Sketch: The Scottish Lib Dems hit an iceberg
The Scottish Liberal Democrat conference was just as depressing as you would expect.
It was held in the Assembly Rooms on Edinburgh’s George Street – the same venue that had hosted the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) conference just a week before. But while at RIC the chandeliers and gilded cornicing seemed to symbolise grotesque wealth, waiting to be redistributed, here it seemed to speak of something sadder, something more tarnished than gold.
A once great party, fallen on hard times. Disaster looming. It was like the ballroom scene from the Titanic, but with Willie Rennie instead of Leonardo DiCaprio.
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Two doormen stopped delegates on their way in to search them for banned items – weapons, drugs, hope. No one had any, but if they did, it would have been confiscated at the door.
Rennie stood at the entrance to the main hall, grinning inexplicably. Liam McArthur chatted at the exhibition stands. Alistair Carmichael wandered around, looking less like a ‘political bruiser’ and more like a giant mournful duck.
On stage, Tavish Scott told the audience he had been watching the crime drama Shetland in the hope he would see his house in the background. He added that no one had really been murdered there.
Speakers stood in front of a lectern branded ‘Fit for the Future’ – a slogan that somehow managed to reduce one of the 20th century’s most influential British political forces to the PR campaign for a gym, or a phrase used to justify giving someone clothes that are too big for them.
On the other side there was a table displaying the banner ‘#LibDemFightBack’. But fightback against what exactly? Their own ineptitude? The views of the electorate? A critic might suggest the Lib Dem problem in recent years was not lack of fight, but too much treachery.
In medieval times, rulers used to stick the severed heads of perceived traitors on the city walls, as a warning to others. This is more or less how the electorate has treated the Lib Dems.
And so a Willie Rennie-style rallying call was needed, with the Scottish Lib Dem leader taking to the stage to warn that “Scotland can’t wait for a vague promise of change at some point over the horizon”.
It is certainly true that politicians can be guilty of uttering meaningless platitudes, so it was good to see Rennie addressing the issue.
Instead, he promised, we can build a country where children succeed and our civil liberties are protected. Where our police keep us safe and where we pass on a healthy environment to our children. All of which is much more specific.
After that, he started talking in the third person, saying, “A Willie Rennie speech would not be complete without a reference to Dunfermline.”
Was Willie Rennie giving a speech about a Willie Rennie speech? Looking around, the audience seemed to think this was normal.
Continuing, he boasted: “Ten years ago this month we won that Dunfermline by-election. You know, I draw inspiration from that wonderful victory.”
Of course, he then lost his seat again in 2010, but there was no point mentioning that.
So it was left to Tim Farron to steady the ship. Candidate Katy Gordon introduced the UK leader with the claim that he is like Tigger, before going on to announce, “Sometimes he makes me cry”. She meant it in a good way.
Farron bounced onto the stage, looking every inch the deluded cartoon tiger the Lib Dems needed to wrest back power, before cheerily announcing that the last time he came to Edinburgh one of his team had been attacked by a dog. It seemed reasonable.
And he brought good news. The Lib Dems are winning huge swings across the UK, he said, adding, “It’s like that scene in Independence Day when the Americans suss out how to defeat the aliens. The President turns to the guy on the Morse code machine and says, ‘We’ve worked out how to beat them, now tell the rest of the world.’ Well, the same applies here.”
So who are the aliens? The answer was clear. “Nicola Sturgeon,” he warned, “you may have taken Scotland for granted for the last nine years, but we are growing in confidence and we know how to take you down.”
How though? He never actually said. In Independence Day, Will Smith did it by using a special computer virus and nuclear bombs. But would that work on the SNP? No wonder they’re against Trident.
Next he turned his goofy cartoon ire on Tory eurosceptics. “Gove, Villiers, Grayling, IDS, Whittingdale and Priti Patel. They’re only one lurid blazer away from John Redwood’s fantasy cabinet. I mentioned Independence Day earlier, well, these guys are the ones from the mothership!”
Everyone laughed. But weren’t the SNP the aliens? Or are they all in it together? Sometimes party conferences raise more questions than answers.
But, in truth, it wasn’t altogether convincing. It felt like they were running through the motions.
Farron railed against the mothership, but the Lib Dems hit an iceberg long ago. The ship was sinking, and, solemnly, the band kept playing.