Willie Rennie; I will work for a liberal country – an open, internationalist, reformed, caring, fair and green country

Yesterday the Scottish Parliament chose its First Minister. Nicola Sturgeon was always going to win, although she is one short of an overall majority. Willie Rennie announced his intention to stand against her because “Most people did not vote for the largest party and it is important that their voices are heard.” Conservative leader Douglas Ross followed suit.

Willie gave a really strong speech, setting out the sort of country he wanted Scotland to be. He addressed the deep divisions in the country, which is pretty much split down the middle on independence and attacked both SNP and Conservatives for reinforcing these divisions.

The Conservatives, he said, were the biggest threat to the Union, rather than defenders of it.

That is certainly true. The SNP and the Conservatives need each other to take attention away from their failing governments and on to a bitter fight over the Constitution. Willie was right to call it out and to give a vision of what Scotland really could be like.

Nicola Sturgeon was pretty graceless, to be honest, attacking both of the leaders who dared to oppose her personally rather than on ideas. She proved Willie’s point, really. And his generous words when she was elected are a stark contrast to her disrespect:

It has been an extraordinary time with extraordinary pressures, both Covid and political. I have admired Nicola Sturgeon’s personal leadership through the pandemic; she has made life-and-death decisions every day. I was impressed by the clarity of the communications and I agreed with the caution, too.

The fact that we have political differences in the chamber should not prevent us from respecting each other, and we should appreciate the personal sacrifice that comes with public service and office. Of course, that personal sacrifice pales in comparison with the many struggles that our constituents face every day, but it is sacrifice nonetheless, so I thank Nicola Sturgeon for that service and offer my support as well.

I suspect Scotland will look back on Willie’s speech in 5 years’ time and realise that there was a lot of truth in his words.

I want Scotland to be a liberal country where everyone can live as they wish, not held back by prejudice or expectations, and where every person can achieve their potential, lifted up by a healthy body and an educated mind.

I want an open and outward-looking Scotland, not one that blames its neighbours for our problems. I want a country that looks to the needs of people next door and around the world, and of people in the future, and not just to our own interests today. I want a Scotland with people who come together to overcome the enormous challenges that time throws our way. That would be my driving philosophy as First Minister.

I would start by putting recovery first. The people who are waiting up to three years for mental health treatment need recovery to come first. The friends and family of the 1,256 people who lost their lives in a single year to drugs deserve our attention. Those who are looking for work cannot wait. Those who are desperate for a hip replacement or cancer treatment cannot wait, nor can those who wait for a good education and nor can future generations who want a healthy planet. They all deserve our focus, because they cannot wait behind another debate on the constitution. That is why I would put recovery first.

When no single party has a majority, no one should assume a right to the office of First Minister. Most people did not vote for the largest party, so it is important that their voices be heard today. I stand for nomination as First Minister with great hope, but with a liberal dose of realism.

This country is divided like never before—right down the middle, according to the polls and the election. Yet the situation is worse than that: hardened supporters on both sides cannot understand each other any more. They have stopped listening to each other, and the election campaign entrenched those differences. The Scottish National Party’s materials often featured Boris Johnson more than Nicola Sturgeon. The Conservatives were more interested in attacking Labour and the Liberal Democrats than in trying to win over SNP supporters. They both stoked up people’s fear, which resulted in thousands of people voting for one extreme for fear of the other.

In that race to the bottom we lost out, but so did the country, as the chasm grew. Ever greater radicalisation of the hard-core support on each side is not sustainable, regardless of whether Scotland is part of the United Kingdom, because we will need the skills and the talents of everyone to overcome the enormous challenges that we face.

There is an important lesson for those who want to keep Scotland in the United Kingdom—especially for the Conservative Party. Many people have yet to make up their minds about independence. We must reach out to them and to others, and we must listen, understand and act. In the election campaign, I reached out across the constitutional divide. Anas Sarwar reached out, too, but the Conservatives did not. That might have held it together for the Conservatives this time, but that strategy will not keep Scotland in the United Kingdom, and looking after their Conservative friends through Government contracts, cutting international aid, taking a cavalier approach to Northern Ireland and picking fights with Europe does not help, either. Far from being the defenders of the union, the Conservatives are the biggest threat to the union.

However, Boris Johnson and the Conservatives are not the United Kingdom; it is bigger and better than that. I refuse to walk away from a partnership of the peoples of the UK because of the Conservatives. I am here to work for a liberal country—an open, internationalist, reformed, caring, fair and green country that is packed with opportunity for everyone, no matter their background. That is the country that I want to live in, and that is the country that I will always work for.

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

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  • nigel hunter 19th May '21 - 9:23am

    Good speech.WHAT A PITY IT IS NOT SHOUTED FROM THE ROOFTOPS DAY IN DAY OUT IN MEDIA OF ALL KINDS.. If we are to have a UNITED KINGDOM the enemies of it have to be fought tooth and nail for they are expertise at divide and conquer for hate of ‘the other’ is a powerful force. A quiet ,’nice’ party will be drowned out.WE HAVE TO MAKE A NOISE to be heard.

  • Willie Rennie;” I will work for a liberal country – an open, internationalist, reformed, caring, fair and green country”. Good, and so he should. But there’s danger in tying himself to a Tory Government in Westminster which is anything but any of those things.

    And…. is Willie, for whom I have a personal regard, saying the Scottish Green Party is not “open, internationalist, reforming, caring, fair and green” ?

    I’m afraid the Scottish Liberal Democrats are painting themselves into a Unionist corner of closed minds limited to posing with furry animals and oversize chess pieces (neither of which have votes) and being snippy to the First Minister.

    No wonder I hear on the grapevine that alarm bells are ringing with resignations and a collapse of constituency associations. Airdrie & Shotts is conveniently forgotten.
    Scottish Liberals used to have a history and roots which gave considerable support to full Scottish Home Rule in the days when there was a Liberal Government in Westminster. Sadly, without some fresh radical thinking it’s beginning to look like an end game these days.

  • Of course, it’s a matter of taste but I thought Sturgeon’s gentle ribbing of Rennie’s self confidence to put himself forward as a FM candidate having led the party to losing a fifth of it seats was amusing.

    The issue that the Lib Dems have with their positioning on the constitution it seems to me is threefold.

    Firstly, the powers which Scotland have are fundamental to achieve what Rennie set out in his vision and at the moment the most important ones are reserved to Westminster. So the constitution is not a distraction ( e.g. see today’s coverage on the potential Australia trade deal and its impact on Scottish farming).

    Secondly, the Lib Dems seem to have positioned themselves as the party saying that there should never be another referendum in any circumstances which does not seem very liberal or democratic.

    Thirdly, the Lib Dem counter offer on democracy in the manifesto was weak and undeliverable. It said that the LDs would “work to” achieve various things but perhaps the most important in current circumstances – “Pass legislation in which Westminster renounces the ability to unilaterally change the powers of the devolved parliaments across the UK or to pass laws in their areas of responsibility.” – would require a Westminster government which would alter the foundational principle of the UK constitution which is the complete sovereignty of the Westminster parliament. It issn’t going to happen.

  • ………..Nicola Sturgeon was pretty graceless, to be honest, attacking both of the leaders who dared to oppose her personally rather than on ideas….

    Caron, Your idea on the meaning of ‘graceless’ is rather diffent from mine. A couple of gentle jibes delivered with a smile (even Douglas Ross was smiling).

    I seem to remember, in 2020, a certain Mike Rumbles rudely shouting her down when she was answering questions; that was ‘graceless’..

  • Brad Barrows 19th May '21 - 5:16pm

    Willie leads the Liberal Democ rats to the party’s worst ever Scottish Parliamentary election result, achieving the lowest ever constituency vote share, lowest ever list vote share, and lowest ever number of MSPs elected…and losing the party’s status as a recognised parliamentary party…and then puts himself forward as First Minister. He must have no sense of embarrassment…

  • John Marriott 19th May '21 - 5:26pm

    @Brad Burrows
    Was that gap in ‘Democ rats’ in your first post just a Freudian slip; or did it have a more profound meaning? In fairness to the Lib Dems north of the border, what with the SNP, Alba, Tories, Labour and Greens, the field is pretty crowded.

  • John Marriott 19th May '21 - 5:27pm

    Sorry, Brad, it’s BARROWS, isn’t it?

  • Brad Barrows 19th May '21 - 7:11pm

    @John Marriott
    Hi – a good question. Basically I find that every time I type Liberal Democrat’s I find that an apostrophe is added – like as shown – but the way to get round that is to type Liberal Democ rats and then go back and delete the space. It works as long as I remember to remove the space. No other significance than that 😊

  • @ expats Indeed, and Willie had the good grace to grin.

    If Nicola was ‘graceless’ how does Caron compare it to a certain Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP having to apologise in Holyrood for mouthing F… Y.. at the Scottish female Children’s Minister back in March ?

    Does, ‘because he’s on our side’ make it OK ?

  • “I reached out across the constitutional divide.”…
    No, you most certainly have not reached out across the constitutional divide. Instead, all you have done is repeat the same ‘No referendum allowed’ rhetoric of the Conservative and Labour parties, alienating potential supporters with entirely predictable results.

    As David Raw has suggested, there is a space to be filled with a party who accept the democratic mandate for a referendum, who are potentially agnostic on the merits of independence, and who will support genuine constitutional reform (rather than pie-in-the-sky ‘federalism’ which nobody believes will happen). Unfortunately, as the 1% support at Airdrie & Shotts showed, there is currently absolutely no reason for anybody to vote Scottish Lib Dem, unless they’re voting tactically or in Orkney/Shetland.

    There is a reason the Scottish Lib Dems have fewer MSPs than the Greens, and I am at loss to understand with the current approach how anyone expects it to improve in future?

  • Graham Evans 19th May '21 - 10:53pm

    The Scottish Greens reply on SNP supporters lending them their votes in the list top-up. In the constituency section the Scottish Greens received a mere 1.3% of the vote compared to the Scottish Liberal Democrats 6.9%. If the Scottish list top-up used the same system as in Wales it’s unlikely that the Scottish Greens would have returned any MSPs.

  • @Graham Evans- but we’re not using the same system as Wales, are we? Where are the equivalent voters voting Scottish Lib Dem on the list? 6.9% constituency this time, down from 7.8% in 2016. 25% of that total coming from only 2 constituencies. The lowest ever. What do you think will happen next time, or the time after?

    As I said, I genuinely struggle to understand the strategy here. In his, speech, Willie said ‘We must reach out to them and to others, and we must listen, understand and act.’
    There is absolutely zero evidence of any listening, understanding or acting up until now.

  • Brad Barrows 20th May '21 - 7:41am

    @Graham Evans
    The Scottish Greens only stood in a handful of constituencies but where they stood they usually polled more than the Lib Dem candidate. I’m not convinced that SNP voters are voting Green on the List – I think it more likely that Green voters are voting SNP in constituencies when there are no Green candidates but then switching to the Greens on the List when that choice is available.

  • Are there signs that the Iceberg is melting just a tad ? Willie now sits next to Labour in the Chamber instead next to the Tories. Of more significance, unless the Scottish Lib Dems recover their radical soul PDQ , then it’s going to be caput time.

    @ Graham Evans Sorry, Graham you’re wrong. The Scottish Greens clearly know better than the Lib Dems on how to use the system to their advantage….. yet another sign of paleolithic thinking in Clifton Terrace.

  • Mario Caves 20th May '21 - 8:47am

    @brad barrows
    Your spell check problem is because you have “democrat’s” in your local spell check dictionary but not “democrats”, you need to add “democrats”.

  • Thomas Robinson 20th May '21 - 3:11pm

    After the 2007 first victory for the SNP at Holyrood, the Lib Dems had 17 seats. In a strategic error from which they have never recovered, they refused to even enter into discussions with the SNP about a coalition unless the SNP gave up on seeking a referendum in the forthcoming parliamentary term.
    The result was a successful SNP minority government which led to an overall SNP majority at Holyrood 2011. Tavish Scott (Lib Dem Holyrood Leader) had said in 2011 that if people wanted a referendum they had to vote for it. They duly did, and also reduced the Lib Dems to 5 seats.

    Now in 2021, having been reduced to 4 seats, I see today that the Lib Dems have come up with an amendment to “block the appointment of a constitution secretary”.

    The Lib Dems are absolutely strategically feckless, and looking at Tavish Scott’s former Shetland seat, it should be noted that they may not hold that next time round, given the large swing to the SNP in 2021.

  • I think what seemed graceless was the 4 LDs objecting to the name of Angus Robertson’s new portfolio … because it had the word ‘constitution’ in it. Now, I know that the LDs in Scotland aim only to survive (for reasons best known to the rump that is left, Thomas Robinson above being exactly correct) off of Tory crumbs, but maybe being so illiberal and undemocratic all of the time is putting voters off? I mean to go from 17 MSPs to 4 (not even enough for a group any more) ought to be the subject of soul searching and an inquiry. But to try obsessively to remove any democratic apparatus just for the sake of it is pitiful and more like the US Republicans. This stunt was so purile it lost by 70 votes to 4 – yup, as always, LDs abandoned by the Tories when they get stuck.

    One day the party in the north will learn. Perhaps special measures will be needed before then.

    Oh, and by the way, the Scots Parliament previously had a Constitutional portfolio in it, as does the Welsh Senedd. Willie, Alex and their 2 buddies from the northern Isles need to grow up and find a reason for people to support the liberal cause, fast, and avoid more cringe-making stunts.

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