THE ELLON Times and Inverurie Herald caught up with Gordon MP Malcolm Bruce last Friday to discuss his activities at Westminster as the area’s representative.
Speaking at the Liberal Democrat constituency office, Mr Bruce admitted that recent months had been trying for the Liberal Democrats in Scotland, who had acted as a ‘lightening conductor’ for anti-Tory sentiment.
He stressed, however, that the party was remaining true to its principles as part of the coalition, and that the coalition itself was essential for the security of the British economy.
Times and Herald: “The conflict of interests between the two coalition parties is well publicised: how are relations between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats?”
Malcolm Bruce: “Well, the first thing I would stress is that we remain two separate parties. The coalition was born of necessity - firstly, we had an inconclusive election which gave no party outright control of parliament, and secondly, the state of the economy demanded it. Difficult as it is, we had to pursue a political solution, and the Lib Dem opinion is that we can get more done inside the government than outside it.”
Times: Have you found antipathy among the public of the north-east towards the Liberal Democrats in the wake of the coalition?
Malcolm Bruce: “There is certainly as lot of antipathy towards the Conservatives in Scotland...”
Times: “Would you consider the point that Liberal Democrat MPs have been effectively used as a ‘human shield’ for a Conservative Government which only has one MP in the country?
Malcolm Bruce: “Not really a human shield: more of a lightening conductor. I remain absolutely convinced that coalition with the Conservatives was necessary.
“There are really substantial differences in policy between the two parties: but what we both agreed on was that substantial action would have to be taken to reduce the deficit. The difference was that we are pursuing policies which see the burdens placed on those who can most afford to pay. We supported a £200 a year tax cut for earnings up to £10,000, an increase in tax credits and the triple lock on pensions to help the poorest in our society. We were able to achieve that, but we were unable to deliver on abolishing tuition fees. In the present financial circumstances, we have to take difficult and uncomfortable decisions.”
Times: “Did you face resistance from the Tories on the tax cut on earnings under £10,000?”
Malcolm Bruce: “Yes: they were in favour of cutting inheritance tax, which we were dead against. I think the Tories also realised that they had to shed the image of ‘the nasty party’, which David Cameron realises better than the Conservatives as a whole.
“By being part of the coalition, we have effectively locked out elements of the Tory right-wing who would pursue some very harsh policies.”
Times: “Has the election of the SNP in Scotland pushed the constitutional debate into the spotlight?”
Malcolm Bruce: “The Liberal Democrats worked day in, day out to bring about the Scottish Parliament, and to give it powers, often through processes which the Nationalists didn’t take part in. We continue to work hard for Scotland, and pursue Scottish autonomy within the union.”
Times: “What are your opinions on John Swinney’s assertion that there will be no compulsory redundancies in the public sector?”
Malcolm Bruce: “There may not need to be - it’s always a last resort. Public sector workers need to be well paid and looked after, but the private sector needs to be able to sustain it. Unemployment has fallen every month since the coalition came to power, with job creation in the private sector. I’m passionate about devolution, and have no problem with the fact that the Scottish Government will do some things differently. However, the Scottish Government also needs to face the difficult reality. Scotland as an independent country would be in a very exposed position.
Times: “Has the oil windfall tax damaged the party’s prospects in Scotland?”
Malcolm Bruce: “I strongly opposed the oil tax, and voted against it. What bothered me most about it was the lack of consultation, something I’m actively engaged in - promoting dialogue between Oil and Gas UK and the government. One thing we’re aiming to do is adjust allowances on marginal fields, so that they can go ahead, particularly where there are significant investments at stake.”
Times: “Does the current scale of national debt not demonstrate that Westminstr has lost the right to criticise?”
Malcolm Bruce: “The biggest banking failure was at RBS, and Fred Goodwin doesn’t represent Westminster. The Nationalists didn’t complain about weak regulation of the banks when the times were good, though the Liberal Democrats did.”
“We have put forward radical proposals on increasing Scotland’s autonomy within the UK, but we have had to accept compromise with the other parties. The 10p variable Scottish income tax is a step in the right direction. We will go further, step by step, but I am against full fiscal autonomy. That would essentially amount to independence.”
Times: “On overseas commitments, were you in favour of action in Libya?”
Malcolm Bruce: “I supported the action in Libya. It’s messy and I always knew it would be. But Benghazi was going to be levelled: Gadaffi himself said so, and I couldn’t have lived with images of the massacre afterwards. Our actions have stopped that happening. Our hope is that there will be time and space for a new, stable government to form, if and when the Gadaffi regime collapses. The Transitional Government in Benghazi is using the right language about a secular, democratic Libya.
Times: “So the aim is now for Gadaffi to go?”
Malcolm Bruce: “Well, it isn’t the stated aim, but I don’t think his position is tenable. He’s a big embarrassment. One thing that will come from this is that the UK will have to re-assess its position in the Middle East. With revolutions in Bahrain, Yemen, Libya - we can’t be everywhere.”
Times: “Have you anything else you would like to say to the readers?”
Malcolm Bruce: “I would just say that over the past 30 years, Lib Dem support became strong in the north-east, and we delivered on our promises - and we want to keep delivering. The coalition is the result of a national crisis which we entered into because it was our duty. We are influencing the government for the benefit of people in the north-east. People should realise that the party hasn’t changed - we are still aiming to deliver the things that people voted for us to achieve. It’s not easy, but the party hasn’t changed.”