Midlothian needs to rediscover its liberal roots

Friday September 11th 2015

John Ferry Liberal Democrat

One of the most distinguished Liberal politicians of all time represented the constituency of Midlothian. William Ewart Gladstone, who served as British Prime Minister four times between 1868 and 1894, was MP for Midlothian from 1880 until 1895.

Gladstone introduced or backed a number of liberal reforms that aimed to provide people with equality of opportunity and to let them lead as much as possible the lives they wished to live, and not that which others would wish them to live.

Observing the trajectory of our recent politics it is clear that contemporary Scotland would once again benefit from a good shot in the arm of liberal politics. The current Scottish government has introduced, or is about to introduce, a number of changes that seek to centralise control and power in Edinburgh, and to interfere in people’s lives in ways that will be unheralded for the people of Scotland.

Perhaps the most high profile example of short-sighted centralisation has been the introduction of a single national police force, Police Scotland, which replaced the eight previous regional constabularies. The failures are well documented, from the rolling out across Scotland of procedures and approaches developed by Strathclyde Police to suit the needs of Glasgow and its surrounding areas, but which are completely unsuited to Edinburgh never mind our rural communities, to the loss of morale among the rank-and-file, to conflicts of interest in accountability and governance – Police Scotland’s chief constable is accountable to a single police authority, the members of which are appointed by Scottish Ministers.

And then we have the new Higher Education Governance Bill. While spun by the SNP as having nothing to do with ministerial control of our universities but rather aiming to “support our institutions to develop their own governance systems to enable them to continue to reach their full potential”, a reading of the legislation shows that it is designed precisely to allow SNP ministers to interfere in the governance of our universities and other higher education institutions. As well as allowing for government interference in how universities appoint chairs, the legislation also gives ministers power to regulate for future changes in governance at Scottish universities without requiring parliamentary approval. This is a direct threat to the autonomy of our universities, putting their reputations and excellence at risk.

Coming on the back of a referendum campaign where the principal of one of our ancient universities, Louise Richardson at St Andrews, found herself under pressure from the SNP to toe their party line (thankfully the distinguished academic and university leader was more than able to stand up for herself), the introduction of this legislation is deeply troubling.

And so on to the “named persons” legislation, which will appoint a state representative to every person under the age of 18 in Scotland. While there is merit in reforms that aim to create a less fragmented system for identifying children at risk, campaigners have rightly pointed out that the ongoing monitoring of every child in Scotland by the state in order to assess whether those children are meeting a long list of highly subjective criteria – who can really judge whether our children are “achieving, nurtured and active”? – is a step too far when it comes to interfering in family life.

We should all be wary of government attempts to break down the natural bonds of trust that exist between individuals, among families and communities, to instead tie us as individuals to the state.

See also the SNP’s wish to introduce a Scotland-wide ID database. The SNP would make registration on their database compulsory, which would be a significant infringement on our civil liberties.

But of course these types of controlling, power-hungry tendencies are symptomatic of nationalism. The SNP is not only interested in the wholesale rejection of the compatriotism of the people of the rest of the UK in order to fully align Scotland’s political culture and structures exclusively with the ancient nation, it is also autocratic and statist in its functioning. Power is increasingly centralized in Edinburgh, while the Scottish Parliament is currently not able – via SNP dominance of Scottish Parliament committees – to check the power of the executive arm of government.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats have been fighting tooth and nail at the Scottish Parliament to maintain our freedoms in the face of SNP moves to curtail them. Although it may not have won him may plaudits, Willie Rennie has, in the chamber at Holyrood, methodically confronted each SNP infringement on our liberties. He has taken the lead in campaigning against the introduction of a Scottish identity database, for example.

Centralisation, control, political interference – these are the drivers of SNP governance and policy making. That’s why we need to take a leaf out of Gladstone’s book, who said that liberalism is essentially about trust in the people.

As we move towards the next round of campaigning in Scotland for the 2016 Holyrood elections, it is hoped that the electorate in Midlothian will cast a sceptical eye on the top-down, authoritarian control freakery of the current administration.

John Ferry is a former resident of Eskbank who now lives in Peebles. He chairs the Liberal Democrat Scottish Borders Policy Forum.

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