Scottish Election 2021: Nicola Sturgeon has 'lost control' of independence movement, says Willie Rennie

Willie Rennie claims Nicola Sturgeon has “lost control of the nationalist movement” and the bitter divides between the First Minister and her predecessor Alex Salmond could see his party win round “soft SNP” voters who he says are keen to put the Covid recovery ahead of independence.

The Scottish Liberal Democrat leader told The Scotsman voters faced a stark choice on May 6 between years of “constant arguments about the strategy for holding a second referendum” should pro-independence parties be returned as a majority in May, or electing MSPs who would focus on rebuilding Scotland’s economy, health service and education.

“The nationalist movement is more divided than it’s ever been,” he said.

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“There’s division within the SNP over strategy, and now you’ve now got Alba and the Greens with different strategies.

Willie Rennie believes he can win over soft SNP voters in the May election.

“We’ll spend the summer, if we let them, arguing about what the strategy is for an independence referendum, be it street protests or wildcat referendum … or we can turn away from all that. We can reject it and go for change and put recovery first.”

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He added: “Nicola has lost control of the nationalist movement, that’s the one significant thing that has changed.

“Before she could turn up and turn down the independence issue depending on public mood. She can’t do that any more, she’s not in charge of it. She’ll always have Alex Salmond there turning up the heat constantly.

“So we will have these excessive arguments consuming more time and energy and oxygen when we could be focusing on things that really matter.

“There’s a real choice for people – they’ve had a window into that world in the last few weeks of the arguments, the bitterness between Nicola and Alex, of what the world will look like for the next five years. People can turn away from that – that’s what this election is about.”

Mr Rennie revealed his party had been “working in partnership” with the SNP while in government over the past year, but that had ended when “they put independence back on the agenda”.

“If you can’t work together during a pandemic, when can you?” he said.

"It’s been constructive and one of the most rewarding times in Parliament in terms of working together and getting things done because we were able to put independence to one side. What’s disrupted it is putting independence on the table again. It drives a horse and coaches through the partnership which was emerging."

Mr Rennie defended his party’s decision to abstain on the vote of no confidence in Ms Sturgeon in an attempt to “end some of the divisions” and accused the Conservatives of “overplaying their hand”. But he admitted he was shocked at “the language coming back the other way", with MSPs using terms like assassination and lynching.

"The language on both sides was extreme,” he said. “You see how much oxygen it [constitutional division] soaks up if you let it, it drives people apart.

"We offer an alternative to both the nationalists and the Conservatives – they just feed off each other.

“Every single parliamentarian has a responsibility to use language in a responsible manner and some of that wasn’t there – when people get upset and concerned about their future they do turn to extreme language, so it’s up to us to constantly dampen it down.”

Mr Rennie has served as MSP for North East Fife since 2016, and prior to that as a list MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife.

He was also MP for Dunfermline and West Fife between 2006 and 2010, an experience he said that showed how well parliamentary committees can work.

“MPs left their rosettes at the door,” he said.

“Ministers were rightly given grilling by people from the same party, partisanship wasn’t there. The Scottish Parliament needs to make sure there are changes so a similar approach can be taken in Holyrood.”

He has also been leader of his party for a decade – taking the spot after Tavish Scott resigned following the loss of 12 MSPs at the 2011 election, leaving the Lib Dems, once the party of coalition government in Scotland, with just five.

However, he refused to be drawn on what success might look like for his party in May.

“The sky’s the limit,” he laughed. “I do know that we’ve got a better funded campaign, a better message. People know me now – they’ve seen what I’ve done. They know me for more than the photo-calls.

"They’ve seen me at First Minister’s Questions challenging on the issues that count. The awareness has increased significantly. Just because you have fun on the campaign trail doesn’t mean you’re not serious about the issues.”

Asked what it would mean for his leadership if the Lib Dems return fewer MSPs, he said: “I’m not going to go. We’ve a lot of work to do.

"We’ve had a traumatic ten years, several referendums, the pandemic, coming out of economic recession. The country’s been through a lot of difficulties and I feel I’ve a lot to contribute to the big challenges that we’re facing. This is the best test now – can we get a fair recovery that doesn’t leave anyone behind?

“I’m determined to grow and have a bigger influence. I think that unity, bridge-building, problem solving, a pragmatic approach, but with radical proposals to reform social care, make big changes in education, I think the mood is there for a different approach to things.”

Mr Rennie admitted his campaign of “recovery first” was similar to that of Scottish Labour’s, but believes there’s a clear distinction with the Conservatives message, which is “a darker, more negative campaign”.

“Ours is about building bridges, carrying on a partnership approach we’ve had during the pandemic,” he said. “Reaching out to SNP voters to persuade them to come over – the Conservatives are not doing any of that.

“There are a lot of people on the soft end of the SNP who say ‘I might think independence is a possibility, but now is not the moment, we need to focus on the recovery’. I think they’re disenchanted with all the infighting with Alex Salmond, the poisonous atmosphere between the Conservatives and SNP – they want to put that behind them and focus on mental health, NHS, the climate… we’ve noticed there’s a lot of soft SNP voters who want to be convinced that if they change, they’ll be in safe hands.”

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