Monday, 14 September 2015

Overdue honesty from Willie Rennie - but when will we admit our mistakes?

Willie Rennie: Better Together was "dark" and "secretive"
It's been a while since I've blogged.

It's been so long in fact that people are asking me what's happened.

Well, there was the issue of a lengthy hospital admission shortly before the General Election, a more recent rather nasty road traffic accident that left me unable to get around, the birth of a new baby (Heidi, who is now 11 weeks old), and the challenge of balancing my work and responsibilities with KaleidoScot with political activity.

It should also be said that I've become increasingly frustrated with life as a Liberal Democrat and, while I remain a convinced liberal and a card-carrying member, my motivation for activism has been somewhat drained of late. In short, I often have other things to do. There's nothing like a bit of honesty, saying it as you see it.

Which brings me to Willie Rennie.

I like Willie. I really do. Readers of this blog might not always have realised it, but we agree with each other 95% of the time - and when we don't I understand his good intentions.

Interestingly, during the weekend Willie decided to offload his frustrations about the Better Together campaign to a Herald journalist. It made for fascinating reading and suggested that - after all the talk - there's even more that we agree on than I'd ever have imagined.

During the independence referendum campaign I frequently complained about the tactics, strategy and negativity of the Better Together campaign. I blogged about Better Together's "disappointing negativity".  I questioned Better Together's commitment to Free Speech. I asked how "liberal" Better Together was, suggested their tactics were counter-productive, and insisted that even if Better Together's strategy won the battle it would ultimately lose them the war.

I even argued that the Liberal Democrats should have withdrawn from Better Together entirely. Basically, I failed to see any political or electoral advantage from association with a campaign that was ineptly led, characterised by negativity and ill-informed asides at the SNP, resorted to peddling patronising semi-truths (at best) and which inevitably allied us to what was a Labour-dominated tribe in which our voice was completely sidelined.

I recall very clearly the party's response to my criticisms. Senior Lib Dems were always on hand to trot out the tired "it's not negative to ask hard questions of the SNP" line. Others stated that data sharing would help us fight the General Election more effectively (remind me how that went). Yes, they might concede that Better Together had made mistakes, but the Yes side weren't perfect either. There seemed a complete lack of willingness to accept that the Liberal Democrats were getting very little from being identified with a terrifyingly incompetent and at times rather nasty campaign.

It seems, however, that Willie Rennie agrees with me - and others who made similar observations.  Behind the mask of acquiescence, privately Willie and other senior Lib Dems had serious concerns about Better Together on virtually every level. They certainly appear not to have bought into the "positive case for the union" lie that many of our own members, doubling up as Better Together activists, were trying to sell on doorsteps across Scotland.

Willie told The Herald that Better Together was “shambolic in its development”, its output “dark”, its operations “secretive”, and that - while it won the referendum did so in a way which "didn’t make us feel very good about it”. That all sounds very familiar.

He even targeted David Cameron as the man who "did more damage to the Union than the SNP had done for years.” Well said Willie.

He didn't stop there. He criticised the internal dynamics of Better Together, in which the distinct parties had little in common other than shared opposition to independence. “It was a clash of three different political parties. We all had very different visions for the union, so inevitably the common element was what we were against, which was independence.

“So to get a consensus, you were focusing on the negative. You couldn’t do a positive vision.”

Turning on the divisive influence that was Scottish Labour, Willie added: "Labour had a dark campaigning style. It was very secretive. Everything would be last minute. You would never be told much about what was going on until it happened. We all suffered. The Tories and ourselves suffered more, but some in Labour were out of the loop as well."

He describes a situation in which a closed clique was all-powerful. "It was Blair [McDougall] and Rob [Shorthouse]. People like that were making decisions and had this addiction to secrecy. It was quite shambolic in its development. Internal communications were poor. You just weren’t told about plans. Things were kept back." He also expressed frustration at the baffling decision to use some of Better Together's least attractive supporters to defend the union: "You want to give people confidence in the UK, not mavericks [like George Galloway].”

According to Willie, Better Together was top-down, negative, inept, unable to grasp opportunities and with a tendency for self-destructive actions. He's not wrong - but I could have told him this a couple of years ago. In fact, I did.

Willie added a final, rather interesting observation. He claimed that Better Together failed to make a strong "emotional" case, and admitted that yes Scotland managed to be "more open, more trusting, more positive about the country, and present a bright vision for where we want to be. That’s what the SNP managed to sell quite effectively. It was all hogwash. But they sold it quite well, and that’s to their credit. I just wish we could do a bit of that ourselves.”

This is a very welcome admission form our Scottish leader. On a personal level, I find it quite affirming - especially given the opposition (and at times abuse) I received from fellow members for saying precisely the same thing. It's vital that - given the potential for another independence referendum in the not too distant future - the Liberal Democrats learn the necessary lessons. Never again can we be allowed to find ourselves mumbling impotently on the sidelines, our positive ideas being reduced to academic footnotes in a poisonous and tribal narrative.

However, while I am happy to praise Willie for his (overdue) honesty, I still have some questions. Why did these experiences not demand a change in his own strategy and choices? Why did the Scottish Liberal Democrats remain (publicly at least) so assenting towards Better Together? Why did we allow ourselves to be effectively sidelined, thus depriving ourselves of the opportunity to sell our genuinely distinctive policies on Home Rule and federalism? Does the party now accept that association with Better Together had destructive consequences? Does Willie rue not making a case for the second question on the ballot form?

Most importantly, have the Scottish Liberal Democrats moved on from the binary thinking that frame the independence debate? Certainly, the counter-productive General Election strategy of appealing to "No" voters in the Labour and Conservative parties suggests we have some way to go on that front.

While Willie Rennie's remarkable honesty in the Herald interview is very welcome, there appeared no willingness to admit to mistakes or provide any explanation for the way in which decisions made during the referendum campaign have contributed to our current predicament. His criticisms of other parties and the organisation are justified and accurate, but I'd be reassured to know Willie understands the degree to which some of the choices made in recent years have ill-served the party.

I'd be even more reassured if he could confirm that he understands that rebuilding the party requires reaching out to SNP-sympathetic voters and selling a distinctly progressive - and Scottish - vision, rather than concentrating his efforts on convincing unionists to begrudgingly lend us votes. Whether we like it or not, the new political realities require new thinking - and an insight into the reasons behind our increasing irrelevance.


Helena Brown said...

Sorry but having read Willie Rennie's comment I have to say I disagree with most of what he said, the only bit I could agree with was that the Better Together lot, were in my words not his the Dark side. Willie's comment about Scotland resembling an East European Country does not compute and I certainly suggest he travels more.
I understand the Liberal wish to see a Federal Britain, perhaps pushing that angle in the Referendum might have saved your Party, but holding to this disunited kingdom and the shenanigans of certain people since will not endear your party nor Willie to any one who wants a fair shake for Scotland.

David said...

Started this post a few times then I realised that Mr Rennie just isn't worth the effort. One of the more useless MSPs at Holyrood and that's saying something when you look at the Labour benches. No doubt he'll manage to squeeze back in, but will serve very little purpose. More pain to come I fear.
You seem a decent cove, so keep your chin up.

cynicalHighlander said...

Sorry to hear of your recent misfortunes bar your newborn of course and trust you are settling down to disturbed nights.

Willie on the other hand is nothing more than an opportunist who will say anything to get himself into the headlines like when he commented in the Telegraph supporting Carmichael in that lying smear of the FM. Willie is not leader material and only became one because your party had no other choice at the time. He went into Better Together with gusto and bravado as it got him into the limelight so all he is doing is trying to cover his tracks for the elections next year and no doubt he will be top of the list vote as his constituents will reject him as they have done the past.

Your party have let the voters down all for individuals to get some personal prominence and without a clear out of those who see the LibDems as nothing more than a step on the political rung then its fortunes are in the lap of the Gods as the voters have given up on them.

Tommy Whoosh said...

I must be wrong, because I was sure Willie Rennie was willing part of Better Together. I thought I saw his smiling, laughing face at Better Together events in the company of Messrs Lamont, Darling and Davidson. Just shows how faulty my memory is.

Tommy Whoosh said...

My memory really is failing. I was sure Willie Rennie was a keen as mustard member of Better Together, regularly attending Better Together events with Messrs Davidson, Darling and Lamont. I'd better go and get some memory training.