“WE ARE far, far, far from complacent. The Liberal Democrats like to get dug in and understand exactly what’s going on.”
As the Scottish Parliament election campaign draws to a close, Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie is confident – but not lax – about the party’s chances in Shetland.
The Lib Dems have won every election since the Scottish Parliament was founded over two decades ago, and this time round Beatrice Wishart is looking to secure another term in Holyrood after reigning in 2019’s by-election.
Main rival, the SNP, claim they are in their strongest position yet in Shetland, but Wishart remains the clear favourite to come out top.
Speaking to Shetland News, Rennie said the former councillor has run a “very positive” campaign which has focused on speaking to as many folk as possible within the Covid restrictions.
“We’ve been doing lots of telephoning, and the leaflets have all been positive about her track record since she was elected in 2019, and also what she’s got planned for the next period,” he said.
“The positive nature of the campaign seems to have come across quite well. I would expect her to do well in the result.
“I think people in Shetland, like people across Scotland, are wanting to focus on the recovery from the pandemic rather than going back to more arguments about independence. I think we’ve caught the public mood.”
Rennie said it is difficult to predict whether the political margins in Shetland will be cut, or increased, this time around.
Speaking about the 2019 by-election, he said the SNP “threw the kitchen sink” at Shetland, but still came up short by nearly 2,000 votes.
“I think there were more ministers in Shetland than there were in the rest of Scotland during that by-election,” Rennie added.
“I think people will recognise the work that Beatrice has done and I would hope that they would return her with an increased majority because they want somebody who is just going to get stuck in and do the work, and that’s Beatrice’s style really – she just gets on with the job.”
At the top of Wishart’s list of achievements, Rennie said, was helping hundreds of people on an individual basis – especially business owners and the self-employed during the pandemic.
Prior to being elected as a Lerwick councillor in 2017 Wishart had racked up years of experience in the office of Northern Isles Lib Dem MP Alistair Carmichael, including dealing with constituency casework.
“I think her campaign on air traffic control has been very robust and clear, and I think ministers are left in no doubt about what Shetland wants on air traffic control,” Rennie added.
In this year’s Scottish budget Shetland Islands Council has received full funding for running its inter-island ferries after a number of years of having to make up a shortfall.
When questioned how much influence the Lib Dems had on the process, Rennie said: “We were active and serious on the budget negotiations from the very beginning.
“We’d been arguing for this for years, and it was only when the Liberal Democrats really cranked up the pressure on the government to come up with the money did it actually happen.
“And then this year I was leading for the party on the budget talks, and we were making the case for a whole range of areas, from mental health and business support, and particularly around the North Sea – we were keen for the oil industry to have a transition fund.
“We worked on making sure that local councils got extra funding including the extra money for Shetland, Orkney and Argyll on the ferries. We were a big part of making all this happen over many many years.”
Rennie also said that there is a “strong case” for fixed links such as tunnels in Shetland – a topic which appears to have been a recurring issue during the local campaign, and one which is attracting cross-party support.
He is also keen to see local councils in Scotland have control of finances, and more authority over long-term plans.
Last year Shetland Islands Council voted to explore options for achieving political and financial self-determination.
“I think there’s a case for Shetland going further [than other local authorities], and that’s what I’d like to explore with the council, is to exactly how we can make that happen,” Rennie said.
The coronavirus pandemic, meanwhile, has understandably taken the focus of politicians over the last year.
Rennie said there are some things the Lib Dems would have done differently if, hypothetically, they were the party in charge in the Scottish Parliament and he was first minister.
This would have included testing residents before they were admitted to care homes, as well as rolling out wider testing at an earlier stage.
Rennie said he initially enjoyed regular communication with government minsters on the response to the pandemic. “That kind of started to fall apart when the independence thing came back on the agenda again,” he continued.
“The independence kind of gets in the way of an awful lot of things in politics in Scotland. So therefore I think we should put those differences aside for the next five years to focus on the recovery, and I think a lot of people agree with me.”
In the last term of parliament, the Scottish Lib Dems had five MSPs in the chamber out of a total of 129.
When asked what influence the party has with only five MSPs, Rennie said there was an opportunity in this election to increase that number further.
“The seats that will make the difference between the parliament being focused on recovery and on independence, are the Liberal Democrat gains,” he said.
“It’s Liberal Democrats in every corner of Scotland, that could get elected if people vote for us, because we’re on the edge of getting seats in every region of the country.
“If we win, then the parliament is focused on recovery. That will be the difference. So there’s huge value in voting Liberal Democrat in every part of Scotland.
“If people want that progressive alternative – they’re concerned perhaps about Boris Johnson’s behaviour in the Conservatives, and don’t want an over-focus on independence, and therefore want to put the focus on recovery instead, then they should come with the Liberal Democrats.”
The Scottish Parliament elections take place on 6 May. There are six candidates contesting the Shetland seat. They are in alphabetical order: Martin Kerr (Labour), Brian Nugent (Restore Scotland); Peter Tait (Independent), Nick Tulloch (Conservatives), Tom Wills (SNP) and Beatrice Wishart (Liberal Democrats).
To find out more about all the candidates standing in the election, including those on the regional Highlands and Islands list, visit our Scottish Parliament election 2021 page here.
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