The most interesting unknown about the Scottish results of the Europarl elections in May this year, 2014, is what will happen in the Lib Dem vote. It will be an indicator for a shrivelled party of the likelihood of its very survival in Scotland; and it may have a part to play in the local politics of Argyll and Bute.
The Liberal Democrat MEP, George Lyon, looking at the catastrophic collapse of the Lib Dem vote in the 2011 Scottish elections and with no sign of recovery since then, is said to be concerned that he may be unable to retain the sixth Scottish seat at Europarl, the sole Scottish Lib Dem presence. The Scottish Greens are a serious threat.
Mr Lyon is looking at a potentially empty personal horizon. He returned the leases on his family’s Bute farms to the Mount Stuart Estate before he went off to Brussels – with the Lib Dem vote then, 2009, looking reassuringly stable.
The Lib Dem’s Scottish Parliamentary position
Since then, a lot has changed, with Mr Lyon’s party now reduced literally to a handful – five – of Scottish Parliamentary seats.
Only two of these are constituency seats and both of them are in the far north, not around to create a critical mass to wrap around Argyll and Bute. These two are Orkney with Lib Dem, Liam McArthur; and Shetland with former Lib Dem leader, Tavish Scott.
On the mainland are the other three Lib Dem MSPs, all ‘List’ seats, and strung out across the country, with no two of them contiguous.This severely limits the impact the party can make on the country at large – and it has little presence in Scotland’s great centres of population.
Alison MacInnes is in North East Scotland; Group leader, Willie Rennie, in Mid Scotland and Fife; and Jim Hume down in the Borders in South Scotland.
As soon as we saw the pattern resulting from the 2011 election we questioned how on earth the Lib Dems could rebuild from that particular situation. It still looks very daunting.
The Liberal Democrats in coalition government
The party in Scotland suffered from the opportunist political onslaught upon them from Labour and the SNP because of the their national party’s decision to go into coalition with the Conservatives.
There’s a lot wrong with this autopilot dissing of that decision. Firstly, we have to grow up and stop toxifying political parties as we toxify countries like Russia. It’s so much easier than trying to understand them and the position they’re in.
Then there’s the issue of the Lib Dems not putting Labour back in to power.
They could not have done.
The country had voted Labour out of power – and for many good reasons. If the Lib Dems, in their own interests, had thrown their lot in with Gordon Brown, what would those who voted Labour out have said and frankly, where would the country be today?
The deal the Lib Dems did with the Conservatives was a strategically clever one. For favour of the support of their small but critical number of seats, they were treated unbelievably generously by their partners. Every single department of government had a Lib Dem in a ministerial position, in the lead or as a junior minister.
As a party, this gave them experience of government across the spectrum of departments and responsibilities – experience at a level they could never have won for themselves. Gordon Brown would not and could not have considered giving them so much, even if, politically, they could have supported him back into office.
Duffers, cads, cartoons and stars
The Lib Dems got some big jobs, not all of which they have filled with distinction. Ed Davey at Energy may have delivered the Lib Dem value-set but he has not helped the country. External issues took out David Laws before we knew what he might deliver; and his return has been a pallid event.
Nick Clegg has been a willow-the-wisp. He can produce the rhetoric in the game of politics but his judgment in the realities of government has been erratic. The overall impression is of a lightweight.
Vince Cable’s arrogance and ego, over which he appears to assert no control whatsoever, has serially damaged his career as well as damaging the government in which he ambivalently serves. Never a team player, the extent of the harm he has done through his unfettered vanity has yet to unravel – and that moment may now not be far away.
Alistair Carmichael knew how to do his ‘behind closed doors’ arm wrestling job as Chief Whip. Being Scottish Secretary is too much of a gavotte for a walk-the-waltzer.
The major success in the Lib Dems’ contribution to Cabinet government has been Scotland’s Danny Alexander as Chief Treasury Secretary. He has not tried to do tricks to play for popularity; and has made no attempt to disguise the fact that he is a serious man. In an increasingly bizarre political world which seems to be spinning out of orbit – a world where Prime Ministers and Presidents prioritise selfies at the most profound moments – the presence of a quiet and focused authority has been a relief. The same could be said for Chancellor George Osborne.
Alexander is clearly highly competent. He has authority. He knows what he’s talking about. He does his job. He stays out of plots. He is on Twitter – but it’s solidly political stuff, issues, points, clarifications.
The other success in government is, sadly the lost man – Michael Moore. The Borders MP’s thoughtful, open and unstrident performance as Scottish Secretary was effective and healing. He was very much his own man, with a mind beyond the non-aggressive eyes. Swopping him for Alistair Carmichael – a likeable man in the wrong job – was an unthinking and indiscriminate move that has left the pro-union campaign no more than a series of percussive notes struck in the the same minor key.
We could have done with hearing a lot more from Moore – because what he said was thought and not predictable. Now we’ll never know – but this was a very particular talent tossed away by the tweet brigade.
The view from George Lyon’s position
If you were George Lyon, looking at this overall scenario, you would have to be realistic about the chances of retaining the sixth Europarl seat. It’s possible but it’s iffy.
If you were George Lyon, you would have to have one of those chimaerical Plan Bs.
Gossip has it that there is a Plan B in the making.
Argyll and Bute’s MP, Alan Reid, has not yet declared whether he will stand again for the Westminster constituency seat. He may also have doubts whether in the current political climate, he can retain the seat for a further term – and that would be no reflection on the man.
Alan Reid gets less credit than he deserves for his strategic capability, He is no mean reader of situations.
Plan B is said to be that if George Lyon loses in the Europarl elections, Alan Reid may stand down in his favour as Lib Dem candidate for Argyll and Bute; and go to the House of Lords.
This might not be the smartest move for the party. It is arguable that its best chance of keeping the Argyll and But seat is with Alan Reid, for whom there is residual voter loyalty. George Lyon was always more glamorous but less popular, lacking Alan Reid’s bedrock voting areas in the constituency – and he has been away for five years. Things have changed a lot in that time.
Mr Lyon also has recent embarrassment on his plate over a mistaken vote that left him looking far adrift of Liberal Democrat policy. In late February this year, George Lyon was the only British Liberal Democrat to oppose the resolution put to Europarl: ‘on the application of the principle of equal pay for male and female workers for equal work or work of equal value’.
The Liberal Democrat party was quick to explain that: ‘This was a straightforward error with the voting process which George Lyon later sought to correct in the record. It is regretful that on this occasion the correction appears not to have been made and we will be investigating why this has happened.’ This was unfortunate but it has provided ammunition that will be used against him by his opponents in the campaign; and having a problem with the voting system , after almost five years in Brussels, is little better on his score card than having voted against an equal pay measure.
However, the rumoured Plan B might well have its attractions for Alan Reid. He would be spared the rough and tumble of another campaign. He would stand down unbeaten. He would have a lifetime set in the political world he knows well and which is interesting and often entertaining.