By NEIL RIDDELL
ISLES MSP Tavish Scott was this week elected as the new leader of the Liberal Democrats in Scotland with a landslide victory.
Mr Scott secured 59 per cent of the vote to win the leadership contest outright, comfortably defeating rivals Ross Finnie (21.3 per cent) and Mike Rumbles (17.9 per cent).
He was transport minister in the Labour/Lib Dem coalition government during the last term of the Scottish Parliament and had been widely tipped to win the leadership race after Nicol Stephen stepped down earlier this year to spend more time with his family.
The 42-year-old won 1,450 votes on a membership turnout of 61 per cent and was unveiled before a gathering of prominent party faces at Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh on Tuesday afternoon.
He is the latest in a line of Shetland’s parliamentary representatives to have become leader of the Liberals. Former Orkney and Shetland MP Jim Wallace led the party in Scotland for 13 years, while Jo Grimond – who held the Westminster seat for 33 years – was the party’s UK leader between 1956 and 1967.
Mr Scott likened himself to Scotland’s triple gold medal winning cyclist Chris Hoy and thanked the party for awarding him the “gold medal of the Liberal Democrats Olympics”.
The Lib Dems are the fourth largest grouping at Holyrood with 16 MSPs, but the recent emergence of the SNP as Scotland’s most popular political party means Mr Scott will face a difficult task in building support for his party.
During a series of heated exchanges between the SNP and Labour over the past 12 months, the party has found itself increasingly marginalised by the Scottish media and, in seeking to address that, he seems likely to adopt a bullish stance towards the nationalists. Mr Scott described First Minister Alex Salmond as “politically dishonest”, “arrogant” and “misguided” this week.
Among the other challenges in his in-tray are the upcoming Glenrothes by-election and establishing his party’s policy on the SNP’s proposed referendum on independence. This week Mr Scott said the general public did not “give two hoots” about a constitutional referendum but hinted at a change in policy by stopping short of ruling out any backing for such a poll.
The support of the Liberal Democrats in the Scottish Parliament could prove crucial to Mr Salmond’s hopes of getting a majority to support a bill declaring a referendum, which the SNP hopes to hold in 2010.
“We will see what legislation the SNP comes forward with,” Mr Scott said. “I am not intuitively against making sure that people have a choice and opportunity to vote on these things, but I believe it should be for a strengthened Scotland within the UK.”
The Inverness-born ex-farmer is the son of Shetland’s lord lieutenant John Scott and was educated at the Anderson High School before graduating with an honours degree in business studies at Napier College in 1989. He served as a councillor for the Lerwick Harbour and Bressay ward for five years prior to becoming an MSP.
His seat in Shetland is one of the safest in Scotland, with a majority of 4,409 last May giving him a 50 per cent margin of victory, the largest in any constituency.
Meanwhile, the newly-elected leader joined the crowds on the Royal Mile this week to congratulate Scotland’s Olympic heroes, including Hoy. Mr Scott said: “I want their success to inspire young people across Scotland to get active and involved in sport. But today, it was just fantastic to congratulate the athletes for their tremendous performances that captivated the nation.”