Euan McColm: Spin on Alistair Carmichael appointment

Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael: Secretary of State for Scotland. Picture: Neil Hanna
Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael: Secretary of State for Scotland. Picture: Neil Hanna
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AS POLITICAL spin goes, the story that accompanied the appointment of Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael as Secretary of State for Scotland was baffling.

As the member for Orkney and Shetland moved into the office vacated by his abruptly sacked party colleague Michael Moore this week, the briefing began: Carmichael had been given the job because he was ready to take the referendum fight to the SNP. Carmichael was a bruiser who wouldn’t shy from confronting First Minister Alex Salmond.

It was, I’m afraid, terribly macho stuff. Helpfully, there’s a photo of Carmichael dressed as a Viking at Shetland’s annual Up Helly Aa fire festival. This widely used shot perfectly supported the idea of the new Scottish Secretary as a brutal political slugger, prepared to put the boot in.

All of this would be fine, if unimaginative, but for one glaring truth: the last thing the No campaign needs is a more aggressive (or passionate, if we’re being polite) approach to the debate.

Those who know Carmichael well don’t recognise the picture painted by the Westminster coalition spin machine. Yes, his previous role as Lib Dem chief whip required toughness and authority (Carmichael successfully kept colleagues in line when partnership with the Conservatives left their patience sorely tested) but in public he’s an affable, clubbable chap rather than the attack dog described by whispering spinners.

In order for us to buy the story that his appointment was driven by the need for a hard nut, we have also to subscribe to the view that Moore had been somehow ineffective in the role. This is unfair.

Moore was an accidental Secretary of State for Scotland. After the 2010 election, Danny Alexander (another Lib Dem, naturally. Why, after all, would the coalition have put a “hated” Tory in the Scotland Office?) was given the job. Just 18 days later, the Lib Dems’ Chief Secretary to the Treasury David Laws was forced to resign over his expenses claims. Alexander was to replace him and Moore found himself, unexpectedly, brought into the Cabinet.

Regardless of how he won his seat at the Cabinet table, Moore proved himself capable. He successfully negotiated the terms of the referendum with the Scottish Government, achieving agreement on Prime Minister David Cameron’s preferred option that there should be a single Yes/No question on the ballot paper. And he won the respect of opponents who described him as fair and decent.

But while that calm demeanour was of benefit during private meetings with Nationalists, it appears party leader Nick Clegg now considers it a weakness.

So, Carmichael begins his new job with the expectation that he’ll prove a trickier customer than his predecessor.

But why should he be? There is no benefit to the Better Together campaign from a more aggressive approach.

The Nationalist movement is, by definition, more emotionally charged than the Unionist position. The Yes Scotland campaign requires voters to take a leap of faith, it demands the engagement of heart as much as (if not more than) head. The answer from Better Together should be to play up to voters’ natural caution.

Alex Salmond in full, passionate voice is a brilliant debater. But he has his flaws, particularly when it comes to niggling detail. Those taking him on will always struggle to match his fiery rhetoric. More effective, then, is for opponents to adopt a more calm approach; to stand stock still while he flaps around them. Few observers would fancy Carmichael’s chances against Salmond if the heavy fire was going in both directions.

This is a view shared, it has to be said, by those closest to Salmond who know he’s at his worst against an unreasonably reasonable opponent.

Within 48 hours of his appointment, Carmichael displayed some of the “steel” we are told he possesses but his target was neither the First Minister nor the pro-independence movement. Instead, the Secretary of State issued a neatly scripted warning to coalition colleagues that they should not patronise or lecture Scots while on trips north of the Border.

This line addressed perception rather than reality. UK Cabinet ministers have loyally followed the Prime Minister’s “respect agenda” since the SNP won the 2011 election and, with that, the right to call next year’s referendum. Carmichael’s shot across his colleagues’ bows was not required to address a particular problem but to persuade voters that he’s loyal to Scotland before government.

Some Lib Dems suggest that Carmichael’s appointment has less to do with the future of Scotland and everything to do with the future of Clegg. The Deputy Prime Minister has few Cabinet and other ministerial posts in his gift so, if he wishes to reward loyalty, then perfectly decent performers may have to be sacrificed.

Clegg has frequently relied upon Carmichael the whip for the past three years. Given that the Lib Dem leader and Cameron are understood already to have discussed a second coalition, Clegg will want to keep Carmichael close. He may depend, after all, on the former whip to see off any troublesome leadership challenges once the 2015 election votes have been counted (assuming Labour’s Ed Miliband doesn’t emerge as leader of the largest party).

The case against Carmichael’s “tough” approach being required is further undermined by the reality that the Secretary of State’s role in the referendum is now all but over. Moore’s negotiations with Scottish ministers were crucial to agreement over the timing and terms but Labour’s former chancellor Alistair Darling leads the No campaign, now, and there’s little hunger from the No campaign to give a greater role to a member of the coalition.

In fact, the more one thinks about, the more pointless Alistair Carmichael’s heavily spun promotion seems. «

Twitter: @euanmccolm