Ren­nie’s ram raid raised a laugh but his Lib Dems must be taken se­ri­ously

Scottish Daily Mail - - Election 2017 - Stephen.Dais­[email protected]­ly­

DE­NIS HEALEY fa­mously de­scribed a Com­mons jeremiad from Ge­of­frey Howe as ‘like be­ing sav­aged by a dead sheep’. Wil­lie Ren­nie has gone one bet­ter and man­aged to get him­self sav­aged by a live one.

The Scot­tish Lib­eral Demo­crat leader was do­ing a photo-op at a farm in Kelty, Fife, last week when one of the rams took a dis­like to him and charged. Thank­fully, Mr Ren­nie sits next to the SNP back­benchers at Holy­rood so he has some ex­pe­ri­ence of deal­ing with sheep.

He was able to fend off the beast with­out in­jury to ei­ther side but not be­fore the wait­ing pho­tog­ra­phers cap­tured the scene for pos­ter­ity and the Lib Dem Christmas party blooper reel.

It’s not even the North East Fife MSP’s most eye-pop­ping an­i­mal en­counter. Dur­ing last year’s Holy­rood elec­tion, he paid a visit to a pig farm and gave an interview to the BBC. What nei­ther Mr Ren­nie nor the in­ter­viewer no­ticed at the time were the two swine in the back­ground who, in a pos­si­ble show of faith in the Lib Dems’ child­care poli­cies, be­came rather too amorous in their pen. The video shot around the in­ter­net, shared by politi­cos, pun­ters and no doubt some ex­pats sur­prised by how risqué Dr Fin­lay’s Case­book had be­come in their ab­sence.


Once upon a time, such pit­falls awaited all politi­cians but ever since the in­flux of spin doc­tors, poll­sters and im­age con­sul­tants, elec­tions have be­come crash­ingly dull. Theresa May is invit­ing jour­nal­ists to cam­paign Press con­fer­ences but re­fus­ing to take ques­tions. You’ve al­most got it, Prime Min­is­ter.

Mean­while, the teenage Trots who elected Blakey from On the Buses leader of the Labour Party are boo­ing re­porters for put­ting him on the spot. No won­der vot­ers are fed up with elec­tions when politi­cians cam­paign in­side a cor­don de­signed to keep or­di­nary peo­ple out.

That is what is so glo­ri­ous about Wil­lie Ren­nie’s elec­tion­eer­ing style. None of that re­mote, snob­bish ar­ro­gance is to be found. He couldn’t af­ford it – he needs to meet as many vot­ers as pos­si­ble and catch the eye of hacks ob­sessed with the SNP-Tory match on cen­tre court.

Don’t mis­take this for triv­i­al­is­ing the serious busi­ness of choos­ing the next gov­ern­ment; Mr Ren­nie has shown him­chief self to be one of the most serious fig­ures of the past five years. His party was se­verely pun­ished for Nick Clegg’s coali­tion with David Cameron and when he took over the lead­er­ship he was one of only five Lib Dem MSPs.

It would have been easy for him to turn on his col­leagues at West­min­ster and dance to the SNP tune of at­tack­ing the coali­tion. He re­fused, say­ing that he re­spected op­po­nents of the al­liance but be­lieved the fi­nan­cial cri­sis meant put­ting coun­try ahead of party.

When the in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum came along, he could again have chased pop­u­lar­ity by back­ing a Yes vote but in­stead he be­came one of the most vo­cal de­fend­ers of the Union.

Af­ter the Brexit vote, this leader of a party for whom home rule and the EU are the al­pha and omega came un­der pres­sure to soften Lib Dem op­po­si­tion to sep­a­ra­tion. He faced it down, well aware it could prompt some of his mem­bers to de­fect to the Nats.

Since Mr Ren­nie took over he has re­peat­edly de­fied re­ceived opin­ion in­side and out­side his ranks and been vindicated ev­ery time. And de­spite hav­ing only a hand­ful of MSPs, he is the par­lia­men­tary foe Ni­cola Stur­geon con­sis­tently un­der­es­ti­mates to her peril.

On the rou­tine de­ploy­ment of armed po­lice, stop and search, and the SNP’s failed China deal, he has made life dif­fi­cult for a com­pla­cent and se­cre­tive gov­ern­ment.

Ob­serve how Miss Stur­geon squirmed at last week’s FMQs when the Lib Dem pointed out her Janus-faced po­si­tion­ing over the EU.

That’s Mr Ren­nie’s se­cret weapon: Tory leader Ruth Davidson brings vol­ume and Labour’s Kezia Dug­dale em­pa­thy but he has the dead­li­est skill of all in a royal court – the im­per­ti­nent ques­tion.

That is the ap­peal that the Lib Dems are mak­ing to the vot­ers in this elec­tion. North of the Border, Wil­lie Ren­nie will re­sist the SNP’s con­sti­tu­tional fix­a­tion and shine a light on the fail­ings that it tries to hide.

Down south, Tim Far­ron will give a voice to mil­lions of mod­er­ate vot­ers who do not want to see Bri­tain un­der­mine its econ­omy and cut it­self off from the world.


But there is a third man cen­tral to a re­vival of lib­eral politics, a man whose name has not been men­tioned yet in this elec­tion cam­paign. The death of for­mer Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy left a void in Scot­tish pub­lic life that will never be filled. He was the man of the Left that even the grouch­i­est Right-winger couldn’t help but like for his hon­esty and in­tegrity.

Many who didn’t share his politics still feel sin­cere anger at the cam­paign of bul­ly­ing and abuse mounted to un­seat him shortly be­fore his death in 2015. The SNP could never have beaten a man of his met­tle any other way.

If the Lib Dems are to re­turn in Scot­land, and across the UK, it will be by car­ry­ing for­ward the Kennedy spirit of fair­ness and de­cency. It won’t hap­pen in a sin­gle elec­tion but there are rea­sons to be hope­ful. Jo Swin­son, for­mer MP and min­is­ter, is stand­ing again in East Dun­bar­ton­shire, giv­ing vot­ers the chance to choose a lo­cal MP who puts their com­mu­nity ahead of an­other an­gry ref­er­en­dum cam­paign. Vot­ers in Ed­in­burgh West who feel let down by the SNP may look to their im­pres­sive MSP Alex ColeHamil­ton and reckon it’s time they had a Lib Dem MP again too.

Above all, the party has Wil­lie Ren­nie and whether he’s fend­ing off farm­yard as­sailants or vol­ley­ing down slides in chil­dren’s play ar­eas, he is re­mind­ing elec­tors that the Lib Dems are still around and, in stand­ing up to the SNP and for sen­si­ble cen­trism, they still hold the values that at­tracted so many vot­ers in the first place.

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