Home > Uncategorized > Take Cameron at Face Value: An Interview with Willie Rennie – Part 1

Take Cameron at Face Value: An Interview with Willie Rennie – Part 1

On Wednesday evening, the best of the Scottish Liberal Democrat blogosphere and me had the chance to interview Willie Rennie.

Sadly the Queen of Scottish Lib Dem blogging and interview organiser, Caron Lindsay couldn’t make it although Gavin Hamilton did ask a few questions on Caron’s behalf.

I didn’t know quite what to make of Willie before the interview. He is clearly the best opposition leader in parliament but with Lamont and Davidson, that’s not difficult. He is also far less defensive than Tavish on the coalition which again isn’t difficult.

In his debut Scottish Conference Speech in Dunfermline and when he came by Liberal Youth Scotland’s McActivate the next day, he came across, like Nick Clegg as an honest, open genuine guy.

He didn’t disappoint on that score in our interview. He came in with a bounce in his step; he must have had a good day at parliament. After Rennie got organised and some introductions, we got started.

Andrew Page kicked off the questioning on the constitution, which we spent about half the interview discussing. I’ll go into Willie’s thoughts on what the UK can’t do that the UK can do in another post.

I asked a question on how much home rule he wants Scotland to have and what role does Westminster have. On home rule, he replied that he saw devo-max as full fiscal autonomy and one step away from independence whereas home rule is fiscal federalism.

Rennie thinks the debate is around fiscal powers and welfare.

On Westminster’s role, he said that all UK parties would have a role in discussing it. He added that Cameron’s intervention on the Thursday in talking about further devolution and transfer of power was significant.

I reminded Willie that the Conservatives in the 1979 referendum advocated a No vote and they would produce something better but 33 years later (i.e. my whole life plus a decade) and we’re still waiting. Can we trust Cameron on this?

Rennie thinks that we have a right to be sceptical but we should take it at face value and embrace it. That we should hug them to death on this.

Cue laughter.

Rennie pressed on that we could take Cameron at face value on this because we’ve managed to get him and the Conservatives on board with Calman and Cameron’s personal record is good. “He delivered and is about to deliver the Scotland Bill so his record is there.”

Cameron’s personal record in referendums tells a different story. In the AV campaign, he campaigned telling people who support proportional representation but not AV, could vote No and that the debate did not have to stall. After the referendum result came in, Cameron switched saying that the No vote was a Yes vote for FPTP and that the debate over electoral reform had been killed for a generation at least.

When I brought this up, Rennie’s response was to start bashing Salmond and to tell me to put Salmond on my list of untrustworthy politicians. I’m well aware of Salmond’s untrustworthiness. In fact, my BS detector often goes off more when Salmond is speaking than with Cameron.

I find it strange that Willie is so willing and quick to bash Salmond for being “obsessed” with independence but so outwardly trusting of Cameron, whose desperation to keep the UK whole and avoid further devolution rivals Salmond’s obsession with independence.

It was Cameron’s (and the Conservatives) duplicitous nature when fighting for something they are determined to keep (i.e. FPTP & the union) that I was trying to allude to.

Cameron’s desperation is the reason why I want a second question on the ballot paper, something that seemed to surprise Rennie when he asked me. Even though, my distrust of Cameron I thought was obvious. The idea of using the ballot box, to bind Cameron’s (& the PM after 2015) hands to discussing reform by having a “Are you in favour of change to the constitutional settlement?” question on the ballot paper doesn’t seemed to have occurred to Willie. I want a ballot box guarantee that the constitution and governance of the UK will be further debated on the result of a No vote in the referendum.

Without that ballot box guarantee, I’d seriously consider not voting at all. I won’t vote for independence because led by the nationalists and Alex Salmond’s ego that will just lead to parliamentary ping-pong like this country hasn’t seen for over 300 years. That would be disastrous for not just Scotland but for the whole UK.

The only question I have about independence is who is up to bat first? Considering Salmond’s ego, I’d bet on Salmond.

Yet, I don’t know if I could bring myself to vote No because I don’t trust Cameron (& potentially Labour considering their lukewarm support to devolution) to not read it as support for the status quo. The status quo for me is not an option. Neither is a Scotland-only option.

If there was a second question on support for the status quo, I’ll skip down to the polling station first thing in the morning to stamp all over Salmond’s dream of independence and to bind Cameron’s & the PMs after 2015 hands to have to have a further debate on this topic. I don’t understand why nobody seems to want to allow me to reject independence and the status quo.

I also can’t square his internationalist liberalism that he obviously believes in, with his approach to the UK and desire for fiscal federalism for Scotland within the UK. Throughout the interview Rennie talked about and showed his passion for internationalism. He believes deeply that we should be outward looking, looking to lead in the world, not insular, withdrawn from the rest of the world.

Yet when it comes to the UK and the constitutional debate, Willie seems to want to take what I would describe as an individualistic, libertarian verging on nationalistic approach.

Willie seems to treat as Scotland, the nation as king in that he seems to believe in the Scottish Claim of Right that only Scotland has a right to decide the form of government that suits it best i.e. screw the rest of the UK, we’re just going to take the powers we want. Scotland gave up the right to solely decide the best form of government to suit Scotland’s needs on the first of May 1707 when we united with the Kingdom of England & Wales. It’s now the right of the UK people to decide what form of government best suits the people of the whole of the UK.

Willie reiterated the worn out phrase that the home nations of the UK are stronger together and weaker apart. Yet Willie doesn’t seem to want to strengthen the union settlement by having the home nations come together and come to some sort of agreement on how best to govern the UK. I think any other approach actually weakens the union rather than strengthening it.

To me, liberalism is that perfect balance between individualism and collectivism and I get the sense that Willie has that definition as well but when it comes to the UK constitutional question, he seems to want to disregard the collectivism bit by not seeking a UK constitutional debate.

Nobody at the top level of the party, north and south of the border seems to have recognised that the debate has changed/is changing. Scotland doesn’t have to take any change or no change. Nobody at the top of the party seems to realise that if there was ever a time to aggressively pursue a federal UK (Whether its an English Parliament or going further with regional assemblies. Although if we’re going for regional assemblies for England, I’d advocate breaking Scotland down as well) or even just a federal approach to the UK that time is now. After all, Scotland wants more powers, England wants something, I believe there is appetite in Wales for further change & Northern Ireland are continually debating whether they want to be in a united Ireland or the United Kingdom.

If there was ever a time to pursue a federal approach and get a new, better, stronger union settlement, the time is when no home nation likes the status quo which just happens to be now.

To give credit where its due, Willie does seem to want to lead the debate as to what powers the Scottish Parliament has, my problem is that its a very insular approach. I understand that Rennie might not feel comfortable leading a Uk wide debate as he’s Scottish leader but Lamont in the Burns Night debate did seem to want a UK wide settlement and not want an insular Scottish only settlement. Or at least my interpretation of her position. Rennie was right in my opinion to tell Gavin not to “underestimate [Lamont]. She’s smart” because I agreed more with her on Burns night than I did with Jim Wallace. My problem with Lamont is that when she starts speaking I have this urge to change channel and she can’t land any punches on Salmond.

The SNPs strategy of asking: “what the union is for?” should be eating into our hands but we have no answer other than self-interest. A federal approach would change that.

I can’t help but wonder how liberals of 2300 will look back at this time and what they’ll think about the approach we’re taking. After all in 2300, the economic crisis will look us as insignificant as the Darien scheme and the famine around 1700 do to us today. The Act of Union in 1707 is still as significant today as it was back in 1707.

I wonder what people in 300 years will think of people’s motives around this debate and why we took the approach we’re taking. I’d hazard a guess that they would think that the Liberal Democrat, Conservative and Labour leaderships behaved like visionless managers in that we are just seeking to manage whatever the electorate seems to want rather than being leaders.

I wonder when the radical, bold, visionary Liberals became visionless managers.

Willie Rennie came across as an honest, open genuine and decent. An all around good bloke and its to his absolute credit that he allowed four amateurs to interview him. I thank him for it. Its also to his credit that he has so much time for members but I just don’t get how he squares his internationalist liberalism with his approach to the union and I think he and Nick are missing a trick by not pursuing a federal approach when nobody agrees with the status quo.

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