Sunday, October 28, 2012

Upbeat Scottish Liberal Democrat Conference braves nationalist abuse

Friday night was not good. I sat down to watch a little television and all of a sudden felt very ill. Seriously, I couldn't even drink a glass of wine. I wondered how on earth I was going to cope with Liberal Democrat Scottish Conference the next day.

I felt a bit better in the morning and hoped that the adrenaline would get me through the day, but I set off for Dunfermline feeling not very enthusiastic and wishing I could just stay curled up on bed - or at least on the sofa in sympathy with our poorly sick hamster. Aurora is not a well girl at all - she's having to have oral antibiotics (0.07ml) fed to her through a tiny syringe and is on a liquid diet fed to her at regular intervals via a slightly bigger syringe.. She is not out of the woods yet, but certainly seems happier than she was on Friday.

Anyway, I made it to Dunfermline, past the dozen or so pro-independence protesters who had set themselves up in front of the venue's car park. They were quite well behaved then, but people were arriving together. It was later on, as it was getting dark, that they turned nastier. I know of 3 women who were verbally abused by them. In fact at one point they came into the car park as a female member of staff was loading her car which was quiet scary for her. I personally know of one woman who was called an f***ing Tory by them, and another who was called a c**t.The first was actually fetching her 4 year old when that happened. If that's the way independence campaigners are going to behave, then, frankly, it's not going their cause any good.

I was really glad that I got there, not least because the Vine Church in Dunfermline does the best sliced sausage rolls you could ever imagine.  The day was very uplifting with keynote speeches from Jo Swinson, Mike Moore and Willie Rennie. Jo gave a very practical speech about what she was doing to encourage not only equality in the workplace but also a fulfilling work environment. She said that some might think that business and equality were incompatible, but to her, they were inseparable.

Mike Moore gave a robust analysis of our record in Government:

We’re rolling up our sleeves and doing what’s right. 
Supporting the young unemployed with a Youth Contract that guarantees support to young Scots who are out of work and down on their luck. Supporting older people with our triple lock pensions policy: the largest cash increase in the history of the state pension. And supporting hard-working people through a fairer tax system. Raising the point at which people start to pay tax, year on year. And cutting income tax for low and middle income earners. With 160,000 low paid Scots coming out of income tax altogether. Well over two million paying less than they were when we came to office. And, by April of next year, a total of £1.2 billion less tax taken from low and middle-income Scots.
So, when we go to the polls in 2015, we won’t head into battle armed only with words. We have an armoury of evidence and a record of delivery. With our commitment to fairness, Liberal Democrats have delivered for Scotland what Labour did not, the Conservatives would not and the SNP could not.
It was also great to see Menzies Campbell propose the Home Rule Commission motion. He mentioned the events of the last week and said, of Alex Salmond that he "may or may not have lied, but he certainly didn't tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth." I had to leave the hall so I didn't get to see Charles Kennedy's speech in the debate. If anyone wants to fill us in on what he said, I'd be ever so grateful.

Willie Rennie is such a natural at the speechmaking stuff. He combines humour and his straightforward, plain speaking style with  a serious, grown up message. Only Willie could think of getting the Dalai Lama to watch Rikki Fulton's Rev I M Jolly to explain the concept of dour. Although, frankly, he didn't really need to go to the expense of sending the DVD. A You Tube link would have sufficed.

Willie went to see the Dalai Lama privately when he was here in June, but he still feels embarrassed by the way the First Minister treated our eminent visitor.

I was embarrassed by our Scottish Government’s treatment of the Tibetan spiritual leader.  I met him. Nick Clegg showed him respect. Even David Cameron took the time to show his support.  But our First Minister slithered, jabbered and blathered.  He made every possible excuse to avoid the Dalai Lama.  One bit of pressure from the Chinese Government and he buckled. As one keen supporter of his Holiness told me: “If that’s the kind of Scotland Alex Salmond wants then I want nothing of it.”
It was illiberal and it took Liberals to stand up against it.
He spoke about our vision for home rule for Scotland in a federal UK as a way to keep Scotland as "a powerful force for good in the world."

He spent some time on the constitution, but he didn't forget, unlike the SNP often seems to, that we need good government now. Kids need to be educated, sick people need to be looked after, people need somewhere affordable to live. Willie is passionate about nursery education for 2 year olds:

I want to see 2 year olds from the poorest backgrounds get the early education they need, to give them the best start in life. The Nobel laureate Professor James Heckman has worked out that the highest rate of return in education is from investment before the age of three. One pound then saves £11 later. The reason that number is so astonishing is studies have shown that a child’s development at 22 months accurately predicts their development at 26 years. That is why it’s so disappointing that the Scottish Government has plans for just 1 per cent of 2-year-olds to get free childcare and education.
If we can get that up it will have an impact on long term participation in the economy.  Our Scottish growth and prosperity needs 100% of people contributing to our economy and our community. Education unlocks that door for the people who get left behind. So, one per cent should not be the end of the story. In England they are extending childcare to 40% of 2-year-olds. We’ve shown the Scottish Government where they can find the money.  Next year’s priority is to bring in free childcare for those 2-year-olds. Scotland is falling behind the rest of the United Kingdom. I want to discuss with the Scottish Government how far and how fast we can go next year. I say that those children deserve a chance in Scotland. 

 I am slightly concerned that Willie has so wholeheartedly opposed the Government's recommendations on corroboration. I actually don't know enough about the issues involved, but I am worried from the sexual offences and abuse side of things. We have a hellishly low conviction rate and, let's face it, these crimes are not exactly carried out in front of witnesses. I need to get my head round the arguments on both sides. When I have, I'll come back to you.

I went to a fringe meeting at lunchtime organised by the Hardest Hit, a coalition of organisations such as RNIB and SAMH which campaigns on the effects of the welfare reforms on disability. The meeting was packed and very informative. I'll write more on that separately.

I had to make a speech myself, proposing a motion in the private party business session. I joked that I was going to live tweet my own speech like I did everyone else's.

I also had a bit of an emotional moment as I had been asked to do a tribute to Nikki Thomson, my friend and great supporter of both Liberal Youth and Scottish Women Liberal Democrats who died in June.

I really enjoyed the day. I had fun giving away sweeties on the membership stand as well and am looking forward to all the members people are going to recruit for us in return. I'm glad I struggled out of bed to get there, even if I feel a bit rubbish today. But now I'm off to McActivate, the Liberal Youth training day. I really wish they'd put an a in there so it was MacActivate, but never mind. It should be fun. I don't want to cramp their style too much, but I do want to go to the session on the Obama campaign.

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