Interview: Willie Rennie eyes a return to power

A GRIN annexes Willie Rennie’s face as I ask how many times he and Nick Clegg have apologised in recent months. “Not months,” he interrupts, placing his Americano on a saucer. “Years! Ha ha ha!”
Willie Rennie, the genial hillrunner, says slow and steady is best. Picture: Lisa FergusonWillie Rennie, the genial hillrunner, says slow and steady is best. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Willie Rennie, the genial hillrunner, says slow and steady is best. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

He laughs a lot, Mr Rennie. It is a contagious chuckle, the kind blurted by a duvet-cloaked schoolboy tearing through a Beano annual by torchlight. Contrition, though, is his main thing. An outmoded virtue, perhaps, but the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats happily admits to some conservat… well, let’s say old-fashioned values.

“Saying sorry isn’t a tactic,” he insists. “People who are annoyed with us will be annoyed with us, but they deserve an apology. Some will never understand or forgive. They’re entitled to do that. My only plea to them is look at all the things we’re getting right, not just the thing we got wrong.”

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Repentance and sincerity are unnatural political bedfellows, but convincing Scotland’s electorate you mean what you say should be easier for a Fifer with a buzzcut than an Old Etonian. There is still something of the grocer’s son about Mr Rennie, who grew up in Strathmiglo, birling around the village’s stone-built cottages ensuring everyone had their messages. He is naturally inclined to please.

The cruel cry from the 
Twittersphere may be “Wha’s Wullie?” but in his four years at Holyrood, he has earned cross-party regard for his genial presence and robust yet consensual approach. Unfortunately, he is an affable figurehead for a party with a credibility deficit, the Cult of Nick now a historic quirk.

Mr Rennie has witnessed the Lib Dems’ rise and shoogle first hand. He joined the party soon after the 1988 merger between the Liberals and the SDP, running its youth wing and overseeing Baroness Maddock’s successful by-election in Dorset.

He returned to Scotland as the party’s chief executive and, later, chief of staff between 1997 and 2001. A spell in PR preceded his breakthrough year of 2006, when he overturned a 11,562 Labour majority to become MP for Dunfermline and West Fife.

HE lost the seat four years later and, following a stint as special adviser to then Scottish secretary Michael Moore, won a list seat for Holyrood in 2011. Within a fortnight, he was elected unopposed as the party’s leader, succeeding Tavish Scott.

He is seen as a bulwark against the SNP’s illiberal tendencies (“We have armed police on the streets, stop and search at five times the rate in England, the abolition of corroboration and unnecessary sectarian laws”) but his fundamental job is one of internal reconstruction. “The most important thing,” he vowed in one of his first interviews as leader, “is to rebuild trust.”

Over coffee in Milngavie, part of the key marginal East Dunbartonshire constituency where minister Jo Swinson hopes to retain her seat, the “eternal optimist” admits it is still a work in progress.

“Politics is volatile. I think it could be quite a quick recovery or it could be a slow recovery,” he muses. “All you have to do in politics is do the right thing and what you believe in, and then people will come back.”

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A fine principle, but why believe a party that failed to uphold its key pledge over tuition fees? “Students were the real heart of our support,” reflects Mr Rennie, a former vice-president of Paisley College of Technology’s student union. “I honestly believe that, in the long term, their home is with us and we need to regain their trust over time. You do that by actions.”

How does his eldest son, a 18-year-old student at Perth College, view the record of his father’s party on further education? “He’s interested in politics. But I don’t think he talks about it with his friends too much. He’ll leave me to defend myself. Ha!”

He does not resent any reputational damage to the Scottish Lib Dems wrought by his Westminster colleagues. “We’re comrades, I’m not going to start distancing myself from anyone.”

WHAT about the leaked ambassadorial memo involving Nicola Sturgeon? Has he asked Alistair Carmichael who wrote it? “I’ve spoken to Alistair about it and he knows who wrote it, but he doesn’t know who leaked it. What we need to do is let this inquiry take place. I’d quite happily talk about it, but it just undermines the inquiry.”

The whole affair undermines Mr Carmichael too, surely?

“Well, I’m not …” A pause. “Yeah, I don’t know, let’s just leave it to the inquiry. I was just disappointed some people chose to comment when they shouldn’t have and pointed fingers in other directions.”

The reward of improving the country in coalition, the 47-year-old admits, is worth the cost to the party; over the course of our interview, he mentions the word “sacrifice” three times.

“Sometimes we make mistakes and deliver things we don’t agree with. In government there’s a range of really tough choices; that’s real life. But I’d go back into power tomorrow if we were given the chance. It’s been tough but I’m glad we were there to make it a bit easier.”

Even in affluent Milngavie, life could be easier yet. On the community noticeboard outside Costa Coffee in the town’s Douglas Street, there are advertisements for not one, not two, but three food banks.

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“We’ve made some attempts to mitigate bedroom tax and we’ve cut tax so those on minimum wage won’t be paying any tax at all,” the father of two counters. “I think that’s cracking – one of the best policies for generations.”

SUCH work, Mr Rennie hopes, will restore his party to government. It is not showing in the polls, he says, but “inch by inch”, Lib Dem voters from 2010 who are undecided are slowly coming back to the fold.

“We’ve been through the worst and people are beginning to understand what we did and what we’ve sacrificed. If we go into government again, it will help us. I think our place is in government.”

During the STV leaders’ debate, where he painted a centrist yellow line in the middle of the road, Mr Rennie was put on the spot by an audience member asking if he knew what it was like to live in poverty. “I’ve seen it, I’ve heard it, I’ve felt it,” he replied to a wave of groans.

There is an element of truth to his answer. He and his wife, Janet, a former Lib Dem councillor in Cornwall who works as a scientist with papermakers Tullis Russell, may have a pleasant home life on the outskirts of Lochore Meadows Country Park, but, in his undergraduate years, Mr Rennie roughed it.

“It was £7 a month rent and £7 a month rates,” he recalls of his Withnail & I-inspired hovel. “There was no hot water, no shower and an outside toilet that was stinking, ha ha! I used to have to go to the Storey Street baths to wash. Sometimes you’d run out of food and plead to the parents to send more money.

“I had that back-up – I’m not going to pretend I’ve lived the life a lot of people are.”

Seeing life in the raw, Mr Rennie says, both grounds and disturbs him. He strikes a sombre tone recalling one desperate homeless constituent. Mr Rennie’s office gave what help it could but, a few days later, the man took his own life. “It hits you like a ton of bricks. You want to reach out, but you can’t look after everybody.”

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His trainers offer escape from the political hurly burly. A member of Dunfermline’s Carnegie Harriers and an avid hillrunner, he routinely clocks 25 miles a week while listening to political podcasts (Matt Forde, Hard Talk, Great Lives and Slate’s Whistlestop are all favourites).

UNLOCKING his iPhone, he beckons me closer to view an app. “Look – 66km, 35km, 53km … not bad.” This week? Zero. A sigh. “I’ve been snowed.”

Mr Rennie is also a veteran of the Kelty Coal Race, a kilometre-long test of endurance dating back to the 19th century, when colliers would dart home saddled with bags of the black stuff. He once finished second, securing a £60 prize, but a back operation to replace a disc means he can only reminisce about tactics past, not plan for this year’s race.

“The sack sits round your shoulder, you have to put your head down – take your time,” advises Mr Rennie. “Slow and steady is best. It might be painful along the way, but when you get to the end, it’s exhilarating.”

It is an apt strategy for Lib Dems in coalition. After 7 May perhaps, they will happily grin and bear it once more.