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Willie Rennie resigns: 10 years of highs and lows at helm of Scottish Lib Dems

After 10 years as boss, Willie Rennie has decided to step down as Scottish Lib Dem leader.
After 10 years as boss, Willie Rennie has decided to step down as Scottish Lib Dem leader.

So it’s farewell, then, to Willie Rennie. One of Scotland’s longest-serving party leaders and “weel kent” faces, if not the most photographed.

It is fair to say since becoming chief in 2011, Mr Rennie has been fond of a publicity opportunity, with the MSP likely having the highest photo-shoot-to-vote ratio anywhere on the planet.

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie speaking to undecided voters. Some penguins.
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie speaking to undecided voters.

Wrastlin’ rams, sunning himself at the Forth Bridge, skipping through the streets of Edinburgh with fellow Lib Dem Alex Cole-Hamilton or lugging coal in those shorts through Kelty for charity — it’s most likely people recognise the Strathmiglo man even if they did not end up voting for his party.

Willie Rennie running in the Scottish Coal Carrying Championship in Kelty.
Willie Rennie running in the Scottish Coal Carrying Championship in Kelty.

Born and raised in Fife, Mr Rennie was first elected as an MP in 2006, representing Dunfermline and West Fife until 2010.

In 2011 he was elected to Holyrood as a regional list MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife, before winning his first constituency seat — North East Fife — in the 2016 election and again in 2021.

Willie Rennie and wife Janet in 2006, on a tour of Dunfermline during the by-election campaign in 2006. With then-Lib Dem Scottish leader Nicol Stephen and Sir Menzies Campbell.
Willie Rennie and wife Janet in 2006, on a tour of Dunfermline during the by-election campaign in 2006. With then-Lib Dem Scottish leader Nicol Stephen and Sir Menzies Campbell.

In the 2016 election, Mr Rennie won with 44% of the vote and a majority of 3,465, which improved again in 2021 where he won 55% of votes and returned to Holyrood with a 7,450-seat majority.

2021

But, popularity with voters in North East Fife was not reflected across Scotland as a whole in May’s election.

The party only returned four MSPs, all in constituencies, losing the list seat in the North East region.

Their constituency share overall declined by 0.9%, with the regional share falling also by 0.1%, leaving them with just over 5% of the vote.

The vote share had already decreased at the 2016 election, which Mr Rennie also led his party through. The key difference then, however, is the retaining of five Holyrood seats.

Controversies

Like all politicians, Willie Rennie was not without controversy during his time as leader, despite the many happy photo shoots.

In 2019 he was heavily criticised for failing to condemn former Lib Dem peer Lord Steel for failing to act when confronted by claims that Cyril Smith was a child abuser.

Instead he declined to condemn Lord Steel — whose career ended after the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) condemned him for failing to alert the authorities about the late Rochdale MP.

Lord David Steel, right, and Cyril Smith in 1981.
Lord David Steel, right, and Cyril Smith in 1981.

Lord Steel announced his resignation from the Lib Dems and withdrew from public life in the House of Lords following the publication of the ICSA report.

The findings of the ICSA report contrasted with an internal Lib Dem investigation that said there were “no grounds for action” against Lord Steel.

The North East Fife MSP also contributed to the legal fund of Alistair Carmichael MP, following the revelations Shetland and Orkney Lib Dem representative leaked a memo regarding Nicola Sturgeon wanting David Cameron to win the general election.

Judges ruled Carmichael lied about the leak but said it could not be proven beyond reasonable doubt that the former Scotland secretary’s dishonesty was designed to mislead voters in his constituency about his personal conduct.

Alistair Carmichael MP.
Alistair Carmichael MP.

The document wrongly claimed Nicola Sturgeon told the French Ambassador she wanted David Cameron to stay in power.

It later emerged Carmichael and his special adviser had colluded in the leak to the Daily Telegraph, a fact Carmichael kept hidden for six weeks, until after the election.

Mr Rennie said Mr Carmichael was “thoroughly decent” and donated to his legal fees, calling the incident an “aberration”.

Win some, lose some, Swinson

As party leader, Willie Rennie oversaw the electoral drubbing of May 2015 that left the Lib Dems with only a single MP in Scotland.

Dubbed the “night of the long sgian dubhs” by the late Charles Kennedy, the party was crippled across the UK and Scotland, losing a number of “liberal giants” north of the border and then-deputy prime minister Nick Clegg.

As well as being blamed for propping up a Conservative government, Nick Clegg was condemned by students over his back-track on university tuition fees — something Willie Rennie asked voters to forgive the party for.

In his time as leader, Mr Rennie has raised money for good causes.

Most notable are his charity runs, including a 117-mile slog over three days along the entire length of the Fife Coastal Path in 2018.

Having set himself a target of £2,000 initially, the MSP raised close to £10,000 for Scottish Association for Mental Health.

Mr Rennie was on the “winning” side of the referendum on Scottish independence in 2014, but warns as he steps down the “twin nationalisms” of the SNP and Conservatives will continue to “divide Scotland”.

Asked before the election whether there would be a second vote on independence, the Fife MSP said there “would never be a reasonable time”

Following a nail-biting two-vote loss in the North East Fife Westminster seat in 2017, his friend (and some would argue protégé) Wendy Chamberlain won back the seat for the party with a comparatively comfortable 1,316 (2.9%) majority.

The win was dampened somewhat by the loss of UK party leader Jo Swinson losing her seat at the same time, more likely a reflection on her popularity than Mr Rennie’s.

Former Lib Dem leaders: Nick Clegg, centre, with Willie Rennie MSP and Jo Swinson MP.

After the humiliation of 2015, the party clawed some seats at Westminster back, and now have four MPs, three more than Scottish Labour.

As Lib Dem leader, Mr Rennie, of course, campaigned for the UK to remain in the EU, a campaign which it lost.

But Scotland did overwhelmingly vote to remain, with the Fife-man arguably keeping up his end of the bargain at the very least.

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