Here it is, in full:
It’s good to see you here in Dunfermline. Again. I think it’s fair to say that as long as Willie Rennie is our leader, Fife will feature prominently and often as our conference venue. And so it should. Dunfermline is a fine town, and Willie is an excellent leader. Both are great choices for the Scottish Liberal Democrats.
It’s been quite a year. No shortage of challenges for our party, in government. From the constitution, to climate change, to the economy, there are big choices for our country to make. But in these – the toughest of times – the decisions the government is taking are fairer because of us. We cannot control the economic situation in Europe or the wider world. And we cannot insulate ourselves from its effect. But the measure of our party is how we respond to the challenges that creates.
We’re not shouting from the sidelines. 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. And it’s by making the right decisions we prove our commitment to Scotland’s best future. We are ensuring that fairness is at the heart of the Coalition.
There remain plenty differences between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives. But one of the things that unites this government – and the Labour Party too – is our commitment to maintaining the UK family. And we will underline that commitment with the decisions we make and the positive steps we take. Because there is a referendum coming. It’s there in black and white. Two weeks ago I reached agreement with Nicola Sturgeon. Signed off with the Prime Minister and the First Minister three days later in Edinburgh. That agreement will provide Scots with a legal, fair and decisive referendum. Made in Scotland. One question. On independence. Held by the end of 2014.
The Scottish Government is free to give 16 and 17 year olds the vote. And on both the question setting and campaign spending, the rules that apply to referendums anywhere in the UK will apply to this referendum too.
Central to that is the role of the Electoral Commission. The Commission is tested, trusted and impartial. It recommends spending limits based on precedent, fairness and public interest. And it will examine the Scottish Government’s proposed question, suggesting the changes that will make it clear, fair and intelligible. Just as it has done in previous referendums. There is no other body with the experience and neutrality of the Electoral Commission. To over-rule its judgement would invite the charge of rigging and bias, and tainting the process. So while every UK government has had the power to do so, none ever has.
Now there are those who say that the SNP will break with that precedent. That it will force through the Scottish Parliament its words of choice. That it will demand spending limits that meet its own objectives rather than the Electoral Commission’s standards. Common sense dictates that they should not. The agreement reached between the two governments states that:
“…the referendum should meet the highest standards of fairness, transparency and propriety, informed by consultation and independent expert advice.”
Those words were negotiated by the Deputy First Minister. When she publishes the referendum bill, the world will be watching – and Scotland will hold her to them. The SNP has been clear that the Scottish Parliament must be trusted to run this referendum. And that’s what we want too.
But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Just this week, the SNP got a taste of what happens when politicians play fast and loose with Scotland’s future to meet their own narrow ends. Within the UK, Scotland benefits from membership of the European Union. So it’s no surprise that Nationalists want us to believe that a separate Scotland would inherit automatic membership on present terms. But there is no firm basis for that claim. We know that there is no membership mechanism for a seceding state. We know there are no guarantees about automatic entry nor the terms Scotland would inherit. And now we know that there never was any legal advice to shore up the Nationalists’ claims. When one Minister says that they have called in the lawyers, and another says that they are yet to do so, they can’t both be right.
We can’t have debate conducted on these terms. This referendum will present Scots with the biggest political decision that we will ever take. On all the big issues – the future of our economy, the strength of our defences, our role in the world – people in this country have a right to know the facts. They have a right to know what independence really means for them, their family, their community – our nation. There is no automatic entry to the EU, or NATO. There is no Sterling zone or national seat on the Monetary Policy Committee. There is no Scottish reserve that could bail out the banks in the way that the Treasury did. The Nationalists say that they want a positive campaign. But to get there, first they must set aside the assertions and begin to embrace reality.
For our part, that is something that the UK government is already doing. Everywhere I go in Scotland I meet people whose lives are better because our family of nations sticks together. Whether that’s the companies and individual savers whose bank accounts were guaranteed by the heft of the UK’s resources. Or the businesses and home owners whose payments are kept down thanks to the UK’s triple A credit rating and record low interest rates. Or the green energy start-ups and consumers who are benefitting from UK-wide subsidy in the Scottish renewables industry. Action that is cutting carbon emissions, generating new green jobs and unlocking Scotland’s potential as a renewables powerhouse in Europe. These things are not just happening within the UK, they are happening because of the UK.
Of course, for every positive point that we’ve established, there are many more waiting to be uncovered. In the summer, I made a statement in the House of Commons announcing a programme of work that is running across government departments. Our work will look at the issues raised and the choices that would come with a decision by Scots to leave our UK family. It will also look at what Scotland gains from being part of the UK, and what the UK gains from having Scotland within it. Too often the benefits of the United Kingdom go unnoticed or unknown precisely because they are the status quo.
From financial regulation to pension payments to overseas aid, we are stronger together and weaker apart. But no government has ever gone far enough to explain exactly why. So we need to flush out the facts and figures and put them up in lights. And over the coming months that is exactly what we will do. They will be based on fact, grounded in evidence and informed by third parties with expert opinion. We will have an honest and informed debate about Scotland’s future in the UK family.
And the Liberal Democrats will be at the forefront of that. But our commitment to the UK family does not mean that our relationship within it cannot change and mature. It must, and it will. While other parties have struggled with the concept of devolution, Liberal Democrats have taken a strong and consistent approach. We are committed to a federal future, with home rule for Scotland, in a strong and secure United Kingdom.
I am delighted that Ming Campbell’s Home Rule Commission has reaffirmed that commitment. Mapping out the route to home rule in the context of twenty first century Scotland. It is a plan around which to build consensus with others. And it puts as back where we belong – leading the debate on Scotland’s future. Because, in its words, the Scottish people will hear their voice speaking up for the future that they want. Poll after poll has shown that Scots want further powers within the United Kingdom. Our home rule is their first choice. So it’s no surprise that the Nationalists have started to use that term instead of independence. But make no mistake, home rule and independence are two separate things.
Home rule will strengthen Scotland within the United Kingdom.
Independence would take us out if it forever.
For Liberal Democrats, home rule is the long-cherished destination. For Nationalists, devolution, home rule, fiscal autonomy – These are sweeteners on the road to independence. But the public will not be fooled. People understand our commitment to further powers for Scotland. We have a record of delivery. We were at the table designing the blueprint for our Scottish Parliament. We campaigned for the financial powers delivered by the Scotland Act I took through Parliament just this year. And we are here today, leading the debate on Scotland’s home rule future.
History, momentum and the Scottish people – these are all on our side. And home rule will come to Scotland. Contrast this, with the Scottish National Party. It has the sole distinction among Scotland’s main political parties of never delivering any new powers whatsoever for Scotland.
The message is clear. Vote Liberal Democrat, extend devolution. Vote SNP, end it altogether.
Friends, these are tough times. But our party is doing the right thing by our country. Rebuilding our economy, protecting our environment, creating a fairer tax system for those who need it most. By doing these things we are proving our commitment to Scotland and the United Kingdom.
So let’s have the honest debate we need on independence. Let’s settle the issue once and for all. And then let’s deliver home rule for Scotland within our United Kingdom.