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A new leader for the Scottish Lib Dems

Stephen Glenn
20 August 2008

Stephen Glenn (Linlithgow, Lib Dems): What next for the Liberal Democrats in Scotland? They're no longer in a coalition administration but just part of the opposition to an SNP minority government. It's a dangerous position with the Tories strengthening and Labour weakening.

Three candidates have stepped forward to fill the void left by Nicol Stephen's resignation as leader, by the end of next week one of them will be leader. Tavish Scott, a close ally of Stephen, is seen by many as the continuity candidate. Ross Finnie, served eight years in the cabinet when the party was in coalition with Labour after the Scottish Parliament was created. He says the party needs to find its 'narrative' again. Mike Rumbles, who chaired the Holyrood's Standard's Committee for four years, sees a radical path ahead.

In Scotland the balance of power has shifted a lot. The Nats are riding ever higher in opinion polls. But at Holyrood they still need support elsewhere for their policies to succeed. The Scotsman recently reported that they were courting the Lib Dems over Local Income Tax. One thing the three candidates agree on is that any such discussions have to restore the real localness of what is now called LIT. It must not become a National Scottish Income Tax. However, whilst Ross and Mike have been open in saying they could support the SNP Government on issues of commonality, Tavish has been more coy in his public utterances on this.

A key issue that will define the future role of the Lib Dems is The Calman Commission which is an independent review looking again at the workings of Scottish devolution a decade on from the Scotland Act. It will follow the Lib Dem Party's own Steel Commission which reported its final findings in 2006. All three potential leaders take the view that Calman really needs to build on the Steel finding for them to support it. Despite this their own views on where devolution in Scotland should go next do differ. Rumbles echoes back to Gladstone in suggesting that Home Rule for Scotland within the UK is the ultimate aim, taking fiscal autonomy to its ultimate end. Finnie too recognises that Steel had pointed out the lack of taxation powers as a hindrance to a federal type structure and hope that Calman reports ways to strengthen this side of things. Scott agrees on taxes and sees a stronger Parliament at Holyrood and from there outwards to the local councils.

On the face of it, whoever emerges next week as the new leader they see a stronger Scottish Parliament with greater powers and autonomy within the Scotland Act as the way that best suits Scotland's and the UK's interests. But it seems fair to say that Tavish Scott is the most traditional, Mike Rumbles the one most likely to back a radical overhaul of a renewed union with an English Parliament and Ross Finnie is somewhere in between. While none are making any promises about taking the Lib Dems into coalition with the SNP, Mike and Ross seem more open to discussions with them over how best to achieve an autonomous and Liberal Scotland whose fate is chosen democratically.

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