The Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael. Photo: Getty
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Lib Dem cabinet secretary Alistair Carmichael: "The centre means nothing to people"

The Secretary of State for Scotland and Lib Dem MP for Orkney and Shetland on the lessons of the independence referendum, the future of his party, and why the Lib Dems should be in government again.

I meet Alistair Carmichael on the first day of the tangle of gaudy lanyards and lost dreams that is this year’s Lib Dem party conference. The Secretary of State for Scotland and Lib Dem MP for Orkney and Shetland has had an exhausting year. From warning No campaigners against complacency ever since his promotion this time last year, to frenzied campaigning following the shock Yes campaign lead in a now infamous YouGov poll a couple of weeks before the vote, his government position has been inextricably linked to the fate of the Union.

Did he ever see Scotland slipping away?

“Well, the weekend when the YouGov poll put them ahead was the most nerve-wracking,” he replies grimly. “I don’t think I ever actually believed in my heart that they [the Yes campaign] were going to win, but I always knew they could.”

The main change he saw in the Better Together campaign in the last days leading up to the vote was “Gordon Brown’s intervention, and the bringing forward of a timetable for further devolution.” Should Brown, whose passionate save-the-Union speeches have somewhat revised the former Prime Minister’s reputation, have been prominent in the campaign earlier on?

“In fairness, he was. He was in the campaign sort of May, June. And you can argue it both ways: if he’d have come in too early, people would have got used to him, it wouldn’t have had the same impact. There’s no right or wrong answer to that. I think he played an important, pivotal role and I’m delighted that he did.”

Carmichael replaced the mild-mannered Michael Moore in the Scotland job last year, and the media narrative was that he was promoted for being a more forthright figure. The word “bruiser” came up repeatedly as a way of describing this former Lib Dem chief whip.

“In retrospect, I think the mistake we made there was that I wasn’t known to lots of the editors and I didn’t do enough to define myself, so they defined me for me,” he admits. “People who know me know that I am not any sort of ‘bruiser’. Having done the jobs I’ve done, I’ve worked with people in different parties. And yeah I will occasionally be forthright if that’s what’s necessary, but it’s still done on the basis that you’re working as part of a team.”

Carmichael repeatedly emphasises the idea of unity and cooperation on the Better Together side, saying that he rarely needed to approach the situation in the “forthright” manner for which he was supposedly recruited. Yet this apparently non-confrontational approach meant that we saw little of Carmichael, and, indeed, the Lib Dems, in the referendum campaign. He doesn’t deny that his party were not in the spotlight, remarking, “that was not a time for being precious and saying ‘I’ve not had my turn yet!’”

He adds: “The important thing that we all understood in all parties was that the vote under contest was the Labour vote in west central Scotland, and other traditional Labour communities. And that in order to deliver a message to that vote, then it was necessary to have Labour voices out front and centre.”

As the referendum result was far tighter than originally expected, and with SNP membership now rocketing, there is much criticism that the Labour party didn’t do enough to appeal to its voters in Scotland. Carmichael is diplomatic on this point, saying: “We’ve been through a political experience in Scotland of which there is no precedent. So trying to predict what happens after a period of which there is no precedent is pretty tricky. Let’s just wait and see. There’s still a lot of dust to settle.”

But should the result have ever been this close?

Carmichael admits that the No side made mistakes: “One of the things I don’t think we really understood before the experience of the referendum was the way that the emotional intensity would increase so much in the last few weeks, and I think that did have an impact on the outcome.”

He insists that it is “dangerous” even to discuss the prospect of another Scottish independence referendum, arguing that “we can’t afford” another one. “It’s up to us though to deliver a change having got the No vote. And if we can demonstrate good faith and actually deliver a settlement that people see as what was promised, then I think we have the opportunity to settle this once of for all.”

Yet David Cameron hijacked the devolution plan by making a speech the morning of the result arguing the need for English votes for English laws.

“I understood what he was trying to do,” Carmichael says, taking a more mild approach to the PM’s move than Nick Clegg has. The latter told the Times yesterday, “it mustn’t be Tory votes on English matters . . . that’s totally unacceptable and it’s not democratic and it’s not going to happen.”

Carmichael continues: “I want constitutional change across all of the United Kingdom, probably more radical constitutional change than David Cameron wants, but I could see the tactical opportunity in using the momentum of the Scottish referendum to generate a case for constitutional change in England.

“The mistake that was made, which in fairness to David Cameron he clarified very quickly, but others in the Conservative party continued to pursue, was that there was a linkage between the two. Be quite clear about this: the fulfilment of the Vow in Scotland cannot and will not be held back by constitutional changes within the United Kingdom.”

The Scottish Secretary is in favour of a federal United Kingdom, and wants to think beyond the “fairly narrow issue about English votes for English laws”, though he admits, “that’s one aspect of it”.

“The answer to English votes for English laws though is a federal structure; it is not to try some fudged compromise where you devolve within parliament but not within the executive, which is essentially what’s being suggested here. The way you get to a federal structure is ultimately through calling some sort of UK-wide constitutional convention. And I think that by fulfilling the Vow in Scotland, you open the door to that wider constitutional reform across the whole of the UK.”

He repeats the promise that draft legislation for handing more power to Scotland will be published by Burns Night, adding dryly: “It will probably be as long as Tam O'Shanter but not quite as entertaining or poetic.”

Looking beyond his immediate Scotland Office duties, Carmichael reflects on the future of his party in government. He sees there being a “pretty good chance” of the Lib Dems being a coalition partner following the next election, asserting that, “either of the two parties will do a deal with us, regardless of what they might say publicly.”

Would it be easier for the Lib Dems to form an alliance with Labour, considering significant policy overlap, including a mansion tax and a UK-wide constitutional convention?

“Look, that’s all for the voters to decide . . . Could we build a coalition with the Labour party? Yes, I think we could. And can we build a coalition with the Conservatives? We've demonstrated that we can . . . I think by the next election, the scary option will be handing the keys to No 10, either to David Cameron or Ed Miliband, with no check on them. And that is the terms on which the next election will be seen.”

The terms on which Clegg and the Lib Dem leadership are using to frame the next election are that the centre-ground of British politics is liberal, and the Lib Dems are the true party of the centre. Seizing the centre-ground isn’t exactly a strong rallying cry for a party swimming in low poll ratings though.

“No, I think the way Nick defines the centre is quite an exciting, radical proposition,” Carmichael argues, defending his leader. “And it is one which, as I say, brings with it the opportunity to transform the way we do politics in this country.

“So no, I don’t think I would go onto the doorsteps and talk about the centre, because that means nothing to people. But if you say to people, as is now apparent, the tax policies and the amount of income tax they pay on the money they earn will be determined by Liberal Democrat tax policies, that’s a positive message. It’s one that is relevant to every household budget in the country.”

My colleague George recently interviewed the former Lib Dem Home Office minister Jeremy Browne, thought by many to be a potential future party leader. Browne said the Lib Dems have three different options for their future direction: “360-degree liberalism”, characterised by free-market economics and liberal social policy, a “steady-as-she-goes” approach, muddling through, or a return to the radical, studenty politics for which the party was known before government.

“It maybe makes for an interesting lunchtime discussion,” Carmichael reflects. “But frankly it’s the sort of inside-the-bubble politics that’s never really attracted me. It appeals to academics, it appeals to commentators, but when you’re out on the streets, when I’m out talking to the crofters and the fishermen and the farmers in my constituency, I don’t think they want to hear that!

“I’d rather talk to them about the things that are going to help them, like childcare in the early years, income tax, putting extra money into education, higher education, further education – that’s what matters to people, rather than some navel-gazed analysis of how you operate your party and what philosophical hue you tint it.”

Unsurprisingly, Carmichael won’t entertain the discussion of another politician replacing Clegg in the event of a pact with Labour. “Do I think that the Labour party will walk away from being in government and put themselves in opposition for 10 years because they don’t like the person we’ve chosen to be our leader? Nah. Not for a second. But frankly, it’s inside-the-bubble politics again. And if that’s where Labour want to be that’s fine for them. I’d rather be on the streets talking to the voters.”

And in a way, this is the party’s biggest conundrum. Its strength lies in its ground movement. But a result of being a party of government is that it has been absorbed into the bubble. The test for Carmichael and co is to burst this bubble, without sacrificing a place in the next government.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder