Time for someone on this here blogspace to offer condolence and encouragement to the Scottish Lib Dems.  Enough of kicking a party when it’s down and at least, it has taken the first tiny steps on the long road back.

There are clearly benefits to be gained from moving quickly from one leader to another.  No power vacuum, no unseemly public scuffles, no washing of dirty linen in public.  But there are also downsides.  An anointment, which the last two leadership “elections” have been, means there is no breathing space in which ordinary party members will get the chance to have their say and shape their future.  The chosen one gets to consult and listen, or simply impose his or her will and view on the party.  Reality demands it be the former – there are few candidates to choose from after all.

Willie Rennie has today been declared the new Lib Dem leader.  He was, if truth be told, the only credible – or at least most credible – candidate in the tiny group of Lib Dem MSPs.  His experience as party CEO and also as Chief of Staff for the Parliamentary Group, and his time as an MP, give him a hinterland that should serve him well.  By all accounts, he is affable, media savvy, intelligent and should do well.  I can’t help thinking, though, that the Liberal Democrats have a bit of a conveyor belt on this style of politician, not just here in Scotland but across the UK.  It’s the 40 something male thing, of higher than average income background, creating an identikit of leaders in recent years.  No wonder Vince Cable comes across as a breath of fresh air.

But what kind of liberalism does Willie Rennie believe in?  Is he Orange Book or more socially democratic?  Does he belong to the seemingly more Scottish tradition of liberalism as portrayed by the likes of Charles Kennedy and Menzies Campbell or the more strident economically-focused one epitomised by Huhne, Laws and co?

It matters because it will determine how long the road back is for the Liberal Democrats here in Scotland.  They have some time to take a long hard look at themselves and work it out:  the next Parliamentary elections are some years away after all.  But there is the small matter of council elections next year:  these could represent the start of a revival or perhaps achieving stability by holding their own rather than making gains, or result in further electoral punishment.  If the Lib Dems lose their well established toehold in local government across the country one really does have to fear for their future.

There is space for a vibrant political force representing either half of the Liberal Democrat tradition, but it would be a brave man who would lead his party towards the Orange book style of policy and politics in Scotland.  This would appear to be what the Scottish people rejected so emphatically on 5 May.  There is a need for a right of centre, less interventionist economically-focused political party, yet, there is also a need for a party that makes thoughtful social policy its core purpose too.  Both the SNP and Labour have swept up tenets of both, crowding the centre in recent years.  So a nimble Liberal Democrat party could straddle them if it can get the policies, the strategy and the tactics right.

Willie Rennie needs to make his mark and somehow achieve coverage -  no mean feat when reduced to a parliamentary group of five.  One way of doing this would be to pick up on bits of the SNP manifesto that chime with sections of the Liberal Democrat one.  Take forward members’ bills where appropriate;  shame them on reducing the priority of other measures when needed.  But make it constructive opposition.  Underlying the seismic Scottish election result was a sentiment of dislike for the yah-boo politics that everyone – including the SNP – indulged in in the last four years.  The people have spoken, they want this SNP government to have a fair run at it, and it is incumbent on all parties to follow the will of the Scottish people, while still managing to hold the government to account.

It’s a tough job, without the much larger task of reinventing and rejuvenating a severely wounded party.  The burd wishes Willie Rennie well and will watch with interest to see if he is up to it.

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