Willie Rennie: Things will come right for the Liberal Democrats
Only the most optimistic person would set themselves the challenge of running 117 miles over the course of a dreich Scottish weekend. Luckily, optimism is something Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie has in ample supply.
And he has needed it. The toils of a gruelling run over the Easter weekend from Kincardine to Newburgh are evident when Holyrood meets Rennie at his home. The snow is falling in large flakes outside. He is limping from aches and pains in both legs, including an Achilles injury in one ankle. Yet Rennie’s broad, cheeky, trademark grin endures.
Despite his obvious discomfort, he describes the ordeal of four and a half marathons in a row as “a great experience”, one which saw “huge numbers of people” come out to cheer him on or share parts of the route with him.
“We got taken hostage in Pittenweem and dragged into somebody’s house to have soup,” he remembers.
“The views on either side were stunning, and I had the most intelligent weather in the world. It knows exactly which direction I’m going in and faces the opposite, just to make it challenging. From snow to hail to driving wind and rain. But those make it all the more memorable.”
In a challenge dreamt up on his 50th birthday in September, Rennie raised over £9,000 for mental health charity SAMH, with donations coming from all parts of the political spectrum and beyond.
Although he says he’s unlikely to run such a long race again, his enthusiasm for running shows no sign of abating, with another ultramarathon, the Loch Ness marathon and the Alloa half marathon planned for this year alone.
It sounds a bit like an addiction.
“Oh aye,” Rennie laughs. “My name is Willie and I’m a…”
But the positivity required to face driving rain and keep smiling has proved useful in Rennie’s political career as well.
After losing his short-held Westminster seat of Dunfermline and West Fife in the 2010 general election, he was elected to the Scottish Parliament on the list the following year, in a contest which saw the party lose all its mainland constituency seats, retaining only Orkney and Shetland.
There was a sense that the party was being punished by the electorate for its role in the UK coalition government with David Cameron’s Conservatives, and in 2014, the Lib Dems lost their only Scottish MEP, George Lyon.
The 2015 general election was a low point, with the party losing 10 of its 11 MPs, including coalition minister and hotly tipped leadership prospect Jo Swinson, as the SNP swept the board. In the following Holyrood election, the Lib Dems fell behind the Scottish Greens into fifth place.
But the shoots of recovery were starting to show. Two constituency seats were gained, including Rennie’s in North East Fife, and in Theresa May’s botched surprise general election of 2017, three seats were won back from the SNP, with North East Fife going to a recount which saw the SNP’s Stephen Gethins win by just two votes.
Amidst all this, Rennie’s running obsession has proved “a great distraction from politics”, he says. He describes stepping out of his office to run up Arthur’s Seat when he needs to clear his head.
“You just think about the problems you’ve got and all of a sudden, ‘bang’, the solution comes to what you should do. Or maybe you’re heading down the wrong way and you don’t realise it because you’re in the weeds or something, and then running just forces you to think and change direction.”
The trick may well have proved useful in recent months. Even though the party has just five MSPs, the lack of an overall majority in this parliamentary session has meant the smaller parties have influence.
However, Holyrood points out that on arguably the two biggest votes of 2018 so far – the Scottish budget and the Scottish Government’s emergency legislation on Brexit and transferring EU law into Scots law – the party has been divided.
Both Liam McArthur and Tavish Scott backed the Scottish Government’s budget while the other three MSPs opposed it, and Mike Rumbles voted against the EU continuity bill, saying he wanted “no part of voting for what I believe to be an illegal bill”.
Is Rennie presiding over the most divided party in the Scottish Parliament?
“No,” he laughs.
“In terms of the budget, we were very clear on what Liam and Tavish needed to do to stand up for their constituencies. So, although they voted differently, it was a strategy we all agreed.
“They weren’t rebels, they weren’t going off and doing their own thing, therefore, we were very clear about what our strategy was.”
Rennie describes a balancing act where the Lib Dems wouldn’t give the SNP enough votes to push the budget through without another agreement, but enough to recognise a significant concession on a single issue.
“It was a determined strategy to make sure we got what we wanted for the Northern Isles, because it was incredibly important for us.”
Orkney and Shetland, after all, are the only two consistent strongholds for the party in both Scottish and Westminster elections. Indeed, the Westminster seat has been held since former leader of the Liberal Party, Jo Grimond, won it in 1950.
“It’s been a very important area for us so we’re not going to let them down,” says Rennie.
The outlier, then, is Rumbles. When the continuity bill was passed, which will now be contested in the Supreme Court, Labour’s James Kelly said of Rumbles’ speech: “I have to say that I would not fancy being the chief whip on that group.”
At this point, his colleague Neil Findlay pointed out, to laughter, that the Lib Dem chief whip is actually Rumbles himself.
The matter was “not funny” Rumbles had said, but a “serious point”.
“I believe that our devolved parliament’s reputation will be greatly damaged because of that referral to the Supreme Court, and it will be damaged unnecessarily.”
Rennie describes the position as “a legitimate point of view. It’s just that the rest of the group disagreed with it.”
The group of five MSPs, he insists, communicate well.
“We’re a good group and we work well together,” he says.
“I don’t like us voting in different ways, it’s important not to, because we’re a coherent group 99 per cent of the time, it was just those two votes we had a difference. But it was all done with a strategy that was clear with us all at the centre. But I don’t want it to happen too often.”
When it comes to the budget, the Liberal Democrats were well placed to influence policy, given on paper their priorities were not dissimilar from the Scottish Government’s stated aims. However, Rennie says it remains difficult to provide backing when the “big picture” is a question over a timing of a referendum on independence.
“We’re always frank with the SNP about that. If they can come up with a package that wows us, that convinces people it’s worth crossing that constitutional divide to back, then we’re prepared to look at it. But it is a big price, because it’s a big issue.
“We’re a party that won’t support independence, we think it’s divided the country in a way that has been deeply damaging, therefore, we cannot provide any support for that continuing, so we’ll use every opportunity to ensure we can stop that.”
This year might have proved the Liberal Democrats’ best opportunity to have that influence, however.
With the SNP coming to terms with losing its overall majority, the Scottish Greens upping their demands, and the prospect of a second independence referendum on the backburner as all parties tread water over Brexit, wasn’t this the perfect opportunity for Rennie to exert influence on issues close to his heart, such as mental health provision and policing reform?
He is clearly mindful of shifting sands when it comes to the constitutional question, noting the pressure put on Nicola Sturgeon by SNP members and other independence supporters.
“Yes, she has done pretty well at just not talking about it, but you see little signs of it cracking open and you cannot allow yourself to be lulled into supporting something that is strategically important for the whole year when it could just change like that.”
The SNP also “stored up huge problems” due to a timid approach in the last parliamentary session, he says, pointing to the “elongated council tax freeze” and “the inability to use the new powers”.
“So, in some ways, you can’t just look at the narrow budget in one year, you’re looking at the wider constitutional issue and you’re looking to the damage that has been stored up.
“You make a good point, because this year, probably more than most, it could have been possible, but for us, in the end, our analysis was that it wasn’t, and what they were offering just wasn’t enough.”
Nevertheless, the Lib Dems have been able to make a difference, Rennie argues, including raising the profile of mental health, nursery provision for vulnerable two-year-olds and widening the focus on colleges to include those who need to study part time, such as women and older students.
“I was laughing out loud at the radio on Monday morning when there was a piece about the Pupil Equity Fund, which Angela Constance degraded for years when she was the minister.
“Every time I raised it, she’d say, ‘it doesn’t work in England, we’re not going to do it here’, then I listen and bang, now they’re parading it as a huge success. You just pull your hair out.”
Indeed, versions of the Liberal Democrat pupil premium policy introduced in England under the coalition government appeared in both the SNP and Labour manifestos in 2016. Rennie thinks Scottish Labour took the idea from Wales, where he credits Welsh Lib Dem leader, Kirsty Williams, for turning the Welsh government on to the concept.
While Labour in Scotland has based itself on “bitter opposition” to the SNP for “a long, long time”, the Lib Dems have instead focused on a “positive promotion of liberal values”, he says.
However, this longstanding commitment to a more constructive, collaborative approach and the willingness to work with others backfired in spectacular fashion for the Liberal Democrats.
The pupil premium aside, the UK coalition remains a damaging experience for the party. Then leader Nick Clegg had warned of riots if “extreme cuts” were pursued, only to help deliver those cuts as deputy prime minister.
Most notably, the party presided over the trebling of university tuition fees in England and the scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance, despite having promised students tuition fees would be scrapped within six years.
How does the party win back trust and avoid an identity crisis where they can never work with another party again?
“It’s about making sure you draw the right lessons from the coalition,” says Rennie.
The biggest of these, he suggests, is delivering on what you say you are going to do. Doesn’t that mean clearly identifying your red lines ahead of a negotiation?
“No. I mean, in any negotiation you never reveal your red lines, because you just become weak in the argument.
“It’s important that you do what you say and the emphasis you give things is the right emphasis and that is followed through. So, we gave emphasis on the student finance thing, it was a core group, and we let them down.”
This includes defending “big liberal issues” even when it might seem unpopular.
“Not everybody agrees with us on China, for instance. We’ll be very forthright in our promotion of human rights and charging Nicola Sturgeon on that issue,” he says.
“On those kind of things, people might disagree with us but they know we really mean it, that we’ll stick to it. That’s the lesson you’ve got to draw.”
One of those issues, arguably, is the constitutional question. But with Ruth Davidson apparently enjoying some consolidation of the unionist vote behind the Scottish Conservatives, where does this leave the Liberal Democrats?
Rennie contests the claim Davidson is “hoovering it all up”, pointing to the Lib Dem gains in 2017.
“I’m not after an ultra, kind of Ruth Davidson position, because it’s not where we are,” he says, predicting people will get “fed up” of the constant constitutional divide.
“There’s only a certain reach for that kind of message.
“There is a group of people who were perhaps pro-independence at the time but maybe not so enthusiastic now that will be looking for a new home. We’ve got to make sure that post the bitter tribal period we’ve got just now, there’s an opportunity for us.
“You can see over the last two decades, if you follow the rise of the SNP, there tends to be a dip in Lib Dem support and vice versa, so there is a group of people who want a non-Labour, non-Tory alternative that we are often able to appeal to. I think that’s part of the answer. We will be ready with our vision when the time of the SNP is up.”
Despite prevailing narratives from many unionists, the Yes vote in 2014 came as much from people who just wanted a different kind of country, Holyrood suggests. If the Lib Dems hope to attract former Yes voters, they must provide a vision for a different kind of Scotland.
“There is an inherent contradiction between the outward-looking, optimistic approach that the SNP try to promote independence being about and breaking off with your nearest neighbour,” he says.
“There’s an inherent contradiction in that message but there isn’t in ours. Ours is that optimistic, outward-looking, generous, you know, looking for the best in people, not the worst, being altruistic for people next door or around the world in the future. That kind of Liberal vision, I think, is what the SNP was trying to tap into with the independence campaign, but we’ve always rock solid believed in it.”
Federalism, Rennie suggests, is the embodiment of a more optimistic approach.
“The rhetoric behind an awful lot of nationalist messages is a demonisation of what the rest of the United Kingdom is, and it’s an unhealthy one.
“It’s not necessarily what Nicola will say, but if you look beyond the surface of it, some of it is unpleasant about what we say about our neighbours.
“I want to live alongside our neighbours. I have respect for them. I used to live there myself. I don’t think it’s healthy. I don’t think you can deliver an optimistic, outward-looking, generous country if you’ve such a view of your neighbour.”
Rennie’s vision of an altruistic, welcoming country might sound familiar, but in the modern political era, it is a philosophy which has come under attack across the world. The election of Donald Trump and the result of the Brexit referendum have characterised a reaction against a perceived ‘liberal elite’ where people like Rennie can be labelled as ‘snowflakes’.
If Rennie fears for liberalism, he isn’t admitting it.
“There is a movement, and in any time of economic recession you get the usual thing of people turning in a bit, trying to look for scapegoats and blaming other people. That’s a message that attracts, and I can understand why some people might feel that way if they’ve lost their job, lost their identity and lost hope, that maybe it is the person next door who is the problem.
“I can understand why people feel like that, and it’s my job to present a much more positive avenue for them to achieve their goals. That’s what we’re about.
“So, do I fear it? It’s always a battle to make sure you look for the best in people, even when things are pretty tough. But I don’t fear that they are under attack. It’s not the view of the world that I’ve got. I just think it’s a constant challenge to persuade people to embrace rather than fear or repel. For some, that is really hard.”
The railing against the elite is more of a grievance with big corporations in the wake of the 2008 financial crash, he suggests.
“People were prepared to tighten their belts for a bit to get through the recession on the basis they were sharing the load and that those who did wrong would be punished. But it never happened. That’s what people are annoyed about.”
Nevertheless, through no action of their own, the position of the Lib Dems has gone from one of being a safe middle option, a ‘none of the above’ party, to being the defenders of values that are under attack across the world.
“Yes, but what gives me confidence, what really gives me confidence is on things like when we speak out about stop and search people say, ‘yeah, that’s not right, that’s far too much.’ That gives me confidence. That is really optimistic.
“When I go out and say, ‘I think we should all chip in a little bit more tax’, a lot of people say, ‘yeah, that’s the right thing. I’m prepared to do that.’ I see lots of people who are prepared to reach out rather than close in on themselves.”
He adds: “I don’t feel as though I’m under constant attack. Of course, there’s people who disagree with me, and there’s always Twitter… What they don’t realise is I’ve muted most of them.”
Rennie points out the Liberal Democrats are the only party to represent the majority view of both referenda in Scotland, advocating remaining in both the UK and the European Union. It is strange then, perhaps, that it hasn’t seen more of a boost in the polls.
The party has pushed for another UK-wide referendum on the final deal on Brexit, and Rennie insists it is about that timing, that voters are waiting to see what comes out of negotiations.
“The recession had a cataclysmic change on politics, Brexit will have another cataclysmic change, but the actual kickback from it will come later when they see the consequences of it,” he suggests.
“I do think people will feel frustrated at the end of this process. All they hear is white noise, for a long, long time, but apart from the exchange rate, not much else has really changed that is big and noticeable.
“All of it is political negotiation and nothing really seems to move. But when we don’t get £350 million a week, when we’re struggling to get care workers, fruit pickers, university staff, nursery care workers and those sectors are really struggling and the NHS really struggles and waiting times are even longer because we don’t have the people we need, we don’t have our tax take and we see pressure on that front.
“When all of those things happen, I think people will be looking for change, and we can provide that change, so we’ll be consistent, we’ll stick with it. You do what you believe. We believe this.”
But won’t that be too late to stop Brexit? Couldn’t the party have elected a younger leader, like Jo Swinson, and made a dramatic push to consolidate Remain voters rather than install 74-year-old Vince Cable – a prominent figure in the coalition – and adopt a wait-and-see approach?
No Remain MP appears to have considered defection from Labour or the Conservatives, despite major internal divides in both parties. Meanwhile, a handful of businessmen are said to have donated £50m to launch a new centrist party.
“Most people were annoyed there was an election, first of all,” says Rennie, defending the Lib Dem approach.
“We’ve been very clear and consistent throughout it that people should have the final say, and some disagree strongly with that. I’ve seen in my 30-odd years in politics how, all of a sudden, things can just come right because of the positions you’ve taken some time back. I think this will be one of them.”
There’s that optimism again, but if Rennie thinks the ‘cataclysm’ of Brexit is what will lure people back to his party, it will have already happened and the Lib Dems might be cursing the missed opportunity of preventing it in the first place.
With their values under attack and the shadow of Brexit hanging over the party, what message of hope can the ever-optimistic Willie Rennie offer party activists who gathered in Aviemore at the weekend for the party’s spring conference?
“Stay true to what you believe,” he says.
“Redouble your efforts to explain to people the advantage of stopping Brexit and of people getting the final say. Redouble your personal efforts to make that change, and to ensure that when the elections come, we win even more seats so we can have an even bigger voice than we have got just now.
“We quadrupled our MPs at the last election, so the challenge next time is to quadruple again,” he grins.
“You’re in the Liberal Democrats because you believe in that optimistic, outward-looking, generous, altruistic approach to the world. It’s a philosophy. If you believe in that, fight for it.”