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 deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images
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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage