Scotland

What do the Lib Dems face at their party conference?

  • 3 March 2011
  • From the section Scotland
Nick Clegg and Tavish Scott
Image caption Nick Clegg and Tavish Scott are both Liberal Democrats, but the Scottish party does not always take an identical view

The Scottish Liberal Democrats say they're a party with much to be proud of.

With the Holyrood elections looming, the Lib Dems are focusing their main policies - as are their rivals - on the economy.

The party says it has the kind of ideas to grow the economy, create jobs and help families through tough economic times.

They say they've been achieving this partly through winning budget concessions from the SNP.

But, as voters prepare go to the polls in May, there is one issue that's likely to cause the Scottish Lib Dems a lot of grief - and it's not one they have much control over.

The party will be keen to focus on boosting Scotland's economic recovery, but the fact that the UK Liberal Democrats have entered into a coalition with the Tories at Westminster is already proving to be a bit of a thorn in their side.

One issue is the spending cuts. The UK Lib Dems have signed up to a programme to reduce the country's massive deficit and those cuts, and that pain is being passed on to the Scottish budget, to the tune of a £1bn loss.

But much more controversial has been the UK government's decision to embark on a policy which could see universities charge up to £9,000 in fees - a move which saw students take to the streets in protest across the country.

The Liberal Democrats pledged to fight to end tuition fees before the election, and, now he is deputy prime minister, the unapologetic party leader Nick Clegg says his focus is now on creating a system, "much fairer one than the one we inherited".

It's all a far cry from the days of the Labour/Lib Dem Holyrood coalition, which scrapped up-front tuition fees during the dawn of devolution.

The reminders will be there at the Scottish Lib Dem conference in Perth, in the form of Scottish Secretary Michael Moore, whose post the party campaigned to scrap, or Inverness MP Danny Alexander, who, as chief secretary to the Treasury, is one of the UK government's top bean-counters (and bean cutters).

And, while reintroducing fees for Scottish students studying north of the border may not be on the cards, there are those who may want to punish the Lib Dems at the polls, whether it's a Westminster election or not.

Challenge party supporters on this point and the response falls along the lines of: "So what?"

They say that, as a federal party, they are free to embark on different policies - although the Scottish Lib Dems have yet to come up with a firm position on student fees.

Coalition deal

And on a wider point, they say being part of a coalition means Lib Dem policy being enacted.

This has been put into action on a more informal basis at Holyrood, where Lib Dems won some key budget concessions this year.

That included a package to boost college bursary places - but it might take more than that when it comes to the student funding issue.

And it's not just UK events that the party will have to contend with.

During the Scottish election campaign, the party will have to cope with the same question which comes up every time - who might you do a coalition deal with?

It was an issue Nick Clegg often had to contend with during the Westminster campaign - in short the Lib Dems will have to fight the election on their own policies and avoid the "kingmaker" tag as best as possible.

'Working hard'

And what of one of the biggest election issues of the lot - independence?

Scottish Lib Dems have been criticised for backing an AV referendum but not an independence one - and despite divisions in the party, leader Tavish Scott has ruled out supporting such a move "before the next Holyrood elections".

Despite these challenges, Mr Scott and his band of 15 other MSPs are putting on a brave face, insisting they have the "radical plans to build a better Scotland".

"We've all got to work hard until polling day, says Mr Scott, adding: "If we do, we can win the battle of ideas in May and Scotland will be better for it."

So, will the Scottish Liberal Democrat conference represent a party forging ahead on its own, or a damage limitation exercise?

Only the voters will say for sure.

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