Should the Scottish Liberal Democrats split from their Westminster counterparts? Some party activists have suggested it, but Willie Rennie, currently the only candidate to take over the leadership as Tavish Scott steps down, has said that it won't be his choice. He wants, instead, to work closely with Nick Clegg in an effort to restore the party's fortunes. Meanwhile, Clegg is attempting to assert himself at Downing Street, vocally objecting to proposed restructuring of the NHS and making obscure statements about muscular liberalism. What does this mean? Could it be enough? Just how should the party turn things around after massive losses in Scotland and in the English and Welsh local elections?
The Liberals, of course – to go back to their roots – have been here before, and for similar reasons. Although their 1999 Holyrood coalition with Labour was widely considered a success, the 1977 Lib Lab pact left them reeling, with voters fleeing en masse as it was concluded that a vote for the Liberals was a vote for Labour. Left to carry the can for the failures of the Callaghan-led government, they found it much harder to recover than Labour did, though of course both parties suffered a long period with little power thanks to the success of Margaret Thatcher's Conservatives. Now Clegg's LibDems have found themselves in the same position. Has their attempt to compromise and shore up Cameron for a share of power doomed them to another two decades of unelectability? With the Greens on the rise might they, in fact, find themselves shunted aside permanently?
The difficulty for those who support Willie Rennie's strategy is that the LibDems at Holyrood and the LibDems at Westminster cannot rationally pursue the same things. At Westminster, for as long as the first past the post system is in use (I wouldn't count on it lasting forever; what nobody seems to be pointing out about the recent referendum is that one in three people being unhappy with the voting system is a serious problem) then they will remain the third party. Any chance they might have had to change that passed last year. This isn't all bad. A third party can still exert an influence – either by forming coalition type agreements or by raising a distinctive voice in opposition. It can contribute to committee work and, of course, local politics. But a good policy-based approach to this must be different from that of a party truly readying itself for government.
In Holyrood, by contrast, the situation is wide open. Despite the SNP's massive recent success nobody expects them to dominate in perpetuity. The voting system gives smaller parties advantages they simply don't have a Westminster and coalitions are the norm. The LibDems enjoyed considerably more influence in their previous Holyrood coalition than they now do at Westminster. If they can recover their core vote and make themselves electable again, there is no reason why they couldn't hold out hope of becoming the dominant party in a Scottish government of the future. It may take decades but it's on the cards in a way that is simply not the case down south.
What does this mean for the party as a whole? How can it gear itself up to fight both these battles at once? The key is to concentrate not on policy per se but on the real, underlying liberal agenda. This also has the advantage of clarifying what LibDems stand for and will continue to stand for even when they feel obliged to compromise their policies for political reasons.
So what does 'the liberal agenda' mean today? Does anyone care? Actually, I'd say there's quite a lot of demand for it. To see how this works it's necessary to look not at how the LibDems lost votes in this year's elections but at how Labour lost them in 2010. There were three principal reasons why Labour went under. One, sad to say, was Gordon Brown's personality, compounded by savage attacks from right wing newspapers which immediately saw the advantage in concentrating on people rather than politics. One was the economy, a situation which, to a large extent, they were unable to control. And one was their attitude to civil liberties. It was this which was responsible for the massive shift of Labour votes toward the LibDems; it even caused some to shift directly to the Conservatives. Those who had always prioritised social justice found themselves unable to tolerate any longer the erosion of those civil liberties essential to defending it in the longer term.
It is a sorry fact of British political life that socialism always seems to go hand in hand with authoritarianism; it really doesn't need to be that way. And to an extent, Labour were just tagging along with a shifting international mood, taking the cue from George Bush Jr with his Office of Homeland Security and continually expending police powers. But Britain is not a country that takes that kind of thing lying down. Our democracy hinges on certain principles: the right to freedom of speech; the right to freedom of assembly; the right to freedom of association. The LibDems need to show that they will stand up for those freedoms and that they will treat them not as minor issues, supplementary to big topics like health or education, but as principles that inform everything they do. These are the areas in which they must not compromise. By taking a lead on them, they can recover the respect they once enjoyed as an established political force, emphasising that they are defenders of respected traditions – the perfect way to counter critics who dismiss them as trivial in their concerns and overly focused on untested new ideas.
There is nothing woolly about traditional liberalism, nothing effete about defending the foundations of democracy. David Blunkett's recent characterisation of LibDems as being all about hugging trees is characteristic of where Labour lost the plot on liberal issues; it mistakes aggression for strength. Sure, a government can make itself look tough by setting aside liberal concerns in favour of increased security – the problem is that this does nothing to address the real problems underlying security risks (and there's not much real evidence that it works, either). It's macho nonsense substituted for a real political strategy. A genuinely strong political party doesn't hide behind authoritarian policies but takes the initiative and challenges threatening elements to participate in real discussion – meanwhile enabling ordinary people to enjoy the very freedoms which, by and large, terrorists would be happy to see them lose.
This coalition government, of course, is not strong, and that's undoubtedly one of the reasons why we've seen no meaningful relaxation of Labour's security obsession. But all the panic about anarchists, the attempts to smear organisations like UK Uncut and the massively OTT security attached to events like the royal wedding will only make the government look weaker in the long term. The LibDems are the ones who can lead the way out of this. In doing so, they can demonstrate that they are a party with a distinctive voice. There is a lot of work to be done to undo the damage caused by successive governments and rebuild a liberal society in Britain, but the trend that led to this should not be seen as a reason for despair; it's an opportunity. It's time for the LibDems to stop reacting and start showing moral leadership. This is an area where they can be strong, and informed, and confident, and offer the electorate a real alternative. It's an alternative they are crying out for. It's the substance that was missing from Cleggmania. It can be powerful in opposition just as it can be in government. So the question now is, are they up to the task?