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James Millar: Willie Rennie’s noble, nutty style has changed Scottish politics for the better

Willie Rennie has shaped the whole campaigning ethos in Scotland for the better, writes James Millar
Willie Rennie has shaped the whole campaigning ethos in Scotland for the better, writes James Millar

As the Scottish election campaign reaches its climax it’s clear the winner is Willie Rennie.

If the Liberal Democrats leader has a very good day at the polls on May 6, he’ll perhaps gain one MSP.

James Millar

Party insiders are talking up their chances of taking Caithness, Sutherland and Ross off the Nats and suggesting that might be the only seat to change hands. We can confidently debar the unionist fantasies in which Labour, Tories and Lib Dems outnumber the rest, find a way to work together and nominate Rennie to lead an unlikely, outlandish and unstable coalition.

And yet Willie Rennie has demonstrated the limits of the claim that politics is a numbers game. The Lib Dems can comfortably hold their group meetings in a phone box, yet Rennie’s campaigning style holds sway when it comes to Scottish elections.

Other parties have come to dance to Rennie’s tune

All the other parties have come to dance to Rennie’s tune. And that tune is not Scotland the Brave, God Save the Queen or the Red Flag, but Donald Where’s Your Troosers? The hallmark of a Rennie election campaign is the photo opportunity or media moment that is unexpected, eye-catching, fun.

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie’s penchant for eye-catching photo opportunities has become his signature

The list is long. He’s wrestled a ram, fed a seal, slid down a volcano, run along St Andrews beach à la Chariots of Fire. Perhaps his most famous social media hit was one that was unplanned, when some piggies got jiggy in the background while Rennie attempted a TV interview at a farm.

The only thing he’s not done is jump out of a plane. And apparently that’s only because the weather hasn’t been good enough on the days he’s been scheduled to do exactly that.

During this campaign his greatest hits were a karate lesson and a shot in an oversized deckchair on the banks of the Forth. Neither achieved the cut through of previous efforts, but only because they were overshadowed by the other parties aping his style.

In Scottish politics, everyone’s a Willie these days.

When Anas Sarwar spontaneously joined in a dance demo while on the campaign trail he won the internet. The reaction among others was not to mock the Labour leader’s moves or criticise him for veering from policy talk but to try and get in on the action.

The next day Scots Tory leader Douglas Ross revealed a very literal dance interpretation of Atomic Kitten hit Whole Again. (The voters will judge if it’s OK to be an Atomic Kitten fan when he could be listening to the Sugababes or Girls Aloud. Or Radiohead.) While Theresa May was mercilessly mocked by the Westminster press pack for her dancing at Tory conference in 2018, in Scotland the Tory leader’s stunt raised a smile not a scowl.

Nicola Sturgeon favours adoration over absurdity

One politician notably absent from the list of memorable photo ops is Nicola Sturgeon. The First Minister and the SNP struggle with this stuff. Sturgeon favours adoration over absurdity. Normally she’d be facing huge rallies and adoring crowds, literally glad-handing grannies and kissing bairns.

Campaigning in the age of Covid doesn’t suit the FM. Hence the only notable photo opportunity she partook in involved her pretending to perform dentistry on a stuffed dinosaur. To which the only possible response is *shrugging emoji*.

While Westminster politics is shot through with poison, Scottish campaigns are punctuated with press calls designed to puncture pomposity

By last week she was emphasising her “seriousness of purpose”, as if to explain away her inability to join in humour as practiced by humans.

More broadly, Westminster politics could do with a dose of Rennie’s approach. Keir Starmer got panned just for walking around John Lewis last week. Since the Brexit referendum, UK politics has become as divided as Scottish politics has been since the 2014 indyref. Yet while Westminster politics is shot through with poison, Scottish campaigns are punctuated with press calls designed to puncture pomposity.

Willie Rennie has shaped the way Scotland campaigns

The Lib Dems will tell you Willie Rennie is a serious politician. They’ll happily point to policy achievements like squeezing more money for mental health out of the SNP administration. But the truth is, Rennie’s greatest achievement is intangible. He has shaped the whole campaigning ethos in Scotland for the better.

There is however a very Lib Dem pedigree and purpose behind the approach. It was a Charles Kennedy maxim that if you take yourself too seriously then you won’t take the electorate with you. The Lib Dems turn to the outrageous photo op just to get attention beyond their limited electoral appeal. But they also do it to bring people into the political process, to engage the electorate.

For all the outsized furniture, children’s play equipment and sexy livestock, Willie Rennie’s electioneering style is as noble as it is nutty.


James Millar is a political commentator and author and a former Westminster correspondent for The Sunday Post


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