Manifestos 2021: The Scottish Liberal Democrats
In the third part of this series, we examine the manifesto of Willie Rennie’s party. All of the policies referred to in this article can be found here.
What do the Lib Dems have in common with Glasgow Rangers? Both collapsed ten years ago due to poor decisions; both exist in a state of denial that the collapse was their fault; and both had their version of “The Banter Years”. From humping pigs, to faith healing Gary Tank Commander’s knee; from getting punched by a dog to a would-be Prime Minister unable to defend her own seat, the Lib Dems can be relied upon to give everyone else a good laugh.
Of course, the way they betrayed their own supporters during the coalition, their willingness to agree to tuition fees and benefits sanctions, is not funny at all. The Liberal Democrats who understood the consequences (food banks, suicides and ruined lives) simply left the party. The tension between the party’s somewhat progressive policy positions and its reliance on Tory tactical votes in SNP marginals is what defines the remains of what was once Scotland’s third largest party.
Education is front and centre of this manifesto. The Lib Dems “value the experience of frontline workers” and “will listen to them and help them lead us to recovery”. The SNP’s unwillingness to listen to the people who work in our schools and colleges is a crucial weakness of the government. It was surprising when John Swinney did not choose to employ every registered teacher in Scotland in order to make social distancing possible with smaller class sizes. The Lib Dems’ teacher job guarantee will rectify that. It is also far more feasible to simply say that “every qualified teacher (is) guaranteed a job” than to put a number on it as the other parties have done.
The party knows that the SQA and Education Scotland are in dire need of reform. While it is commendable that they want to bring back principal teachers in science, we must ask why this should not be the case in all subjects? The party is also the only one, so far, to suggest avenues for teacher career progression while remaining in the classroom. There is a commendable range of strategies to support parents with childcare, especially during the school holidays.
The Liberals boast that “There is a green thread running through this manifesto”. Like the Greens, the Lib Dems want to use 30% of all public land for re-wilding, de-carbonise homes and establish new national parks. However, their approach to oil and gas transition stops short at the jobs guarantee offered by other parties, merely offering to “establish a successor to the Just Transition Commission”. Where the environment policy starts to come apart is in transport. The Lib Dems have always been keen on electric cars. They promise a “network of well-maintained rapid chargers”. Electric cars still require metals to be mined, still leave microplastics and still take up huge amounts of urban space that could be used for active travel. Given Alex Cole-Hamilton’s vocal opposition to a Low Traffic Neighbourhood within his constituency, his manifesto’s commitment to “support active travel, making it easier to make journeys by bike or on foot” might come as a surprise to advocates of these things in Edinburgh West, such as Corstorphine Climate Action.
Unlike the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats understand how the Scottish Parliament works. It is a multi-party chamber and deals need to be made. During the last budget, they negotiated an extra £120 million of spending on mental health services. Throughout the manifesto there is a sincere commitment to improving mental health. One might criticise this manifesto for its lack of costings (the Lib Dems used to believe in hypothecated taxes) but, for the fifth largest party in the parliament, there is no need to do this. The section on public finances does not contain a single costing or estimate because no one understands more than the Lib Dems that they will not lead the next Scottish Government. Instead, this manifesto should be read as a guide to the party’s negotiating strategy during the budgets of the next parliament. In that sense, it is likely to be more relevant than next week’s Labour manifesto: some of the Lib Dem policies might actually be implemented. We should look forward to the Lib Dems arguing for a massive recruitment drive in mental health services, including roles with Police Scotland, universities, hospitals and community centres. They have suggested £5,000 grants for those training to be counsellors. If they were to secure walk-in mental health emergency services, similar to A&E, it could genuinely save lives.
A frustrating consensus has emerged across the parties: no manifesto is willing to match Scotland’s drastic problem with drugs with drastic action. The Liberal Democrats strike a promising tone, and it is encouraging to hear that “people caught in possession of drugs for personal use (will) be diverted into education, treatment and recovery, ceasing imprisonment in these circumstances”. But Scotland is some distance from being able to match the severity of its drug death situation with action as Portugal did.
Consensus in Scottish politics is not always a bad thing. Voters can go into the 2021 Scottish elections confident that a majority of parties will support the following: doubling the Scottish Child Payment, providing free breakfasts and lunches in primary schools, increasing the number of teachers, increasing funding for mental health services, moving homes to zero emission heating by 2030, introducing new national parks (even the Tories want one of these), decarbonising rail, banning conversion therapy, increasing carers’ allowances, introducing National standards for care staff, a 4% pay rise for NHS staff and working towards a Universal Basic Income.
One issue in Scottish politics does not produce consensus. The Lib Dem position on independence is familiar. The manifesto is littered with cliches about a “divisive” referendum which will cause “turmoil”. Yet, in a campaign that has been dominated by the prospect of a second independence referendum, this manifesto does not clarify if they will allow a referendum if the Scottish people vote for one. They will not, but surely the Lib Dems owe that commitment to their voters in writing? Instead, there is a tired proposal for a federal UK – one which none of the rest of the UK seems to want.
Those who support Scottish independence often have little time for the Liberal Democrats. Yet, if we truly believe in independence, we need to show that the whole country has potential. The people who make up the Liberals have shown that they are ready to be part of a politics that is more collaborative than the winner takes all culture of Westminster. When the party says it will “Work with other parties to further a culture of respect inside Holyrood” you can be relatively confident that, when Alex Cole-Hamilton is not mouthing “fuck you” at other MSPs, this will be the case.
Best Policy: Walk-in emergency mental health services. Suicide is on the increase in Scotland, but even one death is too many. This is a tangible policy that could save many people when they are at their lowest moment. Even if someone is not considering suicide, sometimes people just can’t wait for help.
Worst Policy: Among the many hypocrisies involved in the Liberal Democrats’ illiberal and undemocratic opposition to an independence referendum (even if the people vote for it) is a policy to introduce the single transferable vote to Scottish Parliamentary elections despite a similar proposal being rejected by voters across the UK (including Scotland) in a referendum. We can only look forward to the pious lectures of Liberal Democrat candidates regarding the sanctity of referendum results.
Weirdest Policy: For a party which does better in the Highlands and Islands, it is disappointing that -there is no readily-available Gaelic version of the manifesto. Do the Lib Dems want to win Caithness, Sutherland and Ross? The Lib Dem manifesto mentions Gaelic 18 times (as many as the SNP) and has an extensive section on it. Perhaps the Lib Dems might want to “empower Gaelic speaking communities” by using the language?