In his speech to federal conference this week Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie made quite a startling claim.
“We’ve already heard from some English nationalists that they want Scotland out. They don’t value our United Kingdom. These are the allies of Alex Salmond’s SNP in their fight to break up Britain. They are working together, attending each other’s conferences and sharing ideas.”
That is a huge accusation to make and naturally I began asking questions.
A member of staff soon alerted me to the “facts”. A singular MP, namely Angus MacNeil, attended a conference of the English Democrats five years ago. That MP is also alleged to have retweeted 11 tweets originating with the English Democrats between October 2011 and February 2012.
Firstly, let me deal with this ludicrous idea that you are what you retweet. I personally retweet plenty I find of interest, even if I disagree with the point being made. I retweet statements made by the Tories, the SNP, Labour, the Green Party, UKIP...even, on occasion, the BNP. It doesn’t make me sympathetic. It doesn’t even mean I am in any way “sharing ideas”, other than bringing what is already on the most public of public forums to the attention of my twitter followers.
I have tried to locate these tweets to discover something of their nature and context. Unfortunately I cannot either locate them or find anyone who can. This last point is quite concerning. I would have imagined that any party leader making a speech at a national conference would take efforts to ensure that claims he makes are backed up.
There appears to be no blog or other online record in which these tweets are repeated verbatim. Therefore, it is unreasonable to make suggestions about the significance of Angus’s retweets. Until someone can reproduce for me these tweets and demonstrate categorically that they show the SNP MP to be endorsing the English Democrats’ less savoury policies, I refuse to accept that anything improper has occurred.
In fact, given that the English Democrats support both Scottish independence and the creation of an English parliament (both causes towards which I have sympathies) it is perfectly possible that I may have retweeted either those same tweets or others written by members of the English Democrats. I for one do not check the profile of every writer of every comment I retweet.
It is true that Angus MacNeil attended an English Democrats conference. That is not necessarily unusual, in that the party at the time (five years ago) was relatively unheard of and were most notable for being part of the CEP (Campaign for an English Parliament). In fact, at that time I’m not even sure some of the policies for which they are now renowned had even been formulated. What is odd is that Angus appears to have spoken at this event .
That is something that I would not personally do, but that is in 2012 when the realities of what the English Democrats stand for are more widely recognised. I’d like to know why Mr MacNeil was willing to speak at this conference, but again I’m not willing to take this in itself as evidence of “sharing ideas” or of this party being an “ally of Alex Salmond”.
What has also transpired is that this claim seems to have its basis in something written on a blog maintained by an English Democrats activist, Robin Tilbrook. I’m quite annoyed at Robin actually for reproducing a picture of Willie on his blog without having the courtesy to credit me as the photographer, but that’s a separate issue. The post in question is basically an attack on Plaid Cymru, which he feels should have been more supportive in causes such as the English Constitutional Convention and CEP. About the SNP, he says this:
“[we have] friendly relations with the Scottish National Party.”
That sounds interesting, so I read on:
“ We have been pleased to welcome the SNP’s Angus MacNeil MP to speak at a recent Annual Party Conference and our Vice Chairman was welcomed by leaders of the SNP in Edinburgh and her hand was shaken, during a BBC Newsnight programme, by Alex Salmond.”
And that, my friends is that. That is the entire case on which Willie Rennie’s argument stands: some English Democrat propaganda, attempting to glean some undeserved respectability by associating itself with Alex Salmond and his party. There is no evidence, as Willie Rennie suggests, that English Democrats are invited to SNP conferences and are sharing ideas at leadership – or indeed any other – level. There is no alliance, no proof of “working together” collaboratively. As for the English Democrats’ Vice-chair shaking hands with SNP leaders – this was in an entirely unofficial capacity and on Newsnight. On the few occasions I’ve been interviewed or debated in a public forum I’ve always been courteous to others talking part. Suggesting this was some kind of official welcome or extension of friendship on the part of Alex Salmond towards the English Democrats is stretching credibility to breaking point.
I've personally shaken Alex Salmond's hand. What does that prove? I'd be interested in seeing the relevant episode of Newsnight (again, if this evidenced any kind of relationship between the two parties I'd have imagined it would have been seized upon some time ago).
This story – or, rather, this allegation – has in fact no credibility whatsoever. If these tweets were so offensive, and Angus’s apparent support so controversial, why was nothing made of them at the time? Also, why does attendance at a conference five years ago take so long to become news?
What I am disappointed in is that this “news” was not broken by a Lib Dem blogger or even Better Together. It emanates from the very top of our party, in a speech given by the leader and supported by his staff. In a misguided quest to blacken the name of the SNP and portray them as extremists (a word Willie Rennie used elsewhere in his speech), Rennie also gives undue credibility to English Democrats and their rather ludicrous propaganda. That the source for his information is a barely credible blog is simply mindblowing. What leader of any political party makes this kind of accusation without having evidence to hand?
Even Tony Blair had his dossiers, however dodgy.
Willie Rennie, after making this claim so publicly, now needs to produce the evidence to back it up. On the evidence produced so far, the English Democrats are no more allies of the SNP than I am a supporter of the Labour Party, whose conference I am attending on Sunday. I am offended, not merely because the party strategy appears unchanged since that ridiculous smear cartoon last November, but because it is the leader himself that saw fit to make the disgraceful link between the SNP and extreme English nationalism without ensuring that he had sufficient evidence on which to base it.
What this incident has done is to further undermine my faith in our party leadership. In so many ways I like Willie Rennie, but I cannot and will not continue to support any leader who is willing to make extraordinary claims on the flimsiest of evidence. His argument appears intellectually unsustainable and doesn't deserve my respect - or anyone else's for that matter.
So please, Mr Rennie, show us the hard, definitive, indelible evidence that the SNP are in cahoots with the English Democrats. Let us see these offending tweets. Tell us when English Democrat representatives have met with senior SNP members. Explain exactly what you mean when you refer to “allies” and “working together”. You have to provide this evidence because your personal credibility now depends on it.
And, if you can’t do that, please issue an apology to Mr MacNeil. And then to your party for misleading its conference.