Willie Rennie, the politician with the most famous smile in Scottish politics, has been a great Liberal Democrat leader – Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP

“Whatever happens, you’ve got to smile. That’s what my mum always told me.”
Willie Rennie meets some penguins at Edinburgh Zoo (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)Willie Rennie meets some penguins at Edinburgh Zoo (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)
Willie Rennie meets some penguins at Edinburgh Zoo (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)

As far as I can recall this was the first line of Willie Rennie’s inaugural speech as leader to a Scottish Liberal Democrat conference. It was well pitched.

The year was 2011, we’d just lost two thirds of our Scottish parliamentary group and the party was desolate.

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With the news of Willie’s resignation as leader breaking on Monday, I look back to that time and am reminded of just how far he has taken the Liberal Democrats and how much he has contributed to public life in this country.

When people think about Willie, they think of the most recognisable smile in Scottish politics. They think of bright, sometimes hilarious photo calls (who can forget the amorous pigs) and yet they can often recall the message that went along with it, such is Willie’s knack of using humour to get media cut-through.

That mirth is not just reserved for the cameras either. His positivity is irrepressible. It has carried both me and the Liberal Democrats through some of our darkest moments and it is not overstating things to say that he has saved our party from oblivion and obscurity on more than one occasion.

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Willie Rennie stands down as Scottish Liberal Democrat leader

That charm and relentless positivity has earned him a warmth and an affection from the general public that is seldom afforded to those in politics, reflected in his huge majority in North East Fife.

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Scotland needs politicians of profound substance and integrity. Willie has both of those things and some to spare.

Were it not for him, mental health and early years education would not enjoy the prominence they do in the corridors of Parliament and of government today. Nobody would have stood up to the SNP when they turned a blind eye to human rights in China, or fought for answers and justice for the crash victims who lay dying by the side of the M9 for three days without rescue.

Willie is stepping down on his terms and should be justifiably proud of his achievements. He has revived our fortunes at Westminster, ensured our survival by building citadels in our constituencies at Holyrood and just two years ago, he led a Scottish European election campaign which saw my party overhaul both the Conservatives and Labour nationally for the first time in our history.

His legacy as leader will be vast and long-lasting, principally focused on those at the margins of society while ensuring that Scotland has had and will continue to have, strong liberal voices at every level of public life in our country.

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I am heart saddened by Willie’s decision, but I am consoled by the fact that we will continue to work together in Parliament going forward as I still have much to learn from him.

There are few people in my life who have shaped it as much as he has. He is one of my best friends and he always makes me smile.

Alex Cole-Hamilton is Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP for Edinburgh Western

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