Willie Rennie: despite Brexit, there is still reason to be hopeful
Willie Rennie - Image credit: Holyrood
This has been an astonishing year to work in or follow politics, and at many points it has been gloomy.
Most of us never pictured the day that proroguing would be discussed on the news as a genuine tool to overrule parliament’s will.
We hoped Boris Johnson’s desperate attempts to get his hands on the top job would remain a fanciful dream and we thought a million people taking to the streets of London demanding a say on the Brexit deal would be enough to make the government sit up and listen.
But there is still reason to be hopeful.
We still have time to stop Brexit and waves of protests by young people across the globe are making companies and governments rethink their emissions policies and wasteful attitudes.
The Liberal Democrats also have plenty of reasons to be positive.
In the past year, our party in Scotland and across the UK has gone from strength to strength.
We’ve enjoyed incredible electoral success and we have an enthusiastic new leader in Jo Swinson, who is dedicated to ending the chaos, uniting the country and pushing for change.
Buoyed up by electoral success at the local council elections in England, we enjoyed a tidal wave of support in the European elections in May and sent Sheila Ritchie to the European Parliament as our Scottish representative.
We also stormed to success in Brecon and Radnorshire last month and in doing so bestowed upon Boris Johnson the unwelcome award of quickest PM to ever lose a by-election.
This year the Scottish Parliament celebrated its 20th birthday.
The occasion gave us fresh reason to reflect on the progress the parliament has made, but also to acknowledge how much it still has left to do to ensure that every Scot has equal opportunity and the support they need.
At its beginning, the parliament was a force for unity and shared endeavour. I think the days of unity of 1999 could teach us something in 2019.
Over the course of the last year, and in the face of relentless constitutional wrangling, our parliamentary team has kept an eye on what matters and held the government to account on incredibly important issues including mental health waits and skyrocketing drug death rates.
We’ve shone a light on the crumbling police estate and the need to better resource the care system to alleviate the burden on frontline health workers in our hospitals.
We’ve pushed for reform of the fatal accident inquiry system to ensure bereaved families get the answers they deserve and we’ve offered the SNP serious solutions to reform the justice system as our prisons reach breaking point and rehabilitation stalls.
It has also been a year of change for our Scottish parliamentary group.
At the close of the parliamentary session, Tavish Scott announced his decision to leave politics after over 20 years as a loyal representative of the Liberal Democrats and the people of Shetland as a councillor, parliamentarian, minister and leader.
From the day the Scottish Parliament was re-established, he put the people of his constituency first and campaigned fiercely on their behalf.
His careful scrutiny of education policy and resolute opposition to the separatist agenda of the SNP were hugely valuable.
It’s never quiet in Holyrood and I don’t expect this coming year to buck the trend.
We need to make real inroads into cutting treatment wait times, lightening the load on overburdened NHS staff and A&E rooms and making sure people struggling with their mental health can get help fast when they ask for it.
Teachers in schools across the country are running lessons in classes with far too many kids and are doing so without the staff back-up they need.
I’ll be using this year to push the government to improve teachers’ settlements, review their pay and conditions and cut down on the unnecessary administrative duties that take them away from their pupils.
Climate change is still progressing at an alarming rate and although the Scottish Liberal Democrats have made progress in making airlines more accountable for their emissions and in promoting sustainable heating sources, we have plenty more to do.
In their usual blinkered fashion, the SNP have been organising citizens’ assemblies on the future of Scotland while simultaneously legislating for the outcome they’ll push ahead to achieve regardless: independence.
Given the problems I’ve outlined above, it’s clear the Scottish Government’s focus is in the wrong place.
I sympathise with the many Scots who feel that with the Brexiteers and nationalists we face fires on both fronts.
If a Brexit deal goes ahead in any form, we’ll feel the effects of it for many years to come.
Our economy will be seriously damaged. Many companies will restructure, relocate or close shop completely. Public services will suffer with both funding and staff shortages and the cost of living for every household will inevitably go up.
Most of us have watched on in horror as Nigel Farage and his Brexiteer base have thrown this country into chaos in pursuit of their separatist ideology.
Scottish nationalists don’t welcome the comparison, but this devastation is what they’re eager to mimic in Scotland on an even larger scale.
Scottish independence would prove even more costly to our businesses and trade connections because of the close links we’ve fostered for 300 years.
Although in recent months some of the Labour and Conservative parties have faltered in their advocacy of the United Kingdom, the Liberal Democrats have not.
We don’t want another independence referendum. We don’t want the division that will bring and frankly, we think there are more important things that deserve government attention.
When you look at the state of the world, the prevalence of poverty and the challenges of climate change, it’s obvious that we need to work together across borders and forge new partnerships to tackle the big issues.
The spectacle of Brexit has shown us small-minded separation is something to avoid.
It causes rifts between neighbours and wastes precious parliamentary time that could be used to improve our education system and give the NHS the extra help it needs.