A snapshot of Scottish Liberal Democrat Conference

Scottish Liberal Democrats met for a busy annual Autumn conference in Dunfermline last Saturday. The day started with the most delicious sliced sausage ever. Subjects debated by members (all of whom have a vote), include reverse vending machines, honest lets, cuts to student funding, affordable childcare and the Home Rule Commission chaired by Sir Menzies Campbell.  Charles Kennedy also took part in that debate.

There were keynote speeches from Secretary of State for Scotland Michael Moore, new Business and Equalities Minister Jo Swinson and leader Willie Rennie. Danny Alexander did a question and answer session on the Mid Term Review and fielded questions on everything from the economy to Leveson.

A powerful force for good

Photo: Caron Lindsay

Willie’s focus, as usual, was on strong liberal voices. He talked about his embarrassment that Alex Salmond had buckled to pressure from Chinese Government and not given the Dalai Lama the respect he deserved earlier this year. Willie himself had a private meeting with the Tibetan Spiritual Leader at which he failed to quite get across the concept of the Scottish word “dour.” Conference laughed as he described how he’d gone out and sent the Dalai Lama a DVD of Rikki Fulton’s character, the Rev I M Jolly, who you can see you You Tube here.

Turning to the Liberal Democrat vision for home rule for Scotland, he said:

The best way to protect devolution is not to destroy it but to build on it. Scotland has an alternative.  If we want to keep our influential place in international bodies, but with strong domestic powers, people don’t have to look very far from this room. Home rule for Scotland in a federal United Kingdom keeps us as a powerful force for good in the world.

In the wake of the Edinburgh Agreement, Michael Moore was keen to emphasise the importance of one of the key concessions he had secured from the Nationalists. They had wanted to appoint their own Commission to oversee the poll, but they will now use the Electoral Commission which will report to the Scottish Parliament.

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.

Business and equality are inseparable

Jo Swinson’s speech was very practical, talking about making working life more fulfilling and giving employees more freedom and choice about flexible working and parental leave. She talked about how she wanted to make business inclusive, engaging and encouraging of enterprise.

Organisations that work to engage employees and improve their wellbeing get better results.  According to the Harvard Business Review, happy employees are more productive, more creative and make more sales. Finally, we need to nurture entrepreneurs. Because the workplace is not just about employees – many people are self-employed, and we need to encourage more people to start businesses.  Here again, we are missing a trick with the talents of women. There are less than half as many women entrepreneurs as men. If we could get women to start up businesses at the same rate as men, we’d see 150,000 new start-ups each year.

She said that some thought business and equality were incompatible. To her, they were inseparable.

There was a busy fringe, with several lunchtime events: the Better Together campaign; a moving and powerful discussion about the effects of welfare reform by the Hardest Hit coalition; ALTER’s land reform and Green Liberal Democrats.

In the private Party Business session, tributes were paid to former MSP and Councillor Donald Gorrie and to former youth activist and SWLD treasurer Nikki Thomson. Presentations were also made to outgoing Conference Committee Convener Shabnum Mustapha and former Chief Executive Martin Hayman.

It was particularly good that Deputy Chief Executive Hilary Stephenson made the effort to come to our one day Conference.

All in all, it was a busy day and activists left in fairly upbeat mood. The only shadow on the day came from pro-independence protestors, who became abusive and swore at several women who were in the car park on their own. They were there when we arrived in the morning until the last person left at 7pm. We can only hope that sort of behaviour will not be prevalent in the referendum campaign.

* Caron Lindsay is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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