Willie Rennie’s resignation — announced, as only he could, via a self-shot video while climbing Benarty Hill in western Fife — means there’s now a vacancy at the top of the Scottish Liberal Democrats. Given the party holds just four seats at Holyrood and four at Westminster, the summit of Benarty enjoys a more elevated position than the Lib Dem leadership. But can Rennie’s replacement have any more luck in reviving the party’s fortunes?
The party was in government at Holyrood from 1999 to 2007 as Scottish Labour’s junior partner but Nick Clegg’s coalition with David Cameron, the rise of the SNP and the political realignment brought about by the 2014 independence referendum all did for the Lib Dems’ fortunes. Rennie was unable to turn things around but lasted in the job for so long by becoming a prescient and persistent critic of the SNP’s failings.
The field to succeed him is narrow under the party’s rules, which only allow Members of the Scottish Parliament to stand. That means Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart, Orkney’s Liam McArthur and Alex Cole-Hamilton, who represents Edinburgh Western. Cole-Hamilton is all but certain to stand, though he hasn’t said anything yet. He has to be considered the favourite. He’s the most accomplished media performer and also the most likely to have imagined himself walking into Bute House with the West Wing theme music swelling on the soundtrack after an improbable Liberal landslide.
He is fluent in the debating chamber, can summon up authentic passion for things he cares about and is seen as an effective party spokesman. He is too much of a smoothie for some and too aloof for others but, as they say in Texas, you gotta dance with the one that brung ya, and the Lib Dems’ dance card is looking pretty blank otherwise. Besides, if Nicola Sturgeon could reinvent herself as a woman of the people, any political makeover is possible.
Although only ten years younger than Rennie, Cole-Hamilton would represent a generational shift. His liberalism is woker and more identity-driven than Rennie’s radical-centre social democracy but he is no less committed to the Union. By way of electoral success, he can point to capturing Edinburgh Western from the SNP in 2016 and tripling his majority earlier this year. (His result in May was the biggest win by vote share of any of the Lothian constituencies.) Edinburgh Western’s affluent graduates are one of the demographics the party needs to win back from the Nationalists if they are to rebuild their presence at Holyrood.
Leading the Scottish Lib Dems is a thankless task. Leading any political outfit in Scotland that doesn’t have the words ‘Scottish’, ‘National’ and ‘Party’ in its name is a thankless task. But Lib Dems are fortunate in having something that other parties — particularly Scottish Labour — lack: a clear reason for existing. The SNP’s time in power has been marked by great leaps forward for centralisation, illiberalism and government secrecy and there is mileage to be found in advocating localism, liberalism and transparency.
These issues alone aren’t going to return the Lib Dems to their early-2000s heyday — if Rennie’s leadership proved anything, it proved that — but they are subjects Lib Dems are mad-keen for. As long as the next leader keeps hammering away at them, he or she will be afforded the time needed to stir up hints of electoral progress.
How to achieve that progress is another matter. The Lib Dems have no clear offer to the electorate, most of whom frankly couldn’t care about the SNP draining powers from councils, passing authoritarian laws and engaging in more cover-ups than the Cigarette-Smoking Man off The X Files. The voters stopped listening when the Coalition deal was struck and show no signs of interest a decade on.
Rennie’s successor has to find a way of getting through to them and getting at least a hearing, but there is no easy way to do so. Some members would like to see the Lib Dems soften their opposition to independence while others maintain that support for the UK is one of the party’s few identifiable policies with large-scale popular appeal, but it doesn’t much matter either way. Very few people vote for the Lib Dems for their constitutional position. I can’t recall the last time I heard them mention federalism.
If he stands, it’s difficult to see how anyone other than Cole-Hamilton wins but after that he will be in for a long, hard slog to make the Lib Dems relevant again. That’s going to take stamina, ideas and at least the outline of a plan and party members will expect to see all three from whoever hopes to succeed Willie Rennie.
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