Labour has surrendered to the SNP over independence – Willie Rennie

The Scottish Lib Dems celebrate after Beatrice Wishart wins the Shetland by-election
The Scottish Lib Dems celebrate after Beatrice Wishart wins the Shetland by-election
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Hundreds of thousands of moderate, reasonable people who want a bright future with Scotland in the UK and the UK in the EU need a strong voice in the corridors of power, writes Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie.

I couldn’t sleep on Thursday night. As council officials counted ballots, I was waiting to discover whether Scottish Liberal Democrats’ hardworking candidate Beatrice Wishart would be joining our band of MSPs in the Scottish Parliament. There was no way I could shut my eyes.

I suspect I wasn’t the only one having a sleepless night. Nicola Sturgeon, ordinarily a staple of the Central Belt, paid not one, not two, but three visits to Shetland over the course of the election campaign.

The SNP threw everything they had at the by-election campaign, parachuting in ministers from Edinburgh, youth activists from Glasgow and making all manner of enticements to locals, but still Beatrice Wishart and her team were undeterred.

It was a fantastic victory and I am sure she will be a credit to the people of Shetland in Parliament. Her steely determination will be a great asset in Holyrood.

For the SNP though, this defeat will sting all the more. As the race entered the final week, they were telling journalists it was “too close to call”. But, in the end, a committed local campaign won out and Shetland will be served by a Liberal Democrat MSP once more, pushing back the forces of independence.

READ MORE: Nicola Sturgeon claims seat now SNP’s ‘top target’ after gains in Shetland

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Nicola has kept her troops at a heightened state of readiness for a long time now, always teasing them that a final victory in their race to break up the UK is just around the corner. Yet in poll after poll, they fall just short and in Shetland they failed again.

Something a Shetlander said to me last week stuck with me though: “While the SNP are focused on independence, not a single child will get a better education.”

And that’s true for our health service and social care too. All this Government’s bandwidth is taken up by independence.

For the Lib Dems, this victory builds on an array of recent victories including an impressive haul in the European elections in May and my Welsh counterpart Jane Dodds’ triumphant win in the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election.

At a council level too, the Scottish Lib Dems are doing well, increasing our vote share dramatically in recent by-elections in East Kilbride and East Lothian. With these wins, the departure of Ruth Davidson and decline of the Conservative and Labour parties, there is a huge opportunity for the Liberal Democrats to continue to grow.

Though politically we often disagreed, I found Ruth an able ally in the 2014 referendum and there is no doubt that the Scottish Conservatives are a vastly diminished force without their star striker.

In 2016, when she spoke out against the damage Brexit would do, she did so with passion and clarity. Sadly, her Prime Minister has chosen to ignore her and what’s worse is, his Home Counties base doesn’t seem to care: polling suggests far too many Conservative activists are prepared to gamble the future of the Union to get the fantasy Brexit they have been promised.

At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn and the Scottish Labour party probably couldn’t have made a worse fist of listening to the Scottish people’s wishes. Labour’s vague and evasive Brexit policy and cynical attempt to secure the keys to Downing Street by pandering to the nationalists on independence has left them hopelessly adrift on both of Scotland’s big constitutional questions. They have run up a white flag alongside their usual red one.

Right now Scotland is trapped between the cavalier approach of a Conservative party dancing to the tune of Nigel Farage, an abject Scottish Labour more committed to factional warfare than taking the challenge to their opponents and a Scottish nationalism that treats every public policy debate as secondary to the red meat of independence.

I want Scottish Liberal Democrats to step up and speak for the hundreds of thousands of moderate, reasonable people who want a bright future with Scotland in the UK and the UK in the EU. These people need a voice.

I am under no illusions that this will take hard work. Though Beatrice Wishart joins a committed team who punch above their weight, we need many more on our team to make the change the country needs. But we have been on the right side of two referendums, our recent results show that we are rising political force once more and we have a big space to fill.

Nicola Sturgeon’s Programme for Government looks set to be heavy on the reheated – are we on the fourth announcement of a Scottish Investment Bank now? – and the undercooked: she plans to take forward paving legislation for another independence referendum.

Meanwhile Beatrice Wishart will get to work persuading the Scottish Government to take action on fair ferry funding, nursery provision and broadband and Scottish Liberal Democrats will get to work proving that we are the true opposition to a distracted Government.

If you’re having sleepless nights about the state of our country. Why not join us?

Willie Rennie is MSP for North East Fife and leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats