Ever since May 2007, one of the strangest aspects of Scottish politics has been the poisonous hostility of the Scottish Liberal Democrats to the SNP. The parties sit very close to each other on the political spectrum, and the SNP are sympathetic to some key Lib Dem policies – most obviously a local income tax – which the Lib Dems stood no chance of implementing in coalition with anyone but the nationalists.
(The Lib Dems are also still officially a party of federalism, committed to far stronger devolution than Labour or the Tories.)
Yet a succession of leaders have treated the SNP as little short of pure evil. Nicol Stephen, Tavish Scott (especially) and now Willie Rennie appear to regard Alex Salmond’s party with undisguised hatred, for no immediately obvious reason, and the idea of any sort of co-operation on any issue about as unthinkable as Barack Obama announcing a treaty of friendship with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
In this site’s view, that approach was at least as responsible for the Scottish Lib Dems’ humiliation in 2011 as the UK party’s Westminster coalition with the Conservatives. Most people had expected the Lib Dems to form a coalition with the SNP in 2007, and when they refused we suspect that middle-ground Scottish voters no longer saw the party as serving any sort of practical purpose.
But the reduction of the Scottish Lib Dems to a tiny, embarrassing rump of just five MSPs, without a single constituency on the entire Scottish mainland, has given them a useful role in the service of the anti-independence campaign: that of cannon fodder.
Because the Lib Dems surely have no further to fall in Scotland. There’s no serious challenge to them in their Northern Isles stronghold, and PR means they’re all but guaranteed a few list MSPs, so they have literally nothing to lose. That means they can selflessly charge the nationalists’ guns, certain to be mown down gruesomely but sacrificing themselves in the hope of smearing some mud on the enemy’s uniforms.
That nihilist mindset would explain most of the Lib Dems’ behaviour of the last five years, from Stephen and Scott’s wilful and needless self-exclusion from power in 2007 to the Qatar poster fiasco and the grim, Somme-like determination with which the party plugged away at the absurd witch-hunt against the extremely honourable Martin Sime. And it’s also just about the only reason we can think of for Mr Rennie’s latest kamikaze assault on the SNP.
At the Lib Dem conference this week, Rennie launched a bizarre attack on the Nats on the grounds of their alleged links to the rather right-wing English Democrats. The evidence for this claim is so shaky it prompted Scottish Lib Dem member Andrew Page to post an urgent request for clarification on his excellent A Scottish Liberal blog. We highly recommend you read the piece now if you haven’t already, as it expresses the legitimate concerns about Rennie’s speech better than we could, and from a much more unbiased viewpoint.
As yet the only response has come from Lib Dem activist and blogger Caron Lindsay, who latterly appears to have taken on the position of Willie Rennie’s official parrot, faithfully and unquestioningly repeating her leader’s views on any subject. (She aggressively defended and continued the attacks on Martin Sime when almost no other Lib Dem would have anything to do with them.)
Despite much pious posturing, though, Lindsay’s blog adds absolutely nothing concrete to shore up Rennie’s original allegations. When challenged (by Andrew Page, ourselves and others), she was unable to support Rennie’s claim that the SNP and English Democrats had been “attending each other’s conferences”, pointing only to an extremely vague, undated, alleged meeting of some unnamed representatives of the two parties in Edinburgh. Similarly, when asked to produce the oddly-specific number of 11 tweets from the English Democrats that SNP MSP Angus MacNeil had allegedly retweeted in a five-month period, Lindsay has so far declined to do so.
(It is, of course, entirely normal for Twitter users to retweet comments they don’t agree with – we do it regularly ourselves, including a number from lunatic Labour councillor James Docherty this week alone. Many include disclaimers to that effect in their bios. But Lindsay repeatedly downplays the content of the tweets anyway, which implies that she knows they’re so trivial publishing them would embarrassingly shatter her entire argument. It’s hard to think of any other possible reason for withholding them, given that they appear to be the main plank of evidence for the allegation of links.)
[EDIT: The retweets have finally been revealed – see comment #2 below.]
With this string of overheated and hysterical smears, Willie Rennie is rapidly becoming a laughing stock in Scottish politics (we use the present tense generously). But from the wider perspective of the No camp, that’s no great loss. For as long as his position grants him media exposure, he’s a useful idiot who can be sent out to be riddled with bullets while his generals stay safely behind the lines, in the hope that a lucky shot or stray ricochet might do some damage in the nationalist trenches.
As we’ve noted before, we’ve voted Lib Dem ourselves at every election for the last 20+ years. The party is full of brave, principled, decent people. But right now, those people are – at every level and in every part of the UK – lions led by donkeys.