Party conference season is being shaken by the referendum
Mandy Rhodes on how, a year on, reverberations from the referendum are still being felt
It was with either audacious foresight or just the lure of the rumoured BOGOF bargain basement offer on the conference venue that drove the Liberal Democrats to make an early advance booking for last year’s UK party conference to be held again in Scotland at the SECC in Glasgow.
For precariously timed as it was, just three weeks after the independence referendum and with a Yes vote to end the Union still hanging in the balance, it was certainly the only high point in terms of astute decision-making in what was to prove a calamitous time for the Lib Dems.
Not that you could detect any hint of what was still to come from Nick Clegg’s conference speech in Glasgow. Buoyed by a No vote and still blissfully ignorant of the full impact of an SNP membership surge, Clegg gave what was considered to be one of his better speeches with an unashamed pitch for his party’s prospects in the General Election just seven months away.
“So let our opponents say what they will, after all the knocks, setbacks and bruises we will go to the country with our heads held high,” he said. “Say what they will, we will go to the country with a plan that builds on everything we have achieved with a credible promise of more. Say what they will, we are now the only party holding firm to decent, liberal values while anger and blame are on the rise.
“The only party refusing to trade in fear because we believe what the British people want desperately from their politics is hope. The only party who are as economically competent as we are socially fair – a party of the head and the heart, of compassion and resolve. The only party who says no matter who you are, no matter where you are from, we will do everything in our power to help you shine.”
But seven months on, it was impossible to put a gloss on anything for the Lib Dems. Clegg’s party was trounced at the ballot box, their Westminster numbers reduced to just eight, pushed out of government and left with a sole MP for Scotland.
The Lib Dems were roundly punished for getting into bed with the Tories at Westminster, punished for being Labour-lite and punished in Scotland for being in Better Together. Clegg resigned as leader and the party’s one Scottish MP, Alistair Carmichael, found that even his electoral success came with a sour note as it was put to a legal test over a leaked memo from his department alleging that Nicola Sturgeon had expressed a preference for who she wanted in Number 10.
Carmichael suffered the ignominy of having to admit that while he clearly said in a television interview during the election campaign that he knew nothing of the memo until asked by a newspaper reporter, that in fact he had authorised the leak. “We are in the middle of an election campaign – these things happen,” he was quoted as saying at the time.
For a man that before the election had said he might fancy a return to his old job as a solicitor, after the election, he found himself most definitely on the wrong side of the bar.
His party kicks off the UK party conference season in Bournemouth this week – as far away from Scotland as they can possibly be and as far from political power as they ever have been.
On the anniversary of the referendum, it is no exaggeration to say its reverberations are still being felt – that despite the No vote, Scotland, and more specifically the SNP, has helped to shape UK politics.
The SNP dominated the General Election narrative with Sturgeon being painted in equal measure as the darling of the debates and the most dangerous woman in Britain. And never will that physical manifestation of an SNP electoral gubbing be more evident than at the UK party conferences.
Last year, Labour met in Manchester just three days after the referendum. The then leader, Ed Miliband, praised those who helped keep Scotland in the Union and he won the loudest applause when he mentioned Gordon Brown’s role during the final weeks of the campaign. That applause felt hollow when all but one of the Scottish Labour MPs, including veterans Jim Murphy and Douglas Alexander, lost their seats to the SNP in May. And Brown now admits that his Tory partners in Better Together have failed in implementing the infamous ‘Vow’, which he had been the architect of and which many still blame for turning the vote to a ‘No’ and subsequently colouring the Scottish political landscape yellow.
The party meets in Brighton with a new leader who encapsulates the politics of hope and anti-austerity that also carried the SNP through a No vote and on to electoral success. Whether Jeremy Corbyn can help put the brakes on the SNP juggernaut remains to be seen.
Corbyn has said winning Scotland back is a priority and pledged to visit frequently, but as the party shifts its identity, the conference will lack the voices of Scottish MPs. Only one remains.
And what of the Prime Minister? Last year he was a relieved man. He said the Queen had purred when he told her the result of the referendum. In contrast, he literally roared when he told his party conference: “I was always clear about why we called that referendum. Duck the fight and our union could have been taken apart bit by bit. Take it on and we had the chance to settle the question.”
But now, with just one Conservative MP in Scotland, the party’s share of the Scottish vote in the general election down to an all-time low, a tiny majority in the House of Commons, 56 SNP MPs ready to hold the Tories to account and a Scottish Government under pressure to call a second referendum sometime soon, that question feels far from over.
With the Lib Dems, Labour and the Tories laying claim to just one Scottish MP each, the infamous Scottish nights this party conference season may well feel less of a rambunctious ceilidh dance and more of a Threesome Reel.
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