IN the second of our interviews with Scotland’s main political party leaders, we meet Willie Rennie of the Liberal Democrats.

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BELIEVE it or not, when the Scottish Parliament was first established in 1999 there were so many Scottish Liberal Democrat MSPs that they were partners in Scotland’s government – and provided the country’s first deputy first minister.

At the last Scottish election in 2016, there were just five Lib Dem MSPs – and none at all in the west of Scotland.

They remain one of only four parties to put up candidates in all of Scotland’s 73 Scottish Parliament constituencies. But the dwindling Liberal Democrat presence at Holyrood makes it impossible not to ask the obvious question: does Scotland want politicians in the middle ground any more?

From start to finish, Willie Rennie, who has led his party in Scotland for almost exactly 10 years, says 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.”

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Can Scotland recover with its current powers in Holyrood? Mr Rennie insists it can.

And he argues that Scottish Conservatives - former coalition partners a decade ago, albeit at Westminster rather than Holyrood –aren’t interested in, or able to, save the United Kingdom. They, he says, just feed off division.

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

“Even some people who 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 hardline supporters of the Union, rather than reaching out and trying to bring the country together, which is what we’re trying to do.

“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.

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“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.”

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

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

The issue, he says, was that the studies carried out and plans made in advance weren’t enacted.

“Decisions were purposefully made not to prioritise,” he says of preparations before the pandemic hit.

In theory, support for mental health services should be a subject that parties agree on.

It’s a key plank of the Lib Dems’ campaign, and Mr Rennie claims his party secured an extra £120million in mental health funding for the Scottish budget last month.

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

“If there’s a crisis in the NHS, there are certain sections of the NHS that have greater power and magnetism,” he says.

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“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 a 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.”

Thousands of young people and adults must wait more than a year for mental health treatment.

Central to the recovery from Covid, as far as the Lib Dems are concerned, is looking after people’s mental health – ranging from mental health first aiders to “dramatically” increasing the number of psychiatrists and psychologists.

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

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But 14 years since the party was last in power in Scotland, could the Liberal Democrats ever enjoy the influence they need to see those policy priorities made a reality? With five MSPs in the last Scottish Parliament, and only three Scottish MPs returned at the last Westminster election, does Scotland even want a middle ground in politics any more?

Mr Rennie says that 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,” he says. “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.

“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. 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 in Helensburgh and Lomond will have their say on that on May 6.