The best of Scotland's Lib Dem bloggers were invited to put questions to Scottish leader Willie Rennie in Edinburgh on Wednesday evening. Unfortunately Caron Lindsay was unable to attend, but myself, Douglas McLellan, Gavin Hamilton and Nicola Prigg were present to ask Rennie some timely and sometimes challenging questions on a range of issues facing Scotland and the party.
"I'm a Home Ruler"
Given my often expressed support for constitutional change and Scottish independence in particular, I kicked things off with a question on the position the party will take during the coming referendum campaign. "Do you recognise the liberal case for independence?" I asked, pointing out that Liberal leader Jo Grimond had once observed that "not to go far enough may be worse than going too far". Many liberal objectives could be far more easily achieved in an independent Scotland than via the current political arrangements - would it not be advantageous having the opportunity to remove the ties that bind and start again? I also asked whether the party recognised that many members' convictions are at odds with the party leadership on this matter, and whether all members would therefore be free to campaign as their consciences and convictions dictated.
In regards the members' convictions, Rennie intimated that he recognised this and would naturally be happy to let people campaign as they saw fit, even candidates, but added "I'd prefer if you didn't".
Rennie was quite dismissive of the "liberal" case for independence, arguing that it would require withdrawal from the EU to achieve some of the liberal aims I referred to. I was not at all convinced by this, but didn't press it further. Rennie reiterated that he is an internationalist, stressed that Scotland is not "a nation by itself" and underlined his conviction that the best way forward was in "sharing common status in every part of government...sharing wherever possible". He went on to argue that the UK platform increases Scottish influence: "to opt out would be a mistake", he insisted, especially in relation to international development. Separating from that is not advancing liberal principles, he concluded.
But what about the localism that the Lib Dems preach with such gusto, I queried. Nicola Prigg was also keen to discuss the constitutional question and seemed concerned at the lack of a federalist vision being advocated by the party. Douglas McLellan (also independence-sympathetic) was interested in discussing economic factors and the nature of that mysterious and ill-defined beast, Home Rule.
There exists established expertise and reputation, argued Rennie. The established unit has integrity and, despite what some may think, culture is a major aspect that binds together. UK economic strength, international respect for the military, the long-term security provided by the welfare state are all positives that should be retained. He went on to dismiss what is popularly referred to as "Devo Max": what that amounts to, demonstrated Rennie, is a full fiscal autonomy which is merely one step away from independence. It would take just a short-term crisis to trigger a constitutional break-up and simply reverses the current position whereby Scotland is dependent on London. London would instead be dependent on Scotland. What's so liberal about that?
What Rennie supports is "Home Rule", which is entirely different from "Devo Max", although I'm not too sure the general public fully appreciate the distinction. Rennie is a passionate Home Ruler (Gladstone would be proud) and he's keen to further the cause of "Home Rule" which he described as "full fiscal federalism". Why the federal party has done precious little in recent years to facilitate this vision he didn't say, but he did explain some of the thinking behind his position. He believes his "federalist Home Rule" vision will offer security for the future not inherent in the loose proposals that form Salmond's "Devo Max" option. But he admits that there are reasonable "objections to Westminster" which need addressing urgently. Scots voters are frustrated that there is no mechanism and "no power through which to do things differently" and this must be changed. In regards the financial settlement, Rennie insisted that "we should raise what we spend" and dismissed the Barnett formula as unfit for purpose. "It doesn't meet Scotland's needs", he said.
So, I asked, what about a second question on the ballot paper? Surely there is an opportunity here for the Lib Dems to achieve the very objectives we claim to champion. If, as expected by many, Salmond loses the referendum, a second question relating to a devo-max/Home Rule option will give the Lib Dems 1) a reason to campaign positively in the campaign, 2) influence usually beyond our parliamentary representation, 3) the scope to influence the question and 4) the best opportunity in decades to actually have liberal principles and our vision for Scotland's constitutional future translated into reality.
Rennie answered in the negative. Not a single academic supports a two-question referendum, he stated as justification. (I told him I'm sure I can find at least one and will return to him on that point.) A second question would be "treated as second class" (by who I'm not sure). So what position will the Lib Dems take up in the referendum campaign? We will "work up the programme to be delivered" he suggested, "using the big debate to influence other parties." Elaborating on that last point, Rennie focused on Westminster as a sphere of influence to be exploited by the Lib Dems and where we can work constructively with other parties to achieve results. But surely that effectively rules out a positive working relationship with the SNP?
Personally, I am convinced that Willie Rennie is far more fearful of "Devo Max" than he is determined to make "Home Rule" a reality. It is a great pity because I believe the party's underestimating the unique opportunity that stands before us. I explained to him that if there was a well considered, practical, broadly liberal and visionary proposal for Scotland's future included on the ballot form even I may be tempted to vote "no" on the first question. Unfortunately, this had little effect.
"Hug a Tory"
In respect to David Cameron's recent intervention, Nicola Prigg asked if the Prime Minister could be trusted. We were all more than a little surprised when he insisted that not only was his contribution welcome but that we should take it at face value and embrace it. Cue lots of talk about hugging Tories in which I felt quite uncomfortable (visions of Theresa May don't help!). I asked if Rennie felt Cameron's words were substance or simply a symptom of political tactics - he seemed quite convinced that Cameron is genuine, something Nicola didn't seem entirely sure about.
Rennie was bound to get round to discussing Alex Salmond at some point and he didn't disappoint. According to Rennie, Salmond is "distorting his mandate" with an "obsession for independence", something that has only been evident since the election. Rennie bemoaned the fact that the SNP were keen to be addressing many issues before the 2011 election, but now only seem concerned by the constitutional question. I did point out that it was his predecessor Tavish Scott who had spent so much time talking about independence and telling anyone who would listen that "a vote for the SNP is a vote for independence" that we can hardly complain now.
Douglas McLellan asked if Rennie could be clear about what we will offer in the future and how it will be achieved. Rennie was keen to explain that this is a "big test" for the party: "can we get what we want delivered in this window of opportunity? As for the second question, no academic supports it. We have to have confidence in the mechanism. What Salmond is trying to do is drive a wedge between people who support Home Rule, trying to cause chaos in the likes of us." He did add that the right way of looking at the constitutional question is to start from the basic question of "what will a future Scotland look like...what do we want it to look like?"
What's the point of the Liberal Democrats?
Gavin Hamilton asked Rennie "what are the Liberal Democrats for?" Rennie pinpointed four key principles which he believes define the Scottish Lib Dems: opportunity, community, internationalism and sustainability. He went on to explain that we are a party of "enduring values" committed to "liberating people". He talked about the need for emphasis as well as principle and policy, describing how the emphasis the party has placed on equal marriage is now bearing fruit. He also explained how the party's identity and role can be determined in how it responds to events, such as when it stood up to Alex Salmond in respect to his remarks about the Supreme Court and the English riots.
"Innovation in public service"
Gavin asked a complex question about the future of Scotland's public services and how the Lib Dems can promote a credible package of positive reform. Rennie seemed at ease describing how liberals would remove targets, decentralise control, lighten the audit regime and empower staff. He cited recent reforms of the police service as an example of when government gets things badly wrong and control is taken back into the centre. He criticised the current "risk averse" culture of public services, condemning the "safety first, anti-innovation, controlling" attitudes that are almost synonymous with Scotland's public services and instead advocated control from the bottom. How should the state respond? With "innovation in public service...[and by] encouraging and embracing community capacity and voluntary action." He talked about the need to change attitudes councils and the independent/voluntary sectors, particularly the perception that if the council doesn't directly offer a service it isn't good enough. Rennie seemed particularly keen to paint a picture of a future Scotland in which standards were retained and built on by services becoming more responsive to the needs of individuals and communities.
Town Centre rejuvenation
Nicola asked Rennie how he proposed to tackle the problem of declining town centres. Describing the experience of her home town of Ayr, she wanted to know what ideas the Lib Dem leader had for town centre regeneration. Rennie was also keen to talk from experience, referring to recent developments in Dunfermline (clearly the centre of the political universe). He talked at some length about how responsible town planning and citing new developments responsibly and with consideration to the likely impact on town centre trade can yield positive results. For example, the new Debenhams in Dunfermline created a significant increase in footfall into the town centre. While the online trade and move towards more leisure experiences inevitable draw people away, there is a positive future for town centres if responsible planning can "create anchors" and marketing is improved. Rennie also discussed the need to stimulate enterprise, focusing on building the confidence of potential entrepreneurs and empowering them to take elements of risk. "Is reluctance to establish new business a question of attitude or finance?" he queried, suggesting that in his mind it was generally due to a mixture of the two.
"Change the language"
Douglas wanted to know Rennie's views on the impact and potential of modern campaigning and social media. What was the impact of social media at the last election, what is it likely to be in future elections and what impact does it have on activist engagement? Also, as a party, are we falling behind?
Rennie praised a few of his office staff for their contributions, especially on twitter. He then turned to the "Nationalist agenda" to change the language people are using. He described a "cybernat network" which has aspirations to "challenge the way debate is described". At times this is unhelpful, for example when the SNP's reaction to the English riots was to suggest "we're different" at a time of great travesty. That encouraged more people to say such things, said Rennie. "But the serious point is this: how do we convey our values online?" We also have to reconsider the language we are using to frame the arguments and more effectively communicate our principles.
I asked Rennie about the need to develop a Scottish Lib Dem "brand". Ideally one that was positive. "We need to move away from the 'managerial mode' of the Blair-Brown era" indicated Rennie. "We must move away from the prescriptive to the visionary. The SNP recognise this. While Iain Gray was talking about X number of police officers and Y number of knife crimes, Alex Salmond was painting an appealing vision that was actually attractive to people and we need to replicate that positively in a language people understand."
Rennie seemed suspicious of my suggestion, preferring to emphasise the need for substance over appearance. But there's no doubt that the party needs to be a professional campaigning outfit and he claimed that consideration had been given to "the brand" as I called it - and in particular areas of identity that the public recognise and can associate with. These are the overall vision (where do we go?; what would a liberal Scotland/world look like?), our behaviour now (how we say things; our tone of voice) and our history (record; where we've come from - in the case of Home Rule, it's "in the blood").
"It will be our time again!"
Gavin was interested in Rennie's views of the Lib Dems' prospects in the forthcoming local elections and beyond. "Local elections? That's what Lib Dems do best!" laughed Rennie, reminding me more than slightly of A. A. Milne's Tigger. "It will be our time again" he pronounced, especially if the party can "prioritise" what it communicates, pursuing issues that "advance the belief in liberalism, not just the party". But isn't that the kind of blind optimism so often projected by Nick Clegg, the "take it on the chin - we'll bounce back" assumptions which fail to appreciate the gravity of the situation we're in?
Optimistic? Yes, agreed Rennie. But not blind. I reminded him of my call for him to lead a liberal renaissance. "I can only control the controllables...and being in government for eight years did very little for the policy development process. But the Liberal Futures work is doing some useful work and we're leading local action in communities. There's reason to be positive."
I must confess to being less than convinced on that score.
Equality matters and CARE
I asked a question from the Very Rev Kelvin Holdsworth about Rennie's acceptance and continued use of an intern supplied by right-wing "Christian" organisation CARE. I also asked what, beyond equal marriage, can the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish government do to facilitate greater equality and respect for diversity of which the legal definition of marriage is simply one piece. I also pointed out that, while the Lib Dems have historically been good on LGBT rights, too often the needs of bisexual people are overlooked and trans people ignored. How can this be rectified?
This can only be achieved by cultural change, insisted Rennie, of which the government and the party are but individual drivers. He's obviously a believer in society driving social change, with politicians providing a great deal of the energy. He recognised that equal marriage is merely one step- but a highly significant and hugely symbolic one which will do a lot to "normalise" same-sex relationships and remove the stigma.
His answer in respect to his CARE interns was what I expected rather than hoped for. Rennie said it was vital not to "disrespect those who think differently" and talked up the value of his CARE interns: "they are quality people making a positive difference to the party". Indeed they might be, I interjected, but that isn't Kelvin's concern. The issue is with the organisation and [Rennie's] willingness to receive gifts from and be associated with this right-wing group. This didn't appear to concern him much, and he was dismissive of the criticism. "The idea that these people can influence policy is ill-founded. In accepting them we are saying that we are a tolerant and open party willing to engage with others." Hmmm. We could still do that without our leader taking CARE's interns - we are, after all, a party that had Gordon MacDonald as a parliamentary candidate - and it seems a fundamentally flawed logic to me. I wonder if Rennie would be so keen to accept interns from a myriad of other less than savoury organisations in a quest to show "tolerance"?
Gavin was keen to ask Rennie about the Westminster government's welfare reforms. Rennie was equally keen to explain that this is simply another example of how, as a minor partner in a coalition government, we are unable to get everything our own way. he stressed the positives: notably the universal credit which he claimed was overdue and the work programme. He described how current arrangements have become more of a trap than a safety net and while housing benefit changes are "tough" it is vital to take a look at incapacity benefits. The fitness to work test must be "robust" and take into account "the variability of [certain] conditions". The proposals might not be perfect, but Liberal Democrats "are pushing internally for the changes we want [and] Steve Webb is very active in this even if he doesn't shout about it."
Unfortunately our time with Willie Rennie concluded here and we were unable to ask further questions on new groupings within the party, Lords reform, Gaelic education and Rangers FC.
Many thanks to Willie Rennie for his time and to Caron Lindsay for setting up the event. I believe this was a valuable and useful event, allowing us not only the opportunity to touch base with the party leader but also to gain insights into some of his thinking. While I didn't agree with all of it, I was impressed by his thoughtfulness and his unquestionable honesty.
I must also thank all of those who sent me questions to put to Willie (mainly on constitutional issues) which I tried to incorporate into my own line of questioning.