But for Michael Moore – the present incumbent – all that changed on the night of 5 May, 2011. From the fringes of the annual cabinet photo shoot, the SNP’s victory catapulted Moore into one of the most important jobs in British politics. “The electorate delivered an outcome in Scotland two years ago which was unarguable. The SNP got a majority”, he says.
The commitment in First Minister Alex Salmond’s manifesto to hold a referendum was concrete. It was Moore’s job to respond. “There might have been a question about how seriously they [the SNP] took it, but we took it seriously from day one. And that still drives what I do every day.”
Moore is spending much of the summer break this year in his Borders seat. But little more than a year away from the referendum, he is not putting his feet up. This week, he is off to the Western Isles and the north of the country as the marathon campaigning countdown continues. Any hope of a family holiday has been put off until October.
An MP for 16 years, the 48-year old Moore is an accidental cabinet minister, only getting the job after his colleague, David Laws, was forced to resign over his expenses. But he has – by most impartial standards – grown into the job. He has provided a face of reason to the pro-UK cause (though it is too untribal for some Unionist tastes – one Scottish Tory splutters: “Michael Moore! He wouldn’t say boo to a goose!”).
However, a recent speech in which he raised the prospect of border posts between England and Scotland (“a canard so lame it has to waddle its ducklings through oil”, tweeted Scotland on Sunday columnist Andrew Wilson), had Nationalists accusing him of joining the ranks of the Unionist scaremongerers.
So what about that charge? Isn’t it the case that people are having to choose between one side which claims everything will be perfect, while he on his side sprays negativity over the country’s prospects – the so-called “Project Fear”.
Supping tea in a café in Hawick, the mild-mannered Moore becomes animated. “I absolutely reject the way you characterise our side of the argument,” he responds. He points to the series of lengthy documents issued by the UK government, which have highlighted the “positive strengths” of the UK. “At no point do we say, this bit [about Scotland] is rubbish,” he says.
He agrees that “there was a time”, at the birth of the Scottish Parliament, that the “whole argument of ‘we are too poor, too wee, too far away’”, was used to ward people off independence. Nowadays, he says, “it doesn’t work as a concept”.
He uses Edinburgh Castle as a metaphor for the new pro-UK case – over-familiarity with it means we in Scotland don’t look at or think about it that much. “Then you look at it and, you know what, it’s fantastic. OK, there are some bits that could with a brush up… but I think for the pro-UK side this is a great opportunity to look at what we have and share that with folk, while offering people more on the devolution journey.”
But border posts? That’s not going to happen is it? Moore was quoted a week earlier as saying “you can’t have a vastly different immigration policy [in Scotland] without a strong border.” The SNP accused him of trying to play the fear card.
He stands by the point he was trying to make – that the SNP can’t argue for both an open border with England and a vastly different immigration policy. “No-one wants them [border controls],” he says. “It would be ridiculous. I represent an area of the country where there are back roads going over and it would be ludicrous to have border controls.”
But, post-independence, “the hard reality is they [a future Scottish Government] would need to work it out with the rest of the UK”.
His “problem” with Salmond, he says, is that the potential for disagreement between Scotland and the rest of the UK (and the EU and others) on such issues is glossed over. “The way they are presenting their case is to say there will be no issues with this. It’s the squeaky clean, easy approach that suggests it’s painless and it’ll all go on with nothing to get your head round – that’s what I have a problem with.”
He speaks as though he had scars on his back. For it was, of course, the Lib Dems which went into the last election with squeaky-clean and painless promises on free university tuition – only to bin them the moment they got into power. Moore was memorably set up by a newspaper sting in Galashiels, where he spoke of having committed “the worst crime a politician can commit… I’ve had to break a pledge very, very publicly.”
With the memory of that breach of trust still strong, isn’t the general election in 2015 going to be a repeat of the party’s 2011 Scottish disaster? He is, after all, a key part of the government of the Bedroom tax and the “Go Home or Face Arrest” van (“That wasn’t a smart way to deal with immigration policy” he says).
“If we hadn’t had Eastleigh [the by-election triggered by Chris Huhne’s resignation, won by the Lib Dems] and some of the council elections and if everything was turning to dust, I’d be sitting here thinking that’s a fair question and how do I get round it,” he replies. But he believes that policies such as the Lib Dem plan to increase the income tax threshold to £10,000, and efforts to “stop” further Conservative raids the welfare budget are winning back friends.
Have the Lib Dems moved from utopia to reality in these last few years? “I am not going to disown where the party has come from but there’s no question that we’ve been on a journey over the last three years, looking hard at what is deliverable in government,” he says. But making things happen in power has helped restore the party’s “self-confidence,” he argues.
“There have been some rocky moments for activists and members but people under-estimate our resilience at their peril.”
Moore will soon turn his focus to the Lib Dem conference in September, this year on home turf in Glasgow. But with the conference being held as Scotland marks one-year-to-go until the referendum, the campaign will not be far away from anyone’s thoughts. It was Moore, along with Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne, who agreed that the referendum should be a straight “yes-no” choice in Scotland, with no second question offering a compromise package.
The polls suggest the gamble will pay off, but does he have any sleepless nights about the gravity of that decision, and its potential consequences? “It’s a big bold moment. There’s no ducking the seriousness of it. I have no worries about turnout. There’s not a person in the country who doesn’t know this is coming and hasn’t begun to think about it. To have ended up with a muddled two question referendum where we would have been arguing about what the heck the outcome would have told us would have been a disaster for the country. We have a simple choice and there’s a huge amount at stake.”
And does he think it is good that the country finally decides one way or the other? “I think it is a very exciting moment. There is a huge amount at stake. There’s a renewal of political debate in Scotland and everyone is having to raise their game. This is engaging people all the way through the country and it won’t just be politicians. That has got to be good for politics. It’s the defining issue for any country and I’m glad we can grab it”.