Willie Rennie, Paddington Bear, and the case for immigration

Willie Rennie cited Paddington Bear at the Scottish Liberal Democrats conference Photo: PA

Politicians, or at least some politicians, are fond of peppering their speeches with references to great thinkers, theorists and philosophers.

Marx has made a bit of a comeback in Jeremy Corbyn's Labour party. Adam Smith is cited not just by the Right but by the Left too. Theresa May was said to have been influenced by socially radical 'Red Tories'.

So who is it that inspires the Scottish Liberal Democrats and their Scottish leader Willie Rennie? Well at their one day conference at the weekend Mr Rennie cited no less an intellectual figure than...Paddington Bear.

Yes, you read that correctly. Paddington Bear. The charming, kind, gentle hero of the latest film based on the books by Michael Bond.

Here's an extract of what Mr Rennie told his conference in Dunfermline on Saturday:" 'In Britain nobody's alike, which means everyone fits in.' Who would have thought a cartoon immigrant from darkest Peru with his marmalade sandwich would sum up a liberal approach to immigration so well?

I saw Paddington last week. Open, warm hearted, generous. Embracing the world. It is another challenge of our age and is at the heart of the debate on Brexit.

Whilst leaders bicker about transition periods and single markets and common external tariffs the elephant - or the bear - in the room is immigration."

Now, to be fair to Mr Rennie, I should say that in the past he has cited great Liberal politicians and thinkers to make his case - from J M Keynes to Jo Grimond.

These, and others, have inspired him to make the liberal argument - small 'l' and big 'L' - at a time when he fears Scotland, the UK and the world is in the grip of illiberalism.

And there was a reason for quoting the lovable bear. Mr Rennie wanted to make a strong practical (and yes, philosophical) case for immigration in this country.

Willie Rennie, Leader, Scottish Liberal Democrats Credit: PA

Without immigrants, he argued, Scotland in particular would be left without key workers in both the private and public sector.

Without immigrants we would be a poorer place in terms of our economy - think everything from tradespeople to fruit pickers.

Without immigrants public services like the National Health Service, or social care would collapse, the Scottish Lib Dem leader warned.

But he was also making a wider case, that immigration brings more than just workers here. It broadens our horizons, enriches our culture, increases diversity.

Harking back to Gordon Brown's 'prudence with a purpose', you might call Mr Rennie's philosophy 'Paddington with a purpose'.

And it is not just the Lib Dems who are making it. A Scottish government paper launched last week made much the same case, backed up by a wealth of statistics to support the case that immigration is good for Scotland.

The problem for Mr Rennie, and for the Scottish government, is that this case - which has widespread support in principle at least including from Tories like Ruth Davidson - has rather got lost in the Brexit negotiations maelstrom.

With battles going on over the UK's financial contribution to the EU when it leaves, over trade and the single market, the possible deal over who can live and work in the UK (and vice a versa) has apparently been sidelined.

It should be said, of course, that not everyone agrees immigration is good for Scotland and the UK. UKIP certainly don't, though they are for now at least a faded political force.

There appear to be elements inside the UK Labour party who have reservations about immigration and the role workers from outside the country have in driving down local wages and conditions.

And we should also acknowledge that social attitude surveys show that Scots as a whole are not very much more liberal that people in the UK as a whole when it comes to having doubts (fears?) about immigration.

There is a huge task ahead for politicians like Mr Rennie, Ms Davidson, Nicola Sturgeon and many inside Labour to make the case that post-Brexit, this country is a better place for welcoming others.

So in drawing attention to the contribution one of the country's best-loved, albeit fictional, characters has made to the case the immigration, perhaps Mr Rennie might just have hit on something.

You can see my interview with Willie Rennie as part of a Representing Border special programme on the Liberal Democrats conference tonight on ITV Border in Scotland at 10.45pm.