'I don't want to be in a politics driven by fear': Willie Rennie opens up on quitting as Liberal Democrat leader

From the pain of the fallout from the coalition government to Brexit to their worst result since Holyrood opened its doors, the past decade has been a chastening experience for the Scottish Liberal Democrats.

Outgoing Scottish Liberal Democrats leader Willie Rennie. Picture: Lisa Ferguson Scottish Liberal Democrat Leader Willie Rennie unveils his commitment card ahead of the first TV debate. Scottish Liberal Democrat Leader Willie Rennie unveils his commitment card ahead of the first TV debate.

It’s no surprise then that when the well-liked figurehead of the party, Willie Rennie announced he was to step down as leader that opposition politicians congratulated him on what Nicola Sturgeon labelled a “good shift”.

Speaking to The Scotsman two days after the news was made public, the North East Fife MSP was in a reflective mood around his tenure as leader.

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Despite being returned with a majority of more than 7,000 in one of Scotland’s safest seats and with three more won with around half of the vote, the May election was a reality check for the party.

It was their worst return in the lifetime of Holyrood with just four MSPs, down from the 16 they achieved in 2007 and one fewer than the five inherited by Mr Rennie in 2011, resulting in the loss of key representation on committees such as health and of a guaranteed question at First Minister’s Questions.

The topic of leadership and direction would be a natural consideration after such a result, but there was little public discussion of the need for a change of emphasis from the party.

Despite this, Mr Rennie announced his departure on Tuesday, saying the time had come for a “fresh face” to take the party forward.

The 53-year-old agonised over the decision on whether to quit and said the call was “finely balanced”.

"I enjoy the campaigns, but you just have to think ‘can you take it further, can you lift it up, can you shift the dial?’" he said. “I just reached the conclusion that perhaps now was the time to take it on.”

Mr Rennie said the response of one former leader to his announcement provided “reassurance” when Jackson Carlaw, who stepped down as Scottish Conservative leader last year, messaged him.

"He sent me a really nice message saying that he had detected a change in me, just from across the other side of the chamber, and thought it was probably time for me to go,” he said.

"That kind of gives me reassurance that I have made the right decision.”

Asked to reflect on his most recent campaign and whether the Liberal Democrats focused on the right issues, Mr Rennie was defiant.

"I don’t want to be involved in a politics that is driven by fear and even if I don’t win as a result I am not going to be driven by that,” he said.

Highlighting the debate in the House of Commons around international aid, which led to a cut in overall aid funding and the decision to remove the £20 uplift in Universal Credit, Mr Rennie said both results “chips away” and “undermines” public trust in the Union.

He labelled the Conservatives as the “main recruiting sergeant for the SNP” and insisted that despite the result, the Liberal Democrats were on the right path in Scotland to returning to a meaningful electoral force.

Mr Rennie said: “The Conservatives ran the darkest, negative campaign that I have probably seen them and that is saying something.

"They cast themselves as the defender of the Union, but every step they take undermines the union.

"It’s not the UK that is the problem, it is the Conservatives that are the problem.

"That is an utterly depressing set of politics and myself and I think [Scottish Labour leader] Anas [Sarwar] too worked really hard to present a positive alternative to those twin nationalisms. It didn’t work, but would I have done anything different? No, because I am not going to go down the route of an utterly depressing, negative, dark campaign that I think both sides ran.

"My hope is that people shed the fear and don’t succumb to those arguments next time round. I can understand why they did, but my hope is that they see that all the Conservatives and the SNP are doing is scaring one group of voters with the other and that’s not the politics I want to see in the country.”

However, there was clear regret around the UK coalition government that followed the 2010 general election and its impact.

Mr Rennie said: “If we were going through the coalition now with ten years experience under my belt, I might have been a bit more robust with them.

"That’s saying somebody who was in support of forming the coalition in the first place, so I’m not disowning it at all, I accept responsibility for it.”

Mr Rennie is hopeful for the future of his party and while he refused to answer who his preferred choice of successor would be, he described the most likely replacement Alex Cole-Hamilton as “one of the most energetic, committed, Liberal Democrats there is”, adding the Edinburgh Western MP would be an “outstanding leader”.

While he may no longer be the one to take the Liberal Democrats forward, Mr Rennie will remain an MSP until at least 2026 and is confident his party is on the right track.

Asked how it could regain ground, he said: “One thing we do is focus on individual issues … we target them, we make them our own, we are relevant, we lead the debate and we need to do more of that.

"Around targeted seats, we pick seats in geographical areas that we can win and we build up support and organisation and put the investment in to make the difference.

"You win seat by seat, area by area and you build up your numbers. That’s how we did it before and we should do that again.

"The new element is working on creating energy and dynamism on the pro-UK progressive centre/centre left and that is where the ideas and the partnership and the strength has to come now.”

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