I've taken a bit of a break from blogging, largely due to increased workload and family commitments in the run-up to the festive period.
In fact, so detached have I been from political developments that I was was completely oblivious to the fact that I was mentioned by Alex Salmond during FMQs on 22nd December. That is simply typical - I watch FMQs all year religiously and then miss the only one in which I am personally mentioned.
Fortunately my MSP Derek Mackay alerted me to this rather unexpected reality and I have spent the last few minutes watching last week's FMQs. Unfortunately it is not terribly interesting or even particularly entertaining, but the official report quotes the engagement between Willie Rennie and Alex Salmond as this:
Willie Rennie: The First Minister must be judged by his actions. I accept that he says that he will support the youth contract, but will he actively promote it? The answer to my question is simple. The youth contract can benefit 160,000 young people. The suspicion is that the Scottish Government is soft pedalling the policy because it was not its idea. By engaging with and promoting the policy, the Scottish Government can do something positive for young people. It also still has in its pocket £67 million from the UK Government. The First Minister can use that to reverse the cuts to colleges. He should take the steps that he can, rather than whingeing about the ones that he cannot.
The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick): Can we have a question, Mr Rennie?
Willie Rennie: The First Minister has had a great year.
The Presiding Officer: Order. Settle down.
Willie Rennie: Will the First Minister finish off the year with some good news for other people? Will he embrace the youth contract and save colleges?
The First Minister: In terms of the youth contract, yes, yes and yes again. In terms of colleges, Willie Rennie will have seen the wide welcome for the initiative and transformation fund in the college sector two weeks ago.
I confess that I have been a follower of Liberal Democrat tweeting—not just of Willie Rennie but of Andrew Page, the former Liberal candidate for Renfrewshire North and West. In looking at Willie Rennie‟s attacks at First Minister‟s questions, Andrew Page said: “Rennie‟s attacks on the SNP leadership have been weak and played directly into Salmond‟s hands while making our party appear small-minded, tribal and idiotic ... it is no surprise the public aren‟t attracted to our broader message.” In the interests of the Christmas spirit, I will disassociate myself from that Liberal candidate‟s criticism.
Willie Rennie: In the interests of the Christmas spirit, I think the First Minister should focus on the needs of the unemployed, rather than making cheap remarks about other politicians.
The First Minister: They were not my remarks; they were the remarks of a Liberal candidate.
The quote came from my blog, not from my tweets, and were in particular reference to criticism I directed towards the publication of a cartoon, which I considered offensive and symptomatic of a misguided and negative approach to campaigning within our party. It is true that I have also been critical of what I consider an unnecessarily adversarial approach towards the SNP but the quote was certainly not an assessment of Willie Rennie's personal performances at FMQs, although I don't blame Alex Salmond for using the quote in that way - the article was in the public domain; I expect it to be used (and misused). But I think it's right to put the record straight - my desire is simply for the Scottish Lib Dem leadership to expend more energies on articulating a strong, liberal message that resonates with the public than in opposing independence and attempting to score points over the SNP's more than capable front bench team. The latter is not a good tactic in any case as more often than not such attempts fail spectacularly.
What did concern me however was the First Minister's determination to use this quote for party-political interests, even when it clearly had very little to do with the pertinent question Willie Rennie had asked in relation to the youth contract.
Still, it's nice to know that the First Minister reads my tweets.
Willie Rennie's response was absolutely correct; refusing to be drawn into any kind of action which could have been construed as, well, "small-minded and tribal" he instead focused on the needs of unemployed people and highlighted the First Minister's responsiblities to tackling joblessness while refusing to be distracted from making progress on the youth contract. In taking this approach he showed the kind of positivity I hope he can demonstrate more frequently in future.
You might wish to watch FMQs on iPlayer: Alex Salmond refers to me at around the 26:00 mark. Watch out for former leader Tavish Scott's excessively outrageous response to the mere mention of my name (before the quote from my blog was read out) - it is really rather disturbing that someone of my limited influence should have this kind of impact on such an experienced politician.