Leaders: Cool heads and clear sight

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg at the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference in Liverpool. Picture: PA
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg at the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference in Liverpool. Picture: PA
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Tories and Lib Dems need to tone down their language when speaking about the SNP

THE coalition is over. Nick Clegg read its death rites yesterday at the Lib Dem spring conference in Liverpool, saying that the signing off of the UK Government Budget, which will go before MPs on Wednesday, was the last significant act of the partnership that has seen the Conservative party and their Lib Dem partners governing the UK for the past five years.

The part the Lib Dems played in this partnership will be long discussed by political historians. While Nick Clegg and his fellow ministers scored early successes in ameliorating the Conservative party’s worst instincts, latterly it was harder to detect its influence as the administration became more recognisably Tory. What is in no doubt is that the Lib Dems will pay a heavy political price for its foray into power.

The extent of the party’s predicament can be seen in the comments Danny Alexander makes in this newspaper today. Alexander is in effect pleading for his political life, asking Labour and Tory voters to join him – and other Lib Dem MPs across Scotland – in fending off the challenge of the SNP.

His appeal for what is effectively an anti- Nationalist alliance – a gathering together of the No parties for the purposes of defeating the forces of independence – is an extraordinary moment in this election. It will be leapt upon by the SNP, which is trying its best to perpetuate the binary division in Scottish politics that was formed during the referendum campaign. Nationalist strategists will be rubbing their hands in glee at the opportunity to portray Alexander as still being in cahoots with the Tories, even when the coalition has run its course. And inevitably, as is the SNP’s wont, the anti-Nationalist tactic will be portrayed as anti-Scottish.

The latent anti-Scottish mood in UK politics at the moment is deeply worrying. The language being used by the Tories last week, and echoed by the Lib Dems this weekend, takes Scottish politics into dangerous territory. It denies the SNP legitimacy within the Westminster system. It tells the Nationalists they should know their place. It says to a party that sent its first MP to London in 1945 – Dr Robert McIntyre who won a Motherwell by-election – that there are limits to the role it can play in one of Westminster’s key functions, the creation of a government.

This is a regressive attitude. It is bad enough when it is expressed by a cynical and opportunistic Tory party leadership. But to hear it from a Scottish Lib Dem MP almost defies belief.

True, the SNP does itself no favours, with Alex Salmond’s lurid talk of “holding Westminster’s feet to the fire” (in 2010 it was the equally grisly “hanging Westminster from a Scottish rope”). But it is a properly constituted political party under UK law, currently supported by around half of the Scottish population. To arbitrarily deny it a role at the apex of British politics because you don’t like its aims, is arbitrary and unconscionable. Would the Lib Dems have the same attitude to the nationalist SDLP, if it succeeded in electing MPs in May?

The modern SNP, unlike many nationalist movements around the world, has pursued its aims through wholly civic and constitutional means. It would be appalling if the British state were to turn around and say that nevertheless the party should be denied its full constitutional rights. Views such as those expressed by Alexander yesterday make it harder for moderates within the SNP to chart a course for the party that does not, for example, include a new manifesto commitment to hold another independence referendum. Alexander’s comments are a provocation.

This is a time for cool heads and a long perspective. All the players in this election need to realise that language which might seem justified by short-term electoral tactics may in fact do long-term constitutional damage.

Two cheers for Police Scotland

POLICE Scotland has come in for a great deal of criticism – not least from this newspaper – since its formation in April 2013. There have been criticisms of the force’s lack of respect for local policing arrangements, for example in the crackdown on Edinburgh saunas; there has been the furore over armed officers attending routine police business; and the use of stop-and-search on children eventually prompted an intervention by Nicola Sturgeon. Issues of accountability – both at a local and national level – remain a problem the force is struggling to deal with. So it makes a pleasant change to congratulate Police Scotland on an important policy decision that will be met with widespread support.

As our news story explains, police north of the Border have taken a very different tack to forces south of the Border on what to do with police mugshots. MPs have been expressing concern about a vast and growing database of pictures held by English police forces. But Police Scotland has decided to upload only the pictures of people charged with criminal offences. This is a commendable decision that respects civil liberties without compromising the police’s ability to fight crime.

However, there is a caveat. If Scotland on Sunday had not made enquiries about this matter last week, the Police Scotland position on this issue would not be publicly known. The bodies charged with holding the force to account – the Scottish Police Authority at national level, and local authorities at local level – need to be much more proactive in their scrutiny. And the force leadership needs to do more to identify the operational issues that deserve to be more widely and more publicly discussed.

Police Scotland came to the right conclusion on this matter – but this was an issue of public interest, and the police position should have been arrived at after due debate in public. What input did Scotland’s justice secretary have into this? What opportunities were given to Scotland’s opposition politicians to express a view? Was the SPA kept abreast of the decision-making process, and asked for its view?

Policing in Scotland is not yet being run or scrutinised in a manner that allows due public and political consideration of contentious issues. This must change.