GLOWER OF SCOTLAND
The internal row in Aberdeenshire took a turn for the worse in late
February and promptly spread to England, when the Scottish Liberal Democrat
executive lined up solidly behind the council group, and moved to expel four
This saga began in November 2007 (see RB in Liberator 326 and 331, and the
article in Liberator 328), when the council considered a planning application
from American billionaire Donald Trump to build a golf resort partly on a site
of special scientific interest.
At the relevant committee meeting, the project was rejected on the casting vote
of Lib Dem chair Martin Ford, which should have been the end of the matter.
Instead, the majority of the Lib Dem group backed Trump and sought to overturn
the committee’s decision.
Most Lib Dem councillors then sat on their hands while the opposition voted to
remove Ford from his chairmanship. A few months later, Lib Dem Paul Johnston
criticised the planning gain negotiated by the council and found himself
referred by members of his own group to Scotland’s Standards Commission, which
eventually exonerated him.
Faced with opposition attacks on Johnston, another Lib Dem councillor, Debra
Storr, moved in line with group policy that a council meeting should take no
action against Johnston as the Commission was at that point still considering
his case. She was expelled from the Lib Dem group for her pains.
On 28 February, the Scottish executive voted to suspend Storr, Johnston and
another councillor, Sam Coull, Ford having left the party the previous month,
and to initiate expulsion proceedings against them. Storr then also left the
Ford and Storr are both well known among activists in England, having been
members for more than 20 years, and their plight was publicised at the Harrogate
conference. (To declare an interest, Ford’s wife Gina is a former Liberator
At the Harrogate conference, a leaflet headed ‘I Support the Aberdeenshire 3’
was circulated by the ‘Campaign for Liberal Democracy in Aberdeenshire’, which
stated: “A number of Liberal Democrats from Scotland and elsewhere in the United
Kingdom are appalled at the illiberal and undemocratic treatment of these
committed Liberal Democrats by the leadership of the Aberdeenshire group.”
In an effort to halt the damage, party president Ros Scott sent Hertfordshire
councillor Chris White to mediate.
He reported back to Scottish leader Tavish Scott that there should be some
changes to the Aberdeenshire group’s standing orders and some external support
for it “in the hope that those who had left it would feel able to return in a
spirit of reconciliation”.
White’s recommendations were accepted by the group, but as Liberator went to
press it remained unclear whether Ford, Storr, Coull and Johnston, now
constituted as the Democratic Independent Group, considered these moves
sufficient or, in the cases of at least the first two, had had any official
communication of them.
It says much about the Scottish party’s mishandling of this affair that White
was able to turn up from Hertfordshire and accomplish more towards a solution in
three weeks than anyone else had in the preceding 16 months.
The whole thing began over an honest difference of opinion – whether the
prospect of Trump’s financial investment in the locality outweighed planning
This would have caused inflamed feelings anyway, but these would probably have
healed had the group not failed to support Ford as committee chair, and then
persecuted Johnston and Storr.
Things should never have been allowed to reach this point. Groups elsewhere are
able to have strong disagreements without these leading to people losing
positions, facing standards investigations or being suspended, never mind
Ford has published the letter he sent to Scott setting out his resignation from
In extracts, he states: “There is no single reason why I have decided to leave.
Rather, it is the cumulative effect of the poor behaviour of some prominent
Liberal Democrats, the failure of the party to address this and the disparity
between the party’s proclaimed policies and the decisions of its elected
councillors and parliamentary representatives.
“I voted against a planning application – a quasi-judicial matter. There was no
question of any incompetence or wrong doing on my part. Yet, because the
majority of the group wanted the planning application granted, it was made clear
to me I should have voted differently.
“In effect, though I did not know it at the time, I did not have the free vote
all councillors are supposed to have on planning applications.”
Ford complains that group leader Anne Robertson later removed him from other
positions without his knowledge, and that Storr was expelled from the group on a
show of hands.
“This catalogue of illiberal and undemocratic actions has led to some deeply
unpleasant group meetings where… I have been shouted at and prevented from
speaking,” Ford wrote.
He also said that the group‘s stance on the Trump application was so at variance
with the party’s claimed concerns for the environment as to bring its
credibility into question.
This row should have been mediated long ago. Whether or not White’s intervention
leads to a resolution, both the Aberdeenshire leadership and the Scottish party
have some serious questions to answer, about the conduct of the former, and the
failure of the latter to get a grip earlier.
Also in Radical Bulletin 332:
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