Sunday, 15 January 2012

Willie Rennie: Union is "out-dated"

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie has labelled the Union "outdated and over-centralised" in an article written for today's Sunday Herald.

Rennie used the opportunity to advance a liberal Scotland, which he feels can be best achieved through localisation of decision making. He criticises the Union, while stressing that it's the government structure he's opposed to, not a continuing relationship with people from other parts of the UK. They weren't the strongest words ever penned by a Lib Dem leader, but in the current circumstances it's a useful start. He also touches on the Liberals' history of promoting Scottish Home Rule and points towards a Scotland of tomorrow which is fiscally independent while remaining within the "UK family".

In short this wasn't a particularly detailed piece and raises a number of questions, but it was promising and far more positive than what we have heard from other key Liberal Democrats in recent days. I don't accept, for example, that the Lib Dems' "track record of delivery" is strong; having achieved the creation of the Scottish parliament we haven't delivered very much since to further Scottish devolution or our vision of a federalist UK. And while Rennie wisely avoided criticising nationalism or independence, he didn't say a great deal about how his vision of a more autonomous Scotland can be achieved or - more tellingly - whether he will commit the party to campaigning for a "no" vote in a referendum.

All the same, this was a useful contribution. The party now needs to put some meat on this skeleton of broadly constructive ideas - starting with the Home Rule Commission. I also hope that Scottish Conference will have a full and proper discussion on the matter before our leadership commits us to supporting an option many liberals are fully opposed to.

Willie Rennie has, in his short piece, demonstrated three things: a) he's not Nick Clegg, b) he understands that the Union is an outdated concept and c) that to defend such a Union in a referendum campaign would amount to intellectual doublethink.

So thank you Willie Rennie for your carefully chosen words. I look forward eagerly to what you have to say next!


Gedguy said...

Nothing has appeared on this story. Is this because you have forgotten to write it, pressed the wrong button or Willie Rennie has nothing to say on the subject ;-)

Andrew said...

It was my fault - I'd written it and saved it but not published it. It's on here now!

Dubbieside said...


Willie Rennie has not told us anything that we did not know already.

He says he wants "government closer to the people" yet he supports rule from Westminster over Holyrood, remind me again how far Westminster is from Scotland, and I do not just mean physical mileage, but ideology, ideas visions.

Reminds me of an American political TV advert "where's the beef"

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your summation of the piece by Rennie.

Clegg was saying the same thing, though, wasn't he, in his so-called 'extremist' speech?

He, like Rennie, seemed to indicate that he favoured a middle path between what Salmond wanted and what Cameron and Miliband wanted.

Johann seems to have nailed her colours to the Tory pole (dangerous, as Liberals know); Willie seems to agree with Nick.

Will they campaign actively against the Tories and Labour for a third question, do you think?

BTW, there seems to be a rumour that Alex wants a third question...presumably because at least if he loses independence he will get something. (I suspect that he wanted the negotiations on the revised Scotland Bill to be completed when the campaign started so that the status quo would be at least a little better if that was what was chosen).

But he's made it clear in parliament and in the press, and radio that he favours two choices; in or out. He has, though, said that the consultation is just that...a consultation.

There's no point in having one if you aren't going to listen to what the respondents say. (Some say this is a convenient get out, but you're damned if you and you're damned if you don't... and that's politics.)

On the other hand Cameron and Lamont seem determined to have it their way, to set the agenda before asking the people what they want and to hell with the Scottish people.

(This brings to mind the Westminster voting referendum where they wouldn't have the option that people wanted.)

It seems to be the Tory way to refuse referenda on things that they know they will lose (Europe), and to "fix" referenda so that the option that people may very well vote for is excluded.

That's why in Scotland we don't desperately care for them....well, OK it's just one of the reasons.

Andrew said...

No, of course he hasn't but as least he resisted the temptation to indulge in negativity or to criticise the SNP, Alex Salmond or independence itself. As you say, nothing new, but it's interesting to note what he didn't say and he seems to have finaly seen the wisdom in not seeking to have a go at the SNP every time he gets the opportunity.

As I pointed out though, there are a lot of questions that remain in regards the Lib Dem direction on this. I will keep asking them. But at least this hasn't given me reason to be pessimistic, unlike some of Clegg's interventions.

Andrew said...

Tris - well, I think Clegg's a bit confused. The "extremist" statement was unwise, but the gist of the message was that the Lib Dems should be seeking to find a middle way, rather than support either "extreme". Then, for all of last week, he identifies himself with one of those extremes, ridiculing Alex Salmond and forming an anti-SNP alliance with Cameron and Miliband. Like Lamont, he's seemed quick to nail his colours to the mast. Very curious. It's in that sense that Willie has shown himself to be different to Clegg; Clegg seems quite obsessed with Alex Salmond and has been entirely contradictory. Willie (so far) seems to realise there's a better way to go forward.

I think the Tory obsession with "fixing" the referendum could yet prove futile. Alex Salmond can ask whatever question he likes; of course, he needs Westminster assent to implement the outcome. But if Westminster continued to interfere to frustrate Salmond's 2/3 question referendum, then it will naturally simply increase support for independence.

Of course, if there is no "devo max" option on the table, either during or after the referendum campaign, where do the Lib Dems go? By siding with the "no" campaign (if we do) we will have killed off the chance of achieving it for a generation at least. There's some serious strategic thinking for Willie Rennie to do.

Dubbieside said...


Thank you for your reply. No SNP bashing! well we can be thankful for small mercies.

Re you, "There's some serious strategic thinking for Willie Rennie to do."

Yes indeed there is, however what I would like to ask is, if Willie Rennie and either his Scottish MSPs or the Scottish party membership wanted Dev Max on the ballot paper has he the power or the influence to get it there, or could Clegg just ignore him?

Andrew said...

Well, Clegg could ignore Willie. That would be an expensive mistake for Clegg to make, but might actually help Rennie, strangely enough. If Scottish Lib Dems as a party decide to support the devo max option, it would be very unwise for Clegg as leader of the federal party not to allow it to become Lib Dem policy, unless he really wants a war with Scottish Lib Dems or to give Rennie the opportunity to distance himself from London.

But essentially yes, even in our "federal" party Clegg is by no means obliged to accept the Scottish party's views. Alcohol pricing being one such issue from the recent past where we have had diametrically opposed policies.

Gedguy said...


I was right in my 3rd question: he has nothing to say. This piece [and a small piece it was indeed] is called 'sitting on the fence'. I wonder if he wrote this because of what McCleish had written in the Herald the other day? So far, Rennie has said nothing of note. It was all airy fairy wishwash, which, sadly, the LibDems are renowned for. At least Clegg has firmly nailed his colours to the Unionist mast whereas Rennie, by this article, can't even find his colours never mind the mast. I was a disappointment and I suspect that you feel the same way but just don't want to say it.

Andrew said...

Well, I'm disappointed in the sense that it could have been far more adventurous - and wasn't. There's absolutely no detail of note. But this "airy fairy wishwash" is a better starting point than the kind of sub-unionist opposition to independence I had expected.

My purpose in focusing so much of my writing to this in the last few months is to speak to the party and the leadership about the need to adopt a less hostile position towards the SNP and independence, while steering clear of negative campaigning and whatever else may further toxify the Lib Dem brand. While this doesn't necessarily indicate that Willie Rennie is listening to people like myself, it at least gives us some reason to be positive that he's taking us seriously.

Put it this way - I won't be returning my membership card just yet. Of course I want far more from Willie Rennie - only time will tell if he will provide it.

Gedguy said...


I sympathise with the position that you hold and respect your stance. I may not fully agree with it but, at least, you have pinned your colours to the mast.
Lang may yer lum reek.

DougtheDug said...

Hi Andrew, what I actually get from the article is that Willie Rennie is simply promising jam tomorrow if Scotland votes no.

Unless there is a commitment by the Lib-Dems to help define and to endorse a devo-max option on the referendum then it's just pie in the sky and that endorsement can only come from Nick Clegg as the leader of the Lib-Dems.

The problem for the Lib-Dems is that the time for the, "wouldn't it be nice if...", type of thinking shown by Willie Rennie is long past. What is needed now is a definition of devo-max and for the Lib-Dems to bring on board the Labour party to ensure that there is a chance of devo-max making it through Westminster.

I was listening to Joyce MacMillan and Lesley Riddoch on Sunday Politics Scotland today and although Joyce MacMillan had the political nous of a haddock and thought that the Scottish Government could somehow make devo-max happen unilaterally Lesley Riddoch had it nailed and said that unless Labour came up and endorsed whatever devo-max solution was to be placed on the ballot paper then it was not worth putting it on there.

If it's not there and Scotland votes no then devo-max is just as dead as independence. Are the Lib-Dems federalist or not and will they endorse a devo-max definition from civic Scotland? I somehow doubt it.

Andrew said...

Hello DougtheDug,

I agree with you that for the Lib Dems to be taken credibly they must do everything they can to ensure that the preferred option of devo max makes it onto the ballot form. It is a strange logic that insists that campaigning against independence in the hope that Scottish voters will reject is somehow a first step towards devo max. I also agree it's time to stop the wishfiul thinking - we're essentially a fringe party on the margins of Scottish politics and we will not be taken seriously, nor be influential, unless we can work with others to achieve them. This is why I have little expectation of teh Lib Dems' home Rule Commission making much of a difference; while it might say some timely and hopefully useful things, it can not hope to seriously influence Scotland's future unless Labour will support its proposals. And more than likely they won't. Articulating a positive message will do the party some good, but more importantly the Lib Dems have got to be pragmatic and begin to answer the question: how can devo max be achieved and what can we do as a party to make it happen? I've yet to hear anything remotely convincing from the Scottish Lib Dems.

I don't necessarily think that devo max is dead. But it isn't the most likely outcome and unless the Lib Dems not only make the philosophical and political case but also convert words into action no-one will believe we are a federal party. Why should they? While I have come to support independence for a number of reasons, one contributory factor is that I lost faith in the Lib Dems and Labour ever having the political will to deliver. Actions speak louder than words and in the years since devolution was achieveed nothing further has been seriously attempted.

I'm not suggesting that Willie Rennie's piece is wonderful, but when I heard he'd written it I was privately fearful it would make references to the "SNP bulldozer", the value of the Union, etc. It might be a classic promise of "more jam tomorrow" but at least he avoided negativity and reinforcing the kind of stereotyping so loved by "unionists", and refused to be drawn in to aligning the party with the "no" campaign.In the context of what's been said in the last week it was a sober, if smewhat unimaginative, article.