When Did The Scottish Liberal Democrats Become Authoritarian?
I have been shocked and surprised by the actions taken by the Scottish Liberal Democrat Leader, Willie Rennie in recent days.
It all started when the Herald published an article, accurately reporting that Scottish Conference Committee and Scottish Lib Dem HQ (SLDHQ) refused to let Yes Scotland have a stall on the same commercial terms as everybody else.
The Liberal Democrats are generally praised by the media for being comfortable and relaxed enough to allow members to genuinely debate and pass policy motions including when we go against the wishes of the party leadership. If you look at our recent Federal Conference, Jo Shaw helped defeat the leadership on the issue of secret courts. If we look back to before the election, the leadership was defeated not once but twice on the issue of dropping one of our key policies i.e. our policy on scrapping tuition fees. All Nick & Vince could convince conference to vote for was a phasing out of tuition fees over six years.
What makes our party so great is that we can speak out, it is not only allowed but also encouraged for members to have their own opinions and to express them. Unlike the Labour & Conservative parties, we are not drones, who believe what they are told to believe by their party HQ.
It is because of that liberal democratic tradition in our party that I believed it went against liberal values of allowing people to make their own decisions and encouraging debate to refuse Yes Scotland a stall at conference.
Now like Willie Rennie, I am prepared to be “awkward” (Willie’s word) when it comes to standing up for liberal principles. If the issue really was one of capacity at the Vine Venue, which I don’t believe because I was there at last years Autumn Conference and the addition of a single, solitary stall should not have posed a problem.
So when Andrew Page approached me with a letter to the Herald that spoke out for liberal democratic principles, I was happy to put my name alongside the others. Andrew, himself was approached by someone who had voted for Andrew and the LibDems previously. This LibDem voter was himself exasperated that the party could do such a thing & it was the LibDem voter who drafted the original letter, which Andrew significantly shortened before approaching myself, Graeme Cowie, Allan Heron, Norman Fraser, Gerry McGregor & Alex Dingwall.
What truly shocks me, is the way Willie Rennie has since handled the issue. Instead of shrugging it off, telling us he’s heard our concerns and that as liberals it is a healthy part of being in a liberal democracy for members to air their grievances in public as well as in private. Willie Rennie has sought to assert his authority and control over us mere members. Rennie acted in a way ill-befitting a liberal leader.
Willie Rennie, today wrote a letter (see bottom for the full letter) to all those who signed the letter to the Herald, in part explaining the decision of the leadership and conference committee to refuse the application but also and more importantly to admonish those who expressed a different view from that of the leadership.
Willie once criticised Alex Salmond for running a tight ship and not allowing MSPs & members of his party to speak out, yet here is Willie now trying to exert the same kind of control over his party as Alex Salmond does.
Since when does a member of a liberal party have to run things through central office.
Not one person who signed the letter did so to undermine or disrespect Willie Rennie or the party. We signed the letter to stick up for liberal principles in the open. Not one person in our chat about it, when Andrew asked if we should run with the letter thought of going to through the bureaucracy that is conference committee.
While Willie and others within the party think we should have gone through Conference Committee or HQ before sending the letter and aired our grievance in private, I disagree. Going about it internally would have achieved nothing as there would still have been a negative story about the party in the press saying how undemocratic we are. If people like me, don’t ever speak out when our party is in the wrong, nobody will listen to us when the party is doing the right thing.
I understand why HQ refused the application on political grounds. After all we as a party in October want the media to report about the Home Rule Commission report which should be out within the next fortnight.
That being said, I don’t see why we couldn’t have accommodated them at Spring Conference, we could have perhaps have offered them a fringe event that included a wide range of views on Scotland & the UKs constitutional future on the panel.
The problem I have is that it is far easier to defend decisions when all it takes to defend the decision is citing our values.
I can’t defend a decision such as refusing Yes Scotland a very small platform to be part of our internal democratic process at conference by citing our values.
Our values state we are a pluralistic, tolerant party.
The Scottish party when it comes to Scottish independence and the SNP are anything but. When it comes to this issue, the Scottish party are intolerant, petty and behave like children. I expect that from Labour & the Tories but not the Liberal Democrats.
Not one of us who signed the letter are rebels. We did not do it to undermine Willie or the party. The letter will only undermine Willie if he lets it. We come from different sides of the independence debate. We didn’t sign it because we thought Willie inaccessible.
Every single one of us signed it to stick up for liberal, open, pluralistic, democratic principles.
The Admonishment Letter in Full
I am not sure what is gained from members communications with me through the Herald newspaper on our conference fringe line-up. You know that I have made myself accessible to all members in my time as leader to discuss any issue.
If you had shown me the courtesy of contacting me I would have explained our decision to you. It wasn’t easy and was finely balanced.
On the one hand, it could have shown that our party is relaxed with our policy position, open to it being tested at the heart of our conference and confident in the stated position of the vast majority of our members who support Scotland staying as part of the UK. We could also have banked the fee we could charge for the space.
On the other, it could have detracted from our messages for the conference. Even without some kind of stunt on the day their presence would have been a focus for the media. As we don’t get too many opportunities to promote our own message the last point is important.
It is the clear wish of members that we promote our vision of a federal UK. That is what I want our focus to be on as we unveil the Home Rule Commission Report.
In the end we decided not to offer Yes Scotland a space as we believed promoting our party’s views must come before commercial opportunity.
Whatever our response to their approach, it would have been made into a story by Yes Scotland. A rejection has been portrayed as not democratic. An acceptance would be used to indicate growing support for independence in the party. I’d rather not have anything to do with people who treat us like that.
It is a matter of deep regret for me that you have chosen to show me such disrespect in sharing your views with the media without speaking to me first.
Willie Rennie MSP