Ian Swanson: Lib Dems eye past heights after having wings clipped

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In the wake of coalition deal backlash, Political Editor Ian Swanson examines struggling party’s long road back

DEVOLUTION meant a new dawn for Liberal Democrats. After an absence of more than three-quarters of a century from peacetime government in the UK, there were suddenly Lib Dem ministers in the new Scottish cabinet helping to run the country.

The voting system for the Scottish Parliament – which was then seen as making it almost impossible for any party to win an overall majority – looked as if it promised the Lib Dems at least the option of being permanently in government through coalition with one party or another.

How different it all looks today. Reduced to a rump at Holyrood, the party seems condemned to long-term opposition, if not oblivion.

After eight years sharing power with Labour, the Lib Dems declined to negotiate a coalition with the SNP when it emerged as the biggest party in the 2007 Holyrood elections. Many Lib Dems saw a period in opposition as a welcome time-out from the pressures and compromises of office, a chance to recharge batteries and refresh policies. They looked forward to the 2011 election, ready to resume coalition with Labour or the SNP.

But it was not to be. The party had a disastrous result, crashing from 16 seats to just five while the SNP sailed back to power with an overall majority of MSPs. Now a Lib Dem return to power looks like a pipe dream.

The plummeting electoral performance had little or nothing to do with events here in Scotland. The problem was what had been going on at Westminster – the Lib Dems’ decision to go into coalition with the Tories and, particularly, the U-turn which saw the party agree to a massive rise in university tuition fees south of the Border despite photocalls up and down the country where its MPs posed signing pledges that they would never vote for such a thing.

Former Scottish Lib Dem leader Tavish Scott – who quit immediately after the election – has recalled that as the coalition deal was being done between Nick Clegg and David Cameron, he had “a deep sense of foreboding” about the impact it would have in Scotland. He described the tuition fees U-turn as a “car crash”.

The mood at the Lib Dems’ UK conference in Birmingham the other week was surprisingly upbeat. Many activists seemed convinced that despite the cuts and austerity measures, if the economy has turned around by the next general election, people will see the Lib Dems were right to join with the Tories to help rescue the country from recession.

There is another view, however, which says that whatever happens with the economy, the Lib Dems will not be given much credit, but people will remember their “betrayal” over tuition fees and the party will go down to heavy defeat in the Holyrood elections in 2016.

So can the Lib Dems in Scotland do anything to restore their own fortunes?

New Scottish party leader Willie Rennie has wasted no time in trying to make his mark. While Labour and the Tories are preoccupied with finding new Scottish leaders, he has seized the opposition initiative and decided to take on Alex Salmond and the SNP on a wide range of issues, not least with his attack on the alleged politicisation of the civil service.

The Lib Dems’ tiny numbers mean Mr Rennie is no longer guaranteed a prime slot at First Minister’s Questions every week, but he makes the best of the opportunities he gets.

One party source says: “Willie Rennie has been surprising a lot of people by just how effective and capable a leader he is.

“The Lib Dems, even more than Labour, don’t know how to cope with the scale of the defeat they had.

“But Willie has shown he is not afraid to take on Alex Salmond and be quite aggressive in his style. He knows the only way to get noticed is to push ahead with fairly radical policies and tackle Salmond head on.”

That could help ensure a better profile than a group of five MSPs would normally get, but one Edinburgh Lib Dem says there is no easy way forward: “The party has to get back to its basic principles and reinvent itself from local level up.”

Lib Dems are bracing themselves for another thumping when it comes to next year’s Scottish council elections. Delegates to this weekend’s autumn conference in Dunfermline will discuss their campaign plans, but they know the coalition with the Tories at Westminster still makes them almost untouchable in many areas – “one level above toxic”, as one party figure called it.

The best the activists can cling to is the idea that the Lib Dems’ presence in the UK Government is moderating Tory policies. Delegates will want to hear the keynote speakers, Scottish Secretary Michael Moore and UK party president Tim Farron, reinforce the message that they are keeping the Tories in check and maintaining a distinctive Lib Dem influence.

Whether that is enough to impress the voters is another matter.