The SNP government have had a reasonable eighteen months in which it has done many things that it, the country and in fact liberals can be proud of.
That said, there are times when its decisions really do need to be challenged. It is at times like these that it becomes blatantly obvious that the SNP need quality opposition; the kind of opposition that might be expected from a Scottish Labour Party looking to forge a new identity and reconnect with voters.
Not that Labour are likely to be critical of the SNP's centralising instincts, but I would have imagined that Johann Lamont has had sufficient time to revitalise her party following its catastrophic defeat in 2011, and that she might have instilled in it a new sense of purpose and direction. I might also have imagined that she'd have set out a distinctive policy platform - her speech last week suggested that she has grasped this realisation of the need for distinctiveness, but that there has been little imagination employed in creating this fresh new policy direction.
No doubt that Johann Lamont wanted to project a pragmatic and realistic alternative way forward. What she has succeeded in doing is creating a confused, muddled mess. Her conference speech, like many opposition attempts to outmanoeuvre the SNP, failed dramatically in its principal aim and serves only to underline how divided and lacking in direction Scottish Labour now are. Opinion is divided on whether Lamont is, or is not, lurching to the right; whether this is pragmatic realpolitik or an abandonment of Labour principles. And that's just among Labour members.
Last week also witnessed a rather ugly opposition day debate on "Scotland's future", in which Labour resorted to ugly and personal attacks. If this partisan tribalism is "Scotland's future" then I for one don't want to be part of it. This attitude, particularly on the part of Labour, is evident in all their dealings with the SNP. On last week's FMQs, journalist Eddie Barnes observed that when "Salmond makes a defence of the principle of universal services...Lamont respond[ed] with a personal attack". This tribalism neatly encapsulates everything we've come to expect of Scottish Labour.
Lamont hopes to convince Scottish voters that her party is fit for government. On recent evidence, Scottish Labour isn't even fit for opposition.
So, who else can provide the kind of opposition so necessary in a healthy democracy? The Conservatives? To a point they can. There have been times when I've been impressed by Ruth Davidson. Of course the Conservatives have their own internal difficulties, as well as suffering from inevitable identification with what happens in Westminster. That said, Davidson is having a little more success that her Labour counterpart in articulating a policy direction and bringing her party with her. The principal problem for her is that she isn't Annabel Goldie: she lacks that personal touch and struggles to resonate with the public. When she does challenge Alex Salmond's party, especially on policy, her own ideas are often so out of touch with public sympathies that inevitably it hinders her effectiveness. Davidson is finding a voice for her party, but it is still the toxic voice of Conservatism in the eyes of many Scots.
Partick Harvie is developing something of a reputation. He has the advantage of being entertaining as well as possessing a real knowledge of key policy issues. He is a natural pluralist but isn't afraid to hold the government to account. He also has the advantage of not having his politics determined by a defence of the Union - too often an impediment to reason in Scottish politics. Patrick's Green Party, with its two MSPs, clearly punches above its weight and provide the robust intellectual challenges to the SNP that really should be provided by Labour, but even this falls far short of the quality opposition Scottish democracy urgently needs.
Willie Rennie experiences many of the same difficulties as Patrick Harvie due to the Scottish Liberal Democrats' status as a minority party (with five MSPs). Rennie has a different approach than Harvie, which works best when it is not personality driven and transcends the partisan divisions of Holyrood politics. His FMQs performances have been somewhat mixed but an example of Rennie at his best can be seen in last week's FMQs when he asked a question about extending early intervention for two-year-olds, which he supported with expert opinion on the matter. The First Minister was unable to answer the question satisfactorily, focusing instead on the government's existing commitment to three and four-year-olds. Rennie's response? To praise the progress made already but to add that "I want to join in the consensus...but we need a bit more commitment. If a two-year-old misses out, they miss out forever. We need a radical change to do more.." To which Salmond was left making comparisons between Scotland and the rest of the UK.
When Rennie's contributions are measured, considered and free from personal attacks he cuts a far more assured figure. It also makes him more effective on a number of levels. Firstly, in regards appearances, he is able to project himself as rational and above the pettiness of party politics. Secondly, when he appeals to pluralism, as he did here, he shows a willingness to co-operate while placing the ball firmly in the SNP's court. Thirdly, he is able to create more difficulties for the SNP and the First Minister via this approach than with the kinds of personality-centred methods that have persistently failed to deliver.
Of course, effective opposition goes beyond leaders' performances in FMQs. That really is Labour's problem: Lamont's conference speech has highlighted the divisions within the Labour Party and its ongoing identity crisis. The inability of Labour and the Conservatives to provide the level of opposition democracy demands means that Willie Rennie (and Patrick Harvie) must raise their games. If they are able to provide strong voices, critical where necessary but collaborative where possible, they could forge significant opportunities for their respective parties.
I wrote over a year ago of the need for a liberal renaissance. If that renaissance is to become a reality, then the Scottish Liberal Democrats, and Willie Rennie in particular, have to make opposition work. This is a tough challenge given the limited parliamentary numbers and public identification with the Westminster coalition, but if the quality of Rennie's performance as last week's FMQs is evidence of a new approach to opposition there is every reason to be optimistic.
Certainly, if the attitudes, reason, attention to detail, pragmatism and desire to achieve progressive change that so characterised Rennie's contribution can become hallmarks of the public perception of what our party is, we can be confident that our wider messages will be received more positively. No-one wants to take lectures from arrogant tribalists, no matter how much truth those lectures may contain.
So, in a nutshell, with the principal opposition parties in Holyrood being either in disarray or ineffective, Willie Rennie has to master the art of opposition. It shouldn't be too difficult - after all, isn't opposition what we're supposed to be good at?