Rennie reminds us why, love them or hate them, we need Lib Dems

It’s not easy to go up against Bernard Ponsonby, STV’s wily and well-informed political editor.

He is unrelenting, menacingly patient, with an acidulous wit, and more often than not knows more about your policies than you do.

Now imagine you’re the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, those breakers of pledges and screwers of students.

Doesn’t sound like a pleasant way to spend an evening, does it?

But Willie Rennie turned the Tuesday night grilling to his advantage by making the case for his party as the moderating force in British politics.

His pitch was this: Yes, it was a difficult decision to go into government with the Conservatives. No, it’s not what anyone would have wanted. But the national interest was at stake and the alternative was a purely Tory government. Imagine how brutalthat would have been.

As I have argued previously, the Libs Dems have a record of achievement in government that divides into two categories: implementation of Lib Dem policy and frustration of Tory policy.

So, thanks to Nick Clegg and his MPs there have been tax cuts for the poor, a £2.5bn pupil premium in England, free school meals for infants, a Scotland-based green investment bank, and a referendum on electoral reform.

But also thanks to the yellow end of the government benches, the Human Rights Act still safeguards our liberties, the inheritance tax threshold has not exceeded £1m, and there has been no like-for-like replacement of Trident. All Tory manifesto commitments; all blocked by the Liberal Democrats.

Rennie told Scotland Tonight viewers: “I came into politics to try to make a difference. I came into politics to try to change people’s lives and give them opportunity to get up and get on. People who are held back because of their family circumstances or their sexuality or a range of issues. I wanted to deal with those issues.”

What do the Lib Dems want to do about those issues if they find themselves back in government? An extra £800m for NHS Scotland, free childcare for all two year olds within five years, and a raise in the personal allowance threshold to £12,500.

It was a tough interview. He struggled on the subject of the “bedroom tax”. While Labour and the SNP want to abolish the policy that sees housing benefit docked for those living in the social rented sector with more bedrooms than occupants, the Lib Dems think it should continue to apply to those who are able to find smaller accommodation but scrapped for those who are not.

Rennie’s attempt to rationalise this most Lib-Demmy of compromises was valiant but will nonetheless have looked to viewers like waltzing on the head of a pin.

He was at his best, though, when questioned on his policy of ending custodial sentencing for personal drug use. Liberalism doesn’t win elections in Scotland; authoritarian populism does. The Lib Dems deserve kudos for taking such a bold and brave policy to the country.

And listen to Rennie selling it: “There are some brilliant people who are drug addicts, really good people, and they deserve another chance. But too often the system lets them down.”

When was the last time you heard a politician talk like that?

But the wisdom of a “progressive” party forming an alliance with the hated Tories was never far from the surface during the programme.

Rennie insisted: “I would never have forgiven myself if we’d let the Tories run the country by themselves. That would have been a negation of my responsibility in politics, not to sit on the sideline and throw bricks but to get involved and perhaps stop the Tories doing their worst.”

The assumption that the Liberal Democrats may only ever work with the Labour Party rests on the fallacy that the Lib Dems are not really a distinct party and merely exist to prop up Labour governments that can’t get over the finish line on election day.

But they are not a straightforward left-of-centre party and, especially on economics, have some instincts that are more right-of-centre. After all, they are Liberals, not just Democrats.

The party is once again what it wasn’t for much of the 2000s: Equidistant from the two main forces of British politics.

Labour has shifted leftwards under Ed Miliband and David Cameron scarcely seems the same man who enjoined us all to hug a hoodie and stick wind turbines on our roofs to save the huskies. Now more than ever, it is vital to have a centrist anchor in our political system.

The Scottish Lib Dem leader has time and again defended the efforts of the coalition to repair Labour’s broken economy, hardly a popular move in Scotland. What else can he do, you might ask. When backed against a wall the only options are come out swinging or cower like a wimp.

What Rennie understands is that Lib Dem voters like persistence. (These are people, after all, who told themselves every four years that “one last heave” would put them in government.) He is telling the party’s 2010 voters – those who aren’t now openly hostile – that whatever the breaks, the Lib Dems will be responsible.

This strategy is almost the exact opposite of the one taken by Rennie’s predecessor, Tavish Scott, in the 2011 Scottish Parliament election. Scott infamously had a trainwreck interview with Gordon Brewer on Newsnight Scotland (of blessed memory). He couldn’t muster up anything beyond tepid bromides to support the coalition and looked for all the world like a British Army lawyer dragooned onto the defence team at Nuremberg.

I have no doubt Rennie is as dismayed with the centre-right direction of the coalition as Scott was. Neither man went into politics to cut welfare benefits or raise tuition fees on students. But by sticking to his guns, Willie Rennie is giving his party back a little of something they have so visibly lost: backbone.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © Liberal Democrats by Creative Commons 2.0.

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