“Opportunity, community, sustainability and an open mind.” Willie Rennie’s liberal values for today’s Scotland

On Sunday night, Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie made a speech in St John’s Church in Edinburgh. He talked about his vision of liberalism and what it means for today’s world. He looked at the consistency of liberal values in practice through the ages and quoted Charles Kennedy on finding the way forward from the history books.

There’s nothing particularly new in there, and I’m not sure about this “militant for the reasonable person” phrase. Reasonable, is, after all, a very subjective phrase. I’m sure Nigel Farage thinks he’s being reasonable, but generally liberals find what he says deeply unpleasant. Nor am I sure about militant. Maybe that’s because I remember the Labour lefties in the 1980s. We liberals are passionate, certainly, but militant? I’m not so sure. I prefer his summary of liberal values – opportunity, community, sustainability and an open mind. Those are very consistent themes for him and he’s been talking about them ever since he became leader. What he now needs to do is show how these values underpin all our policy ideas.

I also liked the bit where he praised the Church’s strong support for equal marriage, saying that they had shown that tolerance, faith and love were “comfortable allies.”

He also talks about how he and Tim Farron come from similar backgrounds and have similar perspectives on liberalism. He ended with a list of things that his small team had done. What he needs to add when he does that is to say how these have actually persuaded or provoked changes in SNP government policy. It’s not a bad record for a small team of 5 MSPs out of 129.

Here’s his speech in full. What do you think?

Thank you for inviting me to address you this evening after your service.

My grandfather was a minister in the Church of Scotland and although I never witnessed one of his services I know he would never let a politician anywhere near the pulpit.  So I commend you for taking this brave step of allowing me to speak this evening.

But that is not the only reflection of your bravery. That you proudly display your values through your membership of Changing Attitude Scotland which is working to end prejudice and discrimination against LGBT people is wonderful.

Your support through the debate on marriage equality was a cornerstone of that campaign and reassured many Christians that it was respectable to support equal marriage.

Showing that tolerance, faith and love are comfortable allies not a threat to one another, and you deserve credit for promoting that.

But it is also wonderful to see you exhibiting your faith through work on social justice.  Your links with Ghana and Ethiopia.  Your peace and justice centre.  Your provocative murals.  These show your commitment to your faith.

The words from a sermon in this church earlier this year appealed to me:

“Let us build a house where hands will reach beyond the wood and stone to heal and strengthen, serve and teach, and live the Word they’ve known.”

This is a fine building at the heart of our capital city.  It sticks out even though it lives in the shadow of our castle.   But it is more than wood and stone.  The hands from this church reach out beyond to heal and strengthen.  Hands reach beyond to serve and teach.  Hands reach beyond to live the Word.

That this fine building is a home to such tolerance and understanding fills me with great hope. So thank you.

I didn’t know it growing up, but I was raised a liberal. Like this church, like you, I was prepared to stick out, standing up for what I thought was right and prepared to be awkward.

My mother described me as a “spirited child”. I know for sure that my three older sisters definitely agree with that one. And they still do. Although there is no strong political tradition in my family, public service was important.

My dad was the local shopkeeper and session clerk of the kirk for three decades in the village of Strathmiglo. He ran the village hall for a long time too.

My mother was secretary of the community association. She helped with Meals on Wheels and wrote the village newsletter.

My grandfather was the minister. He organised local operettas which people still talk about today – five decades on.  He was a bit of pioneer too – building his own TV sets – the family had the first TV in the village complete with door handles for the tuner control.

We lived above the shop at the centre of a vibrant village in Fife., the harvest thanksgiving, flower show, highland games, Sunday school and a lot more – and the liberal values that I still hold dear were formed there:

  • Aspiration and opportunity: helping people to get up and get on in the world, irrespective of their background;
  • Community: where local people know best, not remote officials and bureaucrats;
  • Sustainability: long term solutions not quick fixes.
  • Outward looking: prepared to help our neighbours and fellow man, if they are round the corner or across the world.

I have always felt frustrated that people can be burdened by the circumstances of their birth. I have always been frustrated that power too often hoarded – as it is arrogant when hoarded but humble when shared.

I have always been frustrated that when the chips are down we are often blind to the need of future generations and I have always been frustrated that there is something to fear about the foreigner when they have so much to share.

Opportunity, community, sustainability and an open mind.  Good liberal values.  I was a liberal but did not know it and as I got older, I was interested in exploring capital L liberals.

I am a biologist, not a political historian.  I was supposed to be a nature reserve manager, not a politician. My political soul did not grow through reading political history.

Yet that the Liberals were forged through an alliance of radicals, free traders and reformers has always felt instinctively right for me.

Look at what they achieved.

Gladstone was an advocate for “peace, economy and reform” and introduced universal elementary education, reform in Ireland, land reform, co-operation rather than conflict in Europe and broke down trade barriers to grow the economy.

The Campbell Bannerman/Lloyd George/Asquith Liberal Government delivered the state pension for over 70s, free school meals, labour exchanges, unemployment insurance, health insurance and more. To pay for these social reforms higher taxes were levied on higher incomes and land tax was introduced. And it curtailed the power of the House of Lords which was determined to block the people’s budget.

Education, Europe, Lords reform, welfare reform, land reform and taxation levels for the wealthy.

My late friend Charles Kennedy would often say that the way ahead can be found in the history books.

Well the lessons from Gladstone, Campbell Bannerman, Lloyd George and Asquith point part of the way forward today.

We have always understood that the country needs economic and social liberalism and we understand the relationship between the two.  The shift from Gladstone Liberalism and his emphasis on economic reform to break the old economic establishment to Campbell Bannerman and his social priorities to give workers the opportunity to improve their condition was made within one party.

Today we are best placed to get that balance right too as we understand the relationship between economic and social liberalism rather than the plunging, volatile swings from left to right.

We understand the need for an enlightened foreign policy.  Just as Gladstone understood the need to change Europe from a continent of conflict to a continent of cooperation we see the real value of such cooperation today despite the rich and diverse nature of that continent.

We understand the need for constitutional reform.  Just like the great Liberal Government of the early 1900s won the battle over the People’s Budget with the House of Lords we will win the modern battle with the Lords over its abolition.

We will also win voting reform, federalism and a written constitution.

The modern establishment or the two old parties of Labour and Conservative are losing their dominance of our political system.  Where they once secured 98% of all votes they now struggle to secure 70%.  The protection by the establishment of its privileges will come to an end.

We understand the need for sustainability.  Just like Gladstone and Campbell Bannerman’s land and agricultural reforms which created a more sustainable form of ownership and management we understand the need to husband our resources too.

That is why our foresight on climate change, energy security and food leads us to advocate long term solutions.

We are a party of economic, social, constitutional and environmental reform.  We want change for the long term and for our neighbours rather than just ourselves.  We see the value of altruism, that sense of fairness and opportunity for everyone whatever their background.  We want to challenge the establishment, the orthodoxy, the way it has always been.

Those values and beliefs were at the centre of our party because of the prevailing winds of human nature since 1859 and before that with radicals and reformers.

And the prevailing winds of human nature means that a voice for those values is required today too.

I am inspired by politicians of recent times. David Steel is marking 50 years in parliament this year and over those years he has been a radical reformer. He led on abortion, apartheid, home rule and breaking the mould of British politics.  Our country is very different thanks to David.

Yet it is the manner in which he delivered change that impressed me even more. The title of his biography “Militant for the reasonable man” sums up his mission, style and manner.

That is the mission, style and manner I want to rekindle today.

It was the style that Charles Kennedy nurtured too.  That gentle Highland lilt shielded the radical and reforming nature of his message.  “A party of conscience and reform” was how Charles described the party.

His pro-European, pro migration, pro home rule, pro education instincts were radical for many but made palatable by his gentle manner and style.

But it was his quiet but resolute opposition to the war in Iraq that secured support and respect from many including political opponents.

Shirley Williams, Jim Wallace, Ming Campbell and, I would argue, Nick Clegg all adopt a similar manner.  Although I never met him Jo Grimond’s belief that liberalism was a way of life as much as a political party resonated as a voice for the party.

It is that blend of how we do our politics and our political beliefs themselves that is critically important.

That resolute but polite defiance in the face of intransigence is inspiring.  It is not the hot bloodied and fiery rhetoric that motivates my political soul.  It is the quiet, understated determination that piques my political interest.

Sometimes pitching against the wind.  Standing alone when the societal pressure tells us not.  Speaking quietly with a point to make.  That liberal style, that liberal way of life is for me.

Opportunity, community, sustainability and an open mind. Good liberal values. Values shared by great liberals like the late Charles Kennedy and Lord Steel, but also by people across Scotland. We are radicals, but the power of our case means we appeal to your ears rather than shout in your face. We are the party which is militant for the reasonable person.

Those great liberals of the distant past and recent past have inspired many. They have shaped where we are now as liberals and Liberal Democrats.

Like all political movements there have been high tides and low.  The division over Ireland, the Boer war, the post war collapse, the Jeremy Thorpe trial and the post-merger period have all been challenging times for the liberal movement but what is consistent with each is the recovery of our fortunes that followed those events.  So if I may just briefly reflect on our current political status.

Since May the new Conservative only government has paraded its intention to introduce a Snoopers’ Charter, abolish the Human Rights Act, end of onshore renewable wind and solar support and deliver £12billion of welfare cuts.  It has acted with unhelpful hyperbole over the difficulties at Calais.

Some people mourned the day that we joined the coalition with the Conservatives.  Well I mourn the day that we left the Conservatives in Government on their own.

On their own so they can snoop on our emails, on their own so they can align us with Russia on human rights. On their own to opt out of the battle with climate change. On their own to remove the social security safety net for vulnerable people on our doorstep and on their own to cut adrift those desperate for a life who have travelled to our shores.

Five years in government was tough for the Liberal Democrats but not half a tough compared with those who are suffering under the Tories now.

That Liberal Democrats saw that this was our role and responsibility makes me proud to be a part of it.  Putting people, before party.  Others before self.

And that is what we will do as we embrace the next electoral expression next May. If I can modestly say I think my small team in Holyrood are pound for pound the best parliamentarians in the Scotland.

We are powerful voices for liberalism in Scotland. 

Whether it’s on early education for our children to give them the best start in life, or it is standing up to the Scottish Government on the Dalai Lama or Russia, whether it is speaking up for college places, or those with mental illness who deserve just as much support as those with physical illness, or on the police.

The police service that is overusing stop and search especially on our children or permits police carrying guns on the streets of Scotland routinely. It is my team of Liberal Democrats who have provided that liberal voice when others were silent.

And we have a new leader in the UK in the shape of Tim Farron to give a fresh voice to those values. He and I have some shared similarities of background. We are both from small towns, from modest backgrounds. We have both been committed all our lives to the Liberal cause and public service.

And we are both charged with leading our parties. In his first speech as leader, Tim explained how he grew up wanting to be in a party that had something to offer “people like us” from modest means.

Freedom for people to be the best they can be. That the role of government is to help us to be the best we can be.

You will have heard in that the echo of the liberal vocation, the liberal mission through the ages. My mother was right.  I was a spirited child.  I still am.

That spirit for liberal values is shared by my colleagues in the Liberal Democrats.  That spirit is shared by the thousands of new members that have joined our party since the general election.

They know we have people to speak for, values to protect and missions to complete.  That’s why they have joined our movement – without even being asked.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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10 Comments

  • Siobhan Mathers 5th Aug '15 - 3:39pm

    I think this is a good, thoughtful speech for that particular audience. There are many parts of it I identify with but I really dislike both militant and reasonable as terms. Put together I don’t think they work and seem like a variant of the attempt to rebrand Ming as a “pin-striped radical” in 06-07.

  • Richard Underhill 5th Aug '15 - 5:06pm

    I am unsure that “Nigel Farage thinks he’s being reasonable”
    https://www.libdemvoice.org/eu-no-campaign-its-all-about-nigel-46990.html

  • John Tilley 5th Aug '15 - 6:18pm

    Are there many people in politics in Scotland who do not have a father or grandfather as a minister in the church?

    Willie Rennie, David Steel, Gordon Brown etc etc

    It just shows how different Scotland is from us secular English. 🙂

  • Willie is a thoroughly decent man with a mountain to climb.

  • John Tilley 6th Aug '15 - 2:54pm

    Ian Sanderson (RM3) 6th Aug ’15 – 2:36pm
    “…. egalitarian and valuing education for its own sake. Not being too deferential to those who think they are our betters. And the manse in many cases being a centre for social services.”

    Sounds good to me, Ian. In fact it sounds a whole lot better than these economics-obsessed, so-called Libertarians who have found themselves in various political parties in recent times.

    “Prioritising egalitarian values and education for its own sake” sounds like a rallying call for everyone who wants to eject the Conservatives from Government.

  • nvelope2003 8th Aug '15 - 12:52pm

    There were the Non Conformists (Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists, Unitarians and even a few Presbyterians etc) in England with similar traditions but they seem to have mostly vanished during the last 50 years.

  • John Tilley 9th Aug '15 - 11:15am

    Ian Sanderson (RM3) 9th Aug ’15 – 8:02am
    “…. might be surprised at the continuing level of co-membership between various ‘non-conformist’ English churches and the LibDems.”

    Some years ago at a fringe meeting at the Liberal Democrat conference (I think it was the history group) Michael Steed gave a presentation on the overlap between areas with a non-conformist religious tradition and constituencies with Liberal / Liberal Democrat MPs since 1945.

    I cannot remember which year he did this but at the time we had a whole bunch of MPs in the West Country. That was before Gavin Grant’s influence in that region. It is perhaps time to revive some of those community links that have been neglected during the last ten years?

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