How would you answer the question about the Lib Dems the Indy asks all with an open mind to consider?

Mark Pack has posted excerpts here from Nick Clegg’s interview in the Independent today — but it’s worth highlighting also the conclusion of the paper’s leading article today assessing the Lib Dems’ contribution during the first two years of Coalition Government:

There remains much to criticise this Government for, and The Independent on Sunday disagrees with its policy on tax and spending, higher education, the NHS and much else besides. But there was no possible government after the last election that could have delivered all that this newspaper wanted. The effective choice was between a Conservative minority government and a coalition, and the latter has given some stability.

We give Mr Clegg credit for two things. One is that neither he nor Mr Cameron has sought to blame the other for decisions in which neither side got all that it wanted. The other is that the Liberal Democrats have made a positive difference. This Government is more concerned with social justice, civil liberties and the environment than it would be if it consisted wholly of Conservatives.

What if the conventional wisdom were wrong? It would not be the first time that someone whose career had been written off came back. Those who are prepared to keep an open mind should at least consider the question that Mr Clegg poses in his interview. If it were not for the presence of Liberal Democrats, would this Government not be much worse?

Or to put it another way, and to paraphrase Voltaire, Don’t Let The Perfect Be The Enemy Of The Least Worst. It’s not an election-winning slogan, I accept. But it has the merit of honesty.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

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39 Comments

  • Peter Watson 15th Apr '12 - 3:11pm

    “One is that neither he nor Mr Cameron has sought to blame the other for decisions in which neither side got all that it wanted.”
    This is why I think that closed, secretive government by cabinet with collective responsibility is incompatible with the demands of government by coalition. We should be grown-up enough to know that differences exist and to know what they are. Currently, we either have to assume that LDs are gladly supporting policies they previously opposed, or believe leaks, anonymous press briefings, and gossip about negotiations. The debates and compromises between coalition parties should be open. What exactly did the LDs gain in return for breaking promises to vote against increasing student fees? And how in 2015 do we campaign against the conservatives if we cannot identify which bits of the previous 5 years are thanks to us?
    Equally, I think it is a terrible defence for us to keep claiming that without the Lib Dems a tory government would be worse. For a start it implies that the current government is bad (but not as bad as it could have been). Secondly, it is meaningless if we cannot demonstrate exactly what it is we have prevented the tories from doing. All that voters can see is where we have capitulated, and with our trustworthiness damaged over student fees why should they believe such statements without evidence.
    I believe that in May 2010 we would have been less damaged if we had allowed a minority tory government to rule with a confidence and supply agreement. Negotiation and compromise would have to be open. We could have voted for policies with which we agreed and against those which we did not believe were in the country’s interests. And where we gave votes reluctantly, the electorate would know.

  • Andrew Suffield 15th Apr '12 - 3:48pm

    I believe that in May 2010 we would have been less damaged if we had allowed a minority tory government to rule with a confidence and supply agreement.

    Tories would have given it six months, then gone back to the voters with “Look, the Lib Dems don’t want to do anything with your vote and the economy’s getting worse, why are you voting for them?”

    They’d have been right, and won a landslide when the LD vote collapsed in their favour.

  • I’m actually not sure if the existence of a majority Tory government would have led things to be worse. For one thing there would be a united opposition to Tory policy, ironically, in fact, to most of the policies going through at the moment. Aside from anything else that would mean a united opposition in the Lords as well as the house of commons, and the Tories would have been unable to use the Lib Dems as a shield with which to deflect criticism or as a veneer of liberal progressiveness. Also worth pointing out that the lack of a mandate for many Tory policies would have been emphasised if they ran a minority government. I also think it is a mistake to simply assume that people would vote in the Tories in a second general election. Who, realistically, could they appeal to? Lib Dem voters- a few on the right of the party perhaps… and maybe UKIP voters, but equally being an ineffective minority government could lead them to greater unpopularity.

  • The Tories failed to grab a majority even with a broken Labour party with a catastrophically unpopular leader at the helm. It would be a brave assumption that the Tories would have an easier ride after six months minority government. A new, rather more charismatic leader, and a thorough sweep-out of the shadow cabinet, fortunes would have started to improve. And moreover, had there been an autumn election, Labour’s disillusioned supporters who sat on their hands in May 2010 would almost certainly be flocking back to the polls having been alerted to the very real possibility of a Tory majority and the knowledge of how Tory policies were crystallising (as opposed to merely fluffy manifesto promises).

  • Tony Greaves 15th Apr '12 - 4:51pm

    Andrew Suffield is right. We would have had a General Election in September or October and a large majority Tory government with LDs back to mid20s. So the Indy question is irrelevant.

    The real Question is – how can we now do it much more competently?

    Tony Greaves

  • David Allen 15th Apr '12 - 5:21pm

    Andrew Suffield might have been right. It was the way that Harold Wilson successfully played it in 1974. However, Wilson didn’t demand confidence and supply, he just got on with the job of government in a fairly quiet and consensual way, bribed the voters with their own money, and gently told his opponents to intervene if they dared. This helped him win public favour when he appealed for a proper mandate six months later.

    Cameron was in a quite different position. He had whipped up a crisis mood over the deficit and was demanding the authority to stabilise a critical situation. He could not bribe the voters with public money. He could not then credibly have called a snap election six months later, destabilising the government he had claimed was desperately needed to create stability!

    So Cameron was dead scared of the scenario Julia describes above. Because of that, we had him over a barrel, and could have struck a much better deal than we did. Why didn’t we? In my view, mainly because those who actually struck the deal (that’s to say the real deal, not the phoney version that was published as the “coalition agreement”) actively favoured most of the things the Tories were going to do which the party at large would have resisted.

  • Scott Berry 15th Apr '12 - 5:26pm

    I think Andrew’s right. The point Julia misses is that for the first 6 months they’d have done very little. The markets would have panicked so stock prices and the pound would have dropped; more importantly most policies would have been blocked in either the Commons or the Lords, even though they would have been fairly tame, the Tories knowing they were going to go to the polls again soon, so there wouldn’t be anything to get to mad at the Tories for. In short they’d have sat on their hands, then 6 months later gone back to the polls with one message: “See, we told you a hung parliament was a bad idea, can we have a majority this time please.” Anyone who was unsure last time would have gone for it and they’d have got a (probably slim) majority.
    Then we’d have had everything I don’t like about this government (cuts to disability benefits, legal aid, welfare) without the best bits (raising income tax threshold, pupil premium) and with a few more bad policies (NHS reform in it’s original guise, maybe even a raised threshold for inheritence tax).

  • Peter Watson 15th Apr '12 - 5:35pm

    @Andrew and @Tony
    If the Tories wanted a general election in October/November 2010 they could have had one anyway regardless of us being in coalition with them. Or after the disastrous AV referendum. The LDs were not a popular alternative.
    And why do you assume that a minority Tory government would be more popular than the Tory part of our coalition government is now?

  • paul barker 15th Apr '12 - 6:31pm

    Its pointless arguing about what might have happened because we can never know. Its pointless arguin about the past because its unchangeable. Lets talk about the future instead, can we replace labour as 2nd party before 2015 ? I think we can, though tbh, labour will be doing most of the heavy lifting destroying themselves, beginning in 18 days.

  • Peter Watson 15th Apr '12 - 6:53pm

    @Paul
    WTF!?????
    Labour certainly has problems but I’m not sure how that leaves LDs well placed to become second party.
    Coalition share of the vote in Bradford West was little over a quarter of its level in 2010. And arguably Labour wasn’t seen as enough of an alternative to the coalition.
    Brian Paddick does not seem to be in contention for Mayor of London.
    And as far as the local elections are concerned, I think we must fight to hold on to 3rd spot as our national profile leaves us vulnerable to local independent candidates or minor parties. Do we have a lot of enthusiastic activists out on the streets at the moment?
    As far as 2015 is concerned, I admire your optimism but how many seats do you think we will take from our coalition partners to be second? And how? And what about the threat of independent “Save the NHS” candidates targetting particular seats?
    I don’t think the public sees us as an alternative to the tories at the moment and we screwed up on AV, so I fear that there will be a swing back to two party politics, possibly with the balance of power being wielded by a small group of LDs and a bunch of independents or smaller parties.

  • Despite what I wrote above, I don’t blame the Lib Dem leadership for deciding to enter into a coalition with the conservatives, although I felt very betrayed at the time in retrospect it was hinted as a possibility and like many others I decided to not recognise that possibility. Unlike some other posters here I don’t think a minority government would have necessarily gone favourably for the Tories but at the same time there was a major risk that it could have led to a second election or destabilised the economy and it was, understandably, a risk that senior Lib Dems were prepared to take.

    That said I don’t feel the decision to enter into a coalition government need to have gone the way it has done, with the Lib Dem leadership desperate to claim as much influence on the unpopular policies of a relatively (and, perhaps, necessarily) unpopular austerity government as possible. For some reason Nick Clegg and others seem incapable of treating the general public of adults and admitting that there has been compromise and that on certain issues they were plain wrong, such as tuition fees (and by that I mean not just saying ‘we handled it wrong’ or ‘our PR was bad’ but instead that they made a real mistake at some point which ultimately led them to betray the students) . That doesn’t need to take the form of saying ‘it would have been worse without us’ because that will just tell people that even the Lib Dems think that this government is awful and if they hadn’t voted Lib Dem and voted Labour instead then the Lib Dems wouldn’t have needed to mitigate anything.

    The thing that I actually worry about, however, is that Nick Clegg and a small coterie at the top are really unconcerned with official Lib Dem policy and the views of the membership as a whole and have simply decided to agree to whatever they personally think is correct. It seems that Clegg views the membership and party democracy as more of a hindrance to achieving whatever goals he may have than as something necessary, important and good.

  • @Scott: I don’t think I have missed the point. The story the Tories sold the electorate was that the country was headed down the financial toilet unless Labour were removed asap. Six months of inaction with markets carrying on sliding would have been seen as a complete contradiction of that story, and more importantly would have hit the bottom line of the Tories’ corporate backers and got them well and truly rattled. A half decent opposition would have gone to town on “they’re gambling our future on scoring political points”…

  • Peter Watson 15th Apr '12 - 10:20pm

    I certainly can’t buy the line that we saved the country from the Tories by letting them do what they wanted.

  • Bernard Salmon 16th Apr '12 - 1:00am

    @David Allen
    He could not then credibly have called a snap election six months later, destabilising the government he had claimed was desperately needed to create stability!

    I think Cameron’s argument had there been an election the following autum would have been to the effect that minority government is inherently instable – give us the majority we need to provide the stability under which the economic crisis could be tackled. And I think this could have been a sufficiently powerful arument among the public for the Tories to have gained a small overall majority as a result.

  • David Allen: I think you are spot on regarding the negotiators agreeing with the Tory policies they nodded through. Witness David Laws’ education policies. Witness Andrew Stunell’s belief about Tory localism being the same as Lib Dem localism.

    Whatever happens next, we will be a weaker force politically due to lost trust. Whether we could/should have played it differently is now fairly academic. We didn’t and we are where we are. My concern is how we come back, not how parallel pasts may have played out.

  • Dave Eastham 16th Apr '12 - 8:33am

    This pandering to the Labour Party’s line about it’s all the fault of the Lib Dems and if there had only had a supply and confidence agreement and/or, the lib dems had voted down/collapsed the coalition, all the cuts/tuition fees and every other bad thing that’s happened would not have been – and it would have all been ok – has got to stop.

    Before the election the Tories had been talking down the economy big time, with Cameron talking about having to bring the IMF in. Greece was imploding ( see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-11755320 ). The UK was not and is still not, in splendid isolation from everyone else.

    There was no choice but to go into Coalition. Nearly everyone voted for that at the special conference, in the full knowledge of what has happened in coalitions in history. Especially to ones involving Liberals. This was for the good of the country stuff, in the full knowledge that there was more than an evens chance the Party would get trashed in the process.

    The 5 year parliament legislation did not happen overnight and if we had not enabled the Coalition, the Tories, given half a chance, would have gone to the country anyway. We would now have had a Tory majority government and things would have been worse for sure.

    However, the Party hierarchy have got to up its’ game, or else the old adage about repeating history if nothing is learnt from it, will apply. Starting listening to the members and actually take notice of Conference decisions would be a good place to start (and that is not trying to mandate the PLDP in any way). For good reasons the LD policy process takes a while. Making it up on the hoof inside the Westminster “bubble”and ignoring conference “advice”, is not a sign of strong leadership. Just because that’s what the Labour Party did to their conference in Government and the Tories much the same, does not make it right, sensible, or good government. Delusional it may be; but I thought going into coalition was supposed to make a difference. Time it started to be actually so. Aspirations were never and are not, enough.

  • Peter Watson 16th Apr '12 - 8:57am

    @growler
    I agree entirely that how we come back is what matters.
    However, part of this strategy must involve consdering what we have done and what the alternatives might have been.
    Do we try to win back disaffected left-leaning voters by emphasising AND demonstrating exactly how we have moderated tory behaviour and fight in every seat to distinguish ourselves from the tories?
    Do we try to pick up conservative voters (as in Oldham & Saddleworth) by showing that we share their core beliefs and press for an electoral pact where we do not compete with the tories?
    Do we apologise for the student fees fiasco and explain clearly exactly why we did it in order to win back support from students and young people?
    Do we tell people that we will work constructively with whichever of Labour or Conservative gets the most seats so are still a meaningful alternative to both of the big two parties?
    Do we ignore 2010-2015 and simply put together a LD manifesto based upon our principles, not the trade-offs of coalition, and campaign as a Lib Dem party?

  • Fascinating to read these comments. It made me wonder what contributors hope to achieve by their comments?
    Nowadays it appears possible for anybody to speculate/sound-off in public and, if semi-articulate, appear to be “informed”.
    May I ask a simple question? Where do contributors get their “information/opinions” from on which to base their speculations? Perhaps the media, who clearly have their own agenda, are far from objective and want to retain their customers………? Or some other knee-jerk comment they have just read…..?
    Does this babble actually add anything worthwhile to the debate?
    I fear that, thanks to the current technological capacity to comment immediately, this generates a pitiable state of blather dressed up as insight.
    Sadly, one still continues to read through this fog in the hope of, occasionally, finding a comment based on analysis/knowledge and possibly even fact.

  • Peter Watson 16th Apr '12 - 10:13am

    @dennis
    Opinion polling provides plenty of evidence that in the real world our popularity in government has suffered more than the tories’.
    Obviously speculation on how much worse the LDs are doing in parallel universes is based entirely on reliable theroretical physics rather than being a justification of our own prejudices and grievances ;-)

  • Tony GreavesApr 15 – 4:51 pm…………..Andrew Suffield is right. We would have had a General Election in September or October and a large majority Tory government with LDs back to mid20s. Tony Greaves………….

    I beg to disagree. Had Clegg (still riding high after the TV debates) refused a coalition but promised, “In the current financial crisis we, as LibDems, will support a minority Tory administration in its efforts to bring stability and will only question policies which are ideological and against the country’s interests” he would have appeared statesmanlike and responsible.
    We could have conceded, with public reluctance but ‘in the Nation’s interest’, tuition fees but the NHS reorganisation, child poverty, disability, etc. would not have happened.

    Cameron is a weak bully and, having failed to win a majority against the most unpopular admisistration ever, would never have gambled his position as leader in another election.

  • ”Dave Page..ref “22 Days in May”..I have read various assessments (including LDV’s) of the book and, from them, assumed it was, “All things to all men”. However, if I can get hold of a copy, I’ll give it a go especially, as the events of the last two years seem to show, that we have been damaged far more in the eyes of the electorate than the suggestion of a “selfless act to save the country” warrants.

  • The former and much respected Cambridge MP David Howarth reviewed Laws’s book in the Liberal History Journal Issue 70 Spring 2011. It is well worth reading for a fuller discussion on the option of Supply and Confidence. I am not sure that all of us grasped the possibility that S&C offered. I did not. As David writes:
    ‘……the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party somewhat bizarrely decided that it preferred a coalition with either party to a confidence and supply agreement…..’

    It is well worth reading as it will certainly challenge some of the thinking that surrounds this issue and-you never know-it might happen again

  • Peter Watson 16th Apr '12 - 4:06pm

    @Lee
    “look what we brought to the table, look at what we stopped”
    The problem for me is that we seem unable to do this. I blame collective responsibility / cabinet government, since our LD MPs have to smile while publicly endorsing policies that are counter to the wishes of many members.
    It may be that there was horse-trading, fighting and tough compromise on both sides. Or Nick and co. might have said, “Go on then, it’ll be a laugh.” We don’t know and we just get leaks, briefings, ideas being thrown out in a non-committal way to gauge the response, etc. If we trust Nick and agree with what is being done we give them the benefit of the doubt. If we don’t trust him or we disagree with his actions then we feel betrayed.
    At least with confidence and supply, the negotiations that led to reluctant support would have been open. Then we could identify the things we achieved, the things we stopped, the things we accepted for the greater good. Instead we must rely on trust without evidence, and after the student fees fiasco (and as demonstrated in the AV referendum), we are not trusted.
    And I repeat, if the tories had wanted a general election they could have called one anyway to get rid of their unpopular coalition partners.

  • Much of this question depends on your view of Ed Miliband’s position.

    From the LibDems perspective, the longer the better – as shown this weekend by the Labour leader’s cack-handed defence of unfair party funding from his trade union backers.

    A Conservative majority may well have been worse than a coalition, but another Labour majority would’ve been worse than any coalition.

  • James Sandbach 16th Apr '12 - 4:56pm

    It’s easy to bemoan all this with hindsight! But David Howarth has a point, the options were presented at the time as a stark choice between a weak confidence and supply arrangement offering Cameron the chance to go to the country for a strong government mandate asap, and full blown locked in 5 year coalition with joint responsibility for all policy and no latitude for any lib dem rebellion or policy differentiation – accepting much of the ideological thrust behind the tories agenda, especially on social policy. Was there any possibility for something inbetween? What’s so depressing about the way coalition has played out is seeing so many of Parliamentarians vote for things they very strongly disagree with, and then coming up with validectory justifications and spin around it to save face.

  • There’s always a choice. Its nonsense to say there wasn’t. Speculation about what might have happened is purely that – speculation. The categoric way in which many state the ‘no choice’ platitude suggests that many have fallen into the trap of ‘say something often enough and people believe it.’ It is nothing more than conjecture. It may well be true that the Tories could have called an election and won but equally it is just as possible that other scenarios could have played out. If the Tories failed to win a majority against an immensely unpopular governmnet led by Gordon Brown why are so many confident taht they would have won 6 months later? It is just as feasible that another election would have seen a new Labour leader who was more palatable to the public, Left leaning progressives would have recognised that FPTP ensured the election was a straight shoot out between Labour and Tory and foregone the inclination to vote Lib Dem in order to secure a Labour victory as lesser of two evils. Purely conjecture but hypothetically possible. Under either scenario it seems to me that the party’s vote would have been squeezed and furthermore it is mentioned often that the party couldn’t aford another election; seen through such a prism the decision to go into coalition seems to be about self preservation (we couldn’t afford it, the public would have seen us a wasted vote, how could we propose the benefits of colaition)

    Would this have happened? Who knows… Would the markets have tumbled? Who knows … (Though having a democracy held at ransom by market speculation seems weak to me) But two things are sure
    1. this is all conjecture.
    2. there was a choice.

  • Peter Watson 16th Apr '12 - 5:27pm

    On reflection, some of the arguments here seem to be along the lines of “If we hadn’t gone into coalition there would have been another election and the voters would have got what they wanted”. Thank goodness we saved the country from a democratic result! ;-)

  • Tony Dawson 16th Apr '12 - 6:21pm

    @simon:

    “Would this have happened? Who knows… Would the markets have tumbled? Who knows … (Though having a democracy held at ransom by market speculation seems weak to me) But two things are sure:
    1. this is all conjecture.
    2. there was a choice.”

    @Peter Watson :

    “On reflection, some of the arguments here seem to be along the lines of “If we hadn’t gone into coalition there would have been another election and the voters would have got what they wanted”.

    There was a third way. A coalition agreement based upon a far more limited programme, one which essentially consisted more of things both parties both agreed on rather than (sic) ‘compromises’ such as the Health Bill which were really no such thing.

  • @tony
    I don’t disagree

  • I am not a member of the Liberal Democrat party; I am however a LibDem voter. Also I have met, over several decades, Conservative, Labour and Liberal/LibDem party members. I have found the LibDems to the most agreeable. As a visitor to this site I am slightly saddened by what I see. And what I see are the views of LIbDem members/supporters who find that they belong to a political party whose parliamentary wing has, in the last two years, enthusiastically lauded and supported policies and legislation that the in normal times the party’s membership would have opposed –diametrically. There seems, therefore, a big difference, politically, between those at the very top of the LibDems compared with the party’s membership. In crude terms the Leadership seems well ‘to the right’ of the membership, or, if your prefer, the membership seems ‘to the left’ of the leadership.

  • Richard Harris 18th Apr '12 - 12:09am

    I voted LD at the last election (not a member) and watched in dismay as the party ignored the left-of-centre consensus, and instead decided to prop up a conservative party that did not get a working majority. If you had insisted the Tories run as a minority government then you could have shown openly what you stood for, kept to your promises, and still voted with them to show economic responsibility. At least that would have been democratic. Instead, you took the votes of people that thought you stood for things like protecting Higher Education, and used the power they gave you to do the opposite, As a voter what would you honestly expect me to do next time? I may as well have voted Tory. Once bitten….

  • It is interesting – quite a number of these threads, essentially discussing the same set of issues about the choice that faced Lib Dems post GE in 2010, and the leadership’s subsequent actions / justifications etc, peter out on this sort of note. Someone who feels let down by an apparent 180 degree change in LD approach. We know that the party has lost support of 50 – 70% of the voting support it had in 2010, so people such as Richard Harris represent something very important to the party. It seems to me that the justification of leadership supporters for this, which, I think boils down to “We might have ended up like Greece” and “There was no alternative, we would have lost out by Tories calling another election”, and the even weaker “By 2015 people might be thanking us for making the economy better”, was weak bordering on incredible!

    One of the key reasons Lib Dems got support as a third party is that we appeared to stick with our fundamental principles through thick and thin. When this is breached, you can see the result. In any case it will take a long period of rebuilding to regain trust, but it will not be done until a very different economic direction is taken. With the economics of the top of the party, people will say “What’s the point of voting for them, might as well vote Tory, or nuLabour, if they still exist”. For the 55% of the population or so (my estimate, but it must be around that) who don’t agree with this, there is now no mainstream option available to vote for. We have quite simply deprived ourselves of one of our key USPs.

  • Lee GriffinApr 16 – 2:50 pm
    I understand your argument as “If we hadn’t entered the coaliton, things would be much worse”.

    I still disagree…
    1) As local elections/polls have shown we, as a party, are thoroughly distrusted and deemed to have become ‘just like the other two’ (in fact, more so because, before coalition, we were almost universally deemed a party of our word) and Clegg is regularly lampooned as having no moral values at all.
    2) I don’t really see that a majority Tory government would have pursued very different policies than those we have seen (recent changes in Disability, Welfare, NHS, Child Poverty, Education all seem about right for a Tory administration).

    In my opinion, we have lost much, as a party, for little or no gain for the country..

  • john stevens 19th Apr '12 - 2:13pm

    The problem was not the coalition per se, it was the lack of strategy for the coalition. The Conservtives have had a strategy from the start: to squeeze to destruction the Lib Dems and thereby gain an outright majority next time. It is on track. What is the Lib Dem strategy? Replace Labour? Split the Tories? Pray for a miracle? Most LD’s and especially the leadership it seems, do not understand the Conservative Party. That means you are fighting blind.

  • Oh, most of us do understand the Tories, John Stevens, we have mainly been campaigning against them all our political lives. Whether all of our leadership fully does is a very open question!

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