“At some stage, I shall manage to convert Willie Rennie,” declared Alex Salmond to a chorus of laughter in the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Liberal Democrat leader had raised again the issue of childcare, this time opting to paint the First Minister as the Homer Simpson of Holyrood in declaring, “if something’s hard to do then it’s not worth doing at all.”
In what became something of an FMQs’ ritual, each week, Rennie would ask Salmond to extend free nursery provision to 40 per cent of two-year-olds; and each week, Salmond would pick holes in Rennie’s proposition that Scotland should mirror childcare initiatives south of the border.
Rennie and I meet the morning after he attended his first meeting of the Scottish Government’s Early Years Taskforce. The Mid Scotland and Fife MSP is one of four new members fresh from a government budget that extends free childcare provision from 475 to 600 hours a year for around 15,400 two-year-olds. It is someway short of the 40 per cent threshold Rennie had spent nearly 18 months calling for. Nonetheless, given provision is to soar from 3 per cent of vulnerable two-year-olds to 27 per cent by August 2015, it is a significant achievement; more so when the party political dimension is filtered in.
Here is a party – their numbers slashed from 16 to five in the last Scottish Parliament elections and pushed into fifth by UKIP in the most recent Holyrood by-election – breathing life into the oft-used adage of ‘punching above your weight’.
“Childcare is the shining example,” says Rennie, “The SNP, first of all, told us that it wasn’t the way that they wanted to do things on childcare, then they told us they were doing family nurse partnerships, then we found out that England was doing the same, then they told us there wasn’t the money available, then we got them the money, then they said it could only be done with independence, now we’ve convinced them that they can do it without the powers of independence… it’s not as good as in England, it’s still only 27 per cent, whereas in England it is going to be 40 per cent, but it is a step in the right direction and none of it would be happening if it wasn’t for us. Now, how can a group of five achieve that if we’re not punching above our weight? By our persistence, our doggedness on this issue, we’ve made sure [of it].”
His argument is premised on a ‘wider purpose’. Firstly, those born into disadvantaged backgrounds deserve a chance, just like anyone else to get on in the world. Secondly, education is a key route out of poverty; an argument of right and of pure economics. “We’re constructive, we don’t just criticise, we don’t just throw rocks at people, we’re there to try and make a difference, and if we can find agreement with the SNP, we’ll do so, and that is what we managed to do on this occasion just through sheer power of persuasion.”
By the power of the argument, they’re winning through, he says, with results not limited just to childcare. As the only major party inside Holyrood to have opposed a merger of Scotland’s eight police forces, evidently, Rennie feels that decision has been vindicated following a year that has been focused on control rooms, front counters, and stop and search.
The Lib Dem leader was the first to flesh out the key pressure points likely to arise with the control room closures last October, using FMQs to shed light on those that were, he claimed, in the firing line. It didn’t win him any friends at Police Scotland, who were privately livid that proposals that did not yet exist – at least on paper before the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) – were being aired in parliament. In parliamentary committee, justice spokesperson Alison McInnes has been, by far, the most vocal critic of stop and search.
“I think they recognise that it was a mistake, that the big bang reorganisation of the police has not delivered the savings that were promised. It’s not delivered more local policing, as they said it would, the police are demoralised by what is happening, their power of discretion at a local level has gone. We are winning the argument on that. It is how we can turn that into a constructive way forward, how do we get policing back into a fit shape, [that] is the next challenge,” says Rennie.
The Scottish Lib Dems know a thing or two about facing challenges. This time last year, ‘resurgence’ was the buzzword at their spring conference, underpinned by recent by-election successes. Mike Thornton was the guest of honour in Dundee having retained Eastleigh – a seat the Lib Dems had held for almost two decades – despite a 14 per cent fall in their share of the vote on the 2010 General Election. Added to which, a ten-fold increase in their share of the vote in East Dunbartonshire Council’s by-election for the Campsie and Kirkintilloch North ward, combined with a 4.8 per cent rise in South Lanarkshire’s Rutherglen South offered optimism closer to home.
Contrast that with today, where by-elections are being discussed in much more hushed tones. Mention of the Cowdenbeath by-election in January – where the Lib Dems not only lost their deposit, but much more embarrassingly, were overtaken by UKIP – prompts a sigh, tinged with exasperation, from Rennie.
“Glenrothes, fourth, 2.5 per cent; Glasgow North, probably much the same; you know, in some seats, we don’t have a residence,” he says. “We would love to but the world has not changed. It was before the Coalition that these other by-elections that I’ve talked about were in that state. We never expected to do well [in Cowdenbeath], we didn’t put any effort into it. If you don’t put any effort into it, you don’t get the return and so we weren’t surprised. We would like to do better, but the real test will not be in those seats. The real test will be in seats where we have got MPs, where we have got representation. And it’s like night and day, you just travel a few miles up the road into north-east Fife and our credibility is completely different; the number of votes we get, it’s quite radically different.”
Rennie believes there is a “route to victory” in every single one of the 11 Westminster seats up for grabs next May when their national message on tax cuts, pension rises, job growth and additional childcare combines with local personalities.
The view that by-elections are not representative of national voting intentions is a truism and fair. But however unreliable they may be as an indicator of electoral fortunes, being outdone by UKIP, a pensioner dressed as Elvis, as was the case recently in Clifton North, Nottingham, and a candidate dressed as a penguin in an Edinburgh City Council ward in 2012, is hardly insignificant, surely?
“I remember when we were beaten by Hamilton Accies supporters’ club in Hamilton in 1998,” Rennie recalls. “In the 2001 election, we had our best result ever across Scotland. So if these elections mattered so much, you would not go on to [be] having these best-ever results at the subsequent election, so you cannot draw any conclusions from these.
“The real test is where it really matters for the Lib Dems which is where we have got strength. Of course, yes, I’d love to win [them]… but if that mattered, it would have mattered before and it didn’t because we went on to have stonking results. Psephologists would tell you that there is no correlation between whether Hamilton Accies or the penguin beats us in these results and whether we go on to have an increased number of seats at the next Westminster election. There is no connection,” he asserts categorically.
Cowdenbeath may well be irrelevant in the grand scheme of things but it isn’t just there that UKIP has threatened the party’s position. For the first time ever in a Scotland-wide opinion poll, published earlier this year, the Lib Dems in Scotland were found to be trailing the anti-EU party. Support had almost halved from 11.5 per cent at the last European elections in 2009 to 6 per cent now, with their only MEP, George Lyon, on his way back from Brussels.
“People have always predicted we would not win an MEP seat,” says Rennie. “Probably every MEP election I can remember, going back years, they’ve always said we wouldn’t win and we did. I think we’ll win again. We don’t take it for granted, but that combination of being very principled and in favour of the UK in the European Union [whereas] the other parties, UKIP want to withdraw, the Tories are flirting with exit, Labour won’t lift a finger, and the SNP, with their changing the constitution, threaten the relationship with Europe as well. All those parties are threatening our relationship, they are not standing up for Scotland and Britain in Europe and we are. We’re unique in that sense and I think people will warm to us for that very reason.” Lyon is a “cracking MEP” and a “big player” in Europe given his involvement in leading the EU budget process, he adds. “People would regret losing George, I think he is too good to lose.”
Their message on Europe is a positive one. An element of doubt hangs over whether that is mirrored in the independence referendum. Rennie is speaking less than 48 hours on from former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy calling on campaigners for a ‘No’ vote to be “more positive” in the run-up to the referendum on independence later this year. “I think Charles is right,” acknowledges Rennie. “I think when he says that Better Together needs to embrace a more overall positive message then he is right in that respect.
“I think what the Nationalists are very good at are twisting the arguments that we make. I think the solid arguments for the United Kingdom are the multitude of unions that we have –we have got the currency union, the trade union, we’ve got the regulatory union, you’ve got an energy union where we share the cost of energy across the border, we’ve got a research union for universities – these are cracking positive reasons for the United Kingdom, but the Nationalists always say, ‘ah well, so you’re saying we couldn’t do those things’, so then they accuse you of being negative. Every positive argument has got a negative argument and there is no way you can turn that round. They have got a negative message as well. They berate Westminster repeatedly, that’s very negative. I think [given] the way that the Nationalists turn it, we have got to make sure that we are clearly positive about the United Kingdom.”
Equally, he adds that the fact that the UK will change post-2014 through further devolution should be emphasised as much as questions should be asked of the SNP’s plans on matters such as currency and future funding for renewables and university research. “The flip side of everything has got a question as to it, but they [the SNP] think every question is a negative attack and it is not.”
Given Kennedy felt the need to speak up, why has the pro-unionist campaign not been more positive? “Well, if you’re saying No, by its very nature it’s negative, isn’t it? When you’re questioning a proposition, that is a big thing that you have got to do, and dare I say it, journalists like to have negative headlines as well. I’m not blaming anyone else for this, but you know, there’s a tendency to drift into that mentality and Charles is right just to shake us every so often and say, ‘come on, get back in that direction’.”
The party in Scotland has been through a shift of its own. Personnel changes a year or so out from the referendum were seen as indicative the campaign strategy had changed. Michael Moore, though much praised for his work on the Scotland Act and for delivering the Edinburgh Agreement, was ushered out from the Secretary of State for Scotland office to make way for Alistair Carmichael, until then chief whip and MP for Orkney and Shetland.
Rennie suggests Carmichael is probably as feisty as the FM – and he was repeatedly held up by the Lib Dems as a figure who would put Salmond in his place. In the media coverage that followed, inevitably, that became shorthand for ‘political bruiser’, an image that Rennie dismisses as lacking in any substance.
“That was not true, that was not true. I’ve known Alistair for years, I’ve known him since 1987 in Paisley and he’s never been a bruiser, he’s always been jovial, he’s got a great sense of humour. If you follow him on Facebook, [there are] some really fascinating comments about things, about the world. He’s a really bright, intelligent guy who is going to make a big difference in this job. He was never a brusier – that was always how he was painted and you can’t control what people talk about. It was partly because he was in the Whips’ Office and he had responsibility for getting people into line, but anybody who knows Liberal Democrats, it is more by persuasion than it is by bullying – that is not who Alistair is.
“Yes, he is feisty but that doesn’t mean he’s a bruiser. There is quite a difference between the two. You can be passionate about politics, and politicians should be passionate about their politics, and that is what he is. He really strongly believes in what he stands for and that is a good thing, people just know very clearly, in plain language, what you’re talking about because politics can be a very foggy kind of area and nobody really knows what anybody is talking about, but with Alistair you get clarity. I think he’s doing a great job, a really great job.”
Was it the right time to have made such a change? “Absolutely, yes. I argued for a change; it was absolutely the right time to do it,” says Rennie, separating the political campaign from the referendum process while heaping praise on both MPs as “excellent politicians”. “Just because you have a change does not criticise one over the other and vice versa – you’re allowed to make changes in teams.”
Was he always conscious that such a reshuffle would be needed? “I don’t want to go into all the who said what, when, where, why, but these discussions, the reason why I tell you this is because I take personal responsibility for the things that I argue for, I am not going to hide behind anybody else. I had a role in this and I am not going to hide behind anybody, I’m not going to hide behind Nick Clegg and say it was him that made this decision in order to maintain my relationship with Mike. That’s not what I do, I’m very open and up front about these things. Mike is a great politician, and he did a fantastic job in the Scotland Office. Alistair, equally, is a great politician, as Mike Moore says, and will do a fantastic job. It’s a change – it’s not a demotion. They’re both great people.”
As the first party north of the border to lay out a post-2014 blueprint for further powers, suggesting, among other things, Scotland could raise around two-thirds of all the money it spends, Rennie has remained vocal on the need for unionist parties to spell out reforms in the event of a ‘No’ vote. Labour has since followed suit, its party conference backing the proposals of the Devolution Commission in recent weeks as leader Johann Lamont claimed a ‘No’ vote was a “vote for change”.
Has the unionist camp done enough to convince voters of that, however? “I don’t think the Nationalists will ever accept that what we say is enough. I don’t expect them to endorse it,” says Rennie. “I think people, the more that they see all the leaders, UK and Scottish, say that we’re going to do more powers, the more compelling it will be. So I think by the time the referendum comes, people will know. And if we don’t deliver it afterwards, people will have the power to change who’s in charge. So that’s why saying it and saying it often with clarity is really important so there is no turning back and people will know that. If they can see in people’s eyes whether they believe it and I think they will believe it because we will say it and we will say it often and with conviction.”
Rennie is still pressing for a joint statement pre-18 September from all parties in Scotland committing to changes, though he seems chuffed that the issue is at least gaining traction outside of the Lib-Dem rump. A follow-up report from the Lib Dem Home Rule commission, chaired by Sir Menzies Campbell, recently laid down a timetable for action in the event of a ‘No’ vote.
It is ambitious, proposing that the Secretary for State for Scotland convenes a meeting within 30 days of the referendum result ‘where parties and interests can meet’ to seek a consensus on further extension of powers to the Scottish Parliament. Commitments ought then to be included in party manifestos for Westminster in May 2015 that pertain to two areas of consensus the Lib Dems believe exist: that the Scottish Parliament should raise most of what it spends; and that Holyrood should be permanently entrenched. Provisions to strengthen the powers held by Holyrood would then be included in the Queen’s Speech next year. If all went smoothly, Rennie believes further powers could be delivered within six years.
“A lot of the stepping stones have been put in place already, the income tax stuff, the 10p rate, a lot of the other taxes, those things are already [there], the mechanisms, the relationships with business in order to get the changes implemented have already started, so I don’t think the technical barriers are massive. I think it’s relatively smooth in that respect, so I would envisage 2020, [that] is what I would think. Some people are saying you need to have a UK-wide process and I want the UK to change as well, but I don’t think it has to be an all or nothing. You can do things incrementally over time, so we get on with the Scottish stuff that we’re quite clear about and we can get the other stuff done as we progress.”
Surely clarity on the fine detail of further powers will take more than a matter of months between the referendum and manifestos being drawn up. After all, different manifestos are going to be arguing for different things.
“We don’t know, we don’t know,” replies Rennie with regard to how specific a post-referendum agreement might be, insisting though that the assumption that parties are offering “widely divergent propositions” is not the case. “Every politician I have heard accepts that constitutional change is delivered on the basis of cross-party consensus, that is what happened with the Calman process in the run-up to 2010, all the parties put in lines in their manifesto referring to that, so it was quite minimalist in terms of what was in manifestos. But the change was effectively agreed and delivered afterwards. There was still quite a lot of work to be done afterwards because the technical process of drafting the Bill and working through the technical working groups with the business community and so on needs to be done. I am sure it will evolve over time, but I don’t see that as a big issue.”
It is those two principles – raising the majority of what is spent, and permanency of Holyrood – that can offer an overarching framework. And, yet, even on these, the consensus that Rennie speaks of is somewhat flimsy. Labour has suggested the Scottish Parliament could raise only about 40 per cent of its own revenues. However, that has been challenged already by think-tank Reform Scotland, which says their plans equate to just 26 per cent. Ben Thomson, chairman of the Devo Plus think-tank, which flowed out of Reform Scotland, claimed the proposals amounted to “tinkering” with the current system.
“It is a major step from where they were,” says Rennie. “If you look at where they were two years ago, none of them were talking about this stuff, so it is a step in the right direction. We’re obviously saying more, but it’s [a] big [step], so yes, I think they’re moving in the right direction. We would obviously go further, we would wish that they put more in it, but they’ve gone far. I know Ben isn’t convinced by it and he would like them to go further, I accept that… [but] I don’t share his view that it is just tinkering. I think Labour have made a massive step, in principle. I’d obviously like them to go further, but I’m an eternal optimist with these things, as you’ve gathered.”
The Tories, meanwhile, have yet to add their long-awaited contribution via the Lord Strathclyde Commission. However, speaking to Holyrood in the last issue, the Prime Minister was guarded, only saying parliaments and governments should be “significantly accountable” for the money they raise as well as spend. Does Rennie realistically see them going as high as the Lib Dems? “Who knows, wait and see. [Through] the power of the argument, just like we persuaded the SNP on childcare and colleges, I’m sure we will be able to persuade the others on the merit of our case because Devo More, Devo Plus, ourselves, are all arguing for the same kind of level. It’s a safe, stable amount of money… People like this place, people like the fact that we’re able to make decisions about the domestic agenda – hospitals, schools, colleges, universities – they like that, but they know there is something missing, they know that if we want to do something different, because we don’t hold the purse strings, we can’t do it.
“You might not choose to do anything different at all, but the fact that you can’t, changes the power of this place. I want this place to think about the taxpayers and the people who contribute towards this as well as the people who are going to receive the service. I also want them to have the ability to do something different if we choose to do so. Now that is missing just now and I think you need to get above 50 per cent in order to have that power and authority. Forty per cent will do it as well, but I just don’t think it will do it as well.”