The Scottish Liberal Democrats need big changes if they are to thrive

The party should finally replace its mediocre leader Willie Rennie and revitalise its policy offer. 

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This should be quite the moment for Scotland’s proud liberal tradition. It is a corner of politics that has gifted real talent to the UK over the years, from Henry Campbell-Bannerman and Jo Grimond to David Steel and Charles Kennedy. Scottish liberals even sent Gladstone to Westminster to represent the Midlothian constituency, Churchill to sit for Dundee, and Asquith for East Fife and then Paisley. (As well as Michael Foot’s wonderfully named brother, Dingle.) 

In that sense, Jo Swinson, the new Liberal Democrat leader, is merely the latest on a conveyor belt of significant figures. Scottish liberalism, one might suppose, is in good shape.

Except that, in strict electoral terms, it isn’t. Swinson, her party brutalised and punished for its coalition with the Conservatives, leads a paltry squad of 17 MPs, and only then due to a number of defections from the two larger UK parties — they won just 12 seats at the 2017 election. Only four of the 17 are Scots. In the Scottish parliament where, for its first two terms, they sat in government with the Labour Party, matters are even worse — there are just five Lib Dem MSPs, and of varying distinction.

Despite this, it’s generally believed the party stands on the cusp of a revival. Brexit, the internal battles of Labour and the Conservatives, and the ascent in those parties of their more extreme representatives, has left the centre ground of British politics badly under-represented. The vacuum must be filled, and, following the failure of the short-lived Change UK, only the Lib Dems seem placed to do so.

Swinson’s opening months have been promising. She looks and sounds the part, is developing a voice that is no-nonsense, consistent and empathetic, and has brought fresh energy in the wake of Vince Cable’s underwhelming tenure. The attraction to Remainer voters, disenchanted Labour centrists and horrified moderate Tories is obvious. Time will tell if it’s enough, but the polls suggest the party can expect to do well in the next general election, especially at the expense of the Tories in south-west England.

And yet, despite Swinson’s provenance, there is no real sign that the revival will spread in any meaningful sense to Scotland. The departure of Ruth Davidson is a dreadful blow to the Conservatives in Scotland, but it seems likely the SNP will scoop up most, if not all, of that party’s Westminster seats north of the Border. In the last elections to the European parliament, while the Lib Dems nationwide increased their number of MEPs from one to 16, coming (a distant) second to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, in Scotland the anti-Brexit reaction only saw them win one of the six seats available, while the SNP grabbed three.

In Holyrood, the party’s profile has sunk low and stayed there. The dominance of the SNP, which has largely stuck to the centre in government, has denied them their traditional space. Davidson’s ardent Unionism secured large chunks of the anti-independence vote, making the Conservatives the official opposition at Holyrood. Even the tiny Greens have had more impact, their votes needed by the minority nationalist administration to pass its legislation. The Lib Dems, like the equally exhausted Scottish Labour, have seemed little more than an afterthought, making up the numbers.

But there is no denying the potency of the moment. If the UK is to be saved, the Lib Dems are likely to play a significant role. Johnson’s arrogant belligerence and Corbyn’s dark regressions find little echo in Scotland. An enlivened Lib Dems might find themselves benefitting from both, as a more acceptable centrist vote for Unionists. But first they’ll have to make some changes. And they should make them quickly.

First, the Scottish leader Willie Rennie has to go. Rennie is a nice man, and in gentler times his likeability and sense of humour would be valuable assets. But he has been in the job since 2011 — the same year Davidson took over the Tories — and made no appreciable impact. The party has been stuck on five seats since he took over, and he has been badly overshadowed throughout by Davidson and Sturgeon, leaders of charisma and force. He was something of a comedy act during the 2014 independence referendum, and is arguably best known for an interview he gave at a zoo during the 2016 devolved election campaign, when two pigs in the background began making bacon, as it were.

Eight years in, he has served his time, and used up his political capital. A new leader will find it easier to harness the momentum of Swinson’s appointment and the opportunity of these Brexit times. Better done now, two years out from the next Holyrood election, than after another disappointing result. Either Alex Cole-Hamilton — a bullish and smart MSP, if thought to be a little over-pleased with himself — or Liam McArthur, who represents the iconic Liberal seat of Orkney, would offer something new.

Then the party needs to think harder about its constitutional positioning. The hard Unionism which has seemed to dominate its public statements feels out of sync with the public mood. Something looser and more in tune with the shifting sands of voter opinion would make it easier to be heard. And a proposed programme of third way public sector reform, refreshing Scotland’s education and health systems through greater focus on the end user, is badly needed. Worries about the future economy, in terms of AI’s impact on jobs and the wider workplace, data and trust, the power of large, often unaccountable private companies, and the likely growing disparity in wealth, all offer an opportunity for some radical centrist thinking.

It may be that the SNP is now too far ahead, and that Brexit is going to push Scotland out the door before much longer, but that course is not set. If the Scottish Liberal Democrats can recover the stature and distinction of their history, they may have something to say about all that yet.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).