FORMER Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown has compared the SNP to Nigel Farage’s anti-EU Ukip and far right parties in France, Germany and Austria in a controversial attack on Scottish nationalism.
However, one of Alex Salmond’s predecessors as SNP leader, Gordon Wilson, last night hit back and accused Lord Ashdown of making “demented” and “vicious” claims, after the Lib Dem grandee suggested Scottish nationalism was similar to that promoted by European parties that are hostile to immigration and welfare.
Lord Ashdown accused the SNP of making the “most simplistic” arguments and of promoting divisive policies along similar lines to Eurosceptic and right wing Ukip leader Mr Farage and the anti-welfare and ultra-Conservative Tea Party in the USA.
However, the Lib Dem peer controversially drew a direct comparison between the SNP and the far-right Front National in France led by Marine Le Pen – a party accused of having racist and fascist sympathies.
The SNP, which describes itself as a “social democratic” and left-of-centre, was also likened to nationalist parties in Germany and Austria – nations where the far right has won significant electoral support – by Lord Ashdown.
He told delegates at a fringe meeting at the Lib Dem conference in Glasgow that Ukip and the SNP reach the “erogenous zones of the public” with their powerful arguments in an era where division triumphs over unity.
The controversial intervention comes less than a month after the Yes side attracted 45 per cent of the vote in the independence referendum, in a campaign that was heavily influenced by the SNP.
However, Mr Wilson, who led the SNP from 1979 to 1990, warned that Lord Ashdown’s intervention would stoke up anger among the Scottish electorate.
He said: “I find it typical of the kind of liberal philosophy that is essentially demented and out of touch. It will provoke a lot of anger as it shows the contempt that the Westminster elite has for the electorate in Scotland.
“It shows the values part of this elite hold, once you vote the way they don’t want you to.”
Lord Ashdown, who led his party for over a decade, insisted the different brands of nationalism from the SNP, Ukip and the far right all increased divisions within society.
The Lib Dem, who served in the Royal Marines, said that all nationalist parties sought to build mass movements as he mentioned the SNP and anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic parties in the same sentence.
He said: “It seems to me today we live in an age where division holds sway. Those who have the arguments that are most powerful, most simplistic are those who argue not for unity but for division and that is why liberals find it so difficult to be liberals.
“You look at SNP, you look at Farage, you look at Marine Le Pen, you look at the right of Austria and Germany, you look at the Tea Party in America who have these powerful arguments that reach the erogenous zones of the public to whom they are talking and around which they can generate the mass movements that used to be generated for unity and they’re being generated for division.”
However, an SNP spokesman accused the Lib Dems of propping up the Tories in the coalition government.
The spokesman said: “Lord Ashdown should reflect on the fact that the Lib Dems were on the same side as Ukip in the independence referendum.
“The Lib Dems are prepared to do anything to prop up their Tory allies and dance to Ukip’s Euro-hostile tune, which is why they are at 5 per cent in the polls in Scotland and the SNP lead Labour by 15 points.”
Lord Ashdown, who is chairman of the party’s 2015 general election campaign,told activists that Nick Clegg plans to show how the Lib Dems will influence government should they be part of a new coalition next year.
On a Lib Dem role in a coalition, Lord Ashdown said the existing deal with the Tories had been “excruciatingly painful” for him and said any future decision on who the party deals with is for voters to decide.
He added the party is no longer the “wonderful, slightly furry little animal” on the edges of British politics that has its ideas stolen, but now expects to be in government.
Lord Ashdown went on: “In the coalition, if it were Labour we will make sure we do what is necessary to ensure responsible economic management since they have a record exactly antipathetical of that.
“In the case of the Tories, who reveal themselves again to be red in tooth and claw – Mr Osborne – we will make sure that they don’t smash society.
“One of them endangers trashing the economy and the other trash society. We will make sure they don’t.
“But… if our slogan was simply about what we stop, we would be deficient.
“I want to see citizens empowered economically, empowered politically but if you got out and say ‘empowered citizen’ it’ll mean a hell of a lot to liberals but I’m not sure it means a hell of a lot to the ordinary person.”