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Sketch: Are the Lib Dems back?

Sketch: Are the Lib Dems back?

Lib Dems on Ice fell far short of other ice-based dance shows - image credit: Mike Overall

Lib Dems on Ice was, quite genuinely, the worst ice-based dance show of the last year.

When Disney on Ice’s production of Frozen came to Perth, audiences were wowed with the grace and elegance brought by artists performing at the top of their game. Organisers promised you would be “magically whisked away to wintry Arendelle by dazzling special effects and astonishing skating as you sing and dance along to inspiring songs”, and it did not disappoint.

The plot of Lib Dems on Ice, in contrast, was baffling. In fact, despite being held on an ice arena, there wasn’t any ice. It seemed extraordinary how little planning had gone into the production.

Of course, some would question the decision to hold a party conference on a disused ice rink, given it sounds more like the scene of a haunting from Scoobie-Doo than a political gathering, but clearly none of those people are in the Scottish Lib Dems.

And anyway, this was not the time to start asking questions. After all, if you started, where would you stop? Why use the slogan ‘winning again’, when the party hasn’t won an election in about a hundred years (when it was a different party), and seems nowhere close to winning another now? Why hold the event at the same time as the curling next door, given it would surely split their target audience? Why Nick Clegg?

No, this wasn’t the place to start asking questions. This was the place for an ice-based dance show, which was what made the conference so disappointing.

Alistair Carmichael was the first ‘big name’, with the former Scottish Secretary wandering onto the stage at midday, welcoming the audience to the start of “the Lib Dem fight back” and claiming the party is “back in the business of winning elections again”.

This was a real high point, because up until then there had been very little fantasy in the production.

But Carmichael, it seemed, was not joking. “We are back in business, winning again”, he claimed, “because right across our country more people than ever understand that in these extraordinary times, when the forces of populism, nationalism and isolationism are at bay, our country needs liberal voices again.”

He said: “The rise of nationalism, wherever it is found, challenges our Liberal values… The answer to nationalism is never more nationalism. Dress it up any way you like but nationalism is still nationalism.”

The message from Carmichael was clear – the Lib Dems are the only political force in Scotland positioned to turn back a horrifying rise in right wing populism across the UK. It may well be true, and if it is, God help us all.

He certainly wasn’t very uplifting. Disney’s Frozen warmed icy hearts with special appearances from beloved characters from Toy Story, Finding Nemo and The Lion King. Lib Dems on Ice just featured a special appearance from former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.

And to be fair, Clegg was actually pretty good, coming up to the ice arena from his Sheffield constituency at the end of the first day in order to explain Scottish nationalism to the assembled audience of Scottish Lib Dems.

He started off with an anecdote about a lunch he ate recently in Brussels. “Liberalism is not dead. There are so many obituaries about how liberalism has been destroyed by populism, by the increasing polarisation of politics, but I was sat at a table with seven liberal prime ministers and three European commissioners from the liberal family.”

“That is very important to remember”, he said, presumably still talking about his lunch. “These are dark times for liberalism. There are huge convulsions going on in the democratic world. But the thing we must beware of above all else is despair and defeatism. However much we are told the momentum is with our enemies, however much we are much we are told populism is succeeding in all forms, however much we are told this is the era of the politics of identity, of chauvinism, nationalism… that is not true. We hold our own fate much more in our hands than people allow. Self-belief is essential.”

Believe in yourself and you too could have a nice meal – it was a pretty smart policy actually, and Clegg continued to talk about his lunch for some time.

And it was a good speech, with Clegg looking like just the sort of person who ends up being Prime Minister, even if he is a Lib Dem. The man is like a discount Prime Minister, who does the job just as well as one from a successful party, but without any of the normal branding – like when you buy booze from a bargain supermarket and realise it tastes and smells just like the normal stuff, and you wonder why it isn’t more popular.

But the show wasn’t over yet, with the third act left to leader Willie Rennie, who decided to begin his speech with a list of bizarre facts about his family – telling the audience when his parents wedding anniversary is (their 60th), that he will be turning 50 in September, where his wife and him had their first home (it was Cornwall) and that his son’s first job was in Butlins. There were a lot more facts than that, but those are the best ones.

“Nationalists want me to choose my European family over my British family”, he said, and to be honest, party conference seemed an odd time to reveal he had a secret European family, but that’s the Lib Dems for you. “My message to them both is clear: I choose my family over your division.” His British family or the secret European one? It wasn’t clear, but at least it was positive. Choose life. Choose Europe. Choose Willie Rennie’s family.

But, sadly, we cannot all be in Willie Rennie’s family, as much as we might like to be. And anyway, if Brexit goes ahead, that family will get smaller. As a result, he explained, “it would only be right for the British people to take charge of the final say on whatever deal is agreed by the Conservative Government with the EU”, adding, “A Brexit deal referendum is the right and democratic thing to do.”

And so, looking around the ice rink, at the hundred or so people gathered, it was clear that whether you are talking about Brexit or Scottish independence, the Lib Dem fightback has well and truly begun.

“We will not just campaign with numbers on a spreadsheet but with smiles in our hearts,” Rennie said. The dancing might have been terrible, and the skating non-existing, but at least there was a happy ending.

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