Given how truly awful both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn are as political leaders, it really is disappointing to see them matched by the new head of the Liberal Democrats, Jo Swinson, writes Angus Robertson.
At a historic moment when she could bring a fresh principled younger perspective as her party’s first female leader, it is a great shame that it has only taken a few weeks to blow that opportunity.
While the Tory and Labour leaders are at the centre of the Brexit meltdown by commission and omission respectively, Swinson has remarkably positioned her party as being illiberal and anti-democratic.
Just at the time when liberal and democratic values are under attack at home and abroad, unbelievably the new leader of Liberal Democrats is joining in the assault.
She believes that while the Brexit referendum result can be overturned in a democratic vote, apparently Scotland can’t have another independence referendum, even if people vote for it. Exposed on a range of media interviews to coincide with her party conference in Bournemouth, it is absolutely clear that Jo Swinson’s position is contradictory, cynical and über-hypocritical. If “liberalism” and “democracy” means anything, it is the respect for pluralism and people’s right to choose. Swinson is denying Scotland both. She has been joined by her Scottish Parliament colleague, Willie Rennie, who has said in recent days that he will seek to block a second independence referendum, even if there is a majority in Holyrood for it.
It is an entirely honourable position for Liberal Democrats to want Scotland to remain part of the UK and the EU if they believe that. It is not honourable or principled to deny the people the choice if they disagree with them, and vote to have a say. Since the 2014 independence referendum, voters in Scotland have decided to remain in the EU, while a UK majority backed leave. This is a profound change in circumstances, and it is causing many people to change their views.
The SNP won the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections with a manifesto commitment for an independence referendum in those circumstances. They won 60 per cent of Scotland’s Westminster seats in 2017 with the same position and have also a secured a majority vote in the Scottish Parliament on the subject. How many votes and electoral victories will it take for “Liberal Democrats” to respect the democratic wishes of voters?
Ironically this last week there have been events marking International Day of Democracy. We have also seen UK-wide opinion poll results showing majority support for a Scottish independence referendum, including amongst Lib Dem supporters.
Instead of embracing a centrist agenda which would appeal to homeless moderate voters across the rest of the UK, Swinson is positioning herself as a potential coalition partner for the Tories. Having done this already under David Cameron, supporting the Tory austerity agenda, the Lib Dems lost most of their seats.
Former Tory MPs now feel quite at home on the Lib Dem benches at Westminster. They include the likes of Sam Gymiah, who infamously talked out a new law that would pardon gay and bisexual men convicted of sexual offences that are no longer criminal. Then there is Philip Lee, the MP for Bracknell, who abstained on a vote on equal marriage and tried to introduce an amendment to a Bill which would ban HIV-positive immigrants from entering the UK.
Democratic politics needs a strong, principled centrist voice. Jo Swinson is proving that it won’t be the Liberal Democrats.