Lib Dem manifesto: Anarchic humour and hand-painted birds

willie rennie

The late, great comedian W. C. Fields had an aversion to appearing on stage with certain characters.

He apparently refused to go on immediately after the Marx Brothers on the understandable grounds that their blend of anarchic humour discombobulated the audience for anything else.

Aside from the Brothers Marx, W.C. famously disowned children and animals as stage chums. They could be guaranteed to steal any scene in which they featured.

However, there is at least one Scottish politician who has failed to follow Fields. I refer to Willie Rennie, the rash, impetuous soul who leads the Liberal Democrats in these parts.

Like all politicians, he is drawn towards the canvassing power of children.

(Only yesterday, Nicola Sturgeon disclosed, with mock sadness, that there were pictures of babies and toddlers on her manifesto's front page because they were "much cuter" than her. Don't blame the FM: she was asked about this burning issue by the wicked media.)

But Mr Rennie is set apart in that he appears uniquely keen to feature the animal kingdom in his public appearances. One recalls the pigs who were displaying such evident tenderness towards each other during a Rennie photocall at the last election. (Or was it the one before? I forget.)

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Media captionWillie Rennie launched the manifesto in Edinburgh

Then there have been sheep, alpaca and sundry other Caledonian fauna. If newts and salamanders had the vote (and their continuing disenfranchisement is a scandal), Mr Rennie would be assured of victory.

Today it was a bird. The Liberal Democrat logo, no less. The bird of Freedom. Or the Dead Parrot, according to taste.

For some reason, Mr Rennie was slated to paint a picture of said bird and then to etch another version by peeling away the feathered image from its background.

The wicked media looked on, attitudes varying from amusement to bemusement and points in between. However, at least the bird was still and, presumably, unable to peck.

Colouring in

This hand-painted manifesto launch was, one supposes, designed to signal that the Liberal Democrats are in tune with the people, rather than remote power-brokers at posh events.

Either that or Willie Rennie simply fancies his hand at colouring in.

Of late, of course, the Lib Dems have not been entirely without trouble. The curse of W.C. Fields appeared to descend upon them as they lost almost all their Westminster seats in 2015.

Image caption Animals regularly feature on Mr Rennie's campaign photocalls

But they took comfort from some constituency gains in last year's Holyrood elections. (That was the one with the pigs, wasn't it? Think so.)

And this time around, back with a Westminster contest, they are quietly hopeful about picking up two or three seats to add to their island redoubt of Orkney and Shetland.

As with the Tories and Labour, they are targeting the SNP. The choice of target is, of course, rather delineated by the result in 2015 when the Nationalists won 56 out of 59 Scottish seats.

As with the Tories and Labour, they are targeting the SNP's core objective of independence, to be achieved via a referendum.

Spin doctors for said parties have been competing with each other to condemn indyref2 in suitably strident tones of disgust.

New formula

The Tories because it's what they do. When Ruth Davidson says "not now", you can just tell that she is itching to say "not ever if I can help it".

And Scottish Labour because they occasionally need to drown out the helpful obiter dicta uttered by Jeremy Corbyn.

Today Mr Rennie found a new formula, plainly designed to leave minimal room for doubt. It was no to independence. And no to a further referendum. Full stop.

However, they take a different view on the topic of the EU. There, they want another plebiscite, on the final terms which emerge from the Brexit negotiations.

Why the difference? Mr Rennie explains that, in the Brexit referendum last June, folk were not presented with the ultimate outcome. Not even with an outline.

He argues there will be Leave voters who are horrified by the prospect of quitting the single market. People must be given the chance to decide about the precise package which emerges from the bargaining to come.

That differs from the independence referendum how? Because, explains Mr Rennie, the 2014 referendum was preceded by the publication of Scotland's Future, a detailed White Paper from the Scottish Government, setting out an independence prospectus.

Gallant abandon

Mr Rennie, ever a cheerful soul, happily admits that he gave said White Paper pelters when it was unleashed. Nonetheless, he says, it was a substantive document. Folk knew what they were in for - unlike with Brexit.

On other topics, the Lib Dems swing between devolved and reserved matters, with gallant abandon. However, on this, they are entirely in line with their rivals (although the SNP, being in devolved power, were perhaps a little more selective.)

Mr Rennie spoke of returning Scottish education to world standing. He promised action on the environment and health.

In particular, re: the latter topic, he promised extra investment in mental health care. The launch, incidentally, was in the Edinburgh offices of Health in Mind, a charity working in the field.

But, with regard to mental health, the manifesto contrives neatly to make a distinct between Westminster and Holyrood powers.

It promises that mental health care will benefit from the Scottish share of an extra penny on dividend taxation. That remains in Westminster hands while income tax rates and bands are devolved - and thus beyond the control of MPs.

On the economy more generally, the Lib Dems promise to eliminate the day to day deficit by 2020, thereafter only borrowing for capital investment.

And with that, the two avian paintings were complete. Mr Rennie had persisted personfully until both birds were fully on artistic display.

He then signed the canvases. Just what does one get for a rare signed Rennie these days?