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SLD conference: Danny Alexander speech

March 2, 2012 6:03 PM
Originally published by Scottish Liberal Democrats

Welcome to Inverness. As the Liberal Democrat MP for this great City, it is an honour to welcome our party conference back to the Highland capital. It has been too long.

I hope you will all find time to enjoy the amenities here in the Highlands, as well as enjoying the fantastic facilities here at Eden Court.

Highlanders have contributed enormously to Liberalism and Liberal Democracy over many decades. And we are still doing our bit today.
It is nearly two years since we entered government, as part of a UK coalition, for the first time in 70 years. As the person who you wrote our election manifesto and led our negotiating team, you may say I have a lot to answer for!

My message today is simple: be proud of what we are achieving in the UK Government. Be proud because we are delivering big changes that are making a real difference to the lives of people in every corner of the United Kingdom. Ignore our opponents - we have nothing to apologise for, and a record to shout about.

They should be apologising - and not just for calling me a ginger rodent!

It is because of what we are delivering that I am confident about our future. A unique force in British politics, a Liberal party with with fairness at its heart and with real economic credibility. Our position remains as Russell Johnston put it 'like the nose in relation to the face, somewhere in the middle and out in front.'

That economic credibility has been hard won. Some decisions have not been easy, but they have been right.

In recent months, we have seen a lot on our TV screens about the problems facing countries like Greece, Italy, Spain.

But when we came into office in May 2010, we were borrowing a bigger share of the money we were spending than any of those countries. The cost of our borrowing was similar to Spain and Italy.

Labour's catastrophic economic failure - their blind love of the City, their addiction to borrowing, their inability to face up to reality - had left this country on the brink.

Last November, the independent Office for Budget Responsibility revised their view about the scale of the damage the financial crisis did to our country.

According to them, our economy is 13 per cent smaller than it would have been. That means, for every 8 pounds we thought we would have, we only have 7 pounds. And Labour still pretend that we can afford to spend and borrow as if we have the 8 pounds. We can't. We simply can't spend what we don't have.

So I make no apology that our first priority is cleaning up Labour's economic mess and repairing our economy after the deepest recession for decades. It will be our first priority until the job is done.
It continues to be enormously difficult for the whole country, but we are making progress.

Our plan has real credibility. It is keeping our interest rates at record lows, helping keep people in their homes, businesses in funds. We can see from other countries the catastrophic damage done when governments don't have, or stick to, a clear and credible plan.
That's not to say everyone agress.

Labour wants a plan B - more borrowing and debt. The B could be for Balls or Berlusconi - same difference.

The SNP wants a plan MacB. They should have called it plan Mac-tripleB - because that's what it would do to our countries credit rating.
Neither of them has credibility on the economy. We do.

But of course, while putting our nation's finances in order is the essential precondition for recovery, it is only the first step to economic growth.

As Liberal Democrats in the coalition government, there is great deal more we are doing to support growth. We want to rebalance our economy, to build the private sector in all parts of the country and across a range of sectors.

Partly, that is about government getting out of the way: cutting absurd, over-burdensome red tape.

But crucially, it's about investment in our nation's infrastructure, in the skills of our work force, and making sure good businesses, especially small ones, can get the finance they need.

In the Highlands, we know only too well difference good quality roads, railways, broadband networks make to economic growth potential.
That's why I made sure that we are spending more on investing in transport and broadband in this Parliament than Labour managed in the last - even in the toughest financial climate for decades.

We are delivering funding for superfast broadband in Scotland. This year, work will begin to roll out next generation broadband across the Highlands - funded by one of the coalition's first decisions, to make this area one of 3 UK pilot areas. Liberal Democrats in government, delivering for the Highlands.

It's why I made sure last autumn that the British government did not stand idly by when our friends in Edinburgh tried to undermine the Caledonian sleeper. The £50 million we offered, shamed Alex Salmond and the SNP into more than matching it, and over the coming years we will see the most substantial investment this vital link has seen for decades.

Yes it shows what Scotland's two governments can deliver when they work together - and it is driven by Liberal Democrats, in government, delivering for Scotland.

Now we need to stop the SNP's ideological attempt to cut off the North of Scotland's direct rail links to London.

As well as investment in infrastructure, we have to invest in our young people. I'd go further: we have an overwhelming moral responsibility to ensure that today's young people are not blighted by years of unemployment the way too many were in the 1980s.

From next month, Nick Clegg's youth contract will make an offer of training, experience or subsidised private sector employment to 16, 17, 18 year olds. It will make a huge difference to thousands of lives. Liberal Democrats, in government delivering for Scotland's young people.

And we are acting to get funds to small businesses. Under the coalition, banks are paying smaller bonuses, paying more tax, and lending more too. But we need to do more. Our credit easing will help get cheaper lending to smaller firms.

Mr Salmond was recently endorsed by Rupert Murdoch. I'm told he promised him 'the Sun will come out everyday if you vote for separation.'

This is the most serious debate for our nation's future for decades, possibly ever. We were right to bring the referendum issue to a head in January, and Michael Moore has played a blinder, his patience and reason winning the argument in recent weeks.

In the coming months, we will be working with others to set out the positive economic case for the United Kingdom.

But the extended uncertainty the SNP want is in itself damaging Scotland. As Scottish and Southern Electricity pointed out last week, real investments in our vital renewables sector is being held back. And their real fears are echoed by many businesses in many sectors across Scotland and beyond by international investors.

I really don't see why we have to wait until a Saturday in the school holidays in October 2014 to answer the single question - separation, yes or no. The referendum could easily be organised next year, and there would be plenty of time to have a full debate.

The timing of the referendum should not be dictated by the SNP's political interest, but by Scotland's national interest.

I am very proud of the changes Liberal Democrats in government are making. We are delivering for the Highlands, for Scotland, and for the whole of the United Kingdom.

Yesterday, I was on Skye. I was at Uig filling station, seeing the fuel price being cut by 5p a litre.

For decades, Highland Liberal Democrats have argued for action to tackle disproportionately high fuel costs in remote areas. Russell Johnston, Charles Kennedy, Ray Michie, Jim Wallace, John Thurso, Alan Reid, Alastair Carmichael - we have all filled columns of Hansard with impassioned speeches on the subject. But Labour and Conservative governments ignored us.

Now we have power, and we are using it. To do something that they told us could not be done. Something that will make a small difference to the costs and quality of life on our islands. Perhaps more important, the first recognition from government that we have a responsibility to do so. Liberal Democrats in government, delivering for the islands.
Now, I'd like to see if we can go further. As these pilots go forward, I will be working to see if we can develop an evidence base to persuade the European Union to allow us extend this discount to our most remote mainland communities too. That will be harder, but it would be irresponsible not to try.

We have provided funding for mountain rescue teams, for the first time, to help them with equipment costs.

We have established a new coastal communities fund, so that for the first time those areas can share in the benefit that the Crown Estate receives from our marine resources. Not devolved to Edinburgh to be lost in some central fund - but made available to the communities themselves, from this April onwards. Liberal Democrats, in government, delivering for Scotland's communities.

By the way, isn't it disgraceful that the Scottish government has refused to allow a Fast Track process for the Fund, so that communities can get funding quickly? Welsh and English coastal communities will know if they've been successful in July - why does Alex Salmond's go slow government want to make Scottish communities wait until December? It's just wrong.

But it's not only in the UK government that Lib Dems are making a difference. Willie and his team are making a big mark on the Parliament and beyond - even if their numbers are small.

On building more homes for those in need - Jim Hume has made the case.
On the challenging the centralisation of the police - Alison McInnes is speaking out.

On standing up for Islanders on transport costs - it's Tavish Scott.
And on Scotland's colleges - it's Liam MacArthur who's making our voice heard.

Our team is standing up to the Scottish Government where others have been silent.

Thank goodness for Willie Rennie who is the strongest, clearest and most powerful opposition voice in the Scottish Parliament. Thank goodness for his strong liberal voices in Holyrood.

Here in the Highlands, Liberal Democrats have been in coalition with the Independent councillors to run the Highland council for the last 3 years. That coalition was formed after the SNP ran away from an earlier alliance when it looked like times might get tough.

Liberal Democrats on the Highland council have done a fantastic job for the Highlands in that time. And I particularly want to pay tribute to our council leader, Michael Foxley. He has been a Lib Dem councillor since 1986 and is stepping down this year. Thank you, Michael, for your years of service to liberalism and to your community.
They have a fantastic record of achievement, delivered against the toughest financial background for local government for decades.
Improving local schools, including the major redevelopment of my old school, Lochaber High.

Protected libraries, museums, swimming pools, leisure centres and youth workers.

Built council houses in the Highlands for the first time in a generation.

Supported the development of Nigg as a renewable hub - now able to use some of the £100m extra funding for renewables that I announced in November.

Increased recycling to almost 50%, making The Highland Council one of the best performing rural councils in Scotland.

So while you are in Inverness, if anyone asks you what the Lib Dems have ever done for this area you tell them:

Community facilities - protected
Council houses - built
Sleeper services - improved
Schools - built
Recycling - increased
Renewable energy - boosted
Broadband - extended
Fuel costs - cut

That's what Liberal Democrats do for their communities when elected to power. So if you want more of that, elect more of us this May.
But if that list doesn't satisfy, you can always turn to the wider policies that affect the whole of the UK.

I've mentioned some of these already. But I've left the best until last. Taxation.

Now the Budget is in less than 3 weeks. So there are strict limits to what I can say.

But as Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg and I could not have been clearer. Within the tight fiscal discipline that we have set, our priority is to deliver more income tax cuts for people on low and middle incomes.

For one very simple reason: it is the best policy that any political party in this country has to reward those millions of Scots who work hard, who play by the rules, and are facing real financial pressure right now. Liberal Democrats, those people are our people.

It was on the front cover of our manifesto and is now putting money in the pockets of people who need it most.

Last year, basic rate taxpayers saw their tax bill fall by £200. This April, it will fall by another £126. We will announce in the Budget how much it will fall by next year.

Our goal in this parliament is a simple one. No one should pay any income tax until they earn more than £10,000. When we reach that goal, it will mean an extra month's wages every year for someone who earns £10,000 a year. That is real, practical help for hard-working families.
That is the goal we set in our last manifesto. At the next election, I think we should go much further. I see no reason why we should someone who earns less than the minimum wage to pay income tax. Our Liberal Democrat promise at the next election should be to lift the tax threshold further, to £12,500.

And of course, especially at a time of austerity, we need to make sure those with the most, pay the most. I've been very clear that reducing the tax burden on the wealthy would be the wrong priority for Britain.
Instead, this coalition government is asking the wealthiest to pay more. We have increased capital gains tax, reduced tax relief on pension contributions, and introduced a new bank levy.

We are clamping down on tax evasion and avoidance. We invested an additional £900 million to scrutinise the affairs of the riskiest groups, and to bring more prosecutions for evasion.

People who dodge taxes are on the same moral plane as benefit cheats. Whether you are a wealthy person or a small business, a football club or a bank, our message is a simple one. You must pay the tax you owe, and we will make sure you do. There is no hiding place.

As a party we are doing the right things in government. Sometimes not easy, but always right.

Dealing with the deficit, fixing the economy, making the tax system fairer.

Delivering on our commitment to fairness. And adding to our credibility on the economy, showing that Liberal Democrats can be trusted to do the right thing with the country's money.

Fairness and economic credibility is our offer to the Scottish and the British people.

Yes, this year will be tough economically. We have a long journey to make politically.

But let us approach these times with confidence. For as the poet said:

In front, the sun climbs slow, how slowly
But westward, look! The land is bright

Thank you.