Tomorrow it’s a year since Willie Rennie became Scottish Liberal Democrat Leader. What have been the highlights of that first year?
Well, on his first day, I interviewed him for Liberal Democrat Voice and you can still listen to that here. He said that his priorities for his first hundred days were to work out what our message was, to sort out our organisation and to get out there and meet people, members and ordinary people on their doorsteps. So how has he done with these things and more?
Articulating a clear message about what Liberal Democrats do
For too long, there was no clear narrative to the Scottish Liberal Democrats’ message. Willie has been changing that. Rather than building up a huge list of policies, he’s basing the work of the party round three clear values.
- Opportunity – helping people to get up and get on in life
- Community – trusting local people to make decisions about their lives
- Sustainability – no quick fixes, looking for long term solutions
These are themes that have worn a common thread around everything he’s worked on over the past year.
He’s also brought a lot more co-ordination with the Westminster team. He speaks to them regularly and help to shape what they are saying. Nick Clegg knows from Willie’s time at Westminster and from his work on his leadership campaign that Willie gives good advice.
Morale and motivation
The Party in Scotland was left traumatised after the Holyrood elections last year and it needed a big cuddle. Its new leader made it his business to travel from one end of the country to the other to listen to members and encourage them. Willie is a born campaigner so he made sure that if he was going to a dinner somewhere that he put by some time to go door knocking or visit a local business. While nobody ever wants to go out delivering leaflets with Willie because he moves so quickly and tires you out, the fifty campaigns he visited in the recent local election campaign and the countless others he’d advised and supported since he became leader all appreciated his help and many of them went on to win.
Easily the most effective opposition to Alex Salmond
While being enthusiastically constructive where necessary, such as on persuading the Party to support the SNP’s plans for minimum alcohol pricing (which he wrote about here), Willie Rennie has taken Alex Salmond on and made him squirm.
He has received positive comment and accolades from journalists about his spirited opposition to the First Minister. First it was over insulting comments Salmond made about the Supreme Court (and reminding us all about the word tawdry), then he had Salmond on the ropes when he tried to pin him down on his associations with the rich and powerful, particularly the Murdochs.
Willie has been quick to stand up against abuse of power wherever he’s found it – and that includes church leaders over equal marriage. He has been very comfortable talking about the issue and it’s been great that the campaign has had his support.
Saving college places
The SNP Government cut almost 9000 college places and Willie Rennie tirelessly campaigned to save them, eventually persuading Finance Secretary John Swinney to amend his budget to reverse the worst of the cuts. This led to praise from NUS Scotland’s Liam Burns, who said:
True to form, the Scottish Liberal Democrats have been incredibly supportive over this issue – gaining such a win for college students helps those in the most need. Thank you for all your work on this.
Earlier this year, Willie was asked to do Question Time at extremely short notice. It was a question of getting in his car, driving to St Andrew’s and getting on with it - and he came over extremely well, particularly on Afghanistan which he’d visited as a member of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee when he was MP for Dunfermline.
My highlight of Willie’s first year
His first speech to Scottish Conference, in October last year, summed up exactly what this man is about: compassionate, genuine, willing to stand up to those who’d abuse power. I loved it, because it was much more grown up than most leader’s speeches. There were no cheap shots at the opposition, just setting out a clear idea of what we stand for. My highlight wasn’t so much him making the actual speech but talking to an old friend about it later. My entirely rational, cerebral common sense friend said that the speech had been so good that it had made him cry.
Willie’s had a great first year. We couldn’t have asked more of him. He’s laid many solid foundations this year and he’s shown himself to be likeable, approachable, inspiring and tenacious. These qualities will serve him well and will win people over in the years ahead.
* Caron Lindsay is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings