Is There Any Room for the Liberal Democrats?

Back in 1999, the creation of the Scottish Parliament seemed like a heaven-sent opportunity for the Scottish Liberal Democrats. Given that the new body was to be elected using proportional representation (the result of successful bargaining with Labour in the Scottish Constitutional Convention), it was unlikely that any single party would ever win an overall majority. Dealing and coalition formation would be the norm, and no party seemed better placed to profit from that circumstance than the Liberal Democrats. They, after all, looked like the one party that seemed potentially capable of striking a deal with either Labour or the SNP – and even perhaps the Conservatives. The role of Scotland’s perpetual junior coalition partner seemed to beckon.

The first eight years of devolution saw the Liberal Democrats live up to this billing, as they enjoyed the trappings of office in coalition with Labour. But then in 2007 the party turned down the possibility of doing a deal with the SNP after the nationalists had narrowly pipped Labour for the prize of largest group at Holyrood. The party has found itself in the political wilderness ever since. Four years later the SNP went on to prove that it was possible for one party to win an overall majority under Holyrood’s proportional electoral system. In the meantime, disaster struck the Liberal Democrats, in the wake of a coalition deal with the Conservatives at Westminster that resulted in a sharp U-turn on the party’s high profile policy of abolishing university tuition fees (in England). The party north of the border might have played a key role in the abolition of such fees in Scotland and tried to put clear yellow water between itself and the decisions made by colleagues at Westminster, but voters punished the party anyway. As a result, even though the SNP government is now a minority one once more, it is the Greens – who have one more Holyrood seat than the Liberal Democrats – who nowadays find themselves the pivotal players in the Edinburgh chamber.

We should not be surprised, then, if this weekend a key and even anguished topic of discussion in the bars and restaurants of Aviemore , where the Liberal Democrats convene for their spring conference, is how the party’s fortunes might be restored once more. True, it gained three seats in last year’s UK general election and managed to increase its share of the vote, albeit often only minimally, in 54 of Scotland’s 59 seats. Even so, it was still left with just 6.8% of the Scotland-wide vote, the party’s worst performance since 1970 – and on that occasion it only fought 27 out of the 71 seats that then existed north of the border. In truth, the party was still doing no more than scraping along the bottom, just as it had done in the Holyrood election twelve months earlier. Meanwhile, the latest opinion polls suggest that nothing has changed. They all put the party on just 6-7 % for both Westminster and the constituency ballot for the Scottish Parliament.

One of the party’s problems is that it finds itself occupying a crowded space on the issues that currently dominate much of Scottish politics.  On the constitutional question, it wants Scotland to remain part of the Union. Indeed, polls suggest that nearly all of the party’s support comes now from those who voted No to independence in 2014. The days when the party’s advocacy of Home Rule (which some might argue is tantamount to what the devolution settlement now delivers) enabled it to some degree to have a foot in both the unionist and the nationalist camps are well and truly over. As a result, its hopes of gaining support are more or less wholly confined to the 55% of Scots who oppose independence, and for whose backing the party is in fierce competition with both Labour and the Conservatives.

On Brexit, the party would like to see the decision to leave the EU reversed. This stance is also reflected in the pattern of the party’s support in the polls, which on average give it 8% support amongst Remain voters but just 3% amongst those who backed Leave. South of the border the party’s stance on Brexit gives it a unique message to sell, albeit not one that it has so far been able to exploit electorally. But in Scotland the Liberal Democrats find their concerns about Brexit are shared by the SNP (and indeed the Greens) who, as a party of government, at least have some bargaining chips with which to attempt to influence the UK government’s implementation of Britain’s withdrawal.

Meanwhile, the party supports the idea that the Scottish Parliament should use its new income tax powers to raise rates in order to have more money to spend on public services (a far cry from their Westminster colleagues’ advocacy of lower income tax when they were in coalition with the Conservatives). However, although the Liberal Democrats might argue with the SNP, Labour and the Greens about the details of how this should be done, their proposed direction of travel is again shared with others.

Without more distinctive policy stances that appear meaningful to voters, the Scottish Liberal Democrats may well find that revival continues to elude them.  If so, Holyrood will continue to be without a ‘hinge’ with which all other parties might find it possible to strike a deal.  And that prospect potentially has implications for all of the party leaders as they eye up their future prospects of entering – or remaining in – Bute House.

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About the author

John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, Senior Research Fellow at ScotCen and at 'UK in a Changing Europe', and Chief Commentator on the What Scotland Thinks website.