You know I’m going to start by talking about ‘strong liberal voices’. It says it right here. It says it on the wall behind me. It’s how I live my political life. It’s what all of us try to be every day. Thinking. Working. Speaking up.
You will remember that the Dalai Lama visited Scotland in June. I was fortunate to have an audience with his Holiness in Dundee. I attempted to relay to him the joy his visit had brought to our country. I told him this was impressive as Scots are often regarded as dour. But he wasn’t familiar with dour. I called on Rikki Fulton’s character to support my explanation. I’m afraid that didn’t really help. It turns out that the broadcast signal of Hogmanay programmes to northern India isn’t what it could be. Well I’ve now put that right.
I paid £5.99 to send His Holiness a DVD of Rikki’s work. I can confirm that the Dalai Lama is now a well-informed fan of the Reverend IM Jolly. Who says Lib Dems don’t change lives?
But despite his positive spirit it wasn’t all joy and laughter in June. 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.
But our First Minister has a track record of courting the rich and the powerful. Remember, he spoke out for Rupert Murdoch on phone hacking. Stood up for Donald Trump – that worked out well. And now he’s skulking around under orders from the Chinese Government. Whether you’ve got a billion pounds or a billion people one thing is for sure - you can count on Alex Salmond.
I was annoyed;
Scots were disgusted;
Alex Salmond should be ashamed.
Since we last gathered here in Dunfermline we have lost good Liberal Democrat councillors. Back in May I felt the loss. It was very hard, painful to see so many lose their seats through no fault of their own. I’m sorry if you’ve lost your seat and I am also sorry for your constituents who have lost a hard working local representative. I want you back. And I need your help to get you back. I need your help to win again.
Why? Because liberal values are so important for Scotland and for your community.
Donald Gorrie knew that. He worked his way back from bad times at the end of the 1970s and 80s. A thinker. A worker. A winner. And a liberal. A generous public servant. And an inspiration to very many of us in this room. Donald, I am sure you are up there waiting for your turn in the next debate. Desperate to show your support for the leadership. Donald, I am glad you shared your life with us. I’m sorry you are gone. But, Donald, you will not be forgotten.
Over the summer I spent a lot of time on the doors. In Cupar, Perth, Edinburgh, Lockerbie, Annan, many others but most importantly in Kirkintilloch. In May we secured 2.5% of the vote. In September Susan Murray in a great by-election increased our share ten-fold to run the SNP and Labour close. Susan – for your style, for your energy and your drive - thank you.
Everyone here can help our candidates in two more by-elections: John Paton-Day in Melrose and Hugh Young in Annandale.
Kirkintilloch is in Jo Swinson’s constituency. Congratulations, Jo, on your new position in government. I know you will be a first class minister on consumer rights, post offices, equalities and business. Another Scot at the heart of government, and one still rooted in campaigning in her constituency. Thank you also for your service as my Deputy. Alistair Carmichael has a hard act to follow but the arts of the whips’ office will be of great benefit to the referendum debate.
Liberal values are important. Community, Opportunity, Internationalism, Sustainability, Openness and Fairness. We cannot trust these values to other parties. It’s not just the Dalai Lama. Look at the centralisation by the SNP with the creation of the National Police Force. The SNP are guilty but the Tories and Labour were their partners in crime. We warned them all against the power grab. Now we see big cuts in police budgets. We warned their big bang reorganisation would cost, not save money. But they did not listen. I must give them credit though – Scotland now has record number of bobbies – but they are to become backroom bobbies. Not police officers on the frontline tackling crime but forced into the back office because their trained civilian support has been made redundant. That’s not the way to make our communities safer.
And our next challenge is to turn back the government plans on corroboration of evidence. Callum Steele from the Scottish Police Federation said earlier this week:
“The requirement for corroboration where one piece of evidence supports another is a fundamental tenet of Scots law and one which provides safeguards for the public and for police officers."
He’s not alone. He has the backing of the High Court judges, the Law Society, Justice Scotland and many more. Our MSP Alison McInnes leads for us on justice. She has been doing an excellent job to warn the Government on this. Her worry, it worries us all, is that feeling of “here they go again” removing parts of the Scottish justice system. Don’t we all remember the threat to our courts from the interfering minister who said: ‘he who pays the piper’?
On corroboration I say this: For the sake of the victims, for the sake of our cherished justice system Kenny MacAskill, turn back and turn back now.
Liberal Democrats with our strong liberal voices make Scotland a more liberal and democratic country. We are needed because who else can you rely on? Not Labour who still have not learnt the lessons of their economic mismanagement.
Not the Conservatives; Dismissing nine out of ten Scots as unproductive, following in the footsteps of that international diplomat Mitt Romney. And wanting to slash benefits and leave the EU. A Conservative government would be free to use the power of the executive unfettered by the Liberal Democrats.
It shows that no matter how uncomfortable, no matter how painful, I’m glad we’re in the coalition at Westminster, acting as a block to a right wing party that is forever drifting from fairness.
And you can’t rely on the SNP either. They only care about one thing. They had a reshuffle at the end of the summer. They cut the number of infrastructure ministers. Doubled the number of foreign ministers. Created more ministers for independence. And told every civil servant to focus on winning the referendum.
So, I have to say, it is something of a surprise, with all that effort going on, that they are making such a monumental mess of it. Look at the chaos this week. What a week it has been. The situation is now such that it is no use asking the First Minister for a straight ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer on anything. He doesn’t know the difference between them. He thinks the two words mean the same thing and are interchangeable. In that light, we will all, need to check very carefully the instructions given to returning officers about how they are to count the votes in the referendum. YES. That pile. NO. That pile as well. This politics by assertion we have seen from the SNP has to come to an end.
It fell apart this week on three counts. They had asserted that they already had the power to hold a referendum. But still jumped at the chance to sign an agreement with Mike Moore to give them the power. They asserted that people were clamouring for a second question. But people didn’t want it by two to one. They asserted that Scotland could continue in the European Union on the same terms as now. And, on that one, they just made it up.
I asked the First Minister about all this on 13th September. He said “Willie Rennie seems to be doubting the legal advice even before it is published”. What did he mean? Did he mean doubting the legal advice ‘in the terms of the debate’ that underpinned all government documents that had ever been published in the last six years? Or the legal advice that he went to court to keep secret, wasting taxpayers’ money, fighting the information commissioner even though it didn’t actually exist?
It’s not so much the Thick of It. It’s more do they really think we’re thick enough to believe this half-baked, bunkum and baloney?
The guessing game on independence has to end. If Scotland votes to be an independent country, there is no going back. People shouldn’t have to guess about the terms to be part of the European Union. If the Scottish Government don’t start negotiations until after a Yes vote, the whole referendum becomes a guessing game. We cannot live off guesses. If they are wrong on Scotland becoming an automatic member of the European Union on the same terms as the UK with the same opt-outs, it gets very serious.
Like for other new members of the European Union, that could mean joining the Euro and being bound by the Fiscal Stability Pact. That means cutting the Scottish deficit from 7.2% of GDP to 3% of GDP. Five billion off the budget. Or five billion on taxes. That’s a thousand pounds for every man, woman and child in Scotland. That could be the price to pay. It’s crazy. The SNP say they want Scots to decide our future by ourselves. But the SNP want an independent Scotland to be faced with a choice of keeping the pound, under the control of a foreign UK government or adopting the Euro costing us billions.
Alex Salmond wants Scotland to choose between a Pound rock and a Euro hard place.
So we cannot afford to let them off the hook.
For a start we can’t let them distract us with the red herring of the ‘ministerial code’. They want a decision to end a country, to go it alone, to permanently depart. Those who are advocating this change need to set out the legal basis. And that has to be shared. After all, they haven’t just got to convince the Scottish Cabinet – I suspect they are pretty well on board already. They need to convince cabinets in 27 other capital cities around Europe. And the people of Scotland. We all have to see the full argument and the legal basis, and see that it has been accepted across Europe. Because, after a week when confidence in what they tell us has been shattered, we cannot rely on the Scottish Government to faithfully interpret that evidence for us. They have to show us the legal evidence and show us that it has been agreed across Europe.
The SNP have simply got to stop the guessing game on separation. The First Minister told his conference last week that to secure the gains of devolution Scotland needs to back independence. Dismantle devolution to protect the gains of devolution? With that logic he’ll be telling us he wants the Pound, the Queen, the Bank of England to make Scotland independent.
Alex Salmond is showing all the signs of a leader afraid of his own policy. He now includes more and more of the British state he has previously demonised. He’s sending us a covert signal. Perhaps he too thinks we’re better together.
The best way to protect devolution is not to destroy it but to build on it. Scotland has an alternative. If we want to keep our influential place in international bodies, but with strong domestic powers, people don’t have to look very far from this room. Home rule for Scotland in a federal United Kingdom keeps us as a powerful force for good in the world. Thank you conference for supporting the report on Home and Community Rule this morning. Thank you to Ming Campbell for leading the work. It is a credit to him and our party. It’s another substantial contribution that takes forward the work on home rule and federalism of Russell Johnston, David Steel and Ray Michie. Major transfers of power and authority. Constitutional power which gives the Scottish Parliament permanent powers not powers on loan from Westminster. Financial power to the Scottish Parliament with up to two thirds of spending raised through taxes controlled in Holyrood. That will ensure that MSPs can determine how much is spent as well as what it’s spent on. This puts Liberal Democrats, once again, ahead of the debate. Leading the way with fresh thinking.
The challenge for the other parties is to join us in this debate. We can work with them. I am pleased the Labour Party has started their review. I am also encouraged that the Conservatives are investigating this too. All of us in the Better Together campaign want to win the referendum with a clear and significant majority. That will help to settle the issue of independence. To win big, people want to be assured that No to independence doesn’t mean No to change. So I urge Ruth and Johann to start the dialogue with me and others on a new package of reforms, to be put to the voters in the 2015 General Election. A decision to keep Scotland in the UK should open the door to change across the UK.
But the SNP have a role too. I know they didn’t turn up for the Claim of Right, the Constitutional Convention, the Calman Commission or even the expert panel on the referendum question. If they lose the referendum will they join the discussion, to develop a sustainable, stable model for the UK? I believe they have a role and I invite them to join us. It’s an open, genuine offer to the SNP. When you are ready we’ll be ready for you.
Our plans for home rule in a federal UK should be the rallying point. It is what people want and we are determined to deliver it. And we will work with other people to make it happen.
And we can work with the SNP too, on next year’s budget. We will work constructively to influence the Government. We did it last year for colleges, house building and early intervention and we’ll do it again this year. Our ambition is certainly to see our colleges get a fair funding package. But this year we need to go further to address the long term needs of the Scottish economy.
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.
A chance they will get in England. Conference, you voted for this policy this morning and I am determined to take it to the Finance Minister’s table. With all the long-term pressures on the budget, that makes sense for taxpayers, for our economy and for our children. Strong plans. Thoughtful plans. Good for Scotland. What we achieve in this party comes from the depth of our thought and the strength of our voices. So, thank you to Mike Moore for the calm, professional approach to his work. On the referendum powers he cut through what could have been a slanging match between London and Edinburgh.
Thank you to Ming Campbell and his Commission who have given us the well-argued case for federal home rule. Thank you to Jo Swinson who has grown in Scottish politics with us, and now takes her place at the dispatch box as a minister in the House of Commons. Thank you to Danny Alexander – from Lochaber High School to the Treasury. Delivering bigger tax cuts for low and middle earners than the Tories ever thought possible. And bigger taxes on the banks than Labour ever dared to propose.Thank you to Alison, Liam, Tavish and Jim – the mighty handful at Holyrood. To our big Westminster voices. To the new friends we made on the doorsteps in Cupar, Perth, Lockerbie and Kirkintilloch.
You know, I have been in this party since the 1980s. I remember that we were the first to talk about investment in education. We were the first to talk about climate change. We have shown that we can achieve so much. That you can’t rely on the others. But we will set out again, from today to be the vital spark of serious thought for the long term. On early intervention that gives every child a chance; On the environment and energy; On a settled, stable constitution; On an economy that gives every person an opportunity to succeed. Liberal thinking, liberal action – strong liberal voices.