This week we continue our five-part series interviewing the leaders of the five main political parties seeking to return to the Scottish Parliament by speaking to the Scottish Liberal Democrats' leader Willie Rennie.


Believe it or not, more than 20 years ago, there were so many Scottish Liberal Democrats they were part of Scotland’s government and deputy first minister.

Heading into the 2021 election, there were just five LibDem MSPs - and none in the west of Scotland.

They remain one of four parties to stand in constituencies. But does Scotland want politicians in the middle ground anymore?

In the second of our leader profiles, we quizzed Willie Rennie, who has led the LibDems for 10 years in Scotland.

From start to finish, Mr Rennie argues his party is and can be different from others. He insists they would put recovery first, more so than other parties who claim the same.

“We want to put the divisions of the past - whether it’s on the constitution, Brexit, independence, or in the pandemic, we want to try to unite the country, bring people together, because we’ll need all the skills and talents of people to get us through this recovery,” he says over Zoom.

“And whether it’s focusing on current mental health rates, creating jobs for people desperate for work, for bounce back support for education, or taking action on climate, it will require our needle-sharp focus to get through this pandemic.

“And if we have another debate about independence, it will distract us, it will divide us, and I don’t think we will be as successful as we would have been if we just combined together and put those differences to the one side.”

Can Scotland recover with its current powers in Holyrood? Mr Rennie insists it can. And he argues the Scottish Conservatives - former coalition partners a decade ago in Westminster - aren’t interested in or able to save the United Kingdom. They just feed off division.

“We’ve got extensive tax, spend, legislative powers and all the areas that I mention are within the remit of the Scottish Parliament so we can focus on these,” he says.

“Whatever people’s views on independence - some people who even agree with independence - accept that now is not the moment to focus on another referendum, that we should put those differences aside to unite, to focus.

“We know the Conservatives feed off the SNP on independence - it’s almost all the same during this campaign, it’s very negative that campaign they’re fighting.

“They’re not capable of building a broad alliance, of pulling people together. We know they’re only interested in trying to secure hard-line supporters of the Union, rather than reaching out and trying to bring the country together, which is what we’re trying to do.”

Election 2021: Profile of Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross

Election 2021: Profile of SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon

He continues: “The Conservatives are part of the problem. They aren’t capable of building a broad popular consensus for the United Kingdom.

“They have a hardline approach that only appeals to their core vote. They sound tough, but the reality is they’re not persuading anybody who’s tempted by independence to come back.

“Whereas our progressive alternative is capable of doing that - prioritising mental health, bounce back for education, creating jobs, climate action - those are things that people tempted by independence are attracted to and interested in.

“Conservatives aren’t talking about that stuff. They’re not the best defenders of the Union for that reason - they’re incapable of bringing anybody back.”

In theory, support for mental health services should be a subject that parties agree on. It’s a key plank of LibDem campaigning, and Mr Rennie claims his party secured an extra £120million in mental health funding for the Scottish budget last month.

Why is it still a struggle to boost that support for mental health care?

“When it comes down to it, if there’s a crisis in the NHS, there are certain sections of the NHS that have greater power and magnetism,” he says.

“So it’s not that anyone’s against mental health and improving it, it’s just that when it pits itself against another part of the service, it tends not to have the most powerful advocates so doesn’t tend to get the resources, to attract all the trainees we need.

“We’ve got massive shortage of psychiatrists right now - why are we not managing to fill those posts? It’s for politicians to keep a focus on that to change the way people see it.”

Mr Rennie says the past year has seen more productive cooperation between parties in the Scottish Parliament.

And he gave credit to both Scottish and UK Governments “did get their act together in the end” on ensuring industry churned out the personal protective equipment (PPE) needed on the front line.

The issue was the studies and plans in advance weren’t enacted. “Decisions were purposefully made not to prioritise,” he says of preparations before the pandemic hit.

Thousands of young people and adults must wait more than a year for mental health treatment. A central focus on the recovery for the LibDems is mental health, ranging from mental health first aiders to increasing the number of psychiatrists and psychologists “dramatically”.

Mr Rennie also wants to see the 5,000 teachers on casual contracts into permanent jobs to help get Scottish education back to being “the best in the world”.

Could the LibDems ever have that influence again for such priorities? If the LibDems are traditionally trying to sit in the middle, does Scotland want a middle ground anymore?

Mr Rennie says despite the divisions in the country and on various issues, he is “determined to try and bring a philosophy to my politics that is different, that is engaging, encompassing, is tolerant, is liberal”.

“That’s just my politics and I think that is the very essence of someone who is capable of bringing the country together, of uniting the country, even if some people don’t want to be united,” he says.

“I think it’s the ability to be able to listen to all the strong views. With my experience, I know the territory, I understand the country and the people, I understand the issues and I think I have the ability and I’ve shown that I can bring people together.

“That’s why people should choose us to put recovery first, to focus on what really counts in people’s lives, rather than all the differences.”

LibDems will be hoping 2021 sees their first MSP in the west of Scotland since 2011. Voters will have their say on May 6.