Six months after the election, it seems the Opposition parties are struggling to come to terms with reality. Immediately after the election, Liberal Democrat leader Tavish Scott fell on his sword and with somewhat indecent haste, Willie Rennie MSP assumed the mantle of leading a much reduced parliamentary group. The Lib Dems had got theirs, wiped out in all but two constituencies, punished by the Scottish electorate not only for imposing savage economic cuts on Scotland through the coalition with the Conservatives at Westminster, but the burd surmised – and still does – for their failure to support the minority SNP government in 2007.
At times, Willie Rennie has shown promising signs of getting it, of offering constructive opposition, of carving out a distinctive niche for his group, and of supporting the Scottish Government where appropriate to do so. But with his first conference speech as leader, it would appear that revisionism and recidivism has crept into his thinking.
How else to describe extraordinary claims like: “Who would have imagined that it would be an SNP Government that exerts such domination, control and manipulation?” or that there is “creeping, political control over our independent civil service” or that “government agencies are being used to make a party political case for the ruling party“. Worst of all, he suggests that there is “intimidation of business and charities to adopt their view of the world“. Apart from citing the lone case of Scotland’s Permanent Secretary Peter Housden supposedly making politically overt remarks – something he has been cleared of, but which were pretty ill-advised all the same – Rennie provides no evidence for his scurrilous claims.
He also betrays a huge naiveté about the purpose of government and of its agencies. Worst of all, he is guilty of ignoring the fact that his own party spent eight years in administration at Holyrood, and through successive partnership agreements ensured that the Liberal Democrat “view of the world” – proportional representation being one such policy – was adopted, promoted and enacted by government officials. Though perhaps we can forgive Mr Rennie this last slip, given that he wasn’t actually around at the time. That’s what happens when parties and parliamentary groups promote newly elected politicians to leadership roles.
Unlike Mr Rennie, the burd has spent much of the last decade rubbing alongside civil servants, government agencies and departments. Have I noticed an increased politicisation of individuals and teams since May this year? No. But I do recall sharing in the excitement of many officials in 2007 that a new team on the block might mean a very different way of doing things. Officials then and now were up to the task and challenge that successive SNP administrations are setting them.
Oh, there are still the defenders of the status quo, those who work hard to make nothing happen fast, and those who will go out of their way to try to jam the spokes of progress and change, but that is less to do with any political adherence or reluctance, and more to do with a mindset much cultivated by sections of officialdom. But by and large, just as the code of impartiality requires of them, civil servants and government agencies have been willing and able to implement the business programme the democratically elected government of the land has set for the country.
As for the assertion of mind-bending of charities, this is nonsense. Again, there are those who like to impress upon organisations that are invited to the table to help shape policy and legislation, that what is freely given can just as easily be withdrawn if participants awkwardly refuse to accept the will of officials. But largely, these are tacit threats and part of the game. Most charities get involved, indeed are invited to get involved, in contributing to the development of policy and practice because they have skills, knowledge and expertise to offer.
Who indeed would have imagined that an SNP Government might exert such domination, a domination gifted to the party by the electorate, no less? Or is Willie Rennie and his rump suggesting that we ignore the democratic will of the people and turn back the clocks? How illiberal a notion is that?
It would seem that in six short months, the Liberal Democrats’ leader – and indeed, candidates for the vacancies in the other opposition groups – have forgotten the lessons harshly delivered on 6 May. Voters voted in their droves for the SNP to govern this land. When faced with the choice between the SNP and the others, the electorate punted overwhelmingly for the former. And by giving the party an overall majority, people wanted the Nationalists to have a decent shout at getting their programme, their manifesto commitments and ideas implemented. To start, so soon, to rewrite history is foolish, if not foolhardy.
The Liberal Democrats were punished once – viciously – by Scottish voters: they won’t hesitate to issue a second beating if it seems that the party is thumbing the nose – again – at its wishes. In May this year, the SNP won. It’s time the defeated parties got over it and moved on.