Willie Rennie: “A cheerful voice for a more decent politics”

Willie Rennie has done two major interviews this weekend talking about his decision to stand aside as Scottish Liberal Democrat leader and his hopes for the future.

The Times (£) leader had praise for him yesterday, too:

It is to be hoped that Mr Rennie remains active in public life. He has been a cheerful voice for a more decent politics and his brand of low-key, relaxed liberalism is more necessary than ever. After a summer running in the hills he should return to the fray, ready to play his part in building a bigger and better centre.

Willie spoke to Magnus Linklater for the paper (£) and talked about his hope that Labour and the Lib Dems would work more closely together to present a progressive, pro-UK alternative to the nationalism and populism of the SNP and Conservatives:

“I think working together with Labour on issues of common interest would be a good thing,” he said in an interview with The Times. “I wouldn’t run before we can walk. But [it would] build confidence between the parties and also amongst the electorate to show we’re getting our act together.”

This is about trying to show that for middle Scotland there is something better and stronger than the Conservatives or the SNP, that it’s got energy, it’s got momentum, it’s got ideas, and that’s the most important thing, so people know that if they vote for it, it will be worth it,” he added. “The actual mechanism is less important — it’s the energy behind it that matters.”

He talked about how much Scotland had changed in the past decade or so – and not for the better:

Scotland has changed dramatically in the last ten or 15 years. People judge each other much more than they used to; some people just won’t speak to the other side. It was never like that, you were always valued as a Scot, and I think people will get sick of this division. Over time they will say, ‘We’ve had enough, we want to try and deal with normal things, like schools and hospitals.’ Therefore our time will come.”

In the Sunday Post, he talked about the photo opportunities that had become his brand. Some people have been critical. saying that it might have made it more difficult to take him and the party seriously. However:

“Politics can be really stuffy and politicians speak a different language from most people. The photos were a way of cutting through and getting people to talk and engage. If it captured people’s imagination, I was prepared to do that.

“But I take politics really seriously. I’m not a constant joker in the chamber. In the past week, I’ve raised issues like services for adults with special needs, self-isolation rules for key workers, and teachers being left without a job.

“So the photos are really just a way to break through the sometimes impenetrable barrier between the public and politicians. I’m sure I went too far on some things but what the hell. You only live once.”

He also spoke about how to win the constitutional argument:

It’s really important the progressive pro-UK voices are big and loud. We cannot allow the United Kingdom to be branded as a Conservative project and certainly not as a Boris Johnson project because it’s not.

“People in England and the rest of the UK are progressive, and I know this because I lived in Cornwall for seven years.

“The UK is not perfect. It needs reform, it needs federalism. We need Scotland to have a bigger authority within the UK.

“But there is no doubt we need the UK project to be perceived as an open, internationalist, generous, compassionate project that we should be proud to be part of it.”

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

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24 Comments

  • Brad Barrows 18th Jul '21 - 3:18pm

    Willie may hope that politics in Scotland will return to ‘normal things’ like schools and hospitals but the reality remains that for as long as Scotland’s budget is largely determined by spending decisions for England by the UK government, debates about schools and hospitals are inextricably linked to the constitutional arrangements. The Liberal Democrats as both Unionists and federalists, need to be arguing for Full Fiscal Autonomy so that Scotland’s budget is fully in Scotland’s hands.

  • Peter Martin 18th Jul '21 - 5:08pm

    ” The Liberal Democrats as both Unionists and federalists, need to be arguing for Full Fiscal Autonomy so that Scotland’s budget is fully in Scotland’s hands.”

    What does “full fiscal autonomy” mean in this context?

    It can’t really mean anything at present. When Scotland is independent it will be able to choose to have “full fiscal autonomy” by having its own separate currency. But it will lose it again if it ties itself too closely to someone else’s currency like the euro. Just like all the euro using countries have lost theirs.

  • Brad Barrows 18th Jul '21 - 5:45pm

    @Peter Martin
    Put simply, Fully Fiscal Autonomy would mean that all taxation levied in Scotland, and the powers to determine all such taxes, would be devolved to Scotland, from which Scotland would pay a population share to the UK exchequer towards the cost of UK spending on UK reserved matters such as Defence, Foreign affairs and finding the National Debt. Scotland would then be responsible for all Government spending in Scotland except if it on UK Reserved Matters.

  • Full Fiscal Autonomy would mean a big cut to the budget. There was a brief push for it from the SNP a few years ago, but I can only assume it was intended as another means of stoking division, because that demand was was quickly dropped and swept under the carpet as soon as there were any attempts to engage in what it would actually mean.

    Scottish tax takes are on a par with the rest of the UK, but we have higher spending per person than the UK, thanks to Barnett. Theoretically, that extra money is to account for the additional costs of providing services to remote communities and so on. But in practice it means we have more money to spend on health and education. The SNP could raise more tax money if they chose to do so, but have resisted so far. After facing pressure for not using tax raising powers, they eventually capitulated and tweaked the system just enough to say they were doing things differently, but not enough to upset their middle-class voters. Meanwhile, they’ve implemented yet another council tax freeze, squeezing council budgets further.

    It’s telling how many non-LidDem people have made a point of praising Willie as a decent person – one of the few in modern politics. I understand that it’s easy to dismiss some of the publicity stunts, but most of the people dismissing them were keen to ignore us when we’re being serious, and I suspect the others have never been involved with trying to get meaningful media coverage for a small political party. I noticed many of the critics from other parties were quick to praise their own politicians when they did something ‘fun’ for publicity.

    He’s right that most people are ‘progressive’, and it’s become too easy for us to be tricked by our broken political system into thinking that’s not the case. It shouldn’t be a big deal that we are aiming to work with other parties where we have common ground, especially in Holyrood where that was part of the design. But he’s also right that Scotland has become so divided in the last decade and there are far too many bad faith arguments getting in the way of working together to improve education and the health service. Everything becomes a political football when the party of government doesn’t want devolution to be seen to be successful.

  • Brad Barrows 18th Jul '21 - 11:12pm

    @Fiona
    Your assumption that Full Fiscal Autonomy would lead to a big budget cut would only be the case if Scotland were required to run a balanced budget. Of course, each country of the UK has a budget deficit at present, covered by UK borrowing, so it would be unfair to expect Scotland to run a balanced budget while the rest of the UK was allowed to enjoy higher spending that was paid for from UK borrowing.

  • Peter Martin 18th Jul '21 - 11:44pm

    @ Brad

    Fiona is quite right that Scotland would be worse off if it had what is called Full Fiscal Autonomy except I would question the validity of this term. It would need Scotland to have its own currency and it’s own central bank.

    You are suggesting that a virtually independent Scotland should be allowed the same access to the BoE as the Westminster govt. That it should be allowed to share the £ as a currency. The British govt has rightly ruled out this option. A currency is essentially the IOU of the issuing govt. You can’t have two governments writing out the same but separate IOUs . The EU countries are doing their best but it will only succeed if the EU moves to have a single govt. Just as the pound, the dollar and the Yen are controlled by single govts.

    The Scottish people need to decide if they want their full independence – or not.

  • Peter Martin 19th Jul '21 - 7:03am

    @ Martin

    We’ve always, or at least the last few hundred years, had a sharing of sovereignty with Scotland. We all elect MPs to the same London parliament. We could change to Federal system and maybe the Federal govt would be based somewhere else but that wouldn’t change anything in principle.

    The government which would be in overall charge would be this new Federal govt. The constituent parts of the Federation would be in the same position as the individual States of the USA. They are expected to run balanced budgets except when Washington does some extra spending on their behalf.

    Each component in a Federal UK will be allocated extra via a series of Barnett type formulae based on the political decisions of the new Govt.

    The individual States pool their sovereignty in a Federal system but is this what the Scots want? From a Scottish perspective it wouldn’t look much different from what they have already.

  • @Brad, you make the mistake of believing the myth spread by some nationalists that the Scottish deficit is somehow similar to the UK’s as a whole. The reality is that the structural Scottish deficit is substantially larger than that for the rest of the UK. If I remember correctly, Scotland’s deficit was running at around 8% whilst the UK as a whole was just under 3% prior to COVID. But thankfully the fiscal transfer meant that deficit did not turn into debt. The borrowing required during the pandemic muddies the waters a bit, but no honest analysis can get away from the fact that Scotland’s public services and our people benefit from the pre-pandemic £15nbn per year fiscal transfer. FFA would bring an end to that source of additional income for us and shouldn’t be brushed off as insignificant.

    You may argue that we could borrow to compensate for that loss of income, then borrow some more to be able to spend more than we do now. But at what rates? How would we service that debt? There are options to borrow now, which the Scottish Government likes to pretend are not available, though it is fair to say there are some restrictions on it.

    But this is playing into the SNP’s handbook. Blame their short-fallings on Westminster. They want us to believe that the blame for Scotland falling down the international education league tables since they came to power is because of pesky Westminster, not their clumsy meddling. Education is fully devolved, and it’s not Westminster forcing schools to waste time and resourced testing primary one kids etc.

    @Peter. From my point of view, unless the Scottish Parliament gets a second chamber, or some other means to ensure better scrutiny of process, then I’m against Holyrood getting significantly more powers. They don’t use loads of the powers they’ve got, because the SNP’s priority is more powers, not effective use of them. However, I think it would help to balance the power dynamics across the UK if more powers were devolved from Westminster to other parts of the UK. And of course PR for Westminster as the idea that any parts of the country all vote either red or blue is nonsense and that perception contributes to the sense that we’re divided.

    I definitely think it would be helpful if we had some kind of Barnett equivalents in other parts of the UK.

  • Brad Barrows 19th Jul '21 - 1:14pm

    @Fiona
    I’m afraid you fall into the myth of believing Scotland benefits from ‘fiscal transfers’. The reality is that no country within the UK has a fiscal surplus so no country is in a financial position to transfer to Scotland. What has been happening over most of the last decade is that Scotland has had a bigger fiscal deficit than other countries of the UK so a bigger proportion of the UK’s borrowing has been used to finance Scotland’s share of the UK deficit, but that is not the same as a fiscal transfer since Scotland remains jointly responsible for servicing the debt. You will recall that for most of the last 50 years Scotland has been making an actual fiscal transfer to the rest of the UK and, in fact, over the existence of the UK, Scotland has been a net contributor to the UK’s finances. I concede that was due to the massive income from North Sea Oil production, 90% of which were in Scottish waters, but my point is that it is very much ‘short-termism’ to consider just the last few years. In any case, if Scotland does find itself with a structural fiscal deficit after 314 years of political and economic union, it does very much make the case for the economic powers to be transferred to Scotland as currently arrangements do not appear to be delivering.

  • Peter Martin 19th Jul '21 - 1:28pm

    @ Brad Barrows,

    “You will recall that for most of the last 50 years Scotland has been making an actual fiscal transfer to the rest of the UK and, in fact, over the existence of the UK, Scotland has been a net contributor to the UK’s finances.”

    I must confess that I don’t recall it. Do you have a reference to support this assertion?

    “The reality is that no country within the UK has a fiscal surplus so no country is in a financial position to transfer to Scotland.”

    The debt is shared by everyone in the UK so if Scotland needs a larger fiscal transfer it can be created from the collective debt. This is not to suggest that Scotland is sponging off the rest of the UK. The same would go for the English regions, Wales and Northern Ireland. In any currency union, and the USA is no exception, but the EU might like to be, the more prosperous parts will contribute more to the pot than the less affluent areas.

  • @fiona

    “They don’t use loads of the powers they’ve got, because the SNP’s priority is more powers, not effective use of them.”

    it would be interesting if you could specify the powers which the Scottish Government have not used.

    Presumably if you are against further devolution and only support more devolution to the rest of the UK, you do not support federalism?

  • @peter martin

    “The constituent parts of the Federation would be in the same position as the individual States of the USA. They are expected to run balanced budgets except when Washington does some extra spending on their behalf.”

    My understanding is that most US states (possibly with the exception of Vermont) are bound by their own individual constitutions or legislation from operating a balanced budget. The federal constitution does not prevent it and they can could choose to do so if they wished. If so that is clearly different from Scotland’s position in the UK union.

    “The individual States pool their sovereignty in a Federal system but is this what the Scots want? From a Scottish perspective it wouldn’t look much different from what they have already.”

    Well, the US states actually formed and framed the federal government through a written constitution which cannot be changed without the support of a supermajority of the states. There is a demarcation (often contested but still real) between states rights and federal government adjudicated if necessary by the US Supreme Court.

    This is clearly very different from the position of Scotland in the UK union. There is no written constitution, the UK Government at Westminster decides what powers the constituent countries may have, some of the key principles of devolution – such as legislative consent – are not justiciable, and the UK Government is moving to restrict the role of the Supreme Court still further on the basis of an English majority in the UK House of Commons. The recent experience in Northern Ireland also shows that the UK Government can change the fundamental basis of the acts of union without any need for consent from the founding countries of the union.

    So are you really saying that the Lib Dem policy on federalism is just the same as the current devolution settlement?

  • Peter Martin 19th Jul '21 - 2:36pm

    @ Hireton,

    It’s t’other way around. All the States bar Vermont have balanced budget requirements. This is not to say that they can’t find work arounds when they are some financial difficulties to be overcome. But the individual states and cities in the USA can go broke and be unable to repay, whereas the Federal govt, as the currency issuer cannot. The cost of Federal borrowing can be zero if i wants it to be. It just instructs the Federal Reserve to buy bonds in the market so it can sell replacements. QE in other words. But New York city, for example, has to genuinely borrow the money at whatever interest rate it can negotiate.

    https://taxfoundation.org/fy-2020-state-budgets-fy-2021-state-budgets/

    A Federal system for Scotland wouldn’t be exactly the same as now, but it won’t be much different from their POV. Holyrood will continue as it is now. Instead of electing MPs to Westminster, Scotland will elect Federal MPs. The Federal MPs will be largely from England and so the Federal Government will be English dominated just as Westminster is now.

    Many would go along with Federal structure if it keeps the Union together. But there’s no point in changing if the Scots then claim, as they well might, that the situation re English domination is fundamentally no different to what we have now.

  • @Peter Martin

    That’s what I meant to say! More succinctly, US states are bound by their own constitutions or law to run balanced budgets and not by the federal government or constitution. Scotland’s fiscal powers are determined by the UK Government

    I’m interested that the Lib Dem view is that a federal structure would not produce much change. So no written constitution which cannot be changed without the federating parties’ consent, no significant dispersal of power to those parties, no equal representation in a second chamber like the US senate, no constitutional Court, and all that sort of thing? If so, hardly seems worth the Lib Dems putting any effort into it.

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 19th Jul '21 - 3:21pm

    @ Hireton,

    You do realise that Peter M. isn’t a Liberal Democrat, don’t you?

  • Peter Martin 19th Jul '21 - 4:16pm

    @ Mark,

    I’m suggesting that the concept of a Federal UK, under whatever proposed new constitution, would need to find general acceptance in Scotland before moving to one was worthwhile. The relative size of England wrt Scotland isn’t going to change the fact that any UK government under whatever new arrangement is always going to be English dominated. I have voted Lib Dem in the past, I could apply to join up tomorrow but that would make the argument neither more nor less valid.

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 19th Jul '21 - 4:30pm

    @ Peter M.

    In the nicest possible way, Hireton is representing your views as those of the Liberal Democrats. As you aren’t one, that strikes me as a rather faulty basis for an argument…

  • Peter Martin 19th Jul '21 - 5:12pm

    @ OK But I didn’t say I was a member of the Lib Dems. I don’t have the yellow bird logo with my name.

    You probably wouldn’t want me in any case. I’m not a very good member of any political party. I’m more interested in ideas and concepts than promoting one fixed set of ideas. I hate having to toe the party line!

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 19th Jul '21 - 5:17pm

    @ Peter M.,

    I never said that you were. In responding to you, Hireton did…

    I’m interested that the Lib Dem view is that a federal structure would not produce much change.

    And that’s the misunderstanding that I was addressing…

  • Brad Barrows 19th Jul '21 - 5:25pm

    @Peter Martin
    One reference that may be helpful is ‘Scotland the Brief’ that was published by Business for Scotland. I can’t recall whether that was where I have read those particular facts but may well have been.

  • Peter Martin 19th Jul '21 - 5:25pm

    @ Mark,

    OK I see. I perhaps misunderstood you to mean that Hireton shouldn’t listen to anyone who didn’t have the right Lib Dem credentials! 🙂

  • Sorry to set a hare running unintentionally re @Peter Martin and the Lib Dems.

    @fiona

    “I definitely think it would be helpful if we had some kind of Barnett equivalents in other parts of the UK.”

    You may this informative on the Barnett Formula:

    https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/explainers/barnett-formula

    It does of course, apply to Wales and N Ireland as well as Scotland. It simply adjusts year on year the budgets for devolved programme areas for changes in expenditure in England on a comparative population basis. It is only needs or cost based in so far as the original baseline in 1976 was.

  • John Marriott 19th Jul '21 - 9:42pm

    Poor old Willie Rennie! And here was I thinking that Caron’s piece was about him. If this is how those who profess to share his beliefs, and some, as Mark V has pointed out, who clearly don’t, react to his decision, (by largely ignoring what he has to say) then I wouldn’t blame him for stepping down.

    The trouble with trying to ‘lead’ any group of Lib Dems, both large and small, has often been compared to trying to herd cats, and seemingly ungrateful ones at that in this instance!

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