IN strict numerical terms, the Scottish Liberal Democrats are an irrelevance.

Locked in a toxic embrace with the Conservatives at Westminster, the party has been punished remorselessly by voters.

In May's local election, they lost 95 of 166 councillors. The year before, they went from 16 to five at Holyrood, losing every constituency south of Orkney.

In his speech to his party conference yesterday, leader Willie Rennie dubbed his four remaining colleagues the "mighty handful".Handful, at least, sounds accurate.

But there is more than numbers at stake. Since the election, the party, largely through Rennie's ceaseless efforts, has shown it can punch above its weight at Holyrood. Rennie has been ahead of the curve on issues such as the job losses which must accompany police and fire centralisation, and is arguably Salmond's best inquisitor in the Holyrood chamber.

The First Minister's antipathy towards him is a back-handed compliment.

As the row over the SNP and EU legal advice raged last week, the allocation system for First Minister's Questions meant Rennie was not entitled to a question.

His absence was keenly felt after Labour's Johann Lamont failed to land a serious blow, and Tory Ruth Davidson shot herself in the foot.

They may not have the numbers, but the Scottish LibDems are in the process of carving themselves a niche, and our democracy is that bit healthier for it.