In full: Jo Swinson’s speech to Scottish Conference

Jo Swinson gave a wide-ranging speech to Scottish Conference at the weekend.

She talked about Brexit, and how she’d apologised to a class of 10 year olds for it.

She talked about the challenges posed by new technology and AI.

And amidst all the crap that’s going on, she found reasons to be optimistic about the future.

Here is her speech in full.

10 year olds ask the best questions, don’t you think? I’ve been asked all sorts over the years:What is communism? Have you met the Queen? Can you explain the backstop?

This week though, I was asked a question I really didn’t want to answer: “What impact will Brexit haveon young people?”

How could I stand there, in front of more than 100 school children, and paint that bleak picture? No more right to travel, work and study across Europe – we enjoyed that right, but they won’t.

More businesses closing factories, reducing investment, cutting jobs, like we saw with the devastating news in Swindon this week.

Workers’ rights and environmental standards under threat from the next right-wing Tory leadership contender happy to sacrifice vital protections on the altar of deregulation.

And while we’re on the subject of the depths Tories will stoop to, shame on you Sajid Javid for yourdecision on Shamima Begum, throwing human rights out the window to further your career.

The decision to strip someone of their citizenship should never be in the hands of a Minister.And it’s in the hands of Ministers like him that our country’s future rests.

Conference, I told those children what Brexit would mean for them, and I said sorry.

And I explained that no one knew exactly how this would end, but it isn’t over yet.

That I am fighting for a People’s Vote so we have the chance to stay instead.

Because there is no Brexit deal which will ever be as good as the deal we have as a members of the European Union.

Every form of Brexit will make us poorer. It will put jobs at risk
And it will weaken us on the global stage.

Brexit can, and must, be stopped. Time is running out. This is the time for hard work and real action. More than ever, we need every single one of you, in this room and beyond, to join our fight.

We need every single one of you to write to your MP and get your family and friends to do the same. We need you to come on the Put It To The People march next month and make our voices heard. Because the more of us there are, the harder is it to stop us.

The louder we shout, the harder it is to shut us up.

And the more united we are, the harder it is to break us.

We want a People’s Vote and we want it now!

It is 5 weeks today until we are due to leave the EU.

Just 35 days.

And thanks to this Government, the country is in an absolute mess. Brexit is a national embarrassment.

I had hoped that the government might actually be a little less cringeworthy when Boris Johnsonresigned. But I didn’t account for Chris Grayling and Liam Fox.

Liam Fox promised 40 trade deals would be ready to sign at one second after midnight on 29 March. Sofar, we’ve got a comprehensive agreement with the Faroe Islands, so we’re all set for fresh fish.

Unfortunately every fridge in the country will be full of stockpiled medicine, so we won’t have anywhereto put it.

On the other hand you have Chris Grayling, who did a deal for ferries with a company that doesn’t haveany ferries – and whose returns policy is based on a pizza restaurant.

The worst part of it is, if he’d only waited till Two-for-Tuesday he’d have got two ferries for the price ofone!

We have spent nearly three years obsessed with Brexit, on top of four years consumed by the issue of independence.

Every ounce of government and civil service energy, both in Westminster and Holyrood, wasted on ideologically-driven crusades against our closest neighbours.

Wasted on keeping the Conservatives united and the nationalists in their comfort zone.

For the last seven years, the Liberal Democrats have been proudly and positively making the case that Scotland is better off in the UK and that the UK is better off in the European Union.

The UK has been divided over Europe for the last three years, but here in Scotland we have been living with division for a lot longer.

And we are sick of it.

We are sick of the SNP Government using every opportunity to stir up those divisions again, instead of focusing on the job of governing our nation.

There’s plenty they should be sorting out:

  • A rail network that is rarely on track.
  • Schools wasting teaching time and energy making five-year olds sit tests.
  • Councils facing impossible decisions about cuts to local services
  • Children waiting months for vital mental health care.

Nicola Sturgeon has her eye off the ball. Instead of putting her party’s interests to one side to serve thewhole country, she continues to ignore the problems right in front of her.

She is more interested in how she can use Brexit to break up our United Kingdom.

It took the SNP months to back a People’s Vote. And when they eventually got on board, they used it asan excuse to start talking again about indyref2.

The First Minister has learnt nothing from watching Theresa May negotiate our way out of Europe.

Breaking a union of 40 years is destroying our country, I dread to think what dismantling a union of more than 300 years would do.

The Liberal Democrats will never stop fighting to keep our country united. Because we believe that together we stand a little taller in the world. Together we are greater than the sum of our parts.

We are stronger together.

The biggest tragedy of this SNP & Tory myopia on the constitution, is the opportunity cost.
The foundations of our society are shaken. Our sense of shared identity is fractured. Trust is in decline.

If you work hard and play by the rules, you should have a good life. But people can’t trust that to be true anymore.

That basic promise – the social contract that underpins our way of life – is broken.

We see it all around us.

A botched Universal Credit system means thousands having to choose between heating and food.

Workers putting in long and thankless shifts, with pay packets barely bigger than they were a decade ago.

Young people struggling to pay sky-high rents to unscrupulous landlords.

Fat cat bosses who earn in four days as much as the average employee does in a year.

Businesses that do so little for the communities that help them thrive.

And our beloved NHS stumbling from one winter crisis to the next.

Conference, none of these problems will go away if we leave the European Union, or if Scotland becomes independent, as the nationalists on both sides of the border would have us believe.

They have blamed either Brussels or Westminster for the social ills that plague our country. But we know leaving will only make it harder to solve our problems.

And it’s not just a question of tweaking the system. Cosmetic changes here and there are not enough.

In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, in the fog of a collapsing economy, we failed to harness the appetite for more radical change.

We were so focused on getting things back on track, that we didn’t realise we needed to forge acompletely new path, to create a whole new system.

A system that rewards generosity, not greed.
That champions collaboration, not a race to the bottom.

That defines success as a sustainable future, not making a quick buck today. That keeps the focus on what we value, rather than just what we can count.

This is our challenge. And we Liberal Democrats need to rise to it.

Because our politics is broken. The Conservatives and Labour are like the banks during the crash. Too big to fail, too broken to work.

This week has shown just how broken those parties are.

We all know that belonging to a party is like belonging to a family. It’s part of who you are. And you can’tgive that up lightly.

So we appreciate how hard it must have been for those former Labour and Conservative MPs to come to the sad realisation that to continue to fight for their values, they would have to leave their parties.

As liberals in favour of pluralist politics, we are used to working with people across party lines. We did it 5 years ago with both Labour and the Conservatives to keep Scotland in the UK.

More recently the Greens, and nationalist parties have also joined us in our fight for a People’s Vote.

The morning after the Brexit vote, I remember feeling sick to the pit of my stomach. This was about much more than EU institutions – what kind of country had we become?

The political faultline has shifted. We’ve moved from talking about left or right, socialist or capitalist totalking about liberal or authoritarian, open or closed, internationalist or nationalist.

Like never before in my lifetime, liberal values are under attack, here in the UK and around the world.

People are crying out for a vision for the future of our country that is open, outward-looking, internationalist and pluralist.

Liberal Democrats, we can paint this vision, and we should do so with confidence.

We have 2,000 Cllrs, 100,000 members and a quarter of a million people backing our campaign for an Exit from Brexit.

We have a proud liberal heritage and innovative policy solutions for the future.

We can reach out to harness the energy of the many liberal-minded people who are suddenly alive to the need to defend and promote these shared values.

And I say to the new Independent Group MPs: you have made a difficult, bold and important move. You are disrupting the broken political system and as liberals, we are excited by this change.

We share your desire to shake up the status quo, to challenge those in power who are failing our country.

We need to ditch the outdated, tribal, two-party model. We need a better way of doing politics for a modern, liberal society.

So let’s fight together on the liberal values we share.
Let’s campaign together on the issues we care about.
Let’s work together to change our country for the better.
You’ve experienced enough petty tribalism from your own former parties. You won’t get it from us. In the Liberal Democrats, you’ll find allies.

Together, we can change our country for the better.

So much better.
And it can be so much better.

We are embarking on a technological revolution that promises to change our world in unimaginable ways.

Advances in robotics and artificial intelligence are creating possibilities that until not long ago were the realm of science fiction.

They can improve every aspect of our lives. From better healthcare to more accessible education. From greener energy to safer transport.

Of course these advances are not without their risks.

Artificial intelligence learns from us. It can learn how to read scans and spot cancers, freeing up our doctors and nurses to spend more time with their patients.

Or it can learn the worst of human thinking – the many biases that so many still experience in their everyday life.

We saw this when Amazon had to stop using an artificial intelligence recruitment system because it favoured men over women.

New technologies can create high-skilled, well-paid jobs. But these technologies can also be employed to spy on workers and reinforce management tyranny over the low paid.

We’ve all heard the stories of warehouse staff being run ragged by faceless algorithms. Workers who go for hours without drinking water so they don’t lose time going to the loo.A mum so afraid of losing her job that she gave birth in a toilet cubicle.
Yes, we must get people into work, but we must also get people into good jobs.

Conference, the technological revolution unfolding now gives us a chance to fundamentally reconfigure our society.

This is our opportunity to make the choices we failed to make after the financial crisis. This is our chance to invest in what the country needs.

To choose to put more in our health and social care, in our children’s education and in helping the most vulnerable in our society.

This is our chance to choose what it means to work.

To recognise that going to an office nine-to-five and taking care of elderly relatives are both valuable, and legitimate, contributions to our society.

This is our chance to choose what our society values.

To reward more generously the unique human strengths that robots and algorithms can’t learn.Strengths such as care. Empathy. Love.

Because a robot might be able to hand us the pills we need to take, but we still want a warm hand to hold when we feel lonely.

Conference, the Liberal Democrats have always been a party that is optimistic and forward-looking. We have what it takes to create that alternative vision.
And, crucially, we have done it before.
We have done it here in Scotland.

Free personal care. Extending early years education. Taking mental health seriously.
And, we have done it in the UK too.
Free school meals. Shared Parental Leave.

Same. Sex. Marriage.
Liberal policies for a liberal country.

Britain deserves better than the tired, same-old nonsense from the Conservatives and Labour.

We would all end up in a Victorian workhouse or in a 1970s blackout if we leave it up to them.

And Scotland deserves better than the narrow nationalism of the SNP.

Politics comes down to the choices we make – and as a country we’re not making good choices rightnow.

Underinvesting in universal credit, while we cut corporation tax.

Teachers underpaid and undervalued, while we spend billions on preparing for no-deal.

Hospitals understaffed, while we close the door on hard-working European nurses.

This once-confident, optimistic and tolerant country has been brought to its knees.

Chipped away at until we feel a bit lost, a bit less than we were, a bit less sure about who we are and who we want to be.

Conference it doesn’t have to be this way. We can restore our pride.

We need to remember that our country is better than this, always has been and always will be. We just need to start making better choices.

We can either let the technological revolution happen to us, or we can choose to take charge of it like the country of innovators that we are.

The country of Ada Lovelace, Alan Turing and Tim Berners-Lee

We can choose to harness technology to make our society stronger and our lives better. To fight climate change.

To restore our NHS to health.

To build a thriving, sustainable economy.

We can either be afraid of what we don’t know

or we can choose to be more open, more welcoming and more generous to each other and to our neighbours in Europe and in the world.

We can either have more of the same, or we can choose to use this moment in our history to rebuild our country.

Can we do more to support young families by making free childcare universal?
Helping mums and dads back into work, and ensuring that every child has a good start in school. Can we invest in lifelong learning to help our people thrive?

Our education system was fit for the age of empire and cotton mills, but it needs to change for a global, innovative 21st century economy.

Can we revolutionise business culture to look beyond the bottom line?

We need businesses that care about the communities they work in, that invest in their workers, that protect the environment and contribute to national and global goals.

Being a socially responsible business is about more than just turning a profit.
I won’t pretend I have all the answers yet or that indeed we have all the answers in our party.

But I am determined to ask the probing questions and to find those radical ideas – wherever they might come from.

We need more of us to create this vision and make it happen.

We need all of you out there who want a better, more imaginative, and more liberal future to be on our side.

To you all I say, our door is open, come join us.

Together we can advance those radical, progressive and liberal ideas our country is crying out for. Together we can turn them into reality.

Together we can demand better schools.

Better jobs.

Better businesses.

A better society that cares for every single person in it.

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

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One Comment

  • Richard Underhill 26th Feb '19 - 9:55am

    “What impact will Brexit have on young people?”
    That depends on whether we can stop it.
    A lot of damage has already been done which cannot be repaired easily, or at all.

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