Lib Dem MSP Willie Rennie is tonight licking his wounds after being publicly slapped down by the head of a Scottish Charity organisation.
The views of the leader of the Scottish Lib Dems were labelled “fanciful” and “preposterous” by SCVO (Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations) Convener Alison Elliot after the MSP claimed the SCVO was a “front organisation” for the SNP and suggested its CEO, Martin Sime should resign.
The row follows an email sent by an aide to First Minister Alex Salmond to Mr Sime. The email pointed the SCVO official to a poll carried out amongst members of the Unite union in which support for a second question was indicated.
The email prompted Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie to suggest that the SCVO Chief should resign and that the organisation’s neutrality was in question. Mr Rennie’s party oppose a second question being included on the independence referendum ballot paper.
However, in a strongly worded letter released today, Ms Elliot writes: “I consider your allegations preposterous, your interpretation of the incidents fanciful and your attempt to interfere in the business of an independent organisation unworthy of a public leader. I have no intention of asking Martin to resign.
“It can be argued that, were it not for the efforts of civil society, through the Constitutional Convention, there would not be a Scottish Parliament for you to be an MSP in. That was of its time but civil society always has a role in a healthy democracy.”
The attack on the SCVO follows similar comments from Rennie last year after Mr Sime suggested consideration should be given to having a second question on the ballot paper after strong public support for such an option was indicated by a series of polls.
The Scottish Lib Dem leader responded by saying there was “increasing suspicions that he [Mr Sime] is working closely with the Scottish Government on this agenda.”
The intervention by Alison Elliot is the clearest indication that the third sector will not be silenced as the debate over Scotland’s constitutional future gathers pace. Ms Elliot insisted that the SCVO will not, “be told by outsiders what it will or will not debate”.
Commenting, SNP MSP Stewart Maxwell who sat alongside Willie Rennie on the Scotland Bill Committee said:
“After Willie Rennie’s bizarre demand that someone should lose their job for engaging in the debate on Scotland’s future, the SCVO’s measured response should make Willie Rennie ashamed of his behaviour.
“Many of the people who have remained part of the LibDems despite their actions in recent years must be watching this exchange with their heads in their hands.
“It is a sad reflection of just how far the LibDems have fallen in recent years, with polls showing their support under Willie Rennie even lower than during their disastrous Holyrood election result.
“Willie Rennie has been firmly and correctly put in his place by the SCVO over his ridiculous behaviour.
“It is neither liberal nor democratic for Willie Rennie to attempt to close down debate on the future of Scotland and he has thoroughly embarrassed himself. The only course of action open to him is to withdraw his remarks and publicly apologise.
“I have no idea what caused his rash outburst, but I am sure that this response from the SCVO should make him reflect on how much he has embarrassed himself with his antics.”
Mr Rennie’s attack is the latest by a Unionist politician against a politically neutral figure who has sought to question the pro-Union stance, and is indicative of a worrying trend.
It follows comments last week by Labour MP Ian Davidson who accused BBC Scotland reporter Isabel Fraser of being biased after she sought to quiz the Labour MP on claims that Scotland needed Westminster permission to hold an independence referendum.
The letter to Willie Rennie in full:
In your letter (14 August), you have made serious allegations against the CEO of SCVO, based on two specific incidents. I consider your allegations preposterous, your interpretation of the incidents fanciful and your attempt to interfere in the business of an independent organisation unworthy of a public leader. I have no intention of asking Martin to resign.
It can be argued that, were it not for the efforts of civil society, through the Constitutional Convention, there would not be a Scottish Parliament for you to be an MSP in. That was of its time but civil society always has a role in a healthy democracy.
The poll which the Future of Scotland published last month indicates that there is an appetite among the public at present for a wide debate about Scotland’s future, something which should be no threat to the seasoned politicians who lead the two referendum campaigns.
It is this debate which organisations in civil society are promoting, with the intention of encouraging people to develop a vision of the kind of Scotland they want to see so as to inform their referendum decision. It is not a campaign for any particular outcome, or for any particular mechanism for achieving an outcome.
Special advisers from all the main political parties, including your own, have been in dialogue with SCVO in recent months; that is their job. We welcome these conversations and engage in them vigorously from our perspective as a civil society organisation that has an interest, on behalf of our members, in contributing to policies that shape the environment in which the third sector works. We are quite clear about the grounds on which we base our arguments; they are formed by the work and concerns of our members, not by any party political stance.
SCVO is not a front for anyone, nor will it be told by outsiders what it will or will not debate or how it should conduct its business.