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'Leaders of the parties might have to work together more' - interview with Matthew Clark, former Lib Dem chief of staff

'Leaders of the parties might have to work together more' - interview with Matthew Clark, former Lib Dem chief of staff

Being escorted off the Holyrood premises by security was not quite the career finale Matthew Clark had expected.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats’ long-serving chief of staff had gone back into parliament after May’s election to clear out boxes, having forgotten that his pass had expired, but the ever-vigilant parliament security staff weren’t having it. “They walked me down the corridor and out onto the pavement and the door slid shut behind me,” explains Clark, clearly relishing the comic irony.

Politics is a pitiless business.

Clark, who retired in May, was probably the longest-serving party staffer in the parliament, having started work for the Lib Dem team just after the first Scottish parliament election in 1999.

He has helped hammer out coalition deals, worked on policies that have shaped Scotland and crafted jokes to confound first ministers.

But he’s kept a low profile. He gives his first interview after a disappointing election result for the Scottish Lib Dems in May, but Clark seems unperturbed, saying: “Everything can change.”

He indicates that Anas Sarwar and Willie Rennie have discussed working together more to offer an alternative to both the Tories and the SNP.

Kent-born Clark, who was previously a councillor and chair of the police authority in Hampshire, was in the room for the first Holyrood coalition talks in 1999.

The closely-watched negotiations took place in the old Lothian Regional Council HQ on George IV Bridge, which created a certain dramatic tension thanks to the Edinburgh ghost tours that stopped regularly outside the window. “You’d be wrestling with some wording about investment in housing and were about to get the right wording down when suddenly there would be this almighty scream.”

The first set of talks were wrapped up in five days, as proportional representation was new and both sides wanted to show that a stable government could be formed quickly.

The second set of talks in 2003 were in St Andrew’s House and started less cordially, Clark remembers: “Labour walked out of St Andrew’s House and phoned the newspapers.” A story was published in one paper saying ‘Lib Dems tearing up their manifesto’. Clark says: “We looked at it and didn’t recognise the story at all, it was just nonsense.

“So we went back and said, until you apologise and change your ways, Labour, we’re not taking part in this. We had to abandon the talks.”

We’ve done some decent things. We’ve shaped the agenda on mental health

The impasse quickly broke and the talks continued, producing a win for the Lib Dems when Jack McConnell agreed to PR for local government, an idea he was sympathetic to.

Working relationships across party lines during the eight coalition years were generally good and Clark had a strong rapport with two Labour ministers in particular, Jack McConnell and Andy Kerr, who was first finance minister and then health minister.

It was no love-in, though. Clark recalls that for one Labour special adviser, “it was his job to write down all the bad stuff that happened to the Lib Dems as a kind of document that they might want to use at some point, a ‘Lib Dems’ worst moments’”.

In 2007, the SNP became the largest party by one seat and formed a minority government. For the Lib Dems, eight years of being in government came to an abrupt end. A coalition with the SNP was not an option because the Lib Dems had said they would never support an independence referendum.

“Alex Salmond did ring Nicol [Stephen] and Nicol said we can’t talk until you take it off the table. Now Salmond said if we have a talk we can try something, but we said we can’t. So we don’t know what he had in mind but by then the SNP had resolved to try a minority government instead anyway.

“I don’t think people expected the SNP administration to last. What we had not factored in was quite how loyal and supportive the Conservatives were going to be of the SNP.”

The Scottish Lib Dems, now in opposition, had never had to ask a First Minister’s Question before, but developed a strategy for the most watched parliamentary session of the week. “We knew Alex Salmond didn’t like to be made fun of,” explains Clark, who was back working in the parliamentary team.

“So I would come up with two or three options on the Wednesday night and read them out to the shadow cabinet and whichever one they laughed at most was the one we would generally go with. What we wanted was everyone to laugh with us. We had some good points to make but we made them in a funny way.

“We always thought Salmond had had some kind of coaching because he’d always been this bombastic, waving-his-hands-about sort of guy but when he became FM in 2007 he’d stand with his hands clasped in front of him, down by his belly. We always thought someone’s said if he keeps his hands like that he’ll have to lean forward and be humble. So what we wanted was to get him to be the bombastic person, to wind him up.

“Alex Salmond was a class act, an excellent performer, well briefed on lots of stuff, but we just managed to get under his skin. We were making sure it was funny and Nicol to his credit would go for it and act out the
funniness and we’d script the questions so that the punchline could be at the end.

“And Nicol would immediately sit down so Salmond had to react immediately to it. Quite often we’d get the whole chamber cheering when Nicol sat down.”

The press noticed, with approving write-ups of Stephen. Clark adds: “The SNP were paving the way for 2011 [when they won a majority], so ultimately it didn’t work but it made us feel good and we were contributing something.” When the financial crash came, the Lib Dems changed the tone of the questions, to match the serious times.

And then? Well, everything changed. The Tory-Lib Dem coalition at Westminster was what Clark calls “utterly transformational” to the Lib Dems’ standing. “Crushing”, others have called it. They lost 11 MSPs in the 2011 election.

A social democratic society, a reformed UK, decent jobs and homes for people – that’s a decent political offer

With Tavish Scott having been leader for three years, it was now the turn of Willie Rennie and with the SNP’s popularity growing, Rennie decided to revisit the constitutional question with the Campbell Commission, which proposed a federal structure for the UK (a long-held Lib Dem ambition) including comprehensive freedoms on income tax for Scotland. The Tories subsequently set up the Strathclyde Commission, which also recommended devolution of income tax powers.

Though the famous Vow was published just days before the referendum, Clark says the Lib Dems and Tories agreed in spring 2014 that a commission would be set up after the referendum: “We agreed with the Tories that the day after the referendum, if there had been a no vote, we would announce a new commission to create a new set of powers, to create a much more federal look to the whole of the UK.

“David Cameron to his shame decided to mix up English votes for English laws in his announcement of that. And on the Friday morning, that left a bad taste in the mouth.”

The Smith Commission subsequently recommended major income tax and social security powers for Holyrood.

In the early days of Holyrood, the Lib Dems had 16 or 17 seats and now have just four, though Willie Rennie and Alex Cole-Hamilton both recorded greatly increased majorities in May’s election. The Greens meanwhile won eight seats (although reduced to seven when Alison Johnstone became presiding officer).

Clark seems unfazed. “Everyone’s fortunes change. In 2007, Alex Salmond would come to the chamber and literally read out opinion polls saying how popular he was. Look at him today, he can’t even beat the Lib Dems on the regional list in the north east, in our worst year. The Greens are happy as anything today; they were happy in 2003 when they had seven seats and then they went down to two seats.

“And we’ve done some decent things. We’ve shaped the agenda on mental health, even though we had only five MSPs from 2011, by doggedly pursuing it. Younger colleagues can take some satisfaction going forward in being able to set an agenda and get things done by being persuasive and working hard, not necessarily by having the numbers.”

So what is the way forward for a left of centre pro-UK party from here? Clark says: “Anas Sarwar [Scottish Labour’s leader] and Willie have talked together informally to try and say there’s a way forward in Scotland that doesn’t involve you either having to vote for independence or sticking with the Tories, and so in a sense that could be a strength going forward, that if the Lib Dems and Labour are working together to put that argument, then people will say there is a credible route now to this better way, this less destructive way than the Conservatives and SNP.”

Does that mean a meeting of minds on federalism?

“Yes on federalism, but also saying the leaders of the parties might have to work together more in Holyrood to present a decent bloc and decent argument that isn’t either Conservative or SNP.

“Willie and Anas get on well and are on the same page on that sort of thing.

“A social democratic society, a reformed UK, decent jobs and homes for people – that’s a decent political offer which might need the two parties that roughly support the same things to work together.”

Having seen his party rise and fall over 40 years, he appears to feel positive about what’s ahead: “Willie’s bounce and positivity, and constantly thinking what can I do that’s useful to Scotland, helpful to people’s lives but will also boost the Lib Dems, is a good place to start.” 

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