Devolution, Coalitions and the Liberal Democrats: by S9w5Y1V6

VIEWS: 0 PAGES: 17

									‘Devolution, Coalitions and the Liberal Democrats:
     Necessary Evil, or Progressive Politics?’


   A Paper prepared for the EPOP Conference
            Nottingham University
             8 – 10 September 2006




                 Dr Alison Holmes
            alison.holmes@gmail.com




                                                     1
Devolution, Coalitions and the Liberal Democrats:
Necessary Evil, or Progressive Politics?1

Summary
Devolution in the United Kingdom has created a range of issues for the central
organisation of political parties – specifically those that fight across Great Britain.
Political parties, already dealing with fundamental questions as to their role and
efficacy in the modern environment, are facing new challenges to ensure unity of
direction and consistency of message through fragmented institutions to fragmented
markets. From party strategy to tactics and presentation, the potential for division
between the ‘centre’ and those responsible for policy and campaigning in the
devolved bodies has considerably increased.

The Liberal Democrats were well placed to deal with this pressure given their federal
organisational structure and consistent support for devolution and systems of
proportional representation. That said, there are still inherent dangers as the third
party in what has been called Great Britain’s ‘two-party plus’ system, or one of the
four main parties in the ‘one-plus-many’ multi-party systems of Scotland and Wales.

This paper will look at the pressures on political parties in the context of the changing
nature of the state, and the usefulness of a federal structure. It will also seek to
examine the impact of the coalition arrangements in the devolved bodies on both the
organisational structure of the Liberal Democrats and its national strategy.

The conclusion is that the Party’s structure was initially helpful. However, a federal
party structure does not necessarily lie neatly with a devolved political one. The
Liberal Democrats established strong state parties at a constitutional level, but as the
devolved bodies have developed, it would appear that the Federal Party may be
increasingly constrained by its conflation with the English Party (and vice versa).

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats in both Scotland and Wales have been in power
within more proportional systems. These coalitions have undoubtedly increased the
Party’s credibility in the nations and few would suggest that the political agenda in
both places has not been significantly shaped by the Liberal Democrats’ progressive
policy framework. But this has required an important shift in the devolved parties’
thinking and approach which could create tension between themselves and their
English colleagues.

This ‘disconnect’ between the Westminster debate and the debates in Scotland and
Wales is an issue not only for the Liberal Democrats but for all political parties
because UK general elections are fought within the context of an overarching national

1
  Alison Holmes is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Rothermere American Institute at Oxford University.
She worked for the Liberal Democrats from 1987 – 1997 and held a senior position in both the 1992
and 1997 General Election Campaigns. The author would like to thank the friends and former
colleagues who agreed to be interviewed for this paper and offered the equally precious commodities of
time and insight - while recognising that any mistakes remain her own. Alphabetically: Lord Ashdown
of Norton-sub-Hamdon, Rt Hon Alan Beith MP, Professor Vernon Bogdanor, Paul Farthing - Federal
Executive, Mike German AM, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, Rob Humphries - President Welsh Liberal
Democrats, Lord Russell-Johnston, Rt Hon Charles Kennedy MP, David Laws MP, Lord McNally,
Willie Rennie MP, Lord Steel of Aikwood, Lord Wallace of Saltaire and Jim Wallace QC MSP. She is
also grateful for the help of those who chose to remain anonymous.


                                                                                                    2
media unfamiliar with the workings of coalitions and unaware of the different
structures of the political parties. This potentially exposes the Liberal Democrats to
more intense scrutiny than the other main parties for two reasons. First, given that
Liberal Democrat state parties are constitutionally more independent, they are more
able to disagree with the ‘centre’; second, they are tarred with the brush of supporting
a dominant Labour Party in the nations, so vulnerable to becoming their scapegoat;
while attacking an ailing Labour Party nationally; thus exposing them to charges of
inconsistency and opportunism.

Structurally, the Liberal Democrats in Scotland and Wales were well prepared for the
first stage in devolution. They have proved themselves able to cope with the rigours
of coalition government and to lead the devolved bodies in the pursuit of a distinctive
progressive Liberal Democrat agenda.

The Federal Party should now undertake two initiatives. First, it must lay the internal
groundwork for the next stage – much as it did prior to 1999 - by adjusting its own
structures to ensure clearer and more consistent political communication between the
centre and the devolved bodies. Secondly, it needs to prepare for what could be a
watershed general election by re-enforcing its consistency in terms of the values
which have animated the Party through time and across geography. This means
ensuring its community/local focus does not become parochial but is used instead as a
demonstration of its values and creed. The Liberal Democrats need to create a unity of
message that consciously encompasses the whole of the Party lest they allow the sum
of the parts to equal no more than their total.

The Impact of Devolution on State Structures
‘Federalism’ is a word that has become common in both in the British and European
context. It is used in much the same way people use ‘Britain’ and ‘Great Britain’
interchangeably (and even on occasion ‘England’), though such usage is incorrect.
However, it does reflect the confusion many people have about the constitutional
status of the United Kingdom.

Even after devolution, the United Kingdom is, and remains, a union - which is not the
same as a unitary state. It is also, in many respects a homogenous state but as Kellas
explains, ‘Homogeneity cannot be taken as Englishness spread throughout the land.’
(p. 102 Kellas, 1973) Federalism in a strict sense divides power. Devolution has not
divided power but handed limited powers to the nations within the state. Parliament
remains sovereign.

Much of this confusion stems from two factors in the constitutional structure of the
United Kingdom. The first is the historically piecemeal approach to such change. The
fact that the arrangements for statehood and franchise have evolved over time, remain
unwritten and continue to be amended has left a wide expanse of grey between the
relatively limited areas of black and white. In other words, despite some relatively
clear parameters, each assertion of state power has many caveats.

The second factor is the unbalanced nature of the union. England dominates the
entity, which forces both Scotland and Wales to define themselves not in relation to
each other or the wider union, but in relation to their dominant neighbour. This has
gradually led to a compression of Englishness with Westminster. Vernon Bogdanor


                                                                                       3
suggests the ‘authority of Parliament’ has almost become the ‘theory of state’.
(Bogdanor, 1999)

The result creates problems for anyone trying to describe the ‘national’ politics of a
multi/national entity that has distinct political traditions but a range of different
perspectives within each of those traditions. To those in England, the position of the
issue of representation is known as the West Lothian question, while to those in
Scotland and Wales, it is increasingly described as the English problem.

For most of those interviewed for this paper (see p. 1), it was a relatively
straightforward dilemma created by the sheer size of England. However, the
resolution would, according to Alan Beith, involve an ‘elaborate and pedantic
separation’ which no one could frankly see happening soon. As he went on to say,
‘We are what we are and we make the best constitutional arrangements for what we
are…I am describing a situation that is easier described than altered.’

Presented with the question of sustainability of these ‘quasi-federal’ state structures
using different electoral systems and interlocking powers, those interviewed
consistently argued that perfect federalism was not on the cards. Further, even quasi-
federal or asymmetric federations could prove to be unstable primarily because of the
size differential. In their view, this led to the conclusion that the process was not over.

Paddy Ashdown linked the problem to inherent issues within federalism and
connected the struggle right down to the Party. He not only posed a series of
constitutional questions but also set the Liberal Democrat approach to policy in its
internal context.

       The rubbing point in federalism is classically the tension that must exist
       between the centre and the rights of states…a federal system probably can’t
       work unless there is enough clarity about the power of the centre and the
       power of the states and that’s why the EU…actually cannot work until
       somebody defines what are the limits of the power of the centre and what are
       the rights… always available to the states. That’s why the constitution was
       written and that’s why it failed and that’s why somebody has to write it again
       and it’s an inevitable consequence of the federal structure of the Party
       too…The famous West Lothian question which keeps on being asked is an
       indication that there is a settlement yet to come. We haven’t yet completed
       this process. Although we may have it on a bit of paper we have not really
       reached the steady-state federal structure, confederal, loose federal structure
       that will last. There are still issues that have to be resolved ….there are
       constitutional challenges yet to come and the centre continues as if hasn’t
       happened.

This instability was also attributed to the financial arrangements of the new
institutions. Those interviewed suggested stability could be under threat if there were
to be a change of government because, as Bogdanor pointed out, the Labour Party had
presided over a massive expansion of public funding in both Scotland and Wales.
This, he suggested, had gone a long way to ensure a perception of a successful
devolution. Russell Johnston, a former leader of the Scottish Party, went further and
suggested that the time was now approaching for a ‘financial reappraisal’. He said, ‘I


                                                                                          4
think unstable is the right word and it will slowly get worse… it has to be addressed at
some point reasonably soon and indeed…the next election may be the first election in
which this situation affects the outcome…’

The Liberal Democrats’ approach to these issues is unique. As a self-consciously
federal party they tend to use the term federalism in its loosest form when talking
about the state - though they are arguably the most aware of the correct terminology
as well as foreign examples of a range of other constitutional structures. However, as
much as they understand these issues on a state level, they have ultimately replicated
this unbalanced constitutional status quo internally, as will be seen in the presumptive
approach sometimes taken by the centre towards the nations and regions of the Party.

The Development of the Modern Political Party
Within this slowly shifting structure of the state lie the levers of political change in
the form of political parties. They operate at three levels. At the widest view they act
as a collector of votes in the electorate, more specifically they are bodies of activists
who share a common outlook or ideology and finally they create elected groups
charged with formulating and/or implementing policy.

These three levels overlap and interact in a variety of ways but most of these links
have been gradually altered not only by the shifts in the form of the state but also by a
number of trends in the social fabric of the country.

Without going into the considerable literature on the decline of the political party, the
common conclusion is that mass membership parties are no longer viable because
different institutions have overtaken the party’s traditional roles. For example, the
media now deliver a constant stream of information while corporations and single
issue campaigning groups both inform the public about their issues and lobby the
government directly on their key policy concerns.

Richard Heffernan and a range of others argue this has led to the ‘electoral
professional party’ which is, in turn, giving way to the ‘modern cadre party’. The
models vary but they all identify the growing trend that parties are increasingly being
led from the centre by a dominant leadership and professional bureaucrats who are
able to override the membership or even elected representatives.

The characteristics of this new kind of political party are important here because they
highlight the fact that while they may apply all parties to a certain degree, there are
crucial points of divergence when looking at the Liberal Democrats. Heffernan lists
the ‘key features of the modern British political party’ as:

      the party leadership, the party ‘in office’, is the heart of everything the electoral
       professional party does…;
      having transformed themselves into less ideologically pure parties, parties see
       competence not ideology as the key to electoral success office seeking being
       increasingly prized over policy seeking;
      while still possessing certain ideological proclivities, parties are no longer tied to
       certain points in the political spectrum…;
      parties compete for votes ‘by marshalling more resource in the national party office,
       by hiring more professionalized and technically skilled staffers, and by maintaining
       the national party office as the locus for political control’;


                                                                                                5
      party memberships continue to decrease;
      other than choosing between leadership nominees presented by the parliamentary
       party members have nominal consultative not decisional rights over policy formation;
      elections campaigns are now expensively fought out at the centre, not at the locality,
       local campaigns being mere adjuncts of the national campaign;
      parties now communicate with all of the electorate by means of the news media and
       not directly through the party or its members; and
      party resources at the local level have declined and those at the centre have increased
       and money is spent at the centre and not at the locality. (p. 139 Dunleavy et al 2003)

Many of the characteristics identified are unquestionably accurate for all parties.
However, these models tend to overlook differences in the Liberal Democrat
constitutional structure and campaigning style which make some of these points less
salient or even irrelevant. It is these differences that facilitated the Party in dealing
with the challenges of devolution.

Liberal Democrat Federalism – Separate but Joined
The birth of the Liberal Democrats was not simple. Heralded as the beginning of the
realignment of British politics it has not, as yet, ‘broken the mould’. However, the
process of a merger between the SDP and the Liberal Party did have two important
implications.

The first was that it became a more obviously professional party and one decidedly of
the centre left. Interestingly, it also enabled the Liberal Democrats to be the only
party with a modern, bespoke, constitutional structure - developed not by historical
accident and internal fudge but set out on a blank slate in the light of changes in
British society.

The Liberal Democrats are the ‘plus’ of the ‘two-party plus’ system. However, while
it is correct that they should be included in discussions of the main parties, their
federal structure is often too complicated or divergent from the Labour or
Conservative parties for many arguments to be consistently applied. This can lead to
the Party simply being left out on specific points of analysis and or anomalies in
descriptions that are said to apply to ‘all political parties’.

The Liberal Democrats pride themselves on their federal, if somewhat complicated,
structure. They have a deliberative policy process and a system of checks and
balances within their party mechanisms. They even built a wide-ranging review
(which took place in 1993) into their first constitution to enable them to deal with any
problems that might arise from their new structures. This turned out to be a useful
opportunity for various solutions including more ‘federal’ powers being given to the
state parties.

The first and perhaps the most important difference between the Liberal Democrats
and other parties is their specific assertion that sovereignty rests not with Parliament
but with the people. This ideal is set out in the Preamble to the Constitution,
embodied in its arrangements and carried forward into policy.

       We believe that sovereignty rests with the people and that authority in a
       democracy derives from the people. We therefore acknowledge their right to
       determine the form of government best suited to their need and commit


                                                                                            6
       ourselves to the promotion of a democratic federal framework in which as
       much power as feasible is exercised by the nations and regions of the United
       Kingdom. (p.1 The Liberal Democrats, 2006)

Structurally, the most obvious reflection of the weight given to ‘the people’ is the
importance given to the body of ‘conference’ within the Liberal Democrats. It is
crucial, not only to the Federal Party, but also to the State parties. It is designed to be,
‘the sovereign representative body of the Party [that] shall have power to determine
the policy of the Party’. It is the conference representatives, elected by their local
parties, who are responsible for electing a majority of members in each of the Parties’
three governing committees: the Federal Executive, the Federal Policy Committee and
the Federal Conference Committee.

Further, the wider membership is crucial in defining the leadership of these
committees. The President is responsible for chairing the Federal Executive, the
governing body of the Party, and is elected by the entire membership. The Leader,
also elected by the entire membership, has an allotted slot on the Policy Committee
but it is the Parliamentary Party that elects the Chair of the Policy Committee (though,
in practice, it has been the Leader without election).

The Conference Committee is charged with organising the Federal conference and its
Chair is elected from amongst the members of the Conference Committee itself – all
elected by Conference.

There is a certain amount of overlap between the various committees and it has been
noted that Westminster MPs have tended to be overly represented at times.
Constitutionally, the Federal Executive and the Federal Policy send representation to
the Conference Committee and there are a range of allocated slots on various
committees for MPs, Peers, Principal Authorities and State representatives from
Scotland,Wales and England as well as other non-voting representatives. More
recently MEPs have been added to this list though there are still no specific slots for
MSPs or AMs on the Party’s federal bodies. This leaves representing the nations to
Scottish or Welsh Westminster MPs or to the state representatives. This may be
sensible given the fact that, in practical terms, they are unlikely to want to come to
federal meetings. However, it does leave the very different agendas of the devolved
bodies out of the federal decision making process and leaves the ground clear for a
focus on English issues – though this may be entirely unintentional.

Though the Party is given passing credit by academics and commentators for its
federal system, many overlook the fact that this structure is replicated in Scotland and
in Wales. The state parties in Scotland and Wales are independent in terms of both
organisation and policy. While there are strong links to the centre through policy
support and funding arrangements as well as those powers that have been effectively
handed back to the Federal Party – the actual power resides with the state parties to
change as they see fit. This includes having their own Conferences to decide relevant
policy and manifestos. That said, the Federal Policy Committee does retain the right
to override even the General Election manifestos of the state or regional parties – with
the proviso unless the proposal ‘related solely to an issue which is the specific
concern of the State of Regional Party’ (section 7.3 Liberal Democrats, 2006) Again,
a system of checks and balances prevails.


                                                                                          7
It was this ‘hardwired’ independence that was so important in the context of
devolution. As Jim Wallace, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats at the time of
devolution and Deputy First Minister in the coalition, put it,

       I think the Party structure did mean that we were better equipped than any
       other party and I think even the independent commentators would say that too.
       We did have our own policy making process in Scotland for the whole range
       of devolved issues. We were, for all intents and purposes, able to devise
       policies ourselves…. The problem the Labour Party had - and still has to some
       extent - is they thought it was a continuation of London government and that
       we would just tag along. They never had very much of their own to propose...
       it was us coming up with the new ideas…I think there was nervousness about
       exercising devolution within the Labour Party but I think that is beginning to
       change… but the structure doesn’t really lend itself…constitutionally it is
       much more difficult for them.

Paddy Ashdown, leader at the time, saw it from a different, but not dissimilar point of
view, ‘We were always very aware of the fact that Labour [in Scotland] might say
something but it was neither emotionally nor constitutionally able to deliver - that it
didn’t really know what it was talking about - I think we all knew that….but we also
saw that the lever that would break open the British political system towards the kind
of politics we wanted was Scotland.’

The English Party is a significant exception to this original design. While it has a
separate state party identity and the same powers as Scotland and Wales, its policy
power was explicitly handed back to the Federal Party as part of the constitutional
review. Ironically, most of the changes made at that time created more ‘federalism’ as
various powers were handed back to the states, but the English Party found little
resonance for a completely separate policy structure amongst the English
membership. There had been English conferences etc but when added to the existing
regions it had become cumbersome and lost almost entirely externally. Thus, English
policy began to be set by the federal bodies and debated at federal conference rather
than at the state level. This tends to conflate the English and Federal processes both in
policy development and in conference debate.

It has been argued informally as well as through formal papers presented to the
Federal Executive by the Welsh Party (2002) - that this arrangement encourages the
English Party to overly regard federal staff and resources as their own – thus allowing
the English Party to effectively dominate the process. They also argued in their paper
that the Scottish and Welsh state parties are not encouraged or empowered to
comment on federal proposals but only asked to represent their state’s interests and
feed their information into the centre. It could be argued this was part of the response
to a new desire and ability for the nations to be more involved in the centre given their
new resource and power but was, they felt, is fundamentally against the spirit of a
federal structure.

Wales is not alone in this perception of the centre and the relative lack of power at the
Westminster level further complicates the federal/state policy relationship. As
Wallace indicates,


                                                                                        8
       …I have noticed there is a tendency of the Federal Party to forget us….and if
       there is policy development that matters to Scotland because we are actually
       governing…there are still some people who think of us a glorified county
       council…I am aware of positions that were taken and no one bothered to just
       check with us what the position would be in Scotland but it could be very
       embarrassing both sides of the border if a minister stands up and says, ‘But
       your colleagues in Scotland are doing something else’…. in the every day
       running of things it doesn’t really matter but it is going to matter at some
       point…then a wheel comes off…

Meanwhile, the English Party also feels that the Federal Party tends assume
responsibilities that are the domain of the English Party in terms of organisation and
policy. In a sense, the Federal Party absorbs the nations and regions in the same way
Westminster tends to speak ‘for the country’ – forgetting which country they mean.
The Party effectively repeats the dominant-by-default constitutional position of
England in the Union.

It would appear that, as well as helping the state parties deal with the devolved
political landscape, the ballast of members with constitutionally enshrined powers to
check the leadership suggests that the Party as a whole is less susceptible to becoming
an overly centralised ‘professional’ party - much less a ‘cadre’ party.

That said, the parties in Scotland and Wales differ from the English or Federal Party
in four important ways that may allow them to fall more into line with these models.
First, in terms of party organisation and structure both Scotland and Wales have
significantly fewer members and thus less money than the party in England. Second,
Liberal Democrat success in terms of Westminster representation, and now in the
devolved bodies, reflects more a concentration than a spread of support for the Liberal
Democrats across each nation. Third, Scottish and Welsh Liberal Democrats have
traditionally been less prominent at local government level than their colleagues in
England and so are ‘missing’ a level of elected representatives that might provide a
check on their elected officials or the leadership. Finally, the state parties rarely use
their ‘sovereign’ power through the Conference to challenge the leadership. (Clark
2006, Fieldhouse, Cutts and Russell 2006, Leith 2006, Lynch 1998)

Aware, if not of the dangers of becoming a cadre party, at least of leaving behind the
membership, both the Scottish and Welsh parties have taken internal steps to redress
the balance between the elected representatives and their party members. They both
expressed the desire to ensure the system of checks is restored regardless of the size
of their various constituent parts and to shore up the ability of the members to be
involved. There is also some suggestion that the membership may be more interested
and willing to engage with the conference process now there is more at stake in the
devolved bodies (a power neither the Conservatives nor Labour members have).

Before devolution, the state party structures of the Liberal Democrats generated little
interest and were generally not recognised as particularly different from the other two
parties in terms of public perception. The fact that the other two parties also had
conferences in Scotland or Wales tended to overshadow the fact similar gatherings of
Liberal Democrats had constitutional roles to fulfil. There is a sense amongst the
Scots and the Welsh that the success of the state parties is not well reflected at the


                                                                                         9
federal level. Anecdotes included coverage from the Party newspaper or allocated
slots time for reports on the work of the devolved bodies at the Federal Conference
(though this has recently changed).

Like many federal bodies, the Party tends to operate as separate state parties with
relatively few people creating links between the different levels. This means that not
only would Liberal Democrats have significant structural and cultural obstacles to
becoming an elite-driven centralised party, but the elected leadership shows little
appetite to do so. Their sense of common values and shared commitment to their
federal structure seems to allow the three Liberal Democrat parties to be slightly
different in character and certainly different in terms of levels of power, but to
continue to work as a whole.

Campaigning Tactics in Devolution
In terms of campaigning, the electoral system for the devolved bodies has inevitably
created a new approach to political debate. Despite the potential for the Labour Party
to create a domineering ‘one-plus-many’ approach, the campaigning voice of the
parties has become more evenly balanced. It has been suggested that while this is not
yet what one would call ‘participatory politics’, there is evidence of more dialogue
and that both party politics and single-issue campaigns are increasingly couched in
those terms (Bonney 2003, Parry 2003, Paterson 2000). Further, while the Scottish
media was relatively slow to understand this new style, they have gradually become
less hostile and increasingly look to Edinburgh to present the multi-party voice of
Scotland rather than to Westminster.

Meanwhile, the first past the post elections for Westminster continue to reward a more
adversarial, ‘winner takes all’ mode of campaigning on the UK level while the
national media often fails to understand, or even to report, issues of importance in
Scotland and Wales. This aptly represents what has been called the ‘plural
indifference’ of the centre in terms of the nations and regions but does mean that the
rest of the country is being left behind in terms of understanding this new political
climate. This could become a serious ‘disconnect’ between political parties and the
level of understanding amongst the electorate in different parts of the country.

As well as distance in general understanding between the two systems, the electoral
overlap has also created active flash points. For example, there seems to be growing
concern from both devolved members as well as some Westminster MPs about the
members of those bodies elected via the list system. They see these members-without-
constituency as ‘meddling’ yet with the luxury of picking ‘easy’ campaign targets.
Similarly, and perhaps in reaction, there is an increasing tendency for Westminster
MPs to feel less constrained about forming groups to campaign on devolved matters,
even against their own party.

Beith set out the impact of devolution on the other two parties,

       …our problems are as nothing as compared to the Tories who were elected by
       a system they didn’t approve of, to assemblies they didn’t want, wholly
       unfamiliar with the very idea of running their own show, and a party
       nationally that didn’t know they existed or care, and wouldn’t like them to do
       anything very much that was out of line. I think the Tories have had to evolve


                                                                                      10
        with some difficulty….The Labour Party has massive problems including deep
        hostility from Labour members at Westminster from both Scotland and Wales.
        It is expressed as hostility to the list election system - having alien, elected
        representatives poking around their private domain. In Wales it is hostility to
        the Assembly itself…

While the Liberal Democrats in Scotland and Wales have separate campaigning staff,
they often take their lead from the Federal Party and benefit from additional central
resources such as polling. This also includes support for by-elections through the
federal by-election team. However, both the Scottish and Welsh parties are
increasingly aware that the central team are less attuned to the changed tone of
political debate of the differing electoral systems. ‘Best practice’ for the uncharted
territory of electing list members is not something the central party deals with well.
The by-election unit – renowned for its tough tactics – is also finding some resistance
from those on the ground who find its style inappropriate in a more ‘plural’ context.

The centre has proved reluctant or unaware of the need to adapt. The differences in
approach to campaigning are exacerbated by the propensity of the Federal Party to
effectively override the state parties on issues such as bids for funding from various
bodies or briefing the media. This results in less money making it to the state parties
as the Federal Party gives significantly more weight to Westminster elections (thus
favouring England) and the potential for mixed messages from different parts of the
party.

Therefore, the state parties have begun to develop their own resource because there is
a sense that the federal services are becoming less relevant. These will no doubt come
under further scrutiny as the electoral cycle turns and devolved funding formulas are
reviewed.

Positioning the Party at all Levels
Externally, the Liberal Democrats are increasingly being challenged to explain their
perceived role in a ‘quasi-federal’ system. Historically, the Liberals and their
successor party, the Liberal Democrats, have acted variously as a brake on socialist
extremes or as part of an anti-conservative progressive alliance. Devolution has
territorialised these different aspects of its political character. In the nations the Party
promotes the idea of being a brake on the Labour Party / socialism / extremism etc.
while within the largest part of the Union, the English Party and, to a large extent the
Federal Party, continue to portray themselves broadly as an anti-Tory progressive
party in opposition.

However, this southern consensus has been eroded as a result of the Party’s targeting
strategy and opportunistic campaigning in England at both the Westminster and local
government levels. By presenting itself as anti-Tory where applicable, while
attempting to out-flank a flagging Labour Party in power elsewhere, the Party has
created a significant strategic dilemma. That divide is now becoming apparent in the
Parliamentary party, making it difficult even for Liberal Democrats to consistently
identify their enemy.

The coalitions in Scotland and Wales reinforce this increasing sense of a split
personality and present an added dimension to national positioning. The Party may be


                                                                                          11
a small group in opposition at Westminster but they are a party of government in the
nations. So, while the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary party is looking to pick out
holes in UK government policy, their elected representatives are looking for policy
solutions in Edinburgh and Cardiff.

Thus, the competence and stature of the devolved bodies is creating pressure on the
Party’s federal nature. There is what David Steel has called, a ‘mismatch’ between the
devolved political structure and the federal organisation of the Party. Simply having a
Scottish or Welsh policy mechanism or party conference does not resolve those issues
that need more than a discussion in isolation but require ‘inter/national’ debate i.e. the
impact of the policy of one nation on another or those policies that are disputed
between the Westminster representatives and those of the devolved bodies. (Andrews
2005) Similarly the lack of a separate English structure is becoming a more obvious
problem with issues arising for example, between London and the South East or
between England and the other nations - and not only in party terms.

These pressures will only grow over time as future generations of devolved politicians
have fewer personal/historical links with Westminster. For example, Jim Wallace was
a long-serving member of the House of Commons before becoming the Leader of the
Scottish Liberal Democrats in the new Parliament. His successor, Nicol Stephen, was
only in the House briefly. The Scottish Liberal Democrats have made it a
constitutional requirement of the Scottish leader to be an MSP thus future leaders are
less likely to have any Westminster experience.

The natural tendency to develop a more specifically Scottish or Welsh political class
combined with the fact these new bodies have no official place on federal committees
other than through their Westminster MPs or a general state representative, risks
taking the state party leadership increasingly away from the national party networks
and a sense of unified national party identity. This could have a long-term impact on
the policy direction of the party as well as its electoral tactics in different areas.

The fact the Labour Party is in power in all three levels at the moment has eased some
potential difficulties of this mismatch. But there are two further reasons the Liberal
Democrats have not come under excessive scrutiny. The first is the fact it was clear
from the outset, or at least from the first devolved elections, the Liberal Democrats
were likely to be in a position of power or of power broker in new bodies. This
expectation has granted the Party a certain amount of space to act in this role without
being overly examined on differences between the federal and state positions.

The second reason is based on the perceived view of the national media that ‘deals’ in
the nations are not dissimilar to those done at local level i.e. not particularly
interesting or important. To date there are relatively few national print journalists who
actively seek to connect national and devolved issues. There is even anecdotal
evidence to suggest that some national journalists have little concrete understanding
of the impact of devolution on the workings of government business. How else could
one explain the fact that no one seriously questioned the Labour Party when they
presented 5 pledges at the last national election – two of which were devolved
powers? Meanwhile in Scotland, the Liberal Democrats were forced to run a separate-
but-parallel campaign because the promises in the UK manifesto had already been
brought in by the coalition but would still require Scottish electors to pay more tax.


                                                                                       12
The wider issues of the media and devolution are beyond the remit of this paper but
this ‘tolerant’ or even ‘ignorant’ view does tend to let national politicians of all parties
‘off the hook’ – as frustrating as that is for those whose domestic political debate is
confused by the muddling of national and devolved issues.

This will not always be the case. Two MPs, one Scottish and one English both
identified the potential for future issues for the Party if the current situation is not
clarified.

Willie Rennie, winner of the Dunfermline by-election and former Party employee,
suggested that more work needs to be done lest the other parties find room for attack.

        I have strong views about how the Party is maturing and how we tie up our
        positions in England, Scotland, and Wales or UK, Scotland, and Wales. I think
        there are attempts to not make silo decisions but I think we fail often. We
        always come up with a reason why England or the UK is slightly different
        from Scotland. We always have this get out clause ‘that’s what devolution is
        about’ therefore we can make different decisions in different places….it’s
        defensible but because we are in opposition down here we tend to look for
        holes in things whereas in Scotland we are looking for solutions...that will
        catch up with us as the other parties focus on our activities… scrutiny will add
        to the view, ‘Liberals say one thing in one place and another in another’…

David Laws puts it similar terms when he argues that, ‘We probably haven’t followed
through the logic of devolution ourselves both upwards and downwards and really
need to do so if we aren’t going to give legitimate grounds for complaint and if we
aren’t to allow the Tories…to turn it into an issue...’
While not yet a serious concern, it is not difficult to imagine combinations of power at
the different levels of government that would make these relationships more
complicated and certainly give rise to claims by the Party’s opponents and the press
that the Liberal Democrats are trying to be ‘all things to all people’ or grabbing power
for its own sake.

Devolution, Pluralist Politics, and Coalitions
It would be difficult to assess the impact of devolution on the party in terms of the
Liberal Democrats without also looking briefly at their approach to coalitions. They
were in power immediately after the elections in Scotland and have served in that
capacity since then, while in Wales, the initial deal took longer and has not remained
a feature of the Assembly.

This is an interesting difference given the coalitions involved the same two parties in
both places. This no doubt serves as an important reminder that the political
atmospheres were very different in Scotland and Wales as well as the importance of
electoral arithmetic.

It also serves as a testament to the work undertaken by the coalition partners in the
context of the Scottish Constitutional Convention. Not surprisingly, relationships
between key players in Scotland were developed to such an extent that Wallace felt
the famous Ashdown-Blair ‘Project’ was a potential danger to the first elections for


                                                                                           13
the devolved Parliament. This was not because he was unsympathetic to the idea but
rather from the perspective that the Scottish Liberal Democrats were already so
‘close’ to Labour that they needed as much space as possible going into the election.
As he put it,

       It was an irony… we didn’t want the Project to muddy the water… what we
       had done in Scotland was entirely independent of any ‘Project’ but having said
       that it was quite consistent…but more consistent and more likely to succeed
       than any other part of the Project…We were very conscious that we wanted a
       decisive party – independent – albeit that there was every possibility that we
       would go into government after the election with the Labour Party but it was
       absolutely essential and I would argue even more essential…that we
       maintained our individual identity.

While Ashdown, from his centrist point of view on both coalition agreements
suggested that,

       Personal relationships aren’t essential but they are the lubricant that makes the
       thing work better… in the end it does come down to… ‘can I trust you’ and
       essentially that is a personal judgment…There was hubris involved in the
       Welsh [Labour] Party. There wasn’t the pre-existing personal contact there
       was in Scotland… and there was no convention…so there was none of the
       preparatory work that had gone on in Scotland… That was much more to do
       with the personality clashes involved and the lack of preparation. There is one
       point here and that is if you want to pull these things off preparation really is
       important…because the removal van is one of the great instruments of British
       politics. It turns up on election day, outside number 10 Downing Street, and
       the PM doesn’t have days to get his government he has to get a government
       straight away. That also applied to Scotland of Wales but I suspect next time
       that wouldn’t be so necessary…

Despite the federal nature of the party, the independent nature of the state parties, and
the different contexts of power, the lessons the Party has learned seem remarkably
consistent.

Preparation is regarded universally as key. The work done in the Convention is seen
as important but certainly was not the only work done. The Welsh party has been
working to ensure it learns from the Scottish experience (by-passing the federal
structure entirely) while the Federal Party commissioned various papers over the
years from both internal and external sources and used by Jim Wallace in his
preparations. The Party has even consulted sister parties in other countries as to the
best way to deal with what would inevitably be a minority position. As Ashdown
points out, ‘We were conscious that there was great difference between the wish and
the action…unless we were able to compensate with professionalism for our lack of
bargaining power. We anticipated Labour wouldn’t have thought about this… and we
were right about that. We had to have some compensating factor for the fact we were
small and… the factor we chose was expertise in the field.’

However, in addition to the more classic concerns of coalitions as set out in a range of
literature, the relevant component here is: what was the involvement of the Party as


                                                                                       14
whole? This issue is generally ignored as it tends to focus on high level strategic
concerns such as deal-breaking portfolios or significance of various policy issues. In
contrast to that approach and to the suggested features of the ‘modern British party’,
both the Scottish and Welsh Liberal Democrats took their responsibilities to engage
their own party structure seriously and sought mechanisms and processes by which to
do so.

Mike German, Leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats in the Assembly, now feels
that they did not involve the party committees or members enough in the slow and
often complicated run up to their first coalition. This was, he felt, a lesson they
learned the hard way. Since then, they have changed their procedures to create more
direct contact between the AMs and the party bodies and established more direct links
between the elected representatives and the elected party officers. They have also had
not one but two debates on their relationship with Labour at the Welsh Party
Conference.

Meanwhile, the Scottish party had established a timetable for consultation before
polling day in the first devolved elections. It consisted of a first meeting with the
newly elected MSPs immediately followed by a joint meeting of the MSPs with the
Scottish Executive and the Scottish Policy Committee. The purpose of the meetings
was to go through a pre-prepared draft coalition agreement based on the manifesto,
and to elect the negotiating team. This was in stark contrast to the process that was
undertaken by the Labour Party.

It is now broadly agreed that this detailed and sometimes difficult line-by-line process
in fact enabled the Scottish party to have complete confidence in the document and
reassured the party that the coalition would be robust – which it proved to be.

Regardless of the differences in electoral system, there is also a consistent line on the
process of decision-making for the existence of a coalition.

From the English perspective Beith suggests that,

       You can’t fight a campaign for coalition and if you start talking about it you
       actually undermine people’s perception of yourself aided and abetted by the
       press…it is a possible outcome, but one beyond our control.

His English colleague Laws, (who was heavily involved in the Scottish agreement
process and to a certain degree in the Welsh process in his capacity as Director of
Policy) agrees, ‘People make decisions based on what is right in their area and what
the electoral arithmetic is. Scotland and Wales all came back to question: ‘is there an
ability to have an agreement?’…it does all come back to policy.

In Wales and Scotland the message seems even clearer. German argues that the lesson
he learned from his involvement in the 1992 national campaign was simply, ‘Keep the
buggers waiting. It is all about getting what we believe is right for the country and
that is about policy not deals. We needed stability and the Liberal Democrats were the
only way we were going to get that in Wales.’




                                                                                        15
Wallace would seem to concur, ‘Arithmetic is the key but a coalition for its own sake
is a mistake. I would have walked away and the Labour party knew it... We had to
agree what we were going into coalition FOR. What we were going to DO for
Scotland.’

Conclusion
Devolution has not created a ‘realignment’ of politics in Scotland and Wales but it has
certainly created a different atmosphere for its conduct. Whether this represents the
beginning of a more collaborative model of politics vs. a continuance of traditional
competition remains to be seen. For the Liberal Democrats, their federal structure has
allowed the state parties the space - and the power - to create their own agendas. As
such, coalitions have been the basis of a new style of politics and a distinct
progressive approach in both Scotland and Wales.

As for political parties generally, the jury is still out. The Liberal Democrats have
proved themselves better prepared than most to create their own distinct progressive
agendas yet remain within a wider federal party structure. Even so, Charles Kennedy
suggests that more should be done.

       I have long since thought, and probably devolutionary developments may
       hasten it a bit in some parts of the UK, but that traditional structure of party
       politics is in decline in the kind of society we have now…all parties need to
       change…go back one hundred years - politics and just about everything in
       Britain has changed out of recognition...We haven’t fundamentally changed
       the way we do things as party politicians… that can’t be sustainable for any
       institution…it just can’t be.

In terms of creating a new political environment or the ‘new politics’ widely
acclaimed by New Labour over a decade ago, it would seem there is now a need to
engage in a wider discussion as to how national politics operate or rather, the
engagement between the nations. That can be done by political parties but it also
needs to be done by other institutions such as the media. Ashdown called this the need
for a ‘public echo chamber’ that would enable politicians to prepare people for the
idea of a new politics.

From a non-political perspective Bogdanor points out some of this work is already
being done through the simple fact that there are different electoral systems at
different levels. He observed that if people get in the habit of voting in PR elections
vs. first past the post they will see it as less and less ‘strange’ to vote for parties
outside the mainstream. ‘People have voted PR…so the idea of voting for…an
independent candidate no longer appears as outlandish as it once did. I think that is
very important…’

The United Kingdom has always had a shifting idea of itself and its constituent parts.
Its constitution has evolved through slow and sometimes painful processes. The
constitutional revolution that the Labour Party undertook in 1997 is no different in
that while obviously not complete, it is in no hurry to go further. The devolved bodies
have changed the landscape and now it will remain to be seen how that will
eventually ripple out to affect England and the House of Lords.



                                                                                          16
In terms of current political identities it seems clear that while coalitions have been
seen positively by Liberal Democrats and the electorate, their partners in government
are probably more inclined to see them as a necessary evil. This difference of
perception may yet provide ammunition to the more centralised parties and relatively
uninformed / unengaged media to accuse the Liberal Democrats of attempting to be
all things to all voters. If they don’t ensure that they assert their liberal heritage as the
core values that unite them at all levels, the Party could find its ability to operate
freely in terms of serving in different constellations of coalition in different locations
more difficult to position in the public eye. On the other hand, they now have the
experience of power within the Party to help them prepare for a range of possibilities
that, until devolution, did not seem possible.

Looking to the future Ashdown concludes,

        Magellan has sailed round the world now. He negotiated the Magellan straits
        and he got back OK. That means other sailors can go around the world
        too…we have created the instruments, the precedents, the mechanisms for
        doing this. We have to expect that it will be used again and perhaps by others.




                                                                                           17

								
To top