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Willie Rennie MSP speech for Scottish Liberal Democrat conference

September 14, 2013 3:38 PM
Originally published by Scottish Liberal Democrats

Speech from Willie Rennie MSP, leader of the Scottish LiberalWillie RennieWillie Rennie Democrats, at Autumn conference in Glasgow:

On the first Sunday of this month I took part in a relay race over the Comrie hills near Perth.

Covering 20 miles with teams of five runners we battled clubs from across Scotland.

For the third year in a row my partner was David Greig.

That's right. David Greig, one of Scotland's foremost playwrights.

We are equally matched runners. Less equally matched playwrights.

We support each other up and down the hills.

Through the bogs and over the heather.

We both run for the team - Carnegie Harriers.

We're a good partnership.

Yet our views on the constitution differ.

David supports independence.

You know I'm not so convinced.

But we are both for Scotland.

Both for the team - whether that be Carnegie Harriers or Scotland.

Although I disagree with his views I don't question his loyalty to Scotland.

And he doesn't question mine.

That's how we need to conduct the national debate.

It's how we must make our case.

Hill-running is not the only exercise I have been getting this year.

In the Aberdeen Donside by-election we had a swing to the Liberal Democrats and we overtook the Tories;

Down the road in the Melrose by-election we had a big swing in our favour;

And over in Rutherglen we had a strong result too - Liberal Democrats taking votes from everyone else.

And in every single one our vote increased.

That is good news and I'd like to thank our superb candidates for their outstanding efforts - David Baillie,

John Paton Day and Christine Jardine.

And we are on the campaign trail again - in Peebles with Nancy Norman, Ewan Hoyle in Govan and

Robin Munro in Dunfermline - we want to see you there.

We know that where we make the case strongly, people give us their backing.

With the scandal of Bill Walker - now at last an ex-MSP - the will is there across the Parliament and

across the country to take action against domestic violence.

Over 50,000 domestic incidents are reported to the police every year in Scotland.

That's a national disgrace.

We need to ensure that those who are living with domestic abuse are getting the support they need.

And we need to work to make certain that those guilty of these offences receive a punishment that fits

their crime.

Which is why I am asking the Scottish Government to review the prosecution guidelines for domestic abuse.

With Bill Walker we saw how even with 23 charges, and 23 guilty verdicts the possible sentence is limited and restricted.

The charity Scottish Women's Aid led the protest against Bill Walker at the Scottish Parliament before he resigned.

They have called for a shift in the way we prosecute domestic violence cases.

They say that where there is a pattern of abuse it is important that we consider the overall impact that weeks, months or even years of violence has had on victims.

Too often, violent incidents are treated as isolated events. The Bill Walker case made clear that frequently this is simply not true.

If Scottish ministers will consider changing this it would allow the Crown to escalate the seriousness to reflect the overall impact of the fear and alarm that ongoing, abusive and controlling behaviour causes.

I hope we can win support for that change across the whole Parliament and the whole country.

That isn't always the case.

Often during this majority SNP administration our party has been the lone voice.

Exposing the hypocrisy of the SNP Government not meeting the Dalai Lama when claiming to stand up for human rights.

Speaking against the dangers of a rushed sectarianism Bill;

Speaking proudly but alone against the imposition of a single centralised police force;

And leading the charge against the closure of local courts in many parts of Scotland.

Questioning desperate attempts by the Scottish Government to prop up failing open cast coal mines which scar our landscape.

Being the first to call for equal marriage and the first to question why the SNP delayed legislating in Scotland.

Clear positions. Liberal positions.

Often Liberal voices are lone voices.

It has been a consistent element of our movement's history in Scotland.

We lead and have to wait for others to follow.

We were the first to call for Home Rule when Gladstone spoke to thousands as part of his Midlothian campaign, across southern and central Scotland, including here in Glasgow.

With Jo Grimond, Russell Johnston and David Steel we were lone voices calling for a Scottish Parliament with proper tax powers elected by fair votes.

Charles Kennedy with the stand against Iraq.

Scottish Liberal Democrats, and Liberals in Scotland have often been a lone voice.

And this has never, and will never, intimidate us.

When you lead, you are alone at first, but the numbers grow.

We are not cowed by being a lone voice now on issues in Holyrood - especially when confronted by a nationalist and centralising party of government.

When I stand up in the chamber to challenge the government the SNP backbenchers jeer and sneer.

But the louder they are, the more right I feel.

The louder you are, the more proud I feel.

You will have heard me say for a while that the SNP have the wrong priorities for Scotland.

They have put campaigning for independence ahead of health, transport, education, justice and the environment.

That became clear last week when they set out their annual plan for government.

Independence was in. But so much else was out.

They used to pretend they were only interested in good government and humble service.

Well, that's out of the window now.

All the decks are cleared.

We know where their attention is.

There are a few things we also know about the White Paper on Independence, expected later this autumn.

It's going to be thick.

After all, the nationalists have two policies on quite a lot of subjects.

If you want the rich to pay more tax, it will be in the paper.

If you want the richest companies to pay less tax, that's in the paper as well.

If you want welfare changes to stop at the Border, that will be in. If you want a cap on welfare, yes, that will be in as well.

And if you want to keep the pound.

Or get rid of the pound.

Or keep the pound and get rid of it later.

Or get rid of the pound but maybe take it back later.

Well, all of those will be covered too.

They will say anything to anyone to get what they want.

But with the contortions continuing over the White Paper one part of their proposition is precise.

There will be no time for a rethink.

On 26 March 2016 they intend to declare independence.

On that day, they told us earlier this year, they will appoint their own Defence Secretary and then immediately dissolve Parliament.

Mike Russell running our fledgling army, navy and air force without debate, without an election, without a mandate.

This is why I am determined to lead an alternative to this state building.

It is a choice of two futures for Scotland.

The SNP want to raise the flags, the trappings and the titles on the 26th of March.

For me, by that date, I would rather have liberal reforms under way.

For me a No vote in the referendum is not a vote for no change.

Ming Campbell's Home Rule report last year showed how the current constitutional settlement is not sustainable. It won't last.

That report set out two major transfers of power from Westminster to Holyrood.

The first is financial power so that the Scottish Parliament can raise the majority of the money it spends.

And the second is constitutional power to make the Scottish Parliament a permanent institution not a creature of Westminster.

It's the first step to a federal UK.

Nick Clegg made the case for Home Rule to the Confederation of British Industry in Glasgow this month.

He is on board.

Now we need David Cameron and Ed Miliband to follow his lead and set out their plans in the event of a

No vote.

I also believe the Scottish Party Leaders - who have been taking big steps already - should sign a declaration to make plain to everyone our joint commitment to more powers for the Scottish Parliament.

There's an emerging consensus for more powers with think tanks, academics and many others backing plans for change.

It is where the majority of Scots in the middle are.

They want a Better Scotland and a Better Britain.

We are for Scotland as much as any nationalist.

And nationalists should remember it.

Their leader forgot last week.

He said he would be arguing for Scotland in the referendum and David Cameron would be arguing against Scotland.

I know David Cameron is a Tory but I have never doubted his commitment to Scotland.

I reject Alex Salmond's claim that only those who favour independence are for Scotland.

This questioning of loyalty will not help the nation come together after the referendum.

I, and Liberal Democrats before me, have campaigned for Scotland and won for Scotland.

No one is speaking against Scotland simply because they are speaking against independence.

Alex, I have a message for you.

Do not question my allegiance to my country;

And don't write off the millions in the middle of this debate, just because we don't agree with your plans.

When I went round the doors in Aberdeen Donside one lady said she was no longer going to vote SNP because Alex Salmond was prepared to say and do anything to win the referendum.

Another, who voted SNP in 2011, told me that the SNP had promised they wouldn't bang on about independence but that's exactly what they were doing.

And that got me thinking.

Don't we Liberal Democrats want something bigger for Scotland than the nationalists?

I want more for Scotland. I want more for the people who live here.

My politics is more than boundaries.

I want to make a country where people aspire for a better life and know the state will support them if they take the risk to go for it;

I want a country where people care for neighbours around the corner and don't just leave it to the council - and around the world, with a big aid budget even in the tough times;

I want a country where people look to the future and take determined action now on climate change that will be applauded by our great grandchildren.

I want a country where people have more power in their hands.

Tolerant, understanding, outward looking;

Suspicious of concentrations of power in business and government;

for civil liberties and human rights;

for a strong economy and a fair society;

for people who aspire to be the best but care for others too.

That's what we are for. That's why we are here.

Earlier this summer I spent an hour with a group of Dunfermline mums who had been invited by a

supermarket chain to share their views and experiences of life.

Working night shifts whilst their husbands work days, putting themselves through education to boost

their prospects, working overtime to save for a rainy day.

Most hadn't been on holiday for years nor could they remember when they had the cash to spend on something just for them.

It was a stark reminder of how mothers strive to improve the lives of their families.

They want a better life for themselves but they also want a better life for others too.

It is one of the experiences that makes me so determined to make the practical case for education to

help people get on in life.

So I convened a national Nursery Education Summit.

I brought together dozens of experts and practitioners from across Scotland to the Scottish Parliament to plan a transformation in the lives of children.

Our UK education minister David Laws came too.

David told us about the effort and the investment he and his colleagues are making to give thousands of two-year-olds what they need.

From the start of this month we have seen 130,000 two-year-olds in England going through the doors to get 15 hours of free nursery education every week.

Yet in Scotland it isn't happening.

I thought Alex Salmond was just being stubborn when he refused to accept that someone south of the border may be doing something better than he is.

The arrogant nationalists reject anything that isn't invented by them.

If it isn't SNP policy it isn't worth it.

The Nobel prize-winner Professor James Heckman tells us that investing in a child before the age of three is the best educational investment we can make.

It has a huge impact on their life chances.

It's also about the quality of the provision and how we do that in partnership with parents and communities so that the education continues when they leave the nursery.

We know this works.

The returns don't just come in 20 years' time but in months. We see an immediate uplift in support for families.

But Alex Salmond will still not listen to our pleas to make it happen now.

Instead he uses nursery education as bait for the voters.

He tells us that Scotland will have the best childcare arrangements on these islands, but only after independence.

Now, I have heard some say that the SNP have put Scotland 'on pause' with the referendum.

They say the government is doing nothing now so to ease the path to independence.

Well I disagree with them.

I think it's worse.

They are actively preventing necessary action to help our children.

Their message to our children is: "Only if you give us what we want will you get what you need."

"Unless you do what we say, you will not be released to achieve your potential."

They are demanding nothing short of a ransom from the voters before they release the benefit to our children.

They are holding the futures of a generation of children hostage.

It's not right.

I appeal to the finance secretary John Swinney to intervene.

We have worked together before to produce a Budget.

We can do it again this year. This will be my budget priority.

He should make the change this year to start a childcare revolution in Scotland not keep Scotland's children hostage for his political ends.

If the SNP is not listening, then what I gleaned from my time on the doors in by-elections, and in my weekly sessions across the country, is that people are listening again to what we have to say and offer.

And we need to be clear what we tell them.

We are for a strong economy and a fair society so that everyone can get a chance to get on in life.

It's why we've cut taxes for millions in Scotland;

It's why we've increased the weekly pension for older Scots;

It's why we have helped create a million extra jobs in Britain;

It's why we've invested in a green investment bank to boost the green economy and made sure it was based in Edinburgh;

Of course we've not delivered everything.

But that shouldn't stop us being confident about what we have delivered.

That confidence will be good for us and good news for George Lyon as he seeks re-election to the European Parliament next year.

Since his election George has played a prominent role in the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy

and is Vice President of the powerful Budget Committee of the Parliament.

We need to retain such a powerful and influential voice for Scotland in Europe.

The Liberal Democrats want Britain to stay in the EU because being in the EU makes our economy stronger and underpins 3 million British jobs.

It allows us to negotiate better trade deals with big economies like the US, China, India and Brazil.

Being in the EU is good for our economy.

That's why it makes sense to vote Liberal Democrat and for George Lyon in the European elections.

My message to you today, conference, is that we will debate the future of our country with passion and vigour.

We will argue the positive case for our place in the UK, but also campaign for strengthening Scotland within it.

We should never flinch from leading.

Standing up for jobs.

Standing up for colleges, for children and families.

So we should relish the opportunities of this time.

Join with me.

Go out from this conference.

Ask others to join us.

Win the arguments.

And win.