A distinguished panel of speakers lined up at the Althing at the Tingwall School on Saturday night to debate the motion “The Coalition Government means the end of Liberalism in Shetland”.
The hall was packed to capacity to hear the speakers debate a weighty topic and at the start of the meeting the votes were 11 for, 16 against and 31 undecided.
The first speaker of the evening for the motion was Jonathan Wills, who said he had thought of calling his paper “Confessions of a young Liberal” but thought better of it.
Dr Wills’ paper was liberally scattered with quotes and anecdotes, but he began with a definition from the 1801 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary which stated that a Liberal is one opposed to the Tories, which could only make for some interesting thoughts.
In the 1840s the Liberals brought in many favourable government reforms, but it seemed this was not to stand the party in good stead for future elections.
Tom Wolfe was quoted as saying at one time “A Liberal is a Conservative that has been arrested” and that if God had been a Liberal the 10 commandments would have been 10 suggestions.
In recent years, the writer Toby Young, who for some time had a rather inglorious career as a columnist for Conde Naste magazines, wrote a book entitled How to Lose Friends and Alienate People and the book sold remarkably well. Dr Wills was concerned that maybe the Liberals had become little more than arm candy for the Conservatives and that maybe this would be what would happen – the coalition would do little more than alienate voters.
Dr Wills asked if the Liberals could be seen as a moderating influence for the Tories in light of the spending cuts that the Conservative prime minister is determined to make, with the withdrawal of child benefit for those on higher incomes being a case in point.
With the coalition, Dr Wills stated, you have incapacity benefit being curbed, housing benefit capped and irritation among party leaders that rents cannot be controlled.
Dr Wills contrasted these cuts with spending. The annual defence budget is £45 billion, with £2.5 billion being spent on the nuclear submarine HMS Astute alone.
We were told that student tuition fees would be abolished, but they are going up, there is to be more privatisation of the Post Office, VAT is set to rise to 20 per cent.
Then there is the new system of Work Fair that is to be introduced where those on benefits will be compelled to work for at least four weeks in a given period in order to continue to claim benefits. This system is seen by the new government as a way to encourage the unemployed back into work but instead it takes up time that could be spent looking for work.
Dr Wills compared the introduction of the Work Fair system with the 18th century when the destitute had to work building roads, for example, in order to obtain some grain or food for their starving families – hence the term “meal roads” of which the Tingwall road is believed to be one.
Dr Wills went on to ask why Shetland had kept the Liberal faith for so many years when it seemed that in the 1920s the Liberals faced oblivion and then in the 1950s Tory hegemony was complete?
Could it have been because of MPs like Joe Grimond, who was MP for Shetland from 1950 to 1983, a man who despite his strong personality and old Etonian values epitomised all the vales of Liberalism, especially those of the rights of the individual balanced against equality?
Dr Wills concluded by suggesting that perhaps the coalition government had broken the trust of voters and that while there may have been well meant intentions, that trust may never be there again.
The second speaker of the evening, against the motion, was MP Alistair Carmichael. Mr Carmichael stated at the outset of his paper that it would appear that Dr Wills had a compelling argument but Mr Carmichael wanted to say that the Liberals did not go in with the Conservatives in order to retain seats or for fear that Liberals would lose seats at the next election. Election results were never taken for granted by any party.
Mr Carmichael wanted to work hard for the return of social democracy that Labour had destroyed over the past 13 years.
Taking up Dr Wills’ points regarding government cutbacks, Mr Carmichael felt that there had been more than a slight whiff of hysteria about claims of what the new government has to do to get this country back on a firmer financial footing.
Did other political parties and indeed voters feel threatened by Liberalism? How could that be when the philosophy of the party is a love of freedom and the primacy of the individual?
In 1962 Joe Grimond felt that there needed to be a realignment of left wing politics. In recent years Tony Blair realigned his party and took it to the right.
When the general election took place last May and it became evident that no party would have a majority, the Liberals said that they would speak to the party that had the largest number of votes and seats.
While speaking to the Conservative Party, the Liberal Democrats also spoke to the Labour Party, but Labour had no interest in collaborative working. It was more interested in electing a new leader at a time when the country needed sound government. The country was not only dealing with its own financial crisis – in the very first week of government the UK was faced with issues of sovereign debt in countries such as Greece and Portugal. Serious issues which had to be dealt with immediately. The UK credit rating was going to be downgraded from its triple A status and money would not be available for hospitals and schools. Public sector borrowing was at its highest and for every £3 that the government took in, it was spending £4. The country was spending more on debt interest than it was on transport, for example.
Cuts of £43 billion had to be made. That £43 billion could build one primary school per hour and triple the number of doctors in our hospitals.
Mr Carmichael said that maybe it was not the depth of the cuts that worried people but the speed at which action much be taken. The Labour government had not been able to prioritise, having spent £1.75 billion a year on external consultants, £12,000 a year on golf balls and £6,000 on coffee machines that were never used.
These decisions had left the new government with a dreadful inheritance.
Mr Carmichael went on to say that the new government will maintain health spending and in 2012 the UK will meet its 0.7 per cent target of GDP in national aid.
One million of the lowest paid workers in the UK will not pay tax from April next year.
There will be extra money for child tax credits and in England and Wales. There will be a pupil premium whereby there will be extra money for those in need of the most help.
There will be restored links between earnings and state pensions. The Conservatives were not keen on this and they abolished this several years ago, but the Liberals have restored it.
There will be a citizen’s pension of £140 a week for every pensioner. Renewable energy will be developed and there will be the restoration of a manufacturing base.
The Labour Party did nothing to address the demise of manufacturing in the 13 years that it was in power.
Mr Carmichael concluded by saying that his party would continue to recognise the rights of individuals and some very basic rights at that. ID cards would be abolished as would the stop and search laws along with ending the detention of the children of asylum seekers.
Mr Carmichael said that the new government does have a huge task ahead of it, but it has liberal values at its heart and those values were there for the good of every individual.
The third speaker of the evening was Drew Ratter who felt that the Liberal Democrat party going into coalition was really having an effective go at shifting the ground from under our feet. As for the loss the UK’s triple A credit status, the Liberal party would have no effect on that and how did the Liberals intend to restore the country’s manufacturing base? Would there be more ship building, the restoration of the car industry, re-opening of coal mines?
Mr Ratter felt that there was nowhere in the UK anymore where Liberal politics with a big L were played out apart from Shetland, but this coalition really did feel like the beginning of the end for the Liberals and for Liberalism in Shetland.
Was the Liberal party acting like a pilot fish and attaching itself to a huge shark that would drag it anywhere it pleased, all the while relying on the shaky philosophy of hope over experience?
Before the general election Cleggmania took hold and the Liberals gained a lot of support from students. Now those students feel betrayed and they showed their feelings only too well in the recent riot at Conservative HQ.
The Liberals have seized a chance to try to show what they can do, but they have no real intention of protecting anything.
Up until 2008, the Liberals supported the Labour government’s spending plans, but now the Conservatives and Liberal’s spending cuts are 50 per cent higher than those formerly proposed by Labour. But Mr Ratter asked the audience not to worry, if another left wing government does come along, then Nick Clegg would be bound to have a safe Tory seat by then.
Mr Ratter concluded by saying that the new government’s policies will lead to a long slow decline in Liberalism in Shetland. Perhaps the politicians had not thought about this very much, but they need to, and they need to think about it hard and now.
The final speaker of the evening was Tavish Scott who was quick to refer to previous comments made about the manufacturing industry, especially in Scotland where he had recently been arguing hard for the continued manufacture of shipbuilding in the Firth of Clyde.
Mr Scott felt that there had been too much talk of politics in the short term during the evening and that the bigger picture needed to be seen and a longer term view needed to be taken.
Mr Scott was also vehement in rejecting the allegations made by opposing speakers that there was no philosophical base for the party’s current politics.
Many people across the board of politics espouse the values of Liberalism and Liberalism has often had to fight for its position. Roy Jenkins was heard to once say that the part had not shot itself in the foot but dam close to the heart as well. But Liberals have always fought back and always maintained a presence and would continue to do so.
Some doubting Thomas’s have said that every year the Liberal hearse pulls up at the Liberal assembly but every year it departs empty.
The party was here to provide real answers to local questions and the Liberal party will not be a party of any class, non discrimination is at its core.
The Liberals will continue to challenge Labour. Kinnock lost and lost, Blair won and won, but what will Milliband do?
The unlocking of power is possible and it has already begun, democratic reforms would help to take a control of parliament.
The party will always fight for the underdog and will stand up to challenges, especially financial challenges brought about by the City. The party will look to the politics of the environment as well and will take forward a process of international reform. The Conservatives do not sit on international forums but the Liberals will.
Mr Scott concluded by saying that people would always criticise government, but instead of this why not get it to work for you too.
Mr Scott concluded by asking: “Are the Liberals dead? No. Are they alive? Yes, and they will be alive for years to come.” After the break, questions came quickly from the floor. It was good to see a group of school pupils from Brae High School, secondaries one through six, who had made a special trip to the meeting. The pupils asked some very relevant questions around the issues of child benefit being cut as well as broken promises to students.
Several members of the audience wanted to know that if the coalition government really could stem the flow of national debt what effects national problems were likely to have on local residents?
Points were raised about the new system of Work Fair with some audience members agreeing that it would limit the time available for the unemployed to actually look for work. Another point raised was that while Liberalism was not dead, it was certainly not very well and while many would accept compromise, distinct promises were made before the general election and these promises seem to have been reneged upon already.
In summing up, Mr Carmichael was keen to allay the school pupils’ fears about student fees and stated that it was not the government’s intention to increase the burden of student debt. Vince Cable had come up with a much fairer system of maintenance support and the coalition government is not going to go away.
Dr Wills picked up on the idea of there being no alternative to the coalition government, but he felt that indeed there was and there are alternatives in the form of involving more minority parties, also that the speed of spending cuts has indeed been too much too fast and too soon and that these cuts have been brought down on the poorest in society with a blunt Tory cleaver.
At the end of the evening, the votes swung with 24 voting for the motion, 29 against and 10 people heading home still undecided and so the motion was defeated.
The next meeting of The Althing social group is on Saturday 11th December when the motion will be “Tesco is bad for Shetland”.