Joint working with other parties – or leadership by silverbacks?


It seems as if the more we talk about gender equality, the less we achieve – at least in Scotland.

The Scottish Spring LibDem conference passed an exhaustive motion on the subject, but just a few weeks later the party saw its female representation in the Scottish Parliament fall from 20% to zero. Those who had proposed and supported the motion offered no visible resistance when the wonderful Alison McInnes MSP (who had been the only MSP to hold Police Scotland effectively to account for its many failings) was replaced as candidate by a male former MSP who has made little or no impact since then.

Yesterday, at the party’s autumn conference, a motion on Scotland in Europe was proposed by former MEP Elspeth Attwooll, and by Christine Jardine who fought Alex Salmond with distinction at the General Election. The motion called for a future for Scotland which retains the advantages of the EU “without the limitations of the unthinking Unionism of the Conservatives or the ideological drive towards independence of the SNP”. Nothing too controversial there, you may think – but you’d be wrong: to attack the Conservatives is to stand on dangerous ground nowadays, it seems.

If you’ve viewed Willie Rennie’s conference speech on LDV you will have been impressed, as we all are, by his passion and fluency. But you may have been puzzled by his searing attack on Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP, and the absence of criticism of the Scottish Conservatives. If you weren’t at the conference, you may not have appreciated that this was scene-setting for a mass rubbishing of Elspeth’s and Christine’s motion. The Party’s (male) MP, a (male) MSP, and a (male) former MSP were called in to give heavyweight speeches against the motion, while a few new and inexperienced members were called to support it.

Again and again we were reminded of the “decisive” (52:48) margin by which Scotland had rejected independence two years ago. Strangely, there was no mention of the much more decisive margin (62:38) by which Scotland had voted to stay in the EU earlier this year and the new situation which this has created. Little heed was paid to Elspeth and Christine’s call for co-operation in good faith on the part of all parties. That emphasis on conciliation may be the clue to why such a spirited attack was mounted against the motion.

In June, three days after the referendum, Willie Rennie had assuaged massive anger in the party by stating his agreement to support cross-party talks (the Muscatelli group) on the future of Scotland in Europe. Later in the summer, without consulting members, he withdrew from this process. Elspeth and Christine’s motion had called among other things for support for cross-party negotiations to be restored. That call for conciliation and joint working was, it seems, too much for the alpha males of the Scottish Lib Dems.

* Nigel Lindsay is a former Liberal councillor in Aberdeen and a longtime activist in the party, but consider himself an internationalist first and foremost.

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  • Neil Mackinnon 14th Nov '16 - 10:15am

    I think that this hits the nail on the head.

  • I agree with Nigel, and with : “The motion called for a future for Scotland which retains the advantages of the EU “without the limitations of the unthinking Unionism of the Conservatives or the ideological drive towards independence of the SNP”.

    I voted ‘No’ in 2014, but I’m know I’m not the only one that would vote differently next time. The prospect of indefinite Tory rule from Westminster outside the EU is not a prospect to relish.

    I like and admire Willie a great deal, but I urge him to think carefully about a change of mind in a change of circumstances.

  • Agreed. I would be perfectly happy with the Scottish Lib Dems making Independence a matter of conscience for the members – there’s no reason why the party should be in unified in favour of either Independence or Unionism, there are perfectly good arguments in both directions.

  • Small point: “the “decisive” (52:48) margin by which Scotland had rejected independence two years ago”. That one was a somewhat chunkier, though still close, 55:45. You may be thinking of the UK-wide figure on the Brexit referendum?

  • Nigel Lindsay 14th Nov '16 - 11:13am

    You are absolutely correct, Jen. My bad.

  • “But you may have been puzzled by his searing attack on Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP, and the absence of criticism of the Scottish Conservatives.”

    Perhaps it’s because he thinks there are some cracks starting to appear in the previously solid SNP vote. It’s a while since I’ve lived in Scotland, but the Tory vote looks pretty solid these days. If you want to start winning seats in Scotland you need to damage the SNP.

  • Simon Horner 14th Nov '16 - 12:20pm

    I agree with Nigel. Scotland has voted to remain in both the British and European unions over the last two years. The Brexit vote means that this option is no longer on the table. For me personally, European unionism is more attractive than UK nationalism and unfortunately, our EU status can only now be retained if Scotland breaks from the UK.

    I saw the writing on the wall at the meeting we had in Edinburgh immediately after the European referendum. I pleaded at that meeting for the party to recognise that a “which union” referendum would be needed soon to allow Scotland’s dilemma to be resolved. I argued that party members should be free to campaign on either side, which I thought was a genuinely liberal position.

    It was clear from the meeting, however, that the party hierarchy was overwhelmingly in the “UK nationalist” camp, which is why I decided not to renew my membership. It was a wrench having been a candidate, agent and foot soldier for so many years (I joined in 1974).

  • Robin Bennett 14th Nov '16 - 12:45pm

    Hang in there, Graeme. Simon, it is sad to hear you have left, considering all you have contributed, and could continue to contribute, to the party.

    It may be hard to keep faith, but wiser voices such as yours may prevail once the party finally realises it has lost its natural constituency of pro-EU moderates who are far from hostile to a greater degree of Home Rule. The motion sounds as if it had this constituency in mind.

    The party’s position should simply be that, until the outcome of the Brexit process is known, another independence referendum would be a mistake.

    Incidentally, as the subject was not gender-related, I am confused as to why this should be the theme of Nigel’s article.

  • John Mitchell 14th Nov '16 - 1:25pm

    As a first time conference attendee I was against the motion and supported Alan Reid’s amendment. I think it’s clear where we stand as a party and that’s a good thing. Scottish Labour on the other hand is all over the place on the constitution and seem to be ambivalent or indifferent towards a re-run. There’s no doubt in my mind that this is impacting their polling numbers. I’m pleased that the Liberal Democrats will not make that same mistake and that our position is clear.

    I can’t see how arguing in favour of Scottish nationalism really gets the party anywhere at all seeing that as a party we fundamentally believe in liberal values. As an added note, I thought Alistair Carmichael’s speech against the motion and for the amendment was the best of the conference. It was a passionate and well argued speech and I agreed with pretty much everything in it. We cannot capitulate as Labour has done and give in to the nationalist narrative that dominates Scottish politics, doing so only legitimises it.

    I live in Moray which had the closest margin in Scotland of 121 votes in terms of the EU referendum. I think the party needs to be careful to respect both referendum results in 2014 as in 2016. Looking both ways on referendums is an inconsistent position. The party position should be to get the best deal possible and not to advocate an immediate re-run with different wording.

  • John Mitchell 14th Nov '16 - 1:30pm

    I accept that the margin in Scotland was 62% remain and 38% leave but I also believe that the referendum was a UK wide vote just as a UK general election would be.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 14th Nov '16 - 1:40pm

    The gender comments in the article render it almost useless . I think there is more Liberalism in Unionism than there is in sexism . To denigrate on the basis of gender whether by men or women to men or women , is sexism whatever else it might be called for the sake of trendy political correctness. To do so against one’s own gender exhibits little in the way of dislike of “the other ” but lot’s in the way of a bleeding -heart liberal , almost self – loathing !

  • London Lib Dem 14th Nov '16 - 1:42pm

    It’s a pity that an important article about Scottish independence is spoilt by an obsession with gender. And the website still seems to be pursuing a nasty vendetta against Mike Rumbles MSP.

  • William Ross 14th Nov '16 - 1:52pm


    As an SNP Leaver may I make the point that on 23 June, 62% of voting Scots voted for the UNITED KINGDOM to stay in the EU. There was no question about Scotland. I do not see the 62% as being a “nationalist” vote. On the contrary, around half of the 38% Leave vote was nationalist.

    If we are ever asked to choose ” between two unions” then I and hundreds of thousands of Yessers will choose Westminster.

    Just to clarify.

  • John Peters 14th Nov '16 - 2:05pm

    I can’t see that a situation could arise (pre-Scottish independence) of the Scottish electorate being asked to choose between two unions. They can vote to leave the UK. They can’t vote at the same time to force the EU to accept them.

  • Simon Horner 14th Nov '16 - 2:22pm

    John. Legally speaking, you are right of course. But politically, if Scotland were to choose the EU over the UK in a referendum before Brexit happens, it is inconceivable that the other Member States (not even Spain) would block this since this it would be tantamount to expulsion. They are hardly likely to rebuff a territory that is already part of the club and wants to stay. An arrangement would be made to ensure the continuity of Scotland’s position in the EU.

  • Allan Heron 14th Nov '16 - 3:59pm

    The motion was turned into a pro- v anti-SNP motion. We are still some way from knowing what the outcome of Brexit will look like, let alone coming to a view on which side of that argument we might find ourselves.

    But the preamble to the constitution of the Scottish Liberal Democrats suggests we support the sovereign right of the Scottish people to choose the form of government that best suits their needs.

    Scotland has made two choices – to remain in the UK, and to remain the EU. If we end up in a position where one of these positions is no longer possible then our core principle suggests it is only the Scottish people that can determine how to resolve that conundrum. Regardless of whatever side of the argument the party decides to support.

    Saturday’s vote threw the baby out with the bathwater in a torrent of, dare I say it, unthinking unionism.

  • @ Allan Heron. Good post, Allan.

    The doings in Aberdeenshire were very questionable to say the least – and Martin Ford and his Green Party chums have already overtaken us in Holyrood.

  • Neil Mackinnon 14th Nov '16 - 7:13pm

    John Mitchell, you say that the 2016 referendum was a UK wide vote. But in 2014 we were told by the then Prime Minister of this country (supported by the leaders of the two main opposition parties at Westminster) that the UK was an equal partnership of its four component parts. Where in the post Brexit activity of the UK Government is there any recognition that while two out of the four partners voted to leave the other two voted to stay?

  • Frank Bowles 14th Nov '16 - 7:15pm

    Allan is absolutely right on this subject. In 2014 he voted Yes to independence, I voted No. But Brexit has changed the world completely and whereas Tim is leading from the front in a UK context we have given up much of our raison d’etre as the Home Rule party to become the third Unionist opposition to the SNP. Our long term future sacrificed on shouting to be heard and trying to take Tory votes. I am despairing at how we are increasingly shunned by the edgy progressive community in Scotland we should be courting. I have known both Elspeth and Christine for many years and I am so impressed by them taking this stand.

    Each of us will have different preferences for either or neither of the two Unions, for me the EU wins every time but for others that will be different. No one is wrong or illiberal, but to park us in the Unionist camp unilaterally is illiberal and against the wishes of any true federalist.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 14th Nov '16 - 8:23pm

    I am sorry , Frank, but unless you explain your stance , as with David Raw , to mean independence is about , say social liberalism or social democracy , rather than Conservatism, your favouring the EU, a recent institution, over the United Kingdom, a state , more or less a country , then your comments make me despair at any patriotism in Scotland that is not anti English ! What other reason would the EU be more attractive , an alliance with inumerable countries you or I know liitle about , some of which were our enemies for years , rather than an alliance with England , Wales , Northern Ireland , imediate members of the same state and , as I say , more or less fellow country men and women !

    If we talk the language of the EU like this much longer , a new centre party looks a possibility

  • Galen Milne 14th Nov '16 - 9:02pm

    I was shocked Nigel to read the preamble and have to agree with new attendee John Mitchell, London LibDem, and Lorenzo. Yours essentially guilty of misandry and it sadly seems increasingly to be the order of the day from certain quarters within the Party.
    I’ve known you a very long time and respect you so I will stop here, which isn’t like me.

  • More people voted for Scotland to stay in the UK than voted for the UK to stay in Europe. It was 55.4% who voted No, and that figure hasn’t shown any serious evidence of moving, except for a brief wobble when everyone was angry about Brexit. It’s also been shown that far more SNP voters voted to leave the EU than Lib Dems, or Labour. More to the point, leaving the UK would be terrible for Scottish people, and it would be foolish and short-sighted for the LibDems to propose switching position just because some SNP activists have told us that’s how to win votes.

    It’s entirely legitimate that at the Scottish LibDem conference that the focus of attention should be on what goes on at Holyrood, where the SNP remain in power for a third term. It is right that more attention is given to the failings of the party in power, who are the ones currently doing a great deal of damage to the people of Scotland. Just because the SNP like to blame it all on the Tories, doesn’t mean we need to copy. Don’t get me wrong, the Tories have done plenty wrong in Westminster, which is why we are fighting so hard to win the seat from them in Richmond.

    As far as I can tell, there are some nationalists, and many SNP supporters, who want to make mischief in other political parties, and they give us bogus ‘advice’. Nationalists go to great lengths to try to undermine what everyone else is doing, and will try to make our stance on the Union appear to be a weakness, but we shouldn’t fall for it. By all means, if any LibDem voters think we’d be better off ditching the union with which we do most of our trade for the one that doesn’t have English people in it – vote for independence next time, but I’m delighted that the party decided to make a clear statement that we want to stay in the union.

  • I am quite shocked by Nigel’s reference to silverbacks, particularly attaching that label to Willie Rennie who has done more than any other leader to drag the Scottish Party out of the dark ages in terms of diversity. He put his neck on the line to advocate all women shortlists and persuaded Conference to adopt a constitutional amendment on the subject requiring a 2/3 majority in Spring.

    There is undoubtedly sexism within this party and not just in Scotland. I’ll call it out where I see it but that was absolutely not in play. I wasn’t able to be there for the debate, but if I had been, I’d have been speaking for the amendment, against the motion.

    The amendment most closely associated with the leadership wasn’t even selected for debate. The one chosen came from a local party.

    Party members have had a chance to debate the issues around independence and our future strategy and have endorsed a very sensible position – that we should have work to stay in the EU and the UK. Why deviate from that? And if the motion wasn’t about independence and asking our MSPs to break their election pledge, what was the point of it? Passing it would have left us open to distracting speculation about our position.

    Scotland desperately needs a progressive and radical voice on the side of staying in a reformed UK. Leaving the pro UK cause to the Tories is a recipe for disaster.

  • John Barrett 14th Nov '16 - 11:51pm

    Caron – Willie was very supportive of All-Women Shortlists for many elections, including Westminster and Europe, and as you say, he put his neck on the line for this, but you should have added – not in the one election where he was standing and the one election where it really mattered. As a result of this we lost our only female MSP.

    Had he pushed for similar changes on the Scottish lists, his position would have stood up to scrutiny and not appeared hypocritical.

    As he did not, it looked to many like he was making sure that in the event of him failing to win a constituency, he could then guarantee his election as number one on the list for his region.

    The actual problem on the ground (as a direct result of AWS) of not having candidates in place in some of our most winnable Westminster seats is something that I will leave for another day.

  • Caron – The leadership’s amendment was not taken because, frankly, it was a wrecking amendment in that it deleted and replaced the entire calls for section of the motion. The structure of the amendment that was taken allowed for a meaningful separate vote on lines 8 – 11, which gave Conference more choice.

    Fiona – The motion was not about a second independence referendum, it was about working with the Scottish Government to oppose hard Brexit. The drafters of the motion are not nationalist infiltrators, they are people who have given years of dedicated service to the party.

  • Interesting news float this morning with comments by Brian Taylor on the BBC this morning. : BBC NEWS SCOTLAND “Scotland could seek ‘Norway model’ on EU”

    This would, of course, require agreement by both the UK Government and the EU – but definitely worth exploring by Willie & Co. I, for one, don’t want border controls at Berwick and Gretna…………. and the notion of some sort of Trump Wall at Kirk Yetholm instead of a Wainwright pint puts Hadrian in the shade. All this, of course, could have been pursued if Elspeth and Christine’s motion had been accepted.

    Difficult times though with the Tory government in London thrashing around in a clueless sort of way trying to think up a plan with Boris doing a Baldrick and Philip Hammond doing a Captain Darling.

    PS, Rambling confused comments about Scottish ‘patriotism’ from down south don’t help and add nothing to the debate.

  • News today about HS2 getting as far as Sheffield and Leeds (cost at least £ 65 billion). It puts the Farage comment about ‘shed loads of money going across Hadrian’s Wall’ in the shade.

    Add this to the £ 15 billion on Crossrail, £ 9 billion on the 2012 Olympics and £ 19 billion on Heathrow expansion puts talk of imbalance into perspective………….. then add on the Trident costs and is there any wonder a disabled Scot contemplating the impact of the bedroom tax gets a bit sniffy about a Tory Government in London.

    No doubt in Nottingham they think the disabled Scot is lacking in patriotism.

  • Matt (Bristol) 15th Nov '16 - 10:04am

    I am not a Scottish Lib Dem and clearly passions are running high.

    The underlying arguments about Sotland within the UK and the EU lead me to feel on the side of those who are effectively ‘autonomist federalists’ – Scotland must choose its direction for itself, but the ideal direction would be within a federation/commonwealth of states and provinces based around the currently partially-reformed UK, ideally sitting within the wider EU.

    But the opening arguments of the article seem to be playing a different tune from the rational putting forward of this case. Anger at the way the Scottish leadership is felt to have acted, is combined with accusations of misogyny, that appear to have been pasted onto the article to give it emotional bite and topicality, rather than being inherent to the thrust of the article. Effectively two points – both critical of the Scottish leadership for different reasons, have been ram-rodded together, rather clumsily.

    This might work in Scotland as part of a wider struggle within the party we have maybe not been aware of in the wider world, I don’t know.

    Outside here in the wider world it looks a little too much like unnecessary bitterness and factionalism.

    But again, I say, your underlying arguments are compelling, and rational. More power to the collective elbows of those who are seeing the need for flexible thinking on this matter, particularly to Elspeth and Christine who brought the motion under question. But less snarling and sneering, please.

  • Nigel Lindsay 15th Nov '16 - 12:45pm

    Thank you, Matt, for your insight on federalism, and indeed thanks to everyone who has contributed to this debate. I accept the charge of clumsiness in conflating two issues: my plea in mitigation is the difficulty of condensing thoughts into 500 words or so. Those who were at the conference may find it easier to understand why feelings run so high. A year ago, conference instructed the Scottish Party to initiate talks with colleagues in Wales and Northern Ireland to explore how best we might make progress towards a genuinely federal UK. No action has been taken on this, despite a formal reminder at the spring conference. Instead, Saturday’s delegates were met on arrival by a huge stand promoting unionism, and Elspeth’s motion rejecting both independence and unionism was trashed by parliamentarians in a somewhat disrespectful and unpleasant way. To me this was an example of saying one thing but doing another. It had echoes of the debate on gender balance in Scotland last spring, where we voted in favour of it, but failed to take effective action to retain our one female MSP. (I accept absolutely Caron’s point that Willie Rennie did all that could be expected of him on that question.)

  • Matt (Bristol) 15th Nov '16 - 4:12pm

    Nigel, thanks for your kindness under criticism (meant to be constructive…).

  • Lorenzo Cherin 15th Nov '16 - 11:15pm

    David Raw

    Who are your sarcastic and patronising comments about patriotism , Nottingham and the disabled Scot aimed at ? If , me , as someone who raised anti English sentiments , a liking for the EU more than the UK , and the concentration of the EU more than other issues , I would take great offence . As someone who has lived with disability issues and at times , poverty , as a result of a car accident , my wife’s injuries from which are a permanent travail, I find your flippancy intolerable !

    You need to show a traditional Liberal quality more , and one our colleague on here , Joe Otten , who today you mock , revealed in his article to be one the traditional blue collar worker prizes , directness , honesty , and not whinging condescention to your own associates !

  • John Mitchell 19th Nov '16 - 7:33pm

    @David Horner

    You may be right. I think Spain would be one of the countries that is more sceptical though. Spain does not recognise Kosovo to this day. Furthermore, if Scotland is allowed into the European Union through unconventional measures is sets a precedent. The European Union has always been very thorough or deliberate typically in its actions.

    I do believe that after Greece the EU is looking at things differently or if they’re not the EU is seriously misguided. I’m not saying that Scotland is Greece financially, of course not. However, Scotland would have the highest public sector debt deficit should it be granted its request by the current nationalist government in Edinburgh.

  • John Mitchell 19th Nov '16 - 7:40pm

    @Graeme Cowie

    I’m sorry. You’re right. Not everyone who argued to ‘not rule anything out’ with regards to Scotland’s relationship within the European Union is a nationalist. For me to describe it in this way is a little overzealous.

    Nevertheless, I still think supporting the motion and rejecting the amendment would have looked that way towards the constitution despite you indicating the contrary and it would have given something for the Scottish Conservatives to beat us over the head with. The political consideration should not always be the only one, but I would have been like yourself if the motion had passed and would have been unhappy.

  • John Mitchell 19th Nov '16 - 7:44pm

    @ Neil Mackinnon

    Currently the United Kingdom is the member of the European Union. Scotland, England, Northern Ireland or Wales are not. That’s the way I see it although I accept your point. I don’t think it’s fair to suggest that Scotland’s voice will not be heard, it already is. Unfortunately, this is only the government’s position as within the wider UK. Although Scotland voted to stay in the EU in the majority the wider result is far more complex.

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