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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.