What a difference four years, an unpopular coalition government at Westminster and a hammering in the polls for the Scottish election makes.
In 2007, the Scottish Liberal Democrats went into and emerged from the Holyrood election declaring that a referendum on independence was a deal breaker. Immediately after the results declared the SNP as the majority party, the Lib Dem MSPs went into a huddle and refused to budge from their position. This was despite the SNP being prepared to offer a constitutional convention. The result was no place at the heart of government and four years on the fringes of Parliament. Instead, they cosied up with the Conservatives and Labour to thwart any plans for a referendum by establishing a constitutional convention. A much more heinous crime – at least, in the eyes of Scottish voters if the polls are to be believed – was the agreement to go into coalition with the Tories to form a UK Government.
At the time, and since, it was widely rumoured that Nicol Stephen was open to discussions about potential power sharing with the SNP, even with a referendum on the table. But that vociferous and vehement opposition to even entering formal talks came from Tavish Scott and others in the group. Tavish, though, was widely reported to be the ringleader of the hardline stance.
Fast forward four years and apparently, under Tavish Scott’s leadership, a referendum on independence would not be a “deal breaker” in a coalition with the SNP. His preference is “to form a stable government for the future of Scotland. I believe we can get more done.” Oh I bet you do Tavish. The burd wonders what might have prompted this much more considered view on the issue of a referendum?
Could it be that to refuse even to negotiate this time round with the SNP if it emerges as the largest party in May would leave your party looking pretty silly? I mean, if there were no red-line issues to be found with the Conservatives at UK level, wouldn’t it seem hypocritical to actively seek them out in the SNP?
Or perhaps the reason for this sudden burst of magnanimity is an underlying belief that Labour might emerge as the largest party and therefore negotiating with the SNP ain’t ever gonna happen?
Although it might be that Labour’s preference, if it does emerge as the largest party, for a stint at minority government has left you with only the SNP to woo as a potential partner?
If I was in cynical mode, it could be seen as a ploy to try to arrest plummeting poll ratings and attempt a last-minute detoxification of his party, following its tie-up with the Tories in the UK Government. But I think that might be affording the Lib Dem leader a little more tactical nous than he probably has.
No, the reason for the shift is probably much more prosaic: desperation. Even with a slight fillip recorded in the most recent YouGov poll for Scotland on Sunday, the Lib Dems are likely to return to Holyrood with only six MSPs. They will have haemorrhaged an astonishing ten seats and been reduced to a rump. With such few numbers, the opportunity to have an influencing presence from the Opposition benches becomes nigh impossible. So the only hope of influence, of being noticed rather than spending four long, dismal years being at best dismissed and at worst ignored, is to find a way back into a power-sharing administration in government.
Hence, Tavish Scott’s recent volte-face. But it makes one very important and probably erroneous, assumption.
That the SNP is remotely interested in talking to Tavish and whomever else might return in Lib Dem guise after the election. Their numbers are unlikely to be sufficient to enable the kind of stable government now yearned for, so there would be little point in having them inside the tent.
No, Tavish, the burd is sorry to say that you are likely to find yourself cold-shouldered by the SNP, yet it would be little more than you would deserve, given the grandstanding and posturing that occurred in 2007. Expect them to show considerable Schadenfreude instead, particularly if your group’s being left out in the cold results in the logical conclusion to your career.