Want to know what the Lib Dems are for? You'll find out tomorrow.

How lovely it is that we've started setting the agenda.

In the Autumn Statement, a Tory Chancellor will announce a set of Liberal Democrat policy initiatives, and, all things considered, be congratulated on his foresight and wisdom by his Labour Shadow.

I'll let you all chew that over for a moment. OK? Right then, onward...

Up until May 2010, the easiest way to poke a Lib Dem into fury was to announce, "I often ask myself, what is the point of the Lib Dems?". I seem to recall Anne Leslie was especially good at putting a lot of vitriol into it. I've no idea what was said next, as I was too busy shouting at the TV by then.

Since the last general election, everyone has found it rather too easy to answer that question.

If you're on the left, then the Lib Dems are a bunch of never to be trusted pseudo Conservatives determined to shove a right wing regressive agenda on an unsuspecting public.

If you're a Tory, then we're a crowd of yellow livered wets stopping them thrust a fiscally driven tidal wave of horrid tasting medicine down the throats of Britain.

In truth we are neither of these things. But we did leave a bit of a vacuum -- so we've no one to blame but ourselves.

For 12 months, pursuing a line of "not a cigarette paper between us" did indeed make us look like we were interested in pursuing nothing but a Tory agenda. This was not true and the grassroots hated it. But a narrative was set.

Fortunately, since the nadir of May 2011 -- and our own dose of electoral medicine -- we've started pointing out the opposite is true. Now we get credit all over the place for stopping the Conservatives doing all they want - from the Conservatives. Here for example, is the delightful Nadine Dorries

Mr. Speaker, the Liberal Democrats make up 7 per cent of this parliament, and yet they seem to be influencing our free school policy, health -- many issues -- immigration and abortion. Does the prime minister think it's about time he told the deputy prime minister who is the boss?


Anyway, while we've delighted in playing the role of Tory handbrake, going forward it does beg the old question of what we're "for" once again. Because we can't just be seen to be playing defensive to the Tory bouncers. We need to get on the front foot -- and remind people what we're actually about.

So how lovely it is that we've started setting the agenda.

Last week, Martin Bright (once of this Parish) wrote a good summation of the Youth Contract entitled "So this is what the Lib Dems are for".

And now we'll see George Osborne announcing a whole heap of other initiatives -- infrastructure investment, raising the bank levy, extra school places, cheaper borrowing for businesses -- that have Lib Dem stamped all the way through them. And which Ed Balls, to his credit, has welcomed as the right things to do.

No doubt there will be a ton of measures announced by George Osborne tomorrow that grassroots Lib Dems will find difficult -- any freeze on tax credits, for example, will be especially hard to swallow.

But at least there is clear yellow water between plan A and Plan A+, with A+ combining fiscal accountability with social responsibility.

Which is what the Lib Dems are for, by the way.


Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference


Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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If the SNP truly want another referendum, the clock is ticking

At party conference in Glasgow, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. 

Nicola Sturgeon described Glasgow as the “dear green city” in her opening address to the SNP party conference, which may surprise anyone raised on a diet of Ken Loach films. In fact, if you’re a fan of faded grandeur and nostalgic parks, there are few places to beat it. My morning walk to conference took me past chipped sandstone tenements, over a bridge across the mysterious, twisting River Kelvin, and through a long avenue of autumnal trees in Kelvingrove Park. In the evenings, the skyline bristled with Victorian Gothic university buildings and church spires, and the hipster bars turned on their lights.

In between these two walks, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. Glasgow’s claim to being the UK’s second city expired long ago but I wonder if, post-Brexit, there might be a case for reviving it.



Scottish politics may never have looked more interesting, but at least one Glasgow taxi driver is already over it. All he hears in the back of his cab is “politics, fitba and religion”, he complained when he picked me up from the station. The message didn’t seem to have reached SNP delegates at the conference centre on the Clyde, who cheered any mention of another referendum.

The First Minister, though, seems to have sensed the nation’s weariness. Support for independence has fallen from 47 per cent in June (Survation) to 39 per cent in October (BMG Research). Sturgeon made headlines with the announcement of a draft referendum bill, but read her speeches carefully and nothing is off the table. SNP politicians made the same demands again and again – devolved control of immigration and access to the single market. None ruled out these happening while remaining in the UK.

If Sturgeon does want a soft Brexit deal, though, she must secure it fast. Most experts agree that it would be far easier for an independent Scotland to inherit Britain’s EU membership than for it to reapply. Once Article 50 is triggered, the SNP will be in a race against the clock.


The hare and the tortoise

If anyone is still in doubt about the SNP’s position, look who won the deputy leadership race. Angus Robertson, the gradualist leader of the party in the Commons, saw off a referendum-minded challenger, Tommy Sheppard, with 52.5 per cent of the vote.

Conference would be nothing without an independence rally, and on the final day supporters gathered for one outside. A stall sold “Indyref 2” T-shirts but the grass-roots members I spoke to were patient, at least for now. William Prowse, resplendent in a kilt and a waistcoat covered in pro-indy
badges, remains supportive of Sturgeon. “The reason she has not called an Indy 2 vote
is we need to have the right numbers,” he told me. “She’s playing the right game.”

Jordi McArthur, a member for 30 years, stood nearby waving a flagpole with the Scottish, Welsh and Catalan flags side by side. “We’re happy to wait until we know what is happening with Brexit,” he said. “But at the same time, we want a referendum. It won’t be Nicola’s choice. It will be the grass roots’ choice.”


No Gerrymandering

Party leaders may come and go, but SNP members can rely on one thing at conference – the stage invasions of the pensioner Gerry Fisher. A legendary dissenter, Fisher refused this year to play along with the party’s embrace of the EU. Clutching the
lectern stubbornly, he told members: “Don’t tell me that you can be independent and a member of the EU. It’s factually rubbish.” In the press room, where conference proceedings were shown unrelentingly on a big screen, hacks stopped what they were doing to cheer him on.


Back to black

No SNP conference would be complete without a glimpse of Mhairi Black, the straight-talking slayer of Douglas Alexander and Westminster’s Baby of the House. She is a celebrity among my millennial friends – a video of her maiden Commons speech has been watched more than 700,000 times – and her relative silence in recent months is making them anxious.

I was determined to track her down, so I set my alarm for an unearthly hour and joined a queue of middle-aged women at an early-morning fringe event. The SNP has taken up the cause of the Waspi (Women Against State Pension Inequality) campaign, run by a group of women born in the 1950s whose retirement age has been delayed and are demanding compensation. Black, who is 22, has become their most ­articulate spokeswoman.

The event started but her chair remained unfilled. When she did arrive, halfway through the session, it was straight from the airport. She gave a rip-roaring speech that momentarily convinced even Waspi sceptics like me, and then dashed off to her next appointment.


Family stories

Woven through the SNP conference was an argument about the benefits of immigration (currently controlled by Westminster). This culminated in an appearance by the Brain family, whose attempt to resist deportation back to Australia has made them a national cause célèbre. (Their young son has learned to speak Gaelic.) Yet for me, the most emotional moment of the conference was when another family, the Chhokars, stepped on stage. Surjit Singh Chhokar was murdered in 1998, but it took 17 years of campaigning and a change in double jeopardy laws before his killer could be brought to justice.

As Aamer Anwar, the family’s solicitor, told the story of “Scotland’s Stephen Lawrence”, Chhokar’s mother and sister stood listening silently, still stricken with grief. After he finished, the delegates gave the family a standing ovation.

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, the New Statesman’s politics blog

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. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood