Interview with Willie Rennie
Willie Rennie on the General Election, liberalism, and what it is like facing Nicola Sturgeon
Willie Rennie is naturally talkative.
The trait has became obvious by the end of our interview, by which point he has moved on from the party’s election strategy, his outreach to students, through his thoughts on the difference between Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond, to end up describing the different types of porridge oats on sale at his dad’s shop (there were three).
The Scottish Lib Dems may still be trailing in the polls – with anger at their part in the coalition seemingly still haunting the party’s support – yet the Scottish Lib Dem leader, in stark contrast to his counterpart in London, seems near universally liked.
He says he has always been quick to smile, a trait that he suspects he inherited from his dad. In fact, he says he still has a photo of himself as a small boy, standing behind the till of the family grocer’s shop with a huge grin.
But while his broad smile may have developed a fame of its own (he puts it down to the gap in his teeth), the SNP could be forgiven if it was not a sight it particularly relished seeing at the moment.
Rennie has hounded the party on what he calls the illiberal side of its justice policy, from police reform, to the removal of corroboration.
In fact on the day we meet, it is tempting to wonder if his good humour is down to the success of his most recent attack, concerning the creation of an ‘ID database’, which would allow more than 100 public bodies to access personal data through an individual’s NHS number.
With critics warning it would be a step from ID cards Rennie tabled a motion which united every opposition party, calling on the Government to force the policy into primary legislation, in an attempt to bring it into the chamber and provide greater scrutiny.
And while the Government won the vote, it was close, and by the end John Swinney looked far from his normal polished self.
Rennie says: “It was a very serious debate, and actually, one of the ministers said to me on the way out that it was quite refreshing to have a decent discussion on an area he didn’t actually know very much about. Certainly when you get to the technical aspects, sometimes it can be quite difficult to understand what it is so I think for members it was quite enlightening.
“I think politically it was less satisfactory. I think the almost belligerent approach of John Swinney, who knew he got it wrong and should have stood up and said, ‘look, I am going to do a pause on this’ or ‘I am going to put it into primary legislation’.”
The talk of ID cards – an issue close to the heart of any liberal – brings out a more passionate side to Rennie, who drops his grin, at least temporarily, and starts gesturing with his hands as he lists his issues with Swinney’s plan.
He says Swinney got it wrong three aspects – the scale, which expanded to giving 120 organisations access to data, the issue of consent and the idea of attaching a ‘persistent identifier’ in the form of a number, which is the part critics fear would lend itself to ID cards. Of these issues, Rennie is frustrated that Swinney only recognised the first as a problem.
“There is a belligerence there that I found unhelpful, especially when organisations that he has previously called on in aid of his arguments, like the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, are opposed. He’s not necessarily been the greatest fan of the Information Commissioner but when he came out and said, very robustly, that the law might be broken here if he proceeds, then to ignore that was unfortunate.
“I am the only man with a regular spot in FMQs and it does change the dynamic of it, and I need to be conscious of that."
“But I hope that he has got the message from the fact we got the independents, as well as the Greens, onside. That is a clear message because it is the first time it has happened in a long time – that we have all voted together and almost won. They had to drag some MSPs in from all over, from maternity leave and from a visit in a far flung part of Scotland. That shows how close it was.”
Swinney had appeared rattled as the opposition lined up against him, accusing Rennie of scaremongering to build support. Was Swinney taken by surprise by the reaction? He certainly seemed less polished than usual.
“He was irritated because he is normally very cool and calm. That is not like him, and it showed he is under pressure. But on so many liberal justice issues the SNP get it wrong. They got it wrong on the centralisation of the police, they got it wrong on stop-and-search, on corroboration – on so many issues it has been up to the Liberal Democrats to hold them to account. On so many of these issues, if we weren’t here, they just wouldn’t have been raised and we would end up with a more illiberal country as a result.”
The Lib Dems have certainly made the SNP’s lives more difficult on these issues and Rennie says he feels vindicated by his criticism of justice reform.
“We have been doing it consistently for a long time now. I think any idea that the SNP are liberal has been dispensed with and you really need us to hold them to account.”
But there are no guarantees that the party will actually gain any ground from their opposition. Will any of this feature in the Lib Dems’ general election strategy?
“The big message for the campaign is that we want to build a stronger economy and a fairer society so that there is opportunity for everyone.
“The SNP took their eye off the ball during the referendum on key day-to-day issues like the NHS, the police, college cuts, and you could argue that the ID database is another example of that.
“Then you can’t trust Labour with the economy and you can’t trust the Tories with fairness, and that’s why you need the Lib Dems. So that is our unique position in the General Election and that is what will put us on a strong footing from which we can win across the country.”
This is a reasonable enough message, even if it seems to sandwich the Lib Dems between two parties voters already accuse of being too close ideologically. But then the Lib Dems have traditionally occupied an uncertain space in the minds of the electorate – what was it that drew Rennie in?
“I got interested in my teens and I joined when I was 17 or 18. It was the feeling that the Lib Dems were always there to fight for the underdog. The party was always enlightened, outward looking, internationalist, liberal, reasonable, prepared to work in partnership, not tribal – all of that kind of politics is my politics and that is why I joined.”
It is not clear what support the party could count on from 17 and 18 year olds now. Plenty of young people voted for the party in 2010, before the now infamous U-turn on tuition fees.
“I think the boorish nature is the same there as it is here; people still shout and bawl here like they do in Westminster.”
It is tempting to wonder what a young Willie Rennie, fresh from working in his dad’s grocers and looking around at different parties, would have made of the sense of betrayal felt by young people who voted Lib Dem in 2010. If Rennie was 18 today, would he still want to join the party?
“I joined the party in the midst of the post-merger period, which I would probably argue was worse than it is now. It was a really hard period, but at the time I looked around at other parties and I asked myself, is this party going to go anywhere?
“I looked around, and the Greens were not doing too badly at that time, in the European elections 1989, and I looked at Labour – I never contemplated the Tories – and the nationalists were never on the horizon at all, and I thought, ‘nah, I’m not one them, I’m a liberal’, and I will always be a liberal. So yes, if I was 17 or 18 now, then I would join the Lib Dems.”
I put it to Rennie that, in some ways, the story of the Lib Dems acts as an analogy for a wider one, of how individuals themselves come into politics full bright ideas, before realising change is harder than they thought. In the Lib Dems case they arrived at 2010 promising a fresh alternative to Labour and the Tories and in return they delivered a two grand increase to the tax free threshold.
When, for example, will the anger aimed at the party’s U-turn over tuition fees dissipate?
“I don’t think people will ever forget, it is not one of those things that you ever would forget because it was quite a dramatic period and students were a big part of our voter base. But I think that gradually, step by step, they are coming.
“I also think that people recognise that although we got it wrong on tuition fees, we got it right on an awful lot of other areas, so cutting tax, pension increases, getting the economy back on track, childcare expansion.
"So they know politicians aren’t prefect, that political parties aren’t perfect, but that by-and-large, we have done a pretty good job. We held the Tories back where they have gone too far and been that centre-ground force in the Government, which has been good for the country.”
What have other parties learned from the Lib Dem experience of coalition? Nicola Sturgeon has said it would be unlikely the SNP would agree to a formal coalition, that it would be a confidence supply deal. Is that because of the Lib Dems?
“They had their minority administration before we formed the coalition, so I suspect that impacted more on her thinking than the coalition. But I am sure she thinks the coalition has not been successful and that it is not a model she would want to follow. And for a party like the SNP as well, they like their freedom to do what they want when they want, whereas we are prepared to work in partnership for the greater good.
"For us, it more about what you can achieve rather than boosting poll ratings. That is why I came into politics. If you just come into politics to look after yourself, to look after your own party, you would never do what is right for the county.”
"That’s why people are sick of politics, because of politicians putting themselves first.”
He adds: “That’s why people are sick of politics, because of politicians putting themselves first.”
Trust in politicians certainly seems a low water mark. Rennie has worked in both Westminster and Holyrood, as an MP, an MSP and a special adviser, and while Westminster’s reputation is still suffering from the expenses scandal of 2009, Holyrood seems to have steered away from similar controversy.
I ask him, is there a different culture between the two?
Rennie doesn’t think so. “Nah,” he says, laughing, “We’re just as bad.”
“It’s not that different. Of course some of the practices are different, we go home earlier at night, we’re not here until 10 at night and we don’t sit down together in groups in the dining room.”
And what effect does that have?
“I find it really interesting down there. I mean, they do sit in their party groups so it’s not that interactive but if they’re around you then you speak to more people. They don’t sit in the bars as much these days but they do tend to eat together and that allows the chat and the cross fertilisation and for people to get to know each other a bit better.
“I think the boorish nature is the same there as it is here; people still shout and bawl here like they do in Westminster.”
At this point I suggest that PMQs sees much more heckling than FMQs. To an observer, it seems politer here.
“The abuse I hear is pretty much the same. The other issue is that we are apparently incapable of asking short questions and giving short answers. In Westminster they get through, what, 25, 30 questions? We get through ten here, it’s ridiculous how long it takes.”
Westminster also sees more backbench rebellions.
“Yes, that is a big difference, the freedom for elder statesmen, people who are free from their party whips who are prepared to speak out for the longer term – you get that in Westminster, you rarely get that here.
“It is partly because of the referendum and the discipline it brought. The second thing is there’s a new group of MSPs and they are all keen to please. There is no alternative career route, so people can’t go down the committee route and it means people focus on the route to becoming a spokesman or a minister so they toe the line. But we miss not having a senior backbencher here.”
And how does facing Nicola Sturgeon differ from facing Alex Salmond?
“Well, they are different genders.”
I accidentally start laughing at this analysis.
Rennie continues, “OK, that sounds terrible,” before continuing on slowly, as though this is something he himself has been pondering. In fact it is probably something that every opposition leader is pondering. While Salmond was a fairly easy target for them to attack, Sturgeon has approached the job differently.
“She is not as masculine as Alex and that makes a difference for me because the way men treat women is really important and I need to be careful sometimes not to be too strong. So it is about recognising that she has a different style, she is more…” he hesitates, “it is just a different style. It is hard to explain. Alex was very masculine in his approach, very shouty, very aggressive, and Nicola is not that at all.”
“I joined the party in the midst of the post-merger period, which I would probably argue was worse than it is now"
And does the mood in the chamber feel different with women representing the SNP, Labour and the Tories in FMQs?
“I am the only man with a regular spot in FMQs and it does change the dynamic of it, and I need to be conscious of that.
“Just because she is a woman there is a difference, and because she has tried to take a more consensual style, that makes a difference, though she does slip [from looking for consensus]. Alex was very partisan and Nicola is not so much.”
Rennie does not have a clear answer but equally, he seems interested in identifying the difference – perhaps for his sake as much as Holyrood’s.
Unfortunately, by this point, he is due back in the chamber, this time to scrutinise the Government’s economic strategy.
The Holyrood photographer starts shooting but Rennie is still talking, by now discussing his experience of high school in Fife. He says there was a spot, near the school, called the ‘Moathill’ where pupils would meet to fight.
“At school it was always, ‘Moathill, one o’clock’, whenever you got across somebody the wrong way.”
Did you get that a lot? “Oh yes, endlessly.”
It would have been interesting to hear how many of these fights he won. By then, though, time really was up, with Rennie rushing off for his next one, still with a smile on his face. •
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