THE BLOG
10/07/2011 20:03 BST | Updated 10/09/2011 06:12 BST

Can the SNP wipe out the Scottish Liberal Democrats?

Two months on from an election that saw them consigned to the fringes of Scottish politics, life doesn't get any easier for the Liberal Democrats. The party has been floundering since seeing their group of MSPS cut from 16 to 5 following the watershed election, and now the vultures are circling.

Two months on from an election that saw them consigned to the fringes of Scottish politics, life doesn't get any easier for the Liberal Democrats. The party has been floundering since seeing their group of MSPS cut from 16 to 5 following the watershed election, and now the vultures are circling.

The SNP, the main beneficiaries of the Scottish Liberal Democrat meltdown, scent an opportunity to inflict yet more damage. Last week, a leaked e-mail sent from party chief executive Peter Murrell to all SNP council group leaders suggested they sound out Lib Dem councillors about possible defections.

Murrell pointed out that four Lib Dem councillors have made the switch to the SNP in recent months, and cited polling evidence that showed many Lib Dem voters had given at least one of their votes to SNP in May. For the Lib Dems, a party symbolised by its grassroots support, a further erosion of its local government base would be disastrous before council elections in 2012.

After the email went public, the SNP leadership abandoned its covert approach. Speaking at an event in Aberdeenshire on Friday, First Minister Alex Salmond appealed directly to disaffected Lib Dem voters and activists, offering them a new home in the SNP. "Many former Lib Dem voters across Scotland supported us for the first time in May, and many more did so in Inverclyde. They are far more in tune with the policies and aspirations of the Scottish National Party than with a Lib Dem leadership in Scotland that is increasingly indistinguishable from the Tories and has lost touch with mainstream Scotland," he said.

The ploy is partly a reflection of the SNP's sky-high confidence following their landslide win in May but also the growing sense of uncertainty about what the Scottish Liberal Democrats stand for.

During the election campaign, then leader Tavish Scott was highly critical of much of the coalition government's programme in an attempt to shield him from the voter backlash that has seen the Lib Dems sink to single figures in UK polls. Scott was also keen to remind anyone who would listen that as a result of the federal nature of the Lib Dem movement the Scottish Liberal Democrats are an entirely different party to the one in partnership with the Conservatives in Westminster. Scott's pleas largely fell on deaf ears, but it is now precisely this federalism that the SNP has identified as a weakness.

The SNP made precious little of its raison d'être during the election. Indeed, the party's rise has been accompanied by a distinct softening of its vision of an independent Scotland. In recent months the nationalists have tentatively proposed a constitutional settlement that could see Scotland sharing defence, social security and foreign policy with Westminster, and remain part of a federalist UK.

By carefully cultivating a new image far removed from the dogged separatism of the 1970s, the party hopes now to reach out to traditional Lib Dem voters who have always supported a measure of self-rule for Scots but who regard a clean break from the union as a step too far. Salmond spoke directly to such voters in his invitation: "The old Scottish Liberal Party was the independent party of Home Rule, and that honourable tradition was carried forward by the Lib Dems until very recently - even under the relatively conservative leadership of Tavish Scott," he continued.

"As Tavish himself said in June 2009: 'I am no unionist - I believe in a federal United Kingdom and a federal solution to the needs of this country.'

"But the present Lib Dem leadership, both at Holyrood and Westminster, has become Conservative with a capital C - exactly the wrong approach for Scotland."

By selling the SNP's version of an independent Scotland as a modern take on the traditional Liberal yearning for a localised and federal United Kingdom, Salmond is now able to park his tanks on the lawn of the Scottish Liberal Democrats.

There is some debate as to where the SNP sits on the ideological spectrum, or indeed, if it has a fixed position at all. However, in recent years the party has adopted many of the centre-left positions traditionally associated with the Lib Dems, something he was quick to mention last week.

"The SNP reflect the constitutional ambitions of Liberal-minded Scots for our national parliament to have real powers, their commitment to a dynamic economy with an equally strong belief in a just society, their desire for an effective justice system that tackles reoffending, and the passion they share with the vast majority of the people of Scotland for higher education based on ability to learn, not ability to pay."

For anxious Lib Dem councillors and activists, horrified by their party's alliance with the Conservatives in London, it's an attractive prospectus. Willie Rennie, the party's new leader, needs to come up with a better offer, or the Scottish Liberal Democrats will remain on the fringes indefinitely.