Willie Rennie – 2016 Speech to Liberal Democrat Party Conference

Below is the text of the speech made by Willie Rennie, the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, at the 2016 party conference on 19 September 2016.

On May 5th this year, in Scotland, Liberal Democrats started winning again.

Not only did I win in Fife with a by–election standard 9.5% swing but the exceptional Alex Cole-Hamilton crushed the SNP in Edinburgh, securing a 3,000 vote majority.

And look what happened in the Northern Isles. Tavish Scott and Liam McArthur confounded the critics and the pundits to win their seats with almost 70% of the vote.

70% of the vote when everyone told us we would be wiped out.

No-one is supposed to beat the SNP. But we did.

North East Fife and Edinburgh West: Lost last year. Gained this year.

The first gains in a decade.

It’s wasn’t in the script.

We tore up the script.

Liberal Democrats – back to winning again.

So how did we do it.

No, it wasn’t just a couple of amorous pigs in the background of my daily TV interview that won the election.

But, like those pigs, we won by casting aside any inhibitions.

We shed any lingering coalition caution.

We told people what we stood for.

Progressive, optimistic, outward-looking.

And we told people with huge smiles on our faces.

We said we wanted to make Scotland the best in the world again.

The best in the world.

Isn’t that what liberals should always aspire to?

Scottish education used to be the best in the world but with the SNP it is now just average:

College places cut

Nursery education roll-out flagging

And schools have seen massive cuts to their budgets.

We said a transformational investment using a progressive penny on income tax for education would project Scotland right back up to the best again.

Progressive, optimistic, outward looking.

Scotland’s police were the pride of the nation, helping to train other forces across the world.

But with the SNP the new force is a shadow of its former self.

Our plans would bring democracy back to the police and would put that pride back.

We would guarantee our civil liberties by rejecting the intrusive super ID database, industrial scale stop and search, and armed police on routine duties.

Progressive, optimistic, outward looking.

With renewable energy resources in abundance Scotland could be a world leader on tackling climate change.

The SNP have struggled to meet their own targets.

Their response is to add 60,000 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere through tax cuts for the aviation industry, with their proposal to end Air Passenger Duty.

And the SNP is keeping the door open for fracking. They should take a stand against the new frontier of fossil fuels that fracking represents. We say no fracking in Scotland.

Progressive, optimistic, outward looking.

Hundreds of young people in Scotland have to wait over one year to get the mental health treatment they deserve.

A mother told me about her son.

Regularly he would lie curled up on the floor screaming. She had to phone every day for weeks on end to get the mental health support he needed.

That is a disgrace and an embarrassment to our country.

They are not alone.

The waiting lists grow.

People wait an age.

Yet the SNP committed just 22 words to mental health in their long programme for government last week.

Scotland used to have a world leading mental health strategy now it does not even have one.

As a result £70million available for mental health remains unspent because they do not know what to do with it.

I know what to do with it.

Our plan will put mental health professionals into accident and emergency, into primary care, alongside the emergency services, and into child and adolescent mental health services.

We will give people the support they need.

Progressive, optimistic, outward looking.

After almost ten years in government the SNP talk a good game but they are not progressive.

I want to make Scotland the best again so that everyone can have the opportunity to succeed no matter what their background, where people can live as they wish as long as it does not cause harm to others and where we pass on the planet in a better state than we found it.

It’s why we were clear on mental health.

Clear on a transformational investment.

Clear on the future of Scotland together with the United Kingdom.

We were progressive, optimistic and outward-looking.

It was a big, bold programme of Scottish liberal values and Liberal Democrat action.

No more timidity.

No more coalition caution.

Proud of our values.

Proud to be liberal.

Just as I did in the Holyrood elections I intend to use this five year term to provide a progressive, optimistic, and outward-looking voice.

And it will be a voice for the United Kingdom and a voice for Europe.

In a No Borders approach we will oppose independence and we will support strong relationships with Europe.

Tim Farron is spot on about Europe. He spoke for every bereft remain voter in the hours after the result. He was a tall statesman when others never looked so small.

In the direct interests of the country and of our democracy he wants to give voters the democratic choice to accept or reject the deal that the Tories finally agree with the European Union.

He is right to demand that the British people should have their say on the final deal in a referendum.

Voting for departure is not the same as voting for a destination.

This is not an attempt to re-run the first referendum; it is to enable the public to vote on the final deal.

You’ll have seen our First Minister over the summer.

While our Leader Tim Farron was making the case for cleaning up after the chaos of the Brexit vote our First Minister was on a mission to make it a whole lot worse.

Nicola Sturgeon’s response to breaking up Europe is to break up Britain too.

After withdrawing from Scotland’s second biggest economic market – the EU – she thinks it would be a good idea to compound that by withdrawing from our biggest market – the UK.

I had hoped before the summer that she meant what she said about building a broad consensus on seeking solutions to Brexit. I hoped she would act in the interests of the whole country and not just in the interests of the SNP. But with her actions since she has trashed that consensus.

I want to be clear. There is no place on the independence fence for this party. We won a mandate in May to oppose independence and stand up for our place in the United Kingdom. And we will stick to that mandate like glue.

After everything we have been through I can tell you I meant what I said. No independence.

In the face of a belligerent, destructive campaign from the SNP we will oppose independence.

Nicola Sturgeon has adopted a special code book, a new dictionary of nationalism. And I can help you translate.

When they say all of us should keep an “Open mind” they mean independence is back on the table.

When they say everyone else should “consider all options” they mean independence is back on the table.

When they say “Good faith” that means independence is back on the table.

But every reasonable-sounding phrase is code for breaking up Britain.

And I can tell Nicola Sturgeon – we are not falling for it.

We have read the book. We know how you want it to end.

I have already explained that if we leave progressive politics to the SNP then that will fail.

If we leave the campaign for Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom to the Conservatives it will fail too.

When Prime Minister David Cameron had a chance to heal the nation after the bruising Scottish referendum campaign he made a grubby appeal to English nationalism instead.

Exactly two years ago today, at one of the most significant constitutional moments since the formation of the United Kingdom, David Cameron put his party’s interests before our country’s.

The Tories compounded that misjudgement by seeking to scare middle England with the prospect of the rise of the Scots.

Their election poster of a Scotsman, pick-pocketing an English taxpayer was a reckless act, promoting an inaccurate characteristic of Scots and was a disgrace. How on earth does that help keep the country together?

Conservatives were only interested in election victory, and never mind the damage done to the relationship between Scotland and England.

And in the final arrogant misjudgement the Tories divided the country in attempt to heal the divisions of the Conservative Party.

That dragged us out of Europe which has put further strains on the unity of the United Kingdom.

No amount of draping themselves in the Union flag and singing Rule Britannia will hide their record of putting the future of the United Kingdom at risk.

The Tories are not unionists. They are divisionists.

I have a warning to you today here in Brighton.

It is an alarm that should sound across the whole of Britain, and should worry us all.

With the blow of Brexit and the threat of another Scottish independence referendum it means that divisive constitutional politics remain at the centre of our national debate.

It is a dismal scene that has been visited upon us by the Conservatives and the SNP.

Stalled investment.

Uncertain future for EU citizens.

Divided families.

Split communities.

Economic instability.

Tensions between the nations of the UK.

This is the work of the terrible twins of politics.

The Tories and the Nationalists have so much in common. They have a shared interest.

The Tories need nationalists to scare voters in England.

The nationalists need the Tories to scare voters in Scotland.

It’s a campaign based on fear, not hope.

Our future will be a divided one if we leave it to the Tories and the Nationalists.

The terrible twins of divisive politics.

The threat to the UK by a politics dominated by those two should be taken seriously by all liberal-minded, progressive people in Britain.

This is why we need progressive moderate, optimistic, hopeful voices that advance a No Borders approach.

That is why we need the Liberal Democrats.

Progressive, optimistic, outward looking.

That progressive alternative to the terrible twins of division is what our country needs.

And it is the progressive alternative that we will provide.

Liberal Democrats will provide that clear voice.

A clear voice to guarantee our civil liberties.

For our environment.

For education

And for mental health.

A clear voice for Europe

And a clear voice for the United Kingdom.

Progressive, optimistic and outward-looking in Scotland and the whole of the United Kingdom.