LESS THAN TWO years ago, the Liberal Democrats were promoting themselves as Britain’s government in waiting. But Jo Swinson’s offer to unilaterally cancel Brexit, without even the formality of a second referendum, was regarded as excessive even by an extraordinarily polarised electorate. She paid a personal price, losing her leadership, her seat and her career.
Swinson was part of a wealth of leading Lib Dems to have emerged from Scotland, a list that also includes Danny Alexander, Menzies Campbell and Charles Kennedy. However, it’s fair to say that not even Willie Rennie is talking about the Scottish Lib Dems as a Holyrood government in waiting. One survey – so far, an outlier – even put their regional list vote beneath Alex Salmond’s newly formed Alba Party. With the combined Tory-Labour vote occupying roughly forty percent of the electorate, the Lib Dems compete for unionist scraps. Recent polls place them between five and seven percent.
The Lib Dems have long faced a crisis of function. They were formed as the third way between a working class left and a capitalist right; broadly, they would represent the middle-class centre. However, it was when New Labour adopted the aesthetics of hectoring Thatcherism that the Lib Dems were at their happiest, especially under Kennedy. Ironically, given their history, they spent their most productive years opposing Labour from the left.
However, that game is long gone. The field is crowded. Almost everyone in Scottish politics competes in space once occupied by the Lib Dems alone. Look beyond the constitution, and effectively the parliament is five parties of worthy, sensible liberalism who compete to be the least offensive. Sociologically, almost everyone who is not a career politician has a background in a politics-adjacent profession. Scotland has thus witnessed the LibDemization of political representation; but the biggest victims have been the Lib Dems themselves, who have yet to find a role.
With so much competition, they’ve found it difficult to have a cohesive identity. At their most popular, they were the pacifist, tree-hugging option: stereotypically, the party of choice for the sandal-wearing geography teacher. However, with Corbyn’s Labour, the Greens and the SNP crowding that area, at the 2019 election Swinson vigorously insisted on her willingness to push the nuclear button, even at the cost of millions of lives. Perhaps you can revert from Dr Strangelove to Quaker and back again, depending on electoral convenience; but it risks leaving voters’ heads spinning.
The same applies with austerity. Nick Clegg and his cohort revolted against Kennedy’s chummy legacy in favour of an Osborne-lite reptilian market realism. Swinson’s apologies for the brutal consequences only reinforced the underlying political confusion – what do the Lib Dems stand for? Are they bleeding hearts or deficit sharks? In a world of ATOS assessments and bedroom taxes, it’s hard to be both.
Rennie appears relatively humane, by recent Lib Dem standards, but his goal at this election will be survival. Middle class liberalism reigns supreme at Holyrood, a parliament without a working class left or a serious capitalist right. But that consolidation has left the traditional liberal party adrift and rudderless. A nastier Green Party, or a chummier version of the Tories? In the brutal glare of the ballot box, why not vote for the real thing?