Why the Liberal Democrats still have an important part to play in Scottish politics – Scotsman comment

After winning just four out of 129 seats in May’s Scottish Parliament election and the recent decision by Willie Rennie to stand down as leader, there are those who think the Scottish Liberal Democrats, as a party, should call it a day too.

Willie Rennie attends a rally in Edinburgh with Scottish Liberal Democrat supporters in 2019 (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Willie Rennie attends a rally in Edinburgh with Scottish Liberal Democrat supporters in 2019 (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

As they search for a sense of purpose, there are some within the party who have begun to think about alliances with Labour, formal or otherwise, in an attempt to bolster the forces of centre-left unionism after years of seemingly endless retreat.

While the Liberal Democrats have suffered as the importance of the independence debate has increased in Scottish politics over the last two decades, the main beneficiaries have been the SNP and the Scottish Conservatives.

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Independence supporters voting en masse for the SNP, while the unionist vote is split between three parties, means they dominate the first-past-the-post constituency vote in Scottish Parliament elections.

For many, the Scottish Conservatives, particularly under Ruth Davidson, have emerged as the main unionist champion and this saw them overtake Labour to become the second party in Scottish politics.

It is not ridiculous to suppose that this trend will continue with elections eventually turning into a binary choice between the ‘Independence Party’ and the ‘Union Party’.

Labour is still strong enough to mount a decent attempt to stop this possible future from becoming reality, but they have a struggle on their hands. So wouldn’t the Liberal Democrats be better off trying to help Labour or going the whole hog and throwing in their lot with Anas Sarwar?

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Willie Rennie stands down as Scottish Liberal Democrat leader

Rennie has now expressed the rather optimistic hope that Scotland is “moving beyond the nationalism years”, adding that “there is a responsibility on ourselves and Labour to really step up and make sure there is a dynamism behind that progressive, centre/centre-left place in Scottish politics that is pro-UK, outward-looking, international, compassionate”. “All that needs to have greater energy behind it in order to convince people that it is worth it,” he added.

He recognised that the Conservatives and SNP are now feeding off each other, saying “the Conservatives are the main recruiting sergeant for the SNP. That’s why the SNP put the Tories on their leaflets more than the SNP and vice versa”.

But the Liberal Democrats do have a role in Scottish politics beyond critiquing the policies of other unionist parties, backing Labour or being the best-placed party to defeat the SNP.

And that is as champions of liberalism, a philosophy that Russia’s dictatorial president Vladimir Putin declared to be “obsolete” in 2019. A liberal tenet is the simple truth that we are all individuals, an idea which some particularly right-wing liberals wrongly interpret to mean there is no such thing as society, but which also forms the basis for important principles of equality and human rights.

In a Scotland in which two great tribes are forming, one unionist, the other nationalist, there is a danger that we begin to forget that whatever flag we regard as our own or political beliefs we espouse, the connections we share as individual people are far greater than all such divisions combined. Even if the Liberal Democrats’s fate is to forever be a minority party, they would do well to remain and be a constant reminder of our shared humanity.

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