Forgive me, for I have sinned: I used to be a member of the Liberal Democrats.
Looking back, it’s tempting to think I must have been mad. I know there are many other people like me who were members or at least voted for them every time, who now look at them and wonder what on Earth they were thinking. However, it actually made sense at the time.
So what has happened? I believe the explanation is two-fold: I (and others) probably misunderstood them to some extent, but more importantly, they reacted to events in a way that alienated their supporters. Let’s look at a few issues in more detail:
Firstly, I believed all their talk about federalism meant they were in favour of more devolution for Scotland. I would have placed the Scottish political parties on a scale like this: At one extreme, the Tories were against devolution and wanted to scale it back; Labour were quite happy with the status quo and definitely didn’t want to expand it drastically; the Lib Dems wanted to expand devolution and introduce federalism and perhaps home rule; and the SNP wanted home rule and eventually independence. (I wasn’t too sure where to place the Greens back then.) At the time, it looked like the SNP would never gain power on its own, so it made sense to press for further devolution by voting Lib Dem.
Secondly, I thought their support for proportional representation meant they actually would work with different parties to achieve their aims, and perhaps that they had thought through how best to wield influence in a coalition.
Thirdly, I naïvely thought their support for federalism stemmed from a lack of belief in British Unionism — I didn’t realise that it was the opposite, a way to protect the Union.
Given these assumptions, I started getting annoyed at them during the Labour-LD coalitions at Holyrood for not achieving enough, but I put it down to the lack of experience. It got worse when Sir Ming claimed that “liberalism and nationalism are the antithesis of each other“, but I only got really angry when they refused to sit down with the SNP in 2007 to discuss a potential coalition unless the SNP stopped believing in independence — I thought at the time that an SNP-LD coalition would have been a great way to advance Scottish home rule. When the Conservative-LD coalition was formed, I was dismayed that they got so few things through — no more powers for Scotland, a horrible little compromise about a voting system referendum — and of course their conversion to being cheerleaders for tuition fees was an unmitigated disaster.
I left the party around this time, but their vitriolic hatred of the SNP during the Scottish elections in 2011 was really off-putting for somebody like me who had considered themselves almost equidistant between the two parties. If I had still been a member when the Scottish independence referendum was being planned, I would surely have left in disgust at their refusal to campaign to put Devo Max on the ballot paper.
It could all have been so different. If they had pursued a home rule strategy, working constructively with the SNP in 2007 and again in 2011, they could effectively have become the natural political home for the third of Scots who traditionally have been in favour of this option. After the referendum campaign, all the disenchanted Labour voters would potentially have moved in great numbers to the Lib Dems instead of the SNP, and Scotland could now have been heading for home rule under Lib Dem leadership.
They really blew their chance.