The Scottish Liberal Democrats can offer a “progressive home” to voters who have backed the SNP before but are worried about a second independence referendum being held in the wake of the pandemic, Willie Rennie has said.
The Lib Dem leader said voters are “very concerned” that if the Holyrood election on May 6 results in an SNP majority, the next five years will be “bedevilled by a debate on independence”.
His plea came just days before Scots go to the polls after an election campaign which has been focused on the twin issues of coronavirus recovery and the constitution.
Mr Rennie insisted the election will see voters shift away from the SNP – as he also vowed to “vote against another referendum on independence at every opportunity”.
Speaking on BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland programme, he said: “I am making a direct appeal to former SNP supporters, that if they want a progressive home, a progressive alternative, that will focus on mental health waits, on getting bounce-back for education, on creating jobs, then they should vote Liberal Democrat.”
Mr Rennie said another independence referendum will see Scotland “repeating the mistakes of Brexit, repeating the chaos”.
He argued: “We know that breaking up long-term economic partnerships is a dangerous thing, we see that for ourselves in Northern Ireland.
“We should not want to repeat any of that. We should be focusing on putting recovery first.
“For now the recovery has to come first. We need to get people’s jobs sorted, we need to get the children who have lost out in education, on so much in the last year, into smaller class sizes. We want to recruit 3,500 extra teachers, that should be the debate in this election campaign.
“But the SNP are so focused on independence that they are taking their eye off the ball – just like they did on the drugs issue where we have got the highest drugs death rate in Europe, in fact in the modern world.”
The Liberal Democrats won five seats at Holyrood in the 2016 election, making them the smallest of the five political parties in the Scottish Parliament.
While he refused to say how many Lib Dem MSPs he expects to see elected next week, Mr Rennie insisted he is “optimistic about gaining” seats.
“What I do know is we need to gain more Liberal Democrat MSPs to make sure the Parliament is focused on recovery,” he said.
“More Liberal Democrat MSPs will make the difference between the nationalists having a majority and not. That will allow us to focus on the recovery. That is what I want to change.
“I am waiting, desperate, to focus on recovery for the next five years and I am utterly depressed that the nationalists seem dependent on focusing on independence.
“That would distract us and I think that would mean more people would suffer for longer.
“We’ve got some of the best candidates we’ve ever had, the most diverse group of candidates, we’ve got a very powerful message of putting recovery first, a real good package of policies.
“And I think we’ve tapped into the public mood, including former SNP supporters who are increasingly telling me, including on the doorsteps last night when I was out knocking on doors, that perhaps they voted for the SNP in the past but now they want to put recovery first, they don’t want another independence referendum.”