost to the point of being rude. I tackled him on my biggest barrier to voting for him, the fact that he's an MP. His response was that the President isn't supposed to be some sort of opposition leadership but he'd be sure to represent the views of the party to the leadership, highlighting his long standing record of speaking his mind on things. I also asked him about time and he said that he reckoned that his party spokesmanship (on DEFRA) had taken up 25 hours a week which he would now have free to concentrate on the Presidency.
I asked Susan about whether she was too much in the London bubble -which was equally rude, given that she'd clearly thought Scottish Conference was important enough to go to, and I know she's helped campaigns up here under the radar over the last few years. She was clear that she intended to continue the work of Ros Scott in travelling the country supporting campaigning and listening to the grassroots. Ros, as a woman from the south of England has represented us very ably so in principle it can be done.
I have to be honest and say that I saw more Farron badges around on Saturday - although they were the bright dayglo orange I miss so much, so you couldn't really avoid them and Susan's were more subtle and traditional yellow and aqua. The supporters on either side were equally passionate about the merits of their candidate.
As for deciding who to vote for, I'm still no further forward. They are both very, very good and able candidates. I will make my mind up at some point in the next week before the ballot papers come out, but it's not going to be an easy decision. It's one of the hardest internal election decisions I can remember. I wish it were as easy as my head going one way and my heart another, but in fact both are split in two. I suppose it's a credit to both of them that I've at least become engaged in the election.
If you're a Scottish member who wants to see more of Tim and Susan, the amazing Norman Fraser has organised what he rather grandly describes as a "Presidential Showcase" tonight at Partick Burgh Halls in Glasgow at 6pm. There wasn't going to be an "official" hustings at all in Scotland so it's fantastic that he put the effort in to making one happen.