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Stormy or Serene: What is the future like for the Scottish Liberal Democrats?

Alan Grant

The Scottish Liberal Democrats launched their manifesto at a children’s soft play centre in Edinburgh last week. The venue now hosts ball pits and climbing frames but long-term city residents, particularly those in their twenties, will know it better by its old name: Leith Waterworld. What is now a mass of green crashmats and protective netting once housed flumes, hot tubs and, most memorably of all, a spectacular wave machine. For those of the right age, and their parents, a visit to the wave machine made a weekend special.

There was something appropriate in choosing this venue to launch a Liberal Democrat manifesto; the party has not experienced calm waters for some time. Following the party's coalition with the Conservatives in 2010, its maelstrom of misfortune came to a crescendo in 2015 when all but one of their MPs fell to the SNP. The HMS Lib Dem wasn’t so much up the creek, as trapped in the middle of the storm with waves smashing into her aft and several leaks in her hull. But that's not the way Willie Rennie tells it.

Mr Rennie’s campaign does not seem like the faint distress call of a sinking ship but rather as a signal coming from a vessel that has weathered the storm and sees blue skies, safe harbours and more seats ahead. His campaign has been one of fun and optimism throughout. Even his political opponents must surely concede that the sight of Mr Rennie getting his hands dirty on a farm, walking a pack of guide dogs through a park and enjoying an encounter with a bird of prey has added a dash of levity to the election campaign.

The first half of the manifesto launch saw the party leader taking off his shoes and joining in the fun with some of the children in attendance. He climbed around the facility and slid down a chute – more than once – much to the amusement of the children and journalists present. It was all about having a good time as well sending the message that this election is all about children and the future.

When the fun and games were over, it was time for the serious business. The media were ushered into the ‘Party Room’ which had been transformed into a press room, despite still being adorned with bright colours and cartoon characters, including Roaring Rex from Toy Story. Rather unusually, Mr Rennie’s speech was delivered without any obvious party members present. This added a rather odd tone to proceedings, as points that under normal circumstances would have elicited rapturous applause from the party faithful were met with stony silence, with only the odd scratch of a pen or beep of a mobile phone to break it.

As for manifesto pledges, the party’s key policies include an increase in funding for education, paid for through a 1p rise in income tax, as well as additional support for mental health and action on housing. However, the most noticeable aspect of his address was the signalling of a change of tone, or a return to a previous one, depending on how one cares to view it. Mr Rennie was clear that his was a party aspiring to be the “positive” option for voters and committed to being “optimistic about the future”.

As for the polls, some show the Lib Dems making gains, others making losses, and some show the party returning the same number of MSPs as it currently has. This raft of potential outcomes could see the party holding on to its position as Holyrood’s fourth party or slipping down into the part of Scottish politics where the minority parties and independents live. So have they ridden the waves or is this just the eye of the storm?

Evidently, Willie Rennie is letting his natural exuberance and positivity guide his campaign and with the help of the advice given by his close friend and much-missed political giant Charles Kennedy – whose tie Mr Rennie sported for the launch – his has been one of the most fun campaigns Scottish politics has seen recently.

For a party whose voyage has been as choppy as the Scottish Liberal Democrats, a bit of fun and some inspiration is, at the very least, a good start.

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