A year ago, the Liberal Democrats seemed a bit like Leyton Orient football club. No-one seriously thought that they could secure a place at the top of the league, but they were the second choice team of a surprisingly large number of people, not least in the capital. Now Nick Clegg’s cohorts are about as popular as WikiLeaks at a White House reception – albeit regarded as rather less trustworthy.
In Scotland, where I now reside, many Lib Dem activists and elected representatives are keen to distance themselves from significant aspects of what they regard as ‘the Westminster agenda’. It is not clear whether that includes the decision to acquiesce in the creation of 50 new parliamentarians-for-life in the country’s best town and country toffs’ club, the House of Lords.
According to commentator and reform advocate Timothy Garton Smith, one senior Lib Dem adviser described their own nominees as people with “relatively clean hands” who would make the institution “fit for the 20th century, if not the 21st”. Conveniently, they will also help secure the coalition government’s interests in the second chamber without having to undergo anything so tiresome as an election. Ever.
Meanwhile, Westminster-appointed Scotland Secretary Michael Moore, also a Cleggite, has cheered the party’s eleven MPs north of the border (ten more than the Conservatives) with a Bill that gives Holyrood direct control over 35% of the Scottish budget and the ability to vary income tax by 10%.
The aim of the move, shrouded in complex formulae and backed by a tartanesque Liblabservative alliance, is to please the growing number of Scots who favour more powers for their own parliament, while simultaneously clawing back a large sum of money from the Westminster block grant and undermining already-waning support for the SNP ahead of the elections in May 2011.
With the latest Scottish social attitudes survey indicating that backing for independence has dipped below 25% for the first time in a number of years, the triple-whammy strategy looks sound. But the SNP, the Greens and many economists point out that the impact is likely to be deflationary, with First Minister Alex Salmond claiming that the total cuts in the UK treasury grant would be £8 billion more than the money raised in tax if the powers had been in place over the past decade.
As this column predicted several months ago, the minority SNP administration will now go to the polls arguing for Scottish autonomy less as a nationalist ideal and more in terms of the economic damage created by a democratic deficit that enables people most Scots didn’t vote for to take away their dosh and slash their public services.
The consensus at Westminster has been that Mr Salmond is a busted flush. But he is an exceptionally capable operator and his political career has been wrongly written off before. According the current polls Labour is set to regain power at Holyrood. But with the Lib Dem vote nose-diving that prediction may be pre-emptive. Watch this tartan space.
(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. This article is adapted from the January 2011 edition of Third Way, the magazine of Christian social and cultural comment, for which he writes the monthly 'Westminster Watch' column. http://www.thirdwaymagazine.co.uk/