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Preparing for battle

Brian Taylor | 15:31 UK time, Friday, 8 August 2008

I am painfully aware that I have rather neglected Scotland's other leadership contest, that within the Scottish Liberal Democrats.

In that regard, my behaviour probably mirrors that of the nation as a whole which is either on holiday, at work, watching the Olympics or waiting for the opening of the Scottish football season on Monday.

(One or two affect to believe that the season opens on Saturday. They are mistaken. The season only truly begins when the mighty United face Hamilton on Monday. All the best to Craig and the lads.)

However, back to the Lib Dems. This blog is eclectic and egalitarian in its outlook. So I should have mentioned the contest ere now. Mea maxima culpa.

It is, in itself, an intriguing fight. Two ex Cabinet Ministers, Tavish Scott and Ross Finnie, plus one of Holyrood's awkward squad, Mike Rumbles.

Incidentally, from me and from many Lib Dems, that is an expression of praise. If Mike Rumbles had been in the pre-Union Scots Parliament, he'd probably have joined the Squadrone Volante, demanding a tough line on those Court and Country backsliders.

Tavish Scott must be reckoned favourite. He has the most prominently declared support - although, as Mr Scott will be the first to recognise, that can be a downer in the Lib Dems who wear their iconoclasm along with their sandals. (Cheap, Brian, cheap: they abandoned sandals long since. They now wear clogs.)

I'm intrigued by Ross Finnie's stance: arguing for a purer Lib Dem message. Plainly he feels that has been somewhat jeopardised by the years in government.

In response, Mr Scott might note that he took arguably the hardest line in the short-lived coalition talks with the SNP last May.

Independence didn't form part of the Lib Dem agenda - and he would, consequently, have nothing to do with the Nationalists.

This has been a good, clean fight - with just the odd hint of the guile for which the Lib Dems are occasionally renowned, at least among their opponents.

Either way, whoever wins may swiftly face an intriguing conundrum. What to do about the council tax?

The Lib Dems are in favour of a Local Income Tax. Simple, then. They'll vote with the SNP to scrap the Council Tax and replace it with LIT.

Except. Except we've now heard muttering from Vince Cable, the party's sage at Westminster on these matters, that LIT might not, perhaps, be utterly wonderful.

There were even suggestions that Mr Cable might favour piloting the new tax in Scotland. Memo to Vince: study your poll tax history first.

Except, part two, I don't really hear enthusiastic evangelising from Scottish Lib Dems about the merits of LIT. I hear them say it's their policy. I hear them criticise the Council Tax. I don't really hear gutsy, all-out pressure for LIT.

Except, part three, the present SNP proposal is for a fixed rate tax across Scotland, 3% everywhere. That, as the Lib Dems point out, isn't local. So they won't back that.

Could that change though? SNP Ministers are hinting again that they're ready to talk. Nicol Stephen offered such discussions. Will his successor take them up?

Or might he more inclined to listen to the alternative offer - from Labour and the Tories, to consider reforms to the Council Tax.

There are political and practical problems aplenty with either option. Back Labour/Tory - and be painted as the defender of the council tax, abandoning your own manifesto.

Back the SNP - and what? If LIT is popular (OK, no tax is popular - less hated, then), won't the SNP just take all the credit? If LIT bombs, will the Lib Dems share the blame?

Welcome to leadership, Mr Scott, Mr Finnie or Mr Rumbles.


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