As a Scottish Liberal Democrat member and activist I am frankly appalled that we have resorted to such shameful gutter politics that reflect badly on our leader, Willie Rennie, and the party as a whole – as well as Scottish politics more generally. This attempt at satirical humour at the expense of First Minister Alex Salmond is misjudged to say the very least. But it is also deeply offensive, irresponsibly indulging in scaremongering of the worst type and in shockingly poor taste.
The “cartoon” suggests that Alex Salmond, for whom I have enormous respect, has sinister designs for an independent Scotland which include virtual dictatorship, the death penalty and the suppression of LGBT rights. This is not funny – not even remotely. Neither does it say much for our supposed pluralism. It’s also seriously flawed – not only has Salmond been supportive of LGBT rights and is opposed to the death penalty, an independent Scotland (which I am currently minded to vote for in a referendum on the basis of increased freedoms for Scots) would not belong to the First Minister at all but the people of Scotland.
It’s useful to put this excuse for a political message into some kind of context. Alex Salmond is currently touring the Middle East, promoting business links and exploring possibilities for the future of low-carbon energy. Following a meeting with Qatari business leaders, he is reported as stating that there are “remarkable similarities” between Qatar and Scotland, which is what the cartoon seized on. However, what he actually said is far more interesting:
"As nations, we both have considerable expertise in oil and gas production, but as we look to the future and a low-carbon economy, we must increasingly develop new technologies. We discussed the remarkable similarities between our respective nations. Although both Scotland and Qatar have common strengths in the oil and gas sector, we are both seeking to develop our low carbon energy industries. This is where Qatar's focus on becoming a global knowledge hub links well with Scotland's considerable reputation as a world-leading education nation."
I see nothing in that worthy of ridicule. In fact, it is a positive vision for Scotland as a centre of a global move towards low-carbon economics and sounds more than a little similar to a statement issued by the Cabinet Office following a visit Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg made recently to Qatar:
“The Deputy Prime Minister and his counterpart discussed the deep cultural and economic partnership between the UK and Qatar, including our strategic relationship in the energy sector. This meeting signifies the importance the Government places on building close ties with Gulf partners."And so what Salmond has been doing is playing up Scotland’s role in forging a global green energy economy. That sounds to be like something he should be praised, rather than derided, for. It certainly should not be an opportunity for any party to disingenuously misrepresent what he said in pursuit of political advantage.
I spoke about this with both SNP and Liberal Democrat friends on twitter last night. Most agreed that while it was Halloween this release was uncharacteristically horrific. However, I was surprised to find that one or two defended the cartoon, arguing that is was simply “humourous” and that “we might laugh at it if it was on the cover of Private Eye”. Well, I for one wouldn’t, because it isn’t funny. And I’m not going to defend something which is stupid and petty, not to mention embarrassing.
It’s concerning on other levels too. I’ve always been critical of Willie Rennie’s apparent obsession with the SNP and Alex Salmond in particular. That’s not to say that attacks can’t work, and good political satire (you know, the kind that actually makes you laugh) can be devastatingly effective. If you’re going to throw a few punches you really have to make sure they hit the target. To date, Rennie’s attacks on the SNP leadership have been weak and play directly into Salmond’s hands while making our party appear small-minded, tribal and idiotic. It’s not just this one misguided poster, it’s the whole tone of what the party leadership is saying: we’re so anti-SNP, so cynically negative and so focussed on targeting the First Minister personally that it’s no surprise the public aren’t attracted to our broader message. Where is the pluralism we supposedly embrace? The rational discussion? The positive vision? All this is lost in Rennie’s view that opposition leadership requires adopting an aggressive negativity towards the SNP government.
I refuse to defend the indefensible, especially when it demeans Scotland, her people and her politics. Liberal Democrats should be better than that. And the public need to see us being better than that.
What is also worrying is that the party thought it would be acceptable to release the cartoon. Willie Rennie, speaking today on Good Morning Scotland, explained that it had been published on one of his days off; however, he admitted that “"Although I did not approve its publication I accept responsibility for it. It has been interpreted in ways that were not intended. It has now been withdrawn. I apologise."
Which begs the question: how was it intended to be interpreted? The implications were more than obvious, as should have been the ramifications to any PR or advertising executive worth their salt. It should have been plain to see that this would lead to exactly the kind of reaction we have seen, with further self-inflicted damage caused to the party’s image in Scotland. I am genuinely concerned that what passes for a PR/Communications department at Clifton Terrace seems to find this insulting propaganda both funny and acceptable, while not foreseeing the potential damage it would cause.
I hope some serious questions will now be asked. Who thought this was a good idea? Why can’t the party consider the ramifications of an action before embarking on it? And why is it so determined to indulge in a campaign of negativity towards the SNP?
Mr Rennie admitted to being rightly “embarrassed” by the cartoon which had not been approved by him. “It wasn't right and it shouldn't have gone out", he explained. "It is actually not right to compare countries like that in the way that we did”. Quite. In a separate message to myself, he apologised and assured me that he is working on ensuring future approval of communications is more tightly controlled. This is welcome, but it amounts to putting the genie back into the bottle. The damage has been done, the party looks like an amateur campaigning outfit (to put it rather politely) and it is plain to see that the quality of some of our staff is not perhaps what it should be.
I was horrified when I saw the cartoon. It is unwise on so many levels. However, on reflection, I am more concerned with what this says about our party in Scotland – our strategy, attitudes, professionalism, public perception and direction – than I am about a misjudged joke. The party is surely in crisis when our media staff are resorting to this kind of tactic. It's not quite the "responsible" or "grown-up" politics we've been championing in the recent past.
Of course, this overshadows the Liberal Democrats’ far more newsworthy announcement of a "home rule" commission, as Rennie admitted this morning. He is right of course. But it also highlights the deficiencies at the heart of the Scottish Liberal Democrats’ campaigning mechanism. Lessons must be learned.
I will be utterly honest and confess that this, in combination with Willie Rennie’s acceptance of support from CARE, has caused me to reconsider my membership of the party. I am pleased that Mr Rennie took the time to respond to my concerns which has gone some way to reassuring me, although his explanation offers further reasons for concern. The only thing that has prevented me from returning my membership card is that none of the other parties are sufficiently attractive to me as a new political home.
On a positive note, the only way has to be upwards. Perhaps we could employ someone with a better grasp of campaigning strategy rather than the clown with a questionable sense of humour. In the meantime, can we cut out the unnecessary anti-SNP rhetoric, adopt more constructive and pluralistic relationships with other parties and forge a new positive, liberal message?