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Party Leadership Wins the Day as Lib Dems Reassert Support for Unionism

Lawrie Scott-McFarlane

The Scottish Liberal Democrats held their Autumn conference at the weekend, a one-day affair held in the party’s traditional venue at Dunfermline’s Vine Centre. Delegates were treated to a typically earnest and diverse range of debates which covered planning policy, maglev trains and the gender pay gap. The party’s recent by-election successes were a common theme, with speakers insistently declaring that, in the face of momentous geopolitical upheavals in the US and EU, liberalism was very much alive.

The dominant issue of the day was undoubtedly the final motion, “A liberal Scotland in Europe”, proposed by former MEP, Elspeth Attwool, and Alex Salmond’s rival for Gordon in 2015, Christine Jardine. The motion criticised the “unthinking unionism of the Conservatives” and admitted, “regretfully”, that a choice would eventually have to be made to prioritise integration within the EU or the UK. The proposers argued that closing down options for involvement in Europe would be wrong, given the strong pro-EU sentiment of Scottish voters. Speakers also recalled the fact that the Lib Dems supported the Claim of Right, which asserts the sovereignty of the Scottish people and their role as the ultimate deciders of the Scottish constitution.

The motion was eventually passed, but in a heavily amended state. The Party leadership tabled changes which explicitly ruled out independence and rejected the notion that a choice would have to be made between either union. Instead, the Lib Dems re-asserted their support for a federal UK within the EU. Parliamentarians, who spoke repeatedly during the open debate, emphasised that the Party now occupied a unique position in Scotland’s recently polarised landscape, arguing that they were the only group to maintain unqualified support for both the EU and UK.

It’s obvious that the Lib Dems now consider their “crystal clear” support for the union as a precondition for electoral success. During an earlier session on the party’s local election candidates, delegates applauded the by-election victory at Culloden, and it was noted that this was only made possible by transfers from Conservative voters. No doubt stories like these weighed on the minds of Parliamentarians looking to their own and their Party’s electoral future. The Conservatives themselves had claimed the motion amounted to “getting on board with the SNP”, a statement which was referenced openly by a number of MSPs worried that the party’s nascent recovery was being jeopardised. More than anything, there was a sense that the party wanted to be consistent, with the memory of the tuition fees disaster cited repeatedly. This emphasis suggests that it’s unlikely the issue will be reconsidered in the near future, even after the local elections have passed and circumstances are more forgiving.

The arguments went beyond simple electoral calculus, however. Alex Cole-Hamilton said he “wouldn’t recognise” the Party if it passed the motion. Speakers repeatedly contrasted the nationalism of the SNP with the Lib Dems own “internationalist” views, which, it was claimed, occupied a unique “third position”. In spite of this, there was clear discomfort that the Conservative’s unflinching views on the union, and those of potential Lib Dem voters in marginal constituencies, could be construed as equally nationalist or “unthinking” and this wording was removed from the original motion.

Whatever the political logic, the newly reasserted unionism of the Party could be hard to reconcile with what lies ahead. It might win votes in St Andrews or Edinburgh suburbs to suggest otherwise, but it’s hard to escape the reality that Scotland will be forced to make some difficult political, and constitutional, choices in light of Brexit. It’s admirable to work towards a consistent set of principles, but a federal UK within a highly integrated EU now seems more remote than it ever has.

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