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Saturday, 31 December 2011

My predictions for 2012

So, that was the year that was. It started off moderately well for the Liberal Democrats with a reasonable outcome in the Oldham & Saddleworth by-election, with Tim Farron telling us all that the result showed how unwise it was to write off the Liberal Democrats as a spent electoral force. Unfortunately that was followed by some disastrous by-elections in Barnsley and Inverclyde and a collapse of stunning proportions in the Holyrood elections. And things haven't got a great deal better since, although there have been some indications of the party's willingness to assert itself in coalition on such issues as the NHS, green energy, the proposed tax break for married people and Europe.

It's tough in coalition, as Nick Clegg's grittily realistic New Year message attests. No-one ever suggested it would be anything other, but it's clearly a lot harder for the minor partner than it is for the larger. Here in Scotland, we've taken a particular battering on a greater scale than I imagined when I wrote (in May 2010) that: "from a purely Scottish perspective, identifying ourselves with a Conservative Party which has virtually no electoral base and remains widely mistrusted could prove to be an electoral liability. The old questions of the Tories’ electoral legitimacy in Scotland and the perceived 'democratic deficit' may re-emerge with potential to damage the Scottish Liberal Democrats." I think at the time there were many who disagreed with such an assessment of our electoral prospects; there aren't too many who'd take issue with it now.

I tried my hand at making a few other predictions last year, some of which were less accurate than that above. As it's that time of year again, I've dug out the crystal ball to have another go at foretelling how the year is going to pan out:

POLITICS

The Liberal Democrats


* The local elections will see significant Lib Dem losses, although it is the Tories and the SNP who are best placed to capitalise. Nick Clegg will remain defiant and insist that if only we keep on telling voters how much we're doing in government, they'll eventually reward us.

* Tim Farron's star will continue to rise and he will increasingly be seen as the voice of the grassroots and the party's conscience. Tim will always have a word for anyone, especially representatives of the media who won't believe any of his denials that he's grooming himself to be Nick Clegg's eventual successor.

* Ed Davey will become more visible and will develop his reputation as being a sensible although radical thinker in the heart of government.

* 2012 will see a growth in the influence of the Social Liberal Forum and Evan Harris in particular. Despite accusations of being "a party within a party", the SLF will continue to articulate the kind of centre-left policies many members continue to identify closely with, much to the private disgust of Nick Clegg.

* Here in Scotland, Willie Rennie will become more positive in his approach and less adversarial towards the SNP. Like most Scottish Lib Dems though, he will continue to suffer from Tourette's Syndrome whenever the word "independence" is whispered. The public - or at least the handful who religiously watch FMQs on the Parliament channel - will gradually begin to warm to his performances in Holyrood, which will provide relief from the tribal battle between the SNP and Labour front benches. He will gain credibility from focusing his energies on education, the youth contract and tackling unemployment - and from people finally realising that he has a sense of humour. This won't stop much of the media from continuing to perceive him as something of an irrelevance.

* Rennie will dismiss poor results in the local elections as merely the inevitable effect of the Westminster coalition. Nick Clegg will remain unrepentant, reminding us all that if only we keep on telling voters how much we're doing for Scotland in government, they'll eventually reward us.

The Conservative Party

* Right-wing Conservatives will sense they have their leader on the back foot after the recent European debacle. They will up the pressure on Cameron to continue to pander to their less than progressive whims and unreasonable designs, with limited success. Expect Cameron to reinforce his own party's identity in coalition and Tory MPs to berate the role of Liberal Democrats as a negative force.

* George Osborne will be forced on the defensive over the government's austerity programme but will refuse to consider alternative plans, even in the face of evidence to suggest they might actually work more effectively.

* The Tory vote will hold up well in local elections, which will mistakenly be interpreted as approval of the government's policy direction.

* Ruth Davidson will struggle to adapt to her new role as Scottish Tory leader, but will have an enormous impact on the continuing independence debate.

The Labour Party

* Labour will continue to struggle, with Ed Miliband in particular demonstrating an inability to come to terms with opposition.

* Ed Balls will prove effective at probing the limitations of George Osborne's fiscal plans, but will struggle to champion any cogent ideas of his own.

* Chuka Umunna will demonstrate his enormous value to the Labour Party in a string of skirmishes with Vince Cable in which his leadership potential will become obvious to everyone, including the fearful Ed Miliband. Cue plenty of unsettling talk about replacing the current leader.

* Johann Lamont will start slowly but will emerge as a capable debater (especially in FMQs) and will advocate a stronger emphasis on equality, both of which will set her apart from her predecessor.

The Scottish National Party

* Even Willie Rennie admits that Alex Salmond has had a fantastic year. So good in fact, that things can't really get any better. And they won't. But as the most respected politician in Scotland by some distance and arguably the most able communicator in Holyrood, Salmond will continue to enjoy high public approval ratings and his party will make gains in the local elections, at the expense of both Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

* Other SNP ministers, most notably Sturgeon, Russell and Ewing will have a successful year. Swinney will find the going tougher but his Budget, which will include welcome action to tackle unemployment and increase investment in green energy, will be supported by the Greens and Liberal Democrats. And cynically opposed by Labour, in spite of them being in agreement with 90% of it.

* Support will not necessarily rise for independence, but as support for the SNP itself shows no sign of waning, confidence in the party's ranks that it will win a referendum appear more than justified. Opposition parties sense the danger and intervene with misguided attacks on the SNP leadership, thus boosting the prospect of a "Yes" vote.

* The SNP will show leadership on equality and will decide in favour of introducing equal marriage. This move will be supported by all parties in Holyrood other than the Tories who, despite having an openly gay leader, still aren't overly comfortable with LGBT rights and retain a telling silence on the matter. Equal marriage will be generally welcomed, although a few senior Roman Catholic clergy, the Wee Frees, the Christian Institute, Willie Rennie's interns, MSPs John Mason and Bill Wilson - and, of course, Dame Brian Souter - will form an unlikely coalition and ensure that for several weeks after the announcement the Scottish press is pre-occupied with reporting the backward-looking attitudes of a self-appointed "moral majority", embarrassing Scotland in the process. The media will rub their hands with glee in anticipation of a breakaway Church of Scottish Homophobes, which never comes into being.

* As the SNP would like, the political debate in Scotland becomes increasingly constricted around the question of independence. Unfortunately for the SNP, this also coincides with a public appetite for a referendum to determine Scotland's future in the EU, which the party are less happy to offer.

International

* The "Arab Spring" proves to be optimistically named. Democracy in Egypt returns a government not overly friendly towards democratic principles and determined to impose its opposition to western "carnality". It will outlaw alcohol, bikinis and generally having fun, thus in an instant destroying the Egyptian tourist industry and ruining the economy. Economic pressures lead to expressions of discontent, which meet the predictably heavy-handed response. Meanwhile in Syria, President Assad finally succumbs to international and internal pressure and quits, only to be replaced by a "transitional government" made up of Ba'ath Party allies and the military.

* The Euro will survive - for the time being. Bulgaria will join the Euro later in the year and at a vastly inflated rate which will eventually prove to be its undoing. The technocratic governments of Greece and Italy do what they were designed to do in the short term but have no long-term answer to dealing with Europe's debt problem. Bizarrely, the East African nations of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi rate the Euro so highly want to replicate its "success" and will launch a new single currency for the East African Community mid-way through the year.

* France will elect Francois Hollande to replace Nicolas Sarkozy as President.

* North Korean premier Kim Jong-un will prove himself a worthy successor to his father and grandfather and will behave in an similarly erratic and irresponsible manner, only more so. Anxious to make a name for himself on the international stage, Kim is keen to play up his nuclear capability and makes thinly veiled threats towards his Southern neighbours.

* The US Presidential will be the closest run and the toughest to call since Truman defeated Dewey. The Republicans select Mitt Romney from an admittedly limited pool of talent, who proves himself to be a safer pair of hands than some feared. Whatever the outcome, the rest of the world breathes a collective sigh of relief that Sarah Palin didn't run.

Football

* St Mirren will finish a barely believable and thoroughly creditable 7th in the SPL, with Morton putting together a good run at the end of the season to finish 4th in Division 1. Celtic will win the SPL, as well as the League Cup beating Kilmarnock in the final. My own Albion Rovers will miss out on the play-offs. In England, Manchester United will have the experience that matters at the business end of the season giving them a record-breaking 20th title; Alex Ferguson still won't retire.

* Euro 2012 proves a disappointment, although Scottish fans will enjoy watching England losing to Italy in the second round. Russia will lose to Germany in the final, after which they complain about the facilities, the refereeing and Ukrainian nationalism.

Olympics

* The Olympics will be a huge success for the GB team. They will do well in athletics, rowing, sailing, swimming and diving. They will do less well in the beach volleyball, but it will be fun watching them try.

* Unfortunately, the games will bring a lesser economic benefit to the country than the public were led to believe. Lacking the kind of foresight possessed by that of the organisers of the games in Barcelona or Sydney, the GB Olympics' lasting legacy is a couple of London football clubs arguing about who uses the stadium.

* However, the most lasting memory will be mayor Boris Johnson fumbling through a typically disjointed speech at the closing ceremony during which he slips on the wet grass while demonstrating the British origins of synchronised swimming, suffering a fracture to his collarbone and having to be carried off to an ambulance, which doesn't arrive for 30 minutes as it's stuck in traffic around the Elephant & Castle.

In lighter vein...

* A number of political scandals will rock Westminster, including a Tory MP having a string of affairs, a Labour frontbencher hailing the Thatcher legacy and a Lib Dem admitting that he's not gay.

* The Liberal Democrats' electoral fortunes will pick up slightly, with a creditable third place in a by-election in which they come ahead of the BNP, UKIP, the Monster Raving Loony Party and the National Liberal Party which, ironically enough, is campaigning against what it perceives as a merger of the Tories and Lib Dems. The Monster Raving Loony candidate will save his deposit, campaigning with the slogan "The only Tory of any use is a lava-tory".

* Theresa May will propose constructing an electric fence around Britain's coastline to keep out both immigrants and any pet cats they bring along with them.

* Jo Swinson's Real Women campaign will be so effective in championing body confidence and challenging stereotypical perceptions of beauty that the "in" thing for fashionable models to do will be to pile on the pounds. Katie Price gets in on the act, opting for a breast reduction to reveal the extent of her "new tummy". Such is the change of culture, a size-12 Glaswegian teenager will win X-factor and will court controversy posing nude for the cover of Playboy as she's considered "too thin" to be a model.

* I will get round to having the washing machine repaired. Eventually.

Friday, 30 December 2011

My top ten posts of 2011

My most popular (or at least most viewed) posts of the last year:

1. Is this the stupidest cartoon in Scottish political history? I question the wisdom of the Liberal Democrats publishing a cartoon playing up "similarities" between Qatar and Alex Salmond's vision for an independent Scotland.

2. The psychology of a deluded dictator. I ponder the Libyan leader's fragile psychology after his hour long murderous rant on international TV.

3. Theresa May sets the cat among the pigeons. The Home Secretary makes an unwise and misleading reference to an illegal immigrant being allowed to remian in Britain on the basis of pet ownership. Fortunately myself and several other bloggers are on hand to point out how infantile her comments are.

4. Scottish Lib Dem leaders "links" to fundamentalist Christian group. The Sunday Herald reveals Willie Rennie receives interns from CARE, a far-right "Christian" group that opposes equal marriage and campaigns against abortion. I am, naturally, more than a little irked.

5. Which way forward for the Scottish Lib Dems? I ask the question after a disastrous election for the party.

6. Rennie is new leader of Scottish Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dems have a new leader. And he's a former coal-carrying champion, no less.

7. Disaster in Inverclyde: what next for the Scottish Lib Dems? We suffer a humiliating defeat in my home constituency. I am so angry that I resort to bold type to get my points across.

8. Brian Souter receives a knighthood - an insult too far. I, like many other Scots, couldn't quite understand why this peddler of homophobic prejudice was rewarded for his "charitable" work.

9. Dear Nick, The cause of Scottish Liberalism has been set back 50 years. I write to Nick Clegg about my fears for the party's future following the crushing electoral defeat in May. Unsurprisingly, he doesn't reply or even acknowledge my concerns.

10. Democracy v Populism. I look at the use of referenda, taking some lessons from the Icelandic experience.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

In which I am mentioned in First Minister's Questions...

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice


I've taken a bit of a break from blogging, largely due to increased workload and family commitments in the run-up to the festive period.

In fact, so detached have I been from political developments that I was was completely oblivious to the fact that I was mentioned by Alex Salmond during FMQs on 22nd December. That is simply typical - I watch FMQs all year religiously and then miss the only one in which I am personally mentioned.

Fortunately my MSP Derek Mackay alerted me to this rather unexpected reality and I have spent the last few minutes watching last week's FMQs. Unfortunately it is not terribly interesting or even particularly entertaining, but the official report quotes the engagement between Willie Rennie and Alex Salmond as this:


Willie Rennie: The First Minister must be judged by his actions. I accept that he says that he will support the youth contract, but will he actively promote it? The answer to my question is simple. The youth contract can benefit 160,000 young people. The suspicion is that the Scottish Government is soft pedalling the policy because it was not its idea. By engaging with and promoting the policy, the Scottish Government can do something positive for young people. It also still has in its pocket £67 million from the UK Government. The First Minister can use that to reverse the cuts to colleges. He should take the steps that he can, rather than whingeing about the ones that he cannot.

The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick): Can we have a question, Mr Rennie?

Willie Rennie: The First Minister has had a great year.

Members: Yes!

The Presiding Officer: Order. Settle down.

Willie Rennie: Will the First Minister finish off the year with some good news for other people? Will he embrace the youth contract and save colleges?

The First Minister: In terms of the youth contract, yes, yes and yes again. In terms of colleges, Willie Rennie will have seen the wide welcome for the initiative and transformation fund in the college sector two weeks ago.
I confess that I have been a follower of Liberal Democrat tweeting—not just of Willie Rennie but of Andrew Page, the former Liberal candidate for Renfrewshire North and West. In looking at Willie Rennie‟s attacks at First Minister‟s questions, Andrew Page said: “Rennie‟s attacks on the SNP leadership have been weak and played directly into Salmond‟s hands while making our party appear small-minded, tribal and idiotic ... it is no surprise the public aren‟t attracted to our broader message.” In the interests of the Christmas spirit, I will disassociate myself from that Liberal candidate‟s criticism.

Willie Rennie: In the interests of the Christmas spirit, I think the First Minister should focus on the needs of the unemployed, rather than making cheap remarks about other politicians.

The First Minister: They were not my remarks; they were the remarks of a Liberal candidate.


The quote came from my blog, not from my tweets, and were in particular reference to criticism I directed towards the publication of a cartoon, which I considered offensive and symptomatic of a misguided and negative approach to campaigning within our party. It is true that I have also been critical of what I consider an unnecessarily adversarial approach towards the SNP but the quote was certainly not an assessment of Willie Rennie's personal performances at FMQs, although I don't blame Alex Salmond for using the quote in that way - the article was in the public domain; I expect it to be used (and misused). But I think it's right to put the record straight - my desire is simply for the Scottish Lib Dem leadership to expend more energies on articulating a strong, liberal message that resonates with the public than in opposing independence and attempting to score points over the SNP's more than capable front bench team. The latter is not a good tactic in any case as more often than not such attempts fail spectacularly.

What did concern me however was the First Minister's determination to use this quote for party-political interests, even when it clearly had very little to do with the pertinent question Willie Rennie had asked in relation to the youth contract.

Still, it's nice to know that the First Minister reads my tweets.

Willie Rennie's response was absolutely correct; refusing to be drawn into any kind of action which could have been construed as, well, "small-minded and tribal" he instead focused on the needs of unemployed people and highlighted the First Minister's responsiblities to tackling joblessness while refusing to be distracted from making progress on the youth contract. In taking this approach he showed the kind of positivity I hope he can demonstrate more frequently in future.

You might wish to watch FMQs on iPlayer: Alex Salmond refers to me at around the 26:00 mark. Watch out for former leader Tavish Scott's excessively outrageous response to the mere mention of my name (before the quote from my blog was read out) - it is really rather disturbing that someone of my limited influence should have this kind of impact on such an experienced politician.