Speech from Spring Conference
Earlier this month, we, our party, the Liberal Democrats passed a milestone in our history – our 25th anniversary.
A quarter of a century since the Liberal Party and the SDP merged and the Liberal Democrats were created. Now, we have come a very long way since then.
And yes, we’ve had our ups and downs, but every time the critics have written us off we have confounded them.
Every time we’ve been down in those two and a half decades we have fought back – showing resolve, determination and unity.
And underpinning our resilience and our success, there has always been a strong Scottish backbone to the Liberal Democrats.
Bob McLennan, Charles Kennedy, Jim Wallace, Ming Campbell – giants of our party.
And of course Jo Grimmond and David Steel before them.
And now, that Scottish backbone is bringing resilience and success to the Coalition Government:
Danny Alexander; Mike Moore; Jo Swinson; and Alistair Carmichael. And Jim Wallace, again!
The Conservatives may have only one MP in Scotland but it is the Liberal Democrats that have put Scotland at the heart of the Coalition’s agenda.
From April, a £600 tax cut for 2.2 million Scots.
186,000 lifted out of paying Income Tax altogether.
Generous increases in the state pension for over one million Scots and a new flat rate pension that no longer punishes women who take time out of their careers to raise children or look after their family.
The Green Investment Bank, based in Edinburgh.
Huge investment in superfast broadband in Scotland while Scotland also benefits from one -fifth of the UK’s Rural Broadband Programme – creating more jobs.
And the Scotland Act – the largest transfer of financial powers from Westminster to Scotland since the creation of the United Kingdom.
More power for Scotland because Liberal Democrats are in power in Westminster.
More powers because our Lib Dem Secretary of State, Michael Moore saw this through.
And because of Danny Alexander we have the island fuel discount, investment in sleeper trains, and most importantly, Ginger Rodent beer. In fact, I was told this week that Ginger Rodent will be served in the House of Commons apparantaly in the bar the week that he announces the next spending round so if MPs don’t like Danny’s news they’ll have to drink Danny’s beer and drown their sorrows that way
Liberal Democrats are building a stronger economy in a fairer society, right here in Scotland, enabling everyone to get on in life.
And in the Scottish Parliament, Willie Rennie and his Liberal Democrat team are fighting for a stronger economy in a fairer society too.
You have seen Willie (and Alison) lead the case against police centralisation.
Willie has set the agenda on early years education, to give free places for the 40 per cent of children from the hardest-pressed families in Scotland – just as we are doing in the rest of the country.
And he has made a convincing case for the role that colleges – such as Dundee College which I visited earlier this morning – have in making a stronger Scottish economy.
I am proud of the work that Ming Campbell and colleagues are doing building a consensus for Home Rule.
But of course we need to settle the independence question first.
It is thanks to Mike Moore that people in Scotland will get a fair, legal and decisive referendum through the Section 30 Order.
And in that campaign we will set out how Scotland benefits from being in the UK.
And how the UK benefits from having Scotland as part of it.
If the Scottish people decide, as I very much hope they do, that they want to remain in the United Kingdom, then we can get on with the business of giving Scotland more power.
But I don’t pretend it’s all sunny uplands from here. This journey we are on is not an easy one.
As a party: from opposition to government.
As a country: from austerity to prosperity.
We will be tested more times along the way. And, throughout this journey, our focus will be the country’s focus: the economy.
Britain’s economic recovery has proved more challenging than anyone imagined. The crash in 2008, deeper and more profound than we knew at the time.
It is because of the strength and scale of the UK we were able to bail out the banks, and protect people from an even worse situation.
We used our scale for good. And remember, an independent Scotland would not have been able to do the same.
Globally, things are still precarious.
Just three weeks ago, the uncertain outcome of the Italian election threatened to plunge Europe back into crisis.
Suddenly we were reminded of the danger that looms when markets question the ability of governments to live within their means.
Countries around the world face the same, hard truth: We must all pay the piper in the end.
I want to make one thing clear: We will not flinch on the deficit.
But to be unflinching is not to be unthinking. And the idea that the choice is between a cruel and unbending Plan A and a mythical plan B is simply not the case.
Balancing the books is a judgement, it’s not a science. And our plan has always allowed room for manoeuvre.
One of the most important things that I have learnt in Government is this: that in a fluid, fast-moving global economic environment, sticking to a plan requires government to be flexible, as well as resolute. Nimble, as well as determined.
So when economic circumstances around us deteriorated and UK growth forecasts suffered, voices on the right called for us to respond by cutting further and faster.
But instead we took the pragmatic choice to extend the deficit reduction timetable. As tax receipts went down we let the automatic ebb and flow of government borrowing fill the gap.
And it is simply not true – as our critics on the left pretend – that we are slashing and burning the state. By the end of this Parliament, public spending will still be 42% of GDP.
That’s higher than at any time between 1995 and when the banks crashed, in 2008. And most importantly, while reducing the deficit is essential, it remains a means to an end.
And that end is lasting, sustainable growth.
A stronger economy, for Scotland and the whole United Kingdom.
Sound public finances are one piece of the jigsaw. But so are better skills, smarter regulation, a more competitive tax regime for business. All of which we are delivering.
We are investing in Scottish universities who now receive more research funding from the UK Research Council than from the Scottish Funding Council. This should be celebrated as a mark of confidence in the quality of Scottish higher education research.
We have invested in energy, telecommunications and transport which benefits Scotland’s infrastructure.
This year we are spending more on capital than Labour spent, on average, between 1997 and 2010.
Scotland has benefited too receiving an additional £1.5 billion in capital spending since 2010 to get construction going. So it is up to the SNP to explain why they are not getting on with it. What did happen to their Plan McB?
So let no one tell you that this Coalition Government isn’t straining every sinew to invest every available pound into UK infrastructure, creating jobs. We will and must do more to mobilise investment into our long-term infrastructure needs.
So, ours is a growth strategy guided by liberal pragmatism from a Coalition government anchored firmly by the Liberal Democrats in the centre ground.
The deficit down by a quarter. Fixing our banks. A million jobs created in the private sector. Money back in people’s pockets.
A stronger economy, a fairer society, enabling everyone to get on in life.
I know, I know that the fact of going into Coalition with the Conservatives has been particularly controversial in Scotland.
The legacy of Margaret Thatcher’s government lingers long in the memory here.
People in Scotland know that the Conservatives can’t be trusted to deliver a fairer society. Not on their own anyway.
With only one MP in Scotland, who honestly thinks that the Conservatives on their own will stand up for you?
Just last weekend Theresa May gave a speech arguing that Britain could pull out of the European Convention on Human Rights.
That we could abandon the rights of British citizens just to satisfy the right of the Conservative Party.
She wants this option to remain, as she said, ‘on the table’.
No chance. As I said last weekend, it won’t be on the Cabinet table as long as I’m sitting around it.
That’s why having Liberal Democrats in government, anchoring it in the centre ground and delivering for Scotland, is so important.
Building a stronger economy in a fairer society, enabling everyone to get on in life.
But people in Scotland also know that Labour can’t be trusted to build a strong economy.
That you can’t trust Labour with your money.
That’s why they have stagnated in Scotland.
And we saw the evidence in Eastleigh too.
Labour made no progress whatsoever. When the people of Eastliegh had the opportunity, they rejected them once again.
They remember that Labour destroyed the economy. Spent all the money. And left us with nothing.
And now they oppose every single saving the Coalition has been forced to make with not a single suggestion for how to raise money instead.
Labour’s plan for government is like a ready meal lasagne – no one really knows what’s in it.
Except, of course, they do have one idea. The Mansion Tax – and that was ours first!
And then there’s the SNP who haven’t been forthcoming in telling the public the true consequences of independence.
In public they say the economy will be strong and society will be fairer. In private, they know the oil won’t last forever and they don’t know how they’ll pay for public services, for defence and for pensions. You deserve better than that.
Only the Liberal Democrats can deliver a stronger economy in a fairer society, enabling everyone to get on in life.
That’s why we believe Scotland and the United Kingdom are better together.
Only a vibrant Scotland as part of a prosperous United Kingdom can bring the stronger economy Scotland needs.
But independence it’s not just a numbers game.
The people of the United Kingdom have a rich shared heritage.
We share a culture, a history and an identity.
We share values and experiences.
Scottish, English, Welsh and Northern Irish – our lives and our fortunes are entwined in towns and cities across the British Isles.
We live, work and play together side by side.
As I said to you last year in Inverness, I believe the bonds that bring us together are stronger than the forces that would tear us apart.
Together we can build a stronger economy in a fairer society, enabling everyone to get on in life.
Get used to those words. Get used to saying them. That’s the message I need you to deliver across the country.
I need you to explain it to people each and every day, from now, for the next two years and beyond.
Tell them that only the Liberal Democrats have the values and ideas to build a better future. Tell them that only we can deliver the stronger economy and fairer society that Scotland and all of Great Britain needs.
The unspoken story of the last year has been that Liberal Democrats are winning again. In council by-elections we have been making gain after gain after gain.
Last year, contrary to the impression you’d get from the media, since the council elections last May, across the United Kingdom, we actually made an overall gain at council by-elections.
And then came Eastleigh.
It wasn’t a campaign we wanted to have to fight. The circumstances that caused it were not ones we would ever have wished for. But we dusted ourselves off and we said bring it on.
Our opponents threw everything they had at us. Controversy dominated the headlines. And yet, despite all that, we won.
Now no one can be in any doubt: the Liberal Democrats are winning again.
You can feel that sense of renewed optimism and purpose in Scotland too.
Thanks, in no small part, to the excellent leadership of Willie Rennie.
And there are signs of that fightback in recent by-elections too as the results of two recent by-elections have shown.
In Eastleigh, we didn’t shy away from being in government, we embraced it and we campaigned on it with confidence. Every leaflet had a local message and a national message.
We won not in spite of being in power, we won because we are in power – locally and nationally.
As I said in Brighton last weekend, I have spent nearly three years asking you to hold firm. Three years urging you to remain steady under fire. And you have.
But now, Scottish Liberal Democrats, I have a different message for you: Win.
Get back out there. Tell our side of the story. And we will win again. On the door step, in town halls, in Holyrood and in Westminster.
The Liberal Democrats are winning again.
And we will win again in Scotland too.
Nick Clegg is Leader of the Liberal Democrats