Opinion: Firm Friend and Equal Partner – Alex Salmond’s Lecture at the Scott Trust

I attended Alex Salmond’s lecture at the Scott Trust this Tuesday. It will come as no surprise to most of you that it was a terrifyingly brilliant performance by Scotland’s First Minister. However, it is important to note that the man is an enviable position at the moment and is well aware of that fact.

For a start, he has the luxury of being both in government and opposition at the same time (government in Scotland while being able to dump on everyone in Westminster, including Labour). He proudly declared on Tuesday night that not only are the three main party leaders’ approval ratings all in negative figures, but that those figures look even worse in Scotland. He also seemed to revel in the idea that he could be pro-Europe, pluralist and progressive while being anti-Labour. “Classes out of touch with the masses” was his catch phrase for Westminster politics at present.

Salmond declared himself an “ardent Anglophile” stating and restating that an independent Scotland would be good not only for Scotland but for England as well. He told an anecdote in which a well known Scottish Labour figure took to wearing a Trinidad & Tobago shirt during the World Cup of 2006. The punch line to the story was that such “Auld Enemy” ideas were beneath a “strong, independent Scotland”. “Firm friend and equal partner” was how he wants England to see a newly independent Scotland.

What does Salmond’s shining moment have to do with the Lib Dems? For a start, anyone who fears for the state of the Union best ramp that up a few notches. Everyone appears to feel that “Devo Max” is the most Salmond can get away with but I’m increasingly unsure about that. With Salmond’s popularity in Scotland, a Tory Prime Minister in office and the Union side of the debate in increasing disarray north of the border, the stars are starting to align for independence.

But for the Lib Dems as a party and for Nick Clegg in particular, what the SNP and Salmond’s rise demonstrates is how much politics is a matter of timing; of how many things lie outside of any party or politician’s control. A lot of what has happened in Scotland over the past twelve months has been down to Labour’s failings as much as it has been to Salmond and the SNP making the right moves. Labour took Scotland for granted and the SNP simply moved into the open political space. Contrast that with the position the Lib Dems were given in May 2010: having promised the moon on a stick, we were left with less seats and the choice of either letting the Conservatives run the country as a minority government for a few months before calling another election that they would almost surely have won, or going into coalition with them, a move we have seen proven to carry with it some not insignificant political baggage.

To summarise, politics is more often than not about timing and environment. Things that are beyond your control. As a party, I think we need to remind ourselves of that now and again.

* Nick Tyrone is a liberal writer. He blogs at nicktyrone.com and is an associate director at CentreForum.

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  • Undoubtedly the Scottish Labour party are largely responsible for leaving Salmond unchallenged for too long, however, what increased Salmonds vote was not just an ineffective Labour party, but the Tories in power in Westminster with no legitmate democratic mandate from Scotland. It was to be hoped that the mandate could come through the presence of Liberal Democrats in government, but I think the collapse of the LDs in the Scottish elections shows just how much of a failure the Coaltion have been in making their policies palatable to the political centre and centre-left in non-Tory voting parts of the country.

  • Whilst I agree with most of this piece, I thought that Labour’s support pretty much held in Scotland and that therefore it was the Lib Dem collapse that gifted the SNP a majority.

    Now the reason for that was probably linked to the coalition, but I think we should consider that maybe Labour are at pretty much the level of support they are going to get (or deserve following the latter years of their Westminster rule) and that it is the ex Lib Dem voters, and the huge numbers who don’t bother to vote, that need to return to the Unionist fold to make the difference…

  • Tom Robinson 28th Jan '12 - 12:04pm

    “I thought that Labour’s support pretty much held in Scotland and that therefore it was the Lib Dem collapse that gifted the SNP a majority.”

    Labour spun it that way to save face, but subsequent investigations showed that a significant minority of former LibDem voters switched to Labour but that this was offest by a similar number (not %) of former Labour voters switching to the SNP.

    As so often, the devil is in the detail.

  • @Tom Robinson
    Not sure I saw that research can you give me a pointer to it. I was simply going on the % figure. That said the turnout was hardly impressive for what could be the most important parliaments Scotland ever has..

  • Angus McLellan 28th Jan '12 - 7:56pm

    @Steve Way: The Scottish Election Study preliminary data has some pointers: slides available here.

    Mitchell’s slides have a “flow of vote” page for the constituency votes. For LD 37% went to the SNP, 22% to LAB, 6% to CON and 35% stuck with LD. 21% of SLAB vote went to SNP. In aggregate that would be approx 100K votes LD -> SNP, 60K LD -> LAB and 150K LAB -> SNP if the results are representative.. So the SNP did gain from LD, but not as much as they gained from LAB.

    Many of those LD votes would simply have increased SNP majorities whereas LAB votes could and did gain them constituency seats. This was clear even on the night since the swing LAB -> SNP across W. Central Scotland was frequently much greater than the LD constituency vote in 2007.

  • “and the choice of either letting the Conservatives run the country as a minority government for a few months before calling another election that they would almost surely have won, or going into coalition with them,”

    Clearly David Cameron didn’t share your confidence, because if he had done he would have gone ahead and called that second general election that you say he would almost surely have won rather than having to go into “coalition” with the Liberal Democrats.

  • The Scottish Liberal Democrats have treated the Scottish People with utter contempt. For the whole election Tavish Scott stood and said that there would be and should not be a referendum on Independence. For 300 years no one has ever asked Scotland if they wanted the Union or not. As the so called party of democracy it was completely unacceptable to not support asking the question and making the case for the Union. Now what has been sown will be reaped. If I was Willie Rennie I would drawing up my program for an Independent Country. It is time to move to the middle as after Independence those that do not support the country will look very silly and a one party state is in no ones interest.

  • Nick Tyrone 31st Jan '12 - 2:28pm

    Just to take up Sesenco’s point: I think, having come so close to the crown, Cameron wasn’t about to risk anything. It’s easy on the outside to take an objective viewpoint and say the Tories almost certainly would have won that follow up election – not so easy to throw away what could be your only chance of becoming the Prime Minister when it’s been your life’s ambition to do so.

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