Where are the Liberal Democrat journalists?

As a nation, we are pluralist, but the print media seem to be lagging 20 years behind.

As a fellow sufferer, I love the Catherine Tate sketch where people are in a refuge for redheads called Russet Lodge. If you are a journalist who is a card-carrying member of the Liberal Democrats, I think it must be similar.

"No wonder," I hear you scream. "It is a result of the utter betrayal of the past year." But this blog is about the past 20 years. So let me ask just one simple question. Given that roughly one in five people has supported the Liberal Democrats, or their predecessor parties, over the past 20 years, where are the well-known Liberal Democrat columnists? Why have editors passed up the opportunity of hiring one?

Halfway through the 2010 general election someone at editorial level of a broadsheet phoned me. "I need to understand about the Liberal Democrats, their philosophical base, how they got here, where they are in policy terms." I instantly sent him in the direction of Julian Astle, who at the time was director of CentreForum, the liberal think tank.

I admired this journalist for his honesty and for his genuine interest. I think that many opinion-forming journalists, pre-2010, had a tendency to consider us useful only when we were a moderate influence on Labour's excesses on civil liberties or constitutional reform. They rarely took a good look at us for what we were in our own right: a party with a strong philosophical base of liberalism, however heated the debate between the "social" and "market" strands.

The dismissive approach of the papers on the right barely needs explanation. Or rather, it was explained by David Yelland, in a brilliant piece written during the election. The sense from him was that if the Liberal Democrats ever got into power, editors would have no idea who to pick up the phone to, although his account includes a bit of exaggeration.

Always take the weather with you

When I asked on Twitter for people to name a columnist at a paper who is the Liberal Democrat equivalent of Daniel Finkelstein at the Times, or Kevin Maguire at the Mirror, there were no answers.

Someone mentioned David Mitchell, another Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, but neither matches what I am talking about.

I do not mean someone who views us as a tactical convenience. I mean a fully declared, card-carrying member of a political party – it may be an often critical friend, but one who will continue to support and explain that party, through thick and thin.

For the Tories: Matthew Parris, Andrew Pierce, Matthew d'Ancona, Fraser Nelson – the list is endless. For Labour, there's Jackie Ashley, Polly Toynbee, Steve Richards and others. Of course, there are those who are rabidly opposed to all parties, those who are truly objective, and those who follow the political weather, snuggling up nicely to the next lot in power in order to ensure that they have good access with each new government.

Right now, I can think of five journalists, all working in print media, all of whom at some point have been part of the Liberal Democrat party, but who would run a million miles before declaring themselves long-term supporters. Is it that career-destroying? Or is it, as I suspect, a sad fact that while the UK has moved to a scenario where we are a pluralist nation, the print media remain 20 years behind?

Therefore, credit to the Telegraph, which currently has Julian Astle blogging for it, and to the New Statesman, which asked me to give the Liberal Democrat view, and to the FT, which publishes Miranda Green. But we are rarely in print. (By the way, this is not a pitch for a column – I struggle to keep up with my small commitment to this blog. It's a pitch for others.)

No wonder that, when we are written about, by columnists from other parties, our story is viewed through red or blue-tinted spectacles, never yellow. Inevitably, it rarely reads well.

So this is a direct question to the editors of all the print media. You employ people from Labour or the Conservatives, who then appear in the broadcast media with insights about their respective parties. Why no Liberal Democrats? It can't be that difficult, especially when you have a readership that's gone beyond the two-party system.

Come on, Alan, Simon, James, Tony and Lionel. Isn't it time you caught up?

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Constitutional expert: Scottish independence “sweet deal” for EU

The remaining member states know a bargaining chip when they see one. 

An independent Scotland could succeed in staying in the European Union, despite legally having little power to block Brexit, a constitutional expert has argued.

His comments come after the German MEP Elmar Brok, an ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel, said the EU27 could “make a fuss” over Scotland in the Brexit negotiations. 

Jeff King is a professor of law at University College London, and a specialist in the UK constitution.

He said that the Supreme Court ruling on Article 50 had confirmed that Scotland would be unable to veto Brexit from within the UK. 

But he argued this did not mean Scotland would need to leave the EU. 

“Independence for Scotland could very well be a sweet deal for the rest of the European Union,” he told a European Commission event.

“The independence movement, which has some extremely good politicians in it, is going to be in the strongest position they have been for a long time.”

A multi-layered game of bluff

The SNP's Brexit negotiations currently resemble a rather wooden play. It is being acted out for the benefit of Scotland’s sceptical majority, who, polls suggest, would not vote for independence just because of Brexit. They have to be convinced. 

The latest act is the Scottish government’s paper, Scotland’s Place in Europe. First, it asks for a Brexit Britain to stay in the single market (Theresa May has already ruled this out). Second, it asks for a different deal for Scotland, along the lines of the “Norway option”. And third, it asks for a share of the EU powers now being repatriated to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament.

According to Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, the SNP’s trade spokeswoman at Westminster, the ball is now in the UK government’s court.

“As far as what happens next, we are really waiting for the government to confirm what their position is in relation to our document, Scotland’s Place in Europe,” she told me. “Are they going to agree to a differentiated agreement for Scotland, and if not, then a decision will require to be taken.”

If the SNP are reading their lines for the benefit of Scottish voters, they are doing so with one eye on Germany. As I’ve written before, at the time of the 2014 independence referendum, it wasn’t clear that an independent Scotland could stay in the EU. The SNP believe an intervention from Angela Merkel could provide the reassurance they need. They will be cheered by Brok’s words. 

But Germany is a negotiator too. As The Daily Record reports, there is goodwill towards Scotland in the EU27, but also an awareness that a constitutional crisis could blow up in the UK government’s face. 

If Merkel’s friends and allies continue to talk about their sympathy for Scotland, the idea that the EU considers keeping an independent Scotland in to be a "sweet deal" will seem commonplace. The question for Scottish voters then will be: but how sweet is it for us?

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.