Jo Swinson…for leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats?

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A few days after the general election, in a state of numbness I’m sure you are all familiar with, my thoughts were on our former leader, Jo Swinson.

I admit, I was not a full-throated supporter of Swinson’s. I believed she would have problems building the relationships and alliances essential to stopping Brexit, so backed Ed in the contest. In my opinion, she had an opportunity to set Scotland on a more positive course against independence. The real north, as I described it last week, could have begun to work more closely to tackle our unique crises. We would have been better able to hold the SNP’s feet to the iron, somewhat ironically, had we spent less time engaging in running point-scoring battles. We had the same aim. Those failings I find hard to set aside.

Why should I have to? Swinson is out, after all. Or is she?

Reports Swinson is considering a run for Holyrood caused her to trend on Twitter up north. The vast majority I saw: cybernats piling on. But I was feeling rather pleased with myself. For, while pondering over Swinson’s failings, it occurred those might very well be her strengths in this new political wilderness we have made for ourselves. Fierce, intelligent and not afraid to act. She reminded me a bit of Ruth Davidson. Not the ‘likeable’ factor, mind. And that is definitely an issue for Jo, having spoken to some of the 149 votes that put her out of Westminster. Like it or not, Swinson does inspire a special kind of irrational and intense dislike in many. Sometimes people just don’t like somebody.

I’m not sure that’s what the Scottish Liberal Democrats need, though. Willie Rennie is a likeable enough person. But one of the only real conversations I’ve had ‘on the doorstep’ was with a little old woman, at least 80, who told me in an odd manner that the leader of my party was just a bit… rubbish. She couldn’t quite put it into words, and I insisted she was probably thinking of another party leader, given we weren’t exactly lighting the world on fire prior to the May 2019 euro elections, certainly not up north. She has me wait at the door and shuffles away with purpose. When she returns, a glossy picture of Willie is thrust into my hands. I was a little taken aback. I honestly hadn’t thought she was all there, but she knew the man, and was unimpressed – ‘likeable’ though he was. She rather wryly tapped her temple and winked. She still “had it, up there”.

I think she was right. Willie Rennie had hardly made an impression on me, and I was a member, albeit a fairly new one. Whatever else one might say of Jo Swinson, she never fails to make an impact. We need a firebrand like that in Scotland. The party is far too apathetic about the prospects of the union and what it will take to save it. That was clear in the discussion around my .

I’m not entirely convinced yet that Swinson is the answer to our uniquely Scottish problem. She is so deeply unpopular that it is hard to see her leading us to second, or even a close second, at any Holyrood election. There are other candidates, and of course, as yet no open position. But the Tories are led by a long drink of water and intent on division and ideological warfare. There are many in Scotland who are sick to the back teeth of it. There is an opportunity to be seized. And Jo seems like she might be able to help us do that.

Swinson should take nothing for granted. She has some proving to do. And if Ed (or anyone else, but in particular her former rival) is leader, she must coordinate her actions – and at times her ‘all guns blazing’ approach – to the leader’s wider vision.

As it had during post-election depression, I think the idea is again growing on me.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats need change. And we must prepare. I guess the question is: Jo Swinson for leader?

* Johnny McDermott is a Glasgow University Law graduate who is studying for his Masters with a focus on moral and political philosophy.

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This entry was posted in Leadership Election and Op-eds.


  • First thing to say is that in this discussion we should all try to play the ball, not the man/woman. Truth is though that in electing Jo we, the party, decided to take a very specific position in the hope of an electoral breakthrough. And it failed. So move on. Insanity is doing the same thing over again and expected a different result (misattributed to Einstein, but true nevertheless).

  • Alex Macfie 9th Mar '20 - 12:38pm

    This is all rather speculative. It seems to be based entirely on rumours and any discussion of it is really rather pointless unless and until Jo actually declares an intention to stand for Holyrood. And the idea that she would run for Scottish Lib Dem leader as soon as she gets elected seems rather difficult to believe.

    But I will say this about Jo”s supposed “unpopularity ” . This was a self-fulfilling meme generated by the keyboard warriors who piled on the hatr as soon as they found out who she was. (And that sort of thing is likely to happen to the next Federal leader as well, so whoever gets the job we need a strategy for disarming the trolls.) They will be much less interested in Jo as an MSP candidate, and anyway the next Scottish Parliamentary election will be fought under very different circumstances to the last Westminster election. They will be more interested in trying to bring down our new leadet, whoever that might y.

  • The Lib Dems have to move on and Jo Swinson having a big role in the party is as depressing as it is wrong nosed. The likeability factor is down to one huge fact… The Coalition. The terror and misery hurled on the weak and vulnerable the passionate full throated support for policies that most left leaning voters find spalling. The Lib Dems have had several attempts at moving on ruined by reminders of the Tory bag carrying years..time to find new different untainted leaders.

  • It’s over 80 miles from Dunbartonshire to St Andrews, (2 hours via the M8 if you’re lucky – and 2 hours with changes by rail to Cupar) – so before anybody jumps the gun, there’s the small matter of getting selected and elected to be sorted out.

  • Johnny McDermott 9th Mar '20 - 3:28pm

    We still need the right players. I’m suggesting Swinson still has a role as part of the team, if not national captain (running the legs out of your metaphor, sorry, Chris)! You and Silvio both use that phrase, “move on”. I think we have very little road left to move on to before reaching (a party ending?) crisis point, as Silvio suggests. The “terror” is a bit much. I witnessed some of the misery at the CAB, but also witnessed a deal of failure to assume personal responsibility. That is an entirely different debate, but I’d also hope Swinson’s return would prove that she isn’t going to adopt the same approaches that failed, or show any sign of repetitive madness on our part. We learn from our mistakes; politicians should be no different. If we always move on to new players, they will never have experienced that learning process.

    So Silvio’s focus on the coalition as Swinson’s crux, I’d say this is incorrect. It doubtless will always have an impact on any coalition member, but Swinson was punished by the voters and, at least partially/ amongst some, forgiven via reelection. Clearly the balance in her constituency is fine. As I noted, I have friends there that I spoke to (too late, really) that really do not like her. It wasn’t the coalition, it seemed a suspicion she was disingenuous. I believe – coming to the “supposed ‘unpopularity’” Alex mentions. A refusal to acknowledge it would represent a general failure to learn. But it need not be an entirely negative thing. Politicians should not need to be likeable. If you can give up on those hopes, and embrace the attack-dog style the Scottish opposition desperately needs, and Swinson seems well suited to, you are less encumbered. Perhaps it is a popularity contest, but it should not be. Swinson can own that. Those that irrationally dislike her will appreciate that sincerity more than trying to win love. Settle for fear – the SNP have not felt nearly enough of it, as their apathy to having such a mediocre record demonstrates.

  • Can we STOP electing people to positions when they NO Mandate !

  • @ Silvio

    I’m trying my best ..

    Getting no-where , even offering to sit on committees

    The party seems to have NO interest in change

    Malc poll

  • Well…there’s one thing I don’t need to worry about south of the border!

  • Johnny McDermott 9th Mar '20 - 7:35pm

    David and Malc – not jumping the gun, and have no interest in an unchanged Swinson walking into any position. If she recognises the fact our party works best when the grass roots and leadership work together, I imagine she could be a fearsome speaker and advocate for our party up north. She had a great many supporters I suspect are turned off the prospect of business as usual, or even a change, of Swinson is not involved. For all the criticism I levelled at her, I have never doubted her ability. I think she drew a bad hand for the circumstances under which she assumed leadership. Sir Vince Cable’s long good bye left us on the back foot at a critical time where established relationships would have helped a lot. And I’d expect to hear a change in tone to some degree when it comes to working with opposition parties for the good of Scotland, whatever the outcome of this next phase of ideological warfare. Scotland is crying out for a party that respects its unique character and problems, and is unencumbered by ideology. Many of us are truly sick of flags and passports. And the Scottish Tories, furious or not, are at best a puppet out fit, ready to raise divisions and ignore the consequences for our shared future.

    Nothing of what I’ve written is unconditional. I said as much – no assumptions should be made. But I am, despite my frustrations and previous feelings, interested to hear what she has to say about our country’s future. I feel a deal of dread about that, should things continue as they are. I want to hear what she has to offer… if anything. Things are more desperate than is being acknowledged. That cannot continue.

  • Johnny McDermott 10th Mar '20 - 2:03am

    I admit, I’m a little underwhelmed. Given my own deeply held misgivings, I expected a deal more complaining – but perhaps it is so wildly unrealistic a notion that it is not worthy of consideration. Maybe so… Nobody has ever managed to be as successful after the come back as upon their first reign. Like Napoleon.

    I wonder if maybe the problem is that those down south, and perhaps even up north, do not realise the stakes; the truly dire situation we are facing here. If we blink, we’ll miss our chance and Scotland will be gone.

    it is beyond time we take this seriously. Willie Rennie is a nice guy – but he’ll take no votes from wavering Tories or Labour voters, those staring their long drink of water leaders in the face and panicking. We are incredibly lucky Adam Tomkins didn’t make a move and dethrone the empty headed Carlaw. He is on strategy – and may yet recover their position for them, and deny our own opportunity to be the opposition in the real north.

    The union will end unless we do something to prevent that trajectory. I think Swinson can, at the very least, play a role in making the case for preventing that. If you don’t agree, as some have not, elucidate. Tell me how you propose to save it. ‘Some’, have not, beyond gut feelings and relief they are not up north.

    Well… We are. And we’ll be gone soon, lest you pay us the attention we deserve. Good luck even placing in any election without us.

    Fair warning given.

  • As much as I like Jo on a personal level, I think she has suffered enough in the recent elections. I am glad that she is going to continue and is going to stand for Scotish Parliament. However, my advice would be to keep a low profile for a bit. People who abandoned LibDems at the general elections because of our campaign and the fact that Jo was the front face of our campaign, have not forgotten us already. Jo should keep her head down and concentrrate on getting elected for the local seat for now.

  • To win in Scotland, the Scottish LDs probably need to support a referendum on independence at a minimum or possibly even switch to a pro-independence position.

    A “stay in the U.K.” position is now – by default – an anti-EU membership position and one that the Conservatives will push for all its worth. The opposite to that is of course the SNP position. All other positions on those two issues have basically disappeared due to Brexit.

  • Mike Falchikov 11th Mar '20 - 7:46pm

    I would be very pleased to see Jo winning a seat in the Holyrood elections next year (assuming she still has a Scottish address to stand from),but I don’t think we should be talking about an immediate challenge for leadership of the Scottish party. Of course, Willie will not want to be leader for ever, but he is much-liked in the membership and indeed more broadly in Scotland, The somewhat disparaging remarks quoted by a previous contributor are not typical – I have heard a number of people with no connection to the LibDems speak about him favourably, praising his approachability and fundamental optimism.

  • Johnny McDermott 12th Mar '20 - 9:13am

    Nasser may be right… it’s not like people will forget who she is.

    You’re right Paul, let’s just skip to the end and join the SNP while we’re at it.

    Eternal optimism is not what we need. We need a good deal of it for any positive vision of the future. I’m sure that’s the kind of area he’d be heavily involved with. But beyond approachable, the only other description of Willie Rennie in your post, Mike Falchikov, is “much-liked”. It is an odd problem to have, but it is problematic: everyone just thinks you’re nice. You’re totally right though, a few others have pointed out too, she should assume nothing/ I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. Just keen that we change (of course, for the better, so needs to be done right) before it’s too late.

  • Presumably someone’s having a joke.
    To lead a political party or local WI the ability to build alliances and have something to offer is essential. Unfortunately JS proved that she was only good at the opposite and we paid a heavy price. I can imagine her leading the Scottish LibDem’s in the Holyrood elections saying “Vote for me I’ll get a majority and stop Scottish Indy”.

    She may be good at a constituency level, but she still lost her own seat in December, so even that’s debatable. So the person who led us for six months and into a single issue election that even Corbyn wished to avoid should perhaps keep any future ambitions locked in a box.

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