The two most talked about things from last night’s Scottish Leaders’ debate and two things the press got wrong about Willie Rennie

At Wimbledon, you generally, if you’re lucky and it hasn’t been raining, get a day between matches. This isn’t the case for Scotland’s political leaders. After a two hour marathon on STV in Edinburgh last night, Nicola Sturgeon, Jim Murphy, Ruth Davidson and Willie Rennie head to Aberdeen where they will face another hour of debate, joined by the Greens’ Patrick Harvie and UKIP’s David Coburn. The moderator will be BBC Scotland’s James Cook, who took a bit of a pasting from cybernats for daring to suggest that he’s had SNP sources tell him that a Tory Government would be the best option for their independence cause.

Last night’s debate took place in the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh. The format was a bit weird. There was a 20 minute session at the start where the moderator, Bernard Ponsonby, had a chat with some people in the audience and then put some questions to the leaders. Then they each had a 10 minute session on their own, giving a statement and taking 8 minutes of audience questions. That dragged a bit, to be honest. Then there was a 45 minute Question Time style free for all. It wasn’t as relaxed and well-behaved as the one at Glasgow University last month, but there were a few noteworthy moments. The most talked about on social media was the man in the crowd wearing a false moustache. Who could it be?

The most awkward moment of the night came during Nicola Sturgeon’s individual session when she was asked if there would be a pledge to hold a second independence referendum in their 2016 manifesto. Sturgeon’s answer, to be fair, was pretty reasonable. She said that it hadn’t been written yet. The fact that she didn’t rule it out, though, earned her boos from the audience. It seems that Scotland is reluctant to go through that again. However, that might change if it looked like Britain would leave the EU. It was interesting that Nicola didn’t revive the question she’d asked David Cameron last week about whether Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland would have a veto on this. Donald McIntyre has summarised the issues around that very well here.  If you are thinking “but England is bigger and has the majority of voters” you might be right, but Sturgeon and Leanne Wood have a point. Look at the way the US Congress is made up. The make up of the House of Representatives is based on population, but every state is equal, with two Senators each, in the Senate. In a federal system, states must be able to opt out of stuff. Even in a non-federal system, the Tories have negotiated endless EU opt-outs over the years. I doubt, though, that Nicola Sturgeon would be arguing that although the rest of Scotland voted Yes, we’d be staying in the UK because Perth and Kinross and Fife Council areas voted to stay. It’s a complex argument with the answer either way being potentially terrible. We shouldn’t forget the possibility that all four parts of the UK might resoundingly vote to stay in and confound Farage and the Tory right.

But back to last night’s debate. Jim Murphy was ok, which is better than any Labour leader has been since Jack McConnell back in 2007. He annoyed me on two counts. Firstly, that he just seems to have such a sense of entitlement to power. Labour really have learned not the slightest touch of humility from the footprints the Scottish electorate have been leaving on their backside of late. He also kept going on about how he so wanted to tackle poverty. His problem is that his party failed to do that when in power for 13 years. What do they have to offer?

Willie Rennie did well. The bit of Twitter not inhabited by cybernats was generally complimentary, saying that he was nice and reasonable. They also said he looked like Tam from Still Game. They might be right on those points. We are still discussing whether the person who called him an “f*****g savage” was meant it as a compliment. Possibly not.

He said everything he needed to say, showing what the Liberal Democrats had brought to the coalition and that should the Tories govern on their own, they would increase taxes for not a single rich person, preferring to balance the books on the backs of the poorest. He talked about how the SNP had taken their eye off the ball in pursuit of independence, leading to college places being slashed and health and education suffering. He talked about the need for maturity in parties working together in a hung parliament, saying that we would continue the progress that had been made and ensure fairness. He could maybe have mentioned the values behind what we’ve done on childcare, the NHS and pensions.

Press reports had two things very wrong, though. The Telegraph needs to pay attention. It wasn’t gun crime he was talking about, it was the SNP putting armed police on the peaceful streets of sleepy highland villages.  He and Alison McInnes have relentlessly hauled the illiberal SNP government over the coals for this and the abuse of stop and search powers as well as the planned ID database. It’s the reason we need lots of Lib Dems in Parliament.

The second thing they got wrong came from Daniel Sanderson writing in the Herald:

Mr Rennie, though, had the hardest time. “I have seen the tears” he said, after coming under fire for the predicament facing the poorest in society. “I have felt it and seen it and want to change it.” Few would doubt his sincerity, but he struggled to distance himself from the coalition that has been in Government for the last five years.

Willie didn’t distance himself from the Coalition at all. In fact, he championed what we had brought to the table. He was candid on the tuition fees issue but robustly defended our part in creating the best part of 200,000 jobs in Scotland.  I’d have liked to see him use the ten words he said at Conference: taxes down, pensions up, more jobs, better healthcare, stronger Scotland.

Nicola Sturgeon didn’t shine as well as she had at the UK debate last week because she was the incumbent with a record to defend. While all the leaders provided her with some decent opposition, it’s unlikely that anything that happened was a game-changer, and certainly not the game-changer that Jim Murphy needs to deal with the SNP surge.


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

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  • “[Jim Murphy] also kept going on about how he so wanted to tackle poverty. His problem is that his party failed to do that when in power for 13 years.”

    You say that a lot, but there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary :-

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 8th Apr '15 - 6:36pm

    So why towards the end of the last Parliament were people sitting in my office in dire circumstances because of the flawed Work Capability Assessment and the disgraceful tax credit overpayments. Why were children of working families getting poorer?

  • Always interesting to read a different viewpoint. However we should agree to disagree on the assessment of the debate.

    I accept that many,many Liberal Democrats believe that they helped maintain a balanced fairer coalition. However I refuse to accept that those same members do not have moments of guilt when they look at the impact of the cuts on the poorest in our society.

    Please listen to those doubts and think long and hard before you enter a deal with the Tories again. Your party was capable of much more than being the “trim tab” on the Tory Rudder

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