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The Highland Line: a tale of boundaries and three LibDems

Good to see that Charles Kennedy is looking to the future, and in particular to the future of his Ross, Skye and Lochaber seat.

Earlier this week, the former leader of the Lib Dems challenged the man who succeeded his successor (Sir Ming Campbell), the now party leader Nick Clegg. The encounter was during Commons Question Time.

The issue was future changes to Westminster parliament constituencies in the Highlands and Islands beyond the next general election in May 2015.

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Mr Kennedy asked: "Assuming that the next boundary review will be - we hope - on a UK basis, will the Deputy Prime Minister look at the unhappy experience of this Parliament and the exceptions that were granted for the Isle of Wight, and the Northern and Western Isles?

"The manifest absence of any such willingness to appreciate the vast geography of the several constituencies of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland means that my constituency has one Westminster MP and no fewer than eight Members of the Scottish Parliament serving it. That cannot make sense."

Mr Clegg replied: "I certainly agree that, as the reviews occur in future, we shall need to be mindful, first, of the point made by the Member for North West Norfolk (Henry Bellingham) and ensuring that there is enough latitude in the rules so that boundary commissions are not forced to split up naturally formed communities; and, secondly, of the need not to create such unfeasibly large constituencies that it is almost impossible physically to represent them in this place."

Mr Bellingham need not detain us, but Charles Kennedy replied: "Our Highlands & Islands parliament representation was due to be reduced by one entire constituency under the previous plans - which would have been a crude and raw deal to the electorate as a whole. No account whatsoever was taken of the sheer vastness of the existing seats, far less community ties. Next time needs to be back to the drawing board and commonsense reality.

"When opinion, including the former Sheriff Principal and the West Highland Free Press, can all see the current problems of scale and the net effects of making it even worse next time around, the Boundary Commissioners and parliament is going to have to do an awful lot better."

It is just the latest chapter in a lengthening story. At the start of last year the Tories' plans for a shake-up of Westminster's constituency boundaries had to be shelved until 2018. The changes were expected to hand the Conservatives about 20 extra seats at next year's general election.

But Nick Clegg had announced in August 2012 that his MPs would not support the plans to cut the number of seats from 650 to 600 in retaliation for Tory opposition to Lords reform. Apparently hell hath no fury like a Lords Reformer scorned!

Mr Kennedy's seat had been earmarked for the axe by the Boundary Commission for Scotland, as part of a plan to cut the number of MPs north of the border from 59 to 52.

Lochaber, currently represented by Mr Kennedy, would become part of Argyll and Bute, held by fellow Lib Dem Alan Reid.

Strathspey would move from Chief Secretary Danny Alexander's current constituency and join Moray, held by Westminster SNP leader Angus Robertson.

Meanwhile, almost all mainland Scotland north of Inverness would have become a constituency the size of Northern Ireland, called Caithness, Sutherland, Ross and Cromarty.

John Thurso, whose Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross seat would increase in size to almost 5,000 square miles, was expected to be left alone to fight it.

It left most assuming that a battle of redheads would ensue as Mr Kennedy and his constituency neighbour Mr Alexander would be left to fight to stand in a new seat that would stretch from Inverness to Skye.

But LibDem High Command, in which Mr Alexander is of course a prominent player, was known to be

rather concerned by that prospect.

Danny Alexander's leading role in the coalition government has never been a vote winner in the Highlands. So it was entirely possible that Mr Kennedy, who has held himself aloof from the coalition, would win the nomination if it was left to local party members. There would also be little or no chance with him being bought off by a place in the same House of Lords the Lib Dems were desperately trying to reform.

So the odd whisper started to circulate that perhaps Mr Kennedy should be the man to represent Lochaber and Argyll, rather than Alan Reid. But nothing came of it because of the split in the coalition over the upper chamber, which must have left three sitting MPs somewhat relieved.

But the issue will return and Mr Kennedy's opening salvo this week was welcome, in that it underlined the nonsense of making already huge constituencies even bigger.

Of course it may well all be academic if Scotland votes Yes on September 18. And even it is a No, it may still only be of passing interest to one or all of the Lib Dems involved, unless their party's poll ratings improve markedly by next May.

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