Next Scottish Liberal Democrats leader must relight the flame of liberal values in Scotland – Christine Jardine MP

There’s nothing particularly new about comparing politics to school, I know, with playground games metaphors etc.

Willie Rennie's often comedic photocalls helped ensure the Scottish Liberal Democrats were noticed (Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire)

So no surprise perhaps that when your leader leaves just as you are breaking up to spend the summer in your constituency, it is a bit like wondering who your teacher will be for the next term.

Inevitable excitement about someone new is mixed with anxiety over losing what you have known and wondering if you can embrace whatever change it will bring.

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It is a while since the Scottish Liberal Democrats have known that particular type of uncertainty.

In a tumultuous decade of elections, the independence referendum, Brexit, two First Ministers, three Prime Ministers, six Scottish Labour leaders and finally Covid, Willie Rennie has been the only party leader to provide some stability. An anchor in Scottish politics.

But not any more.

And as he hands over the tiller to a new leadership, the inevitable questions arise about where they might take us and over what kind of party they will preside?

It’s a very different situation from ten years ago when Willie Rennie emerged as the only willing volunteer to take on a party in shock.

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Despite, or maybe because of, being in government at Westminster, we had plummeted from a party challenging for a share of power with Labour to just five MSPs.

We needed someone who could hold us together and, to be blunt, ensure survival.

I don’t know how he managed it at times, but he did.

Now his successor has to inspire the party afresh, capture the public’s imagination and restore our ability to reach people beyond those areas where Willie has ensured the foundation is strong.

To date speculation suggests that the MSP most likely to take on the challenge is my Edinburgh Western colleague Alex Cole-Hamilton.

I know from sharing much of my constituency of Edinburgh West with him that he has the boundless energy, enthusiasm and commitment without which the job is impossible.

His would also be the political mind that shapes liberalism in Scotland. And what the party needs is a vision that will reach those who have dismissed us as either irrelevant or unaware of the reality of their lives.

And it will have to resonate beyond our enclaves in Edinburgh, Fife and the North.

In the run-up to that watershed election in 2011, we had 16 well-respected MSPs in every part of Scotland, including three in the North East, two each on the Highland mainland and South Scotland and one in both Central Scotland and Glasgow.

Today we have no MSPs for any of those communities.

Those are the people that our new leader will have to reach with a brand of liberalism that speaks to them, their lives and their issues.

They will have to break through the constitutional and process-dominated feuding of what are now the two main parties in Scotland.

It won’t be an easy task.

There are already those, the now former leader among them, who would consider working more closely with the Scottish Labour Party.

But that would not promote liberalism. Neither would it satisfy those of us who do not see ourselves as fellow travellers.

What many of us will be listening for in the leader’s first pronouncements is an inspirational message that will lift our country out of the perpetual state of grievance which the nationalists have created.

One which will appeal to those who, like us, are both Scottish and British to their very core but care most about the futures of their children.

And a package of measures which will satisfy those of us who crave the economic stability, health and security that we have been denied by the twin evils of Brexit and Covid.

But most of all, we want to know that we will continue to be a party that cherishes people, fights for our communities and pursues a fairer society above all else. The party of Charles Kennedy for whom social justice is never negotiable.

I came to politics as someone who might appear on the surface to have lived an easy, comfortable life. But actually I know only too clearly just how slim the margin is between financial security and misery.

I know what it is to lose your main, indeed your only, household income because of the vagaries of the market or the collateral damage of government policy.

But for a lot of luck, support from some amazing people and a family who told me I could be whatever I wanted to be, my story could have been different.

There are children I remember from school who were just as bright, just as intelligent and just as ambitious as I was, but fate did not offer them the opportunities that it handed to me.

Every day I remember that, whether it is in the parliamentary chamber, meeting my constituents or arguing how we tackle our society’s problems with my political colleagues.

In Willie Rennie, for ten years we had someone who depicted that awareness in every word and action.

Oh the photocalls were the stuff of much hilarity, and debate, amongst members but they got him, and us noticed. They gave us a chance to speak to people, say that we are there to listen to their needs and fight for them.

Our next leader has not just to live up to that but take it further.

Pick up the torch and relight the flame of liberal values, of liberal change, in the North East, the Borders and those parts of Scotland who once turned to us but now wonder if we are still there for them.

We are. But we need them to believe that.

Christine Jardine is the Scottish Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West

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