Scots Lib Dems to reclaim Steel and Kennedy spirit

Willie Rennie said the late Charles Kennedy was a 'great liberal' whose example should inspire the party. Picture: Robert Perry
Willie Rennie said the late Charles Kennedy was a 'great liberal' whose example should inspire the party. Picture: Robert Perry
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SCOTTISH Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said his party has to be “militant for the reasonable person” by reclaiming the mantle of politicians such as the late Charles Kennedy.

Mr Rennie said the party must reclaim Mr Kennedy’s “radical and reforming” approach if it is to recover from its near electoral meltdown in Scotland and heavy defeat at UK level.

The Lib Dems were left with just one MP in Scotland on 7 May and were reduced to five MSPs at the 2011 Holyrood election as the party faced a backlash over its decision to serve with the Conservatives in the UK coalition government five years ago.

However, Mr Rennie said his party could recover from its electoral setbacks and remake itself as a radical voice in Scottish and UK politics as he delivered a keynote speech in Edinburgh last night.

Mr Rennie said the Lib Dems could re-establish themselves as the party of “conscience and reform” that Mr Kennedy led, which opposed the last Iraq war in 2003 and won its highest ever number of MPs at the 2005 election. He said the party in Scotland and at UK level under the new leadership of Tim Farron could reclaim the mantle of Mr Kennedy who died earlier this year from a “major haemorrhage” linked to his battle with an alcohol problem.

Mr Rennie hailed Mr Kennedy as a “great liberal” as well as a champion of “home rule” and devolution for Scotland whose achievements he said could inspire the party to climb out of the electoral doldrums north and south of the Border.

He said the pro-Europe and pro-migration politics of Mr Kennedy as well as a commitment to human rights offered the Lib Dems a path back to electoral success after it was left with just eight MPs at Westminster on 7 May.

However, he said Mr Kennedy’s “quiet but resolute opposition” to the Iraq invasion had helped the party win 62 MPs in 2005 – the highest ever figure since the Lib Dems were launched in the late 1980s.

Mr Rennie, speaking of Mr Kennedy’s 32 years as a Highlands Member of Parliament, said: “That gentle Highland lilt shielded the radical and reforming nature of his message. A party of conscience and reform was how Charles described the party.

“His pro-European, pro migration, pro home rule, pro education instincts were radical for many but made palatable by his gentle manner and style.

“But it was his quiet but resolute opposition to the war in Iraq that secured support and respect from many including political opponents.”

Mr Rennie evoked what he said was the quiet radicalism of Mr Kennedy as well as figures such as David Steel, who campaigned for a pro-choice abortion law reform and against apartheid in South Africa.

He said: “Opportunity, community, sustainability and an open mind. Good liberal values. Values shared by great liberals like the late Charles Kennedy and Lord Steel, but also by people across Scotland.

“We are radicals, but the power of our case means we appeal to your ears rather than shout in your face. We are the party which is militant for the reasonable person.

“David Steel is marking 50 years in parliament this year and over those years he has been a radical reformer.

“He led on abortion, apartheid, home rule and breaking the mould of British politics. Our country is very different thanks to David.

“Yet it is the manner in which he delivered change that impressed me even more.

“The title of his biography “Militant for the reasonable man” sums up his mission, style and manner.

“That is the mission, style and manner I want to rekindle today.”

Mr Rennie added: “It was the style that Charles Kennedy nurtured too. Those great liberals of the distant past and recent past have inspired many. They have shaped where we are now as liberals and Liberal Democrats.”