In full: Willie Rennie’s speech to Scottish Lib Dem Conference

Here is Willie Rennie’s speech to Scottish Lib Dem Conference in full, delivered 15 minutes late after the conference was evacuated when the fire alarm went off.

I have been a member of the Liberal Democrats for twenty eight years.  
I have stood up, spoken up and campaigned for this party all over the country. 

It has gifted me some of my proudest moments and dealt some crushing blows too.

In May, we lost some of the best Members of Parliament in Scotland.
In fact the best in the UK. 

I’m not naïve, I knew the election would be hard, but it was painful to lose people of such outstanding calibre.

And in June, Charles. 

One of the greats. Lost forever.

It would have been a summer to forget. 

If it were not for you.

In amongst the gloom your spirit filled me with hope.

Our membership in Scotland has swelled by 25%.

And many are here today. If you are a new member please stand up or give us a wave.

Please give them all a round of applause.

These new members have given our party a vibrancy and energy that is wonderful to watch.

So thank you to the new members for their inspiration.

And then there’s Loch Ness and there’s Jean Davis. 

An outstanding win from fourth place taking a seat from the SNP which was previously held by their new MP.

The first win from the SNP by any party in almost two years – no wins by the Labour Party and no wins by the Tories.

A truly outstanding result. 

Councillor Jean Davis well done.
So our membership is up and we are back to winning ways.

This speech sets out our record with five MSPs and the positive change we can bring to Scotland with more of us in the next five years.

But I want our party to change as well.

All our MPs in the United Kingdom are men. And four out of our five MSPs are men too.

I know many in the party instinctively do not favour positive action but I need to be frank with you. Nothing else has worked.

That is why I want you to support the steps I am taking. 

I have formed a working group which I am chairing to draw up proposals to put before you at the spring conference.

I am grateful to Sophie Bridger, Sheila Ritchie, Fred Mackintosh and Jo Swinson for agreeing to serve on the working group.
My aim is that within the next six years we will have a strong team of parliamentarians that will be truly representative of our party and of the society we seek to represent. 

I want half of our parliamentarians to be women.

The status quo is no longer an option. 

It’s a step change that we need to take and I am determined that we will take.

We’ve a lot to do.

Our campaign for the Holyrood elections will be a positive, uplifting campaign that will seek to put the divisions of the referendum behind us, to bring the country together, and to seize the big opportunities that exist for people in our country.

It will build on our record at Holyrood.

Just look at that record.
You’ll know we stood up for our children’s education by persuading the government to back our plans for expanding nursery education. 
Only because of the Liberal Democrats thousands of young children are skipping through the doors of local nurseries.

You’ll know we stood up for students in our colleges by mitigating the worst effects of the SNP’s cuts. 

There’s much more to be done, but only because of the Liberal Democrats are thousands of students able to get the education they need. 

You’ll know we stood up for the freedom of thousands of people, children among them, stopped and searched each year for no reason.
But Alison McInnes has succeeded in reforming this intrusive tactic almost singlehandedly.

Only because of Liberal Democrats are illiberal, illegal, unjustified searches being abolished.

You’ll know we stood up for a stronger Scottish Parliament within the United Kingdom. 

Ming Campbell’s reports crafted, cajoled and pioneered the agreement that was eventually reached in the Smith Commission. 
Only because of the Liberal Democrats will we soon have a parliament with control of its own destiny, with £20billion of tax powers and a new £3billion welfare state.

And you’ll know we stood up for police officers, staff and the public when we alone opposed the centralisation of the police and have led the scrutiny of Police Scotland. 

Only the Liberal Democrats.  
And we have achieved all that with only 5 MSPs.

Scotland’s strong liberal voices have been heard loud and clear.

Just imagine what we can achieve with more.

With only five we have stood tall for students, for children, for our civil liberties, for our police and for Scotland.

We should be completely clear. Scotland needs more liberal voices in our Parliament.

And I am determined that we will grow as a party in that Parliament next year.

Only Liberal Democrats can do what we do.

Last week I met a woman in Anstruther who told me that the relationship with her daughter had broken down. 

It had been like that for over a year. 
It started with an argument about independence. 

Her family is not alone.

An opinion poll found that a quarter of a million people believe their relationship with a friend or family member has been permanently damaged as a result of the independence referendum.

For the sake of our country we need to move on from those divisions.
We’ve had the big debate on our constitutional future. 

We’ve spent four years on it. 
In the biggest democratic experience of our lifetime we made our decision. 

But now Nicola Sturgeon has been performing a new dance. 

A dance where she has sought to pivot from her promise not to hold another referendum for a generation to the possibility of holding one in the next five years.

She has an apparently secret criteria for triggering another referendum.
What will that mean for every SNP member?

Well they will wake up every morning and run down to meet the postman to see if the criteria has been met.

It is the only thing they care about.
Imagine a five year journey with every MSP in the back asking every single day “are we there yet?”

But Nicola, our constitution has had our time. 

Surely our police, our NHS and our schools deserve our time now.
For the sake of that woman in Anstruther and the hundreds of thousands of others across the country we need to put the division behind us and focus on the opportunities that are before us.

The Liberal Democrat positive agenda contrasts with the SNP’s record.

Think about the missed opportunities for our children, the long wait to see a GP, the students with no college place, and the public put in harm’s way because of police centralisation.

Think about the five years of squandered chances we’ve seen. 
So that is the big choice at the election next year.

During the next five years, the Liberal Democrats will use our votes and influence in the Scottish Parliament for our schools.

Five years for our hospitals. Five years for our police. That’s what Scotland needs.

Not five years for another referendum.

Our plan will draw on our rich political heritage stretching back to the formation of the Liberal Party from free traders and radicals in 1859.

The radical Liberal agenda has freedom at its heart. It’s about freeing the potential of individuals. We trust in the innate ability of individuals to do great things when they have power in their hands.
It is why Gladstone advanced freedom by breaking down the barriers to trade and introduced elementary education.

The 1906 Liberal government’s social reforms set people free from poverty with school meals and pensions.

Liberals reforms in the 60s on abortion, divorce and gay rights.
We helped set up the Scottish Parliament and led the opposition to the Iraq war.

In Government at Holyrood – invested in Education, smashed Labour fiefdoms with fair voting. Free eye and dental checks, and free personal care.

In Government at Westminster – cut taxes for workers, made a massive investment in renewable energy, boosted the state pension and scrapped identity cards.

Stretching back a century and a half all these measures, pioneered and delivered by liberals, have given people the tools to improve their lives.

We should be proud of our heritage.
Liberals and Liberal Democrats did these great things in the past.

That is why we should be proud to campaign from this moment on in that tradition.

So today I want to set out a bold, new approach to extending freedom that reflects that political heritage.
Freedom in the public sector.

Targets, controls and top down diktats have become the favoured tool to control every part of our public services. And it is suffocating the talents of our public sector workers – doctors, nurses, teachers and police.

Take national testing in schools.
Despite what the First Minister says it is clear we are returning to the kind of testing and tables the previous Liberal Democrat-Labour Government abolished.

The EIS said testing would have a “profoundly negative impact.”
The Parent Teacher Council has been explicit: “testing does not raise attainment”

George Gilchrist, a widely-respected headteacher said “If we get high-stakes standardised testing we will … get gaming of the system by schools and heads.”

He described the proposed changes as a “definite step backwards”.
Educational policy since devolution leading to Curriculum for Excellence has been designed to put power back in the hands of teachers so that they can use their talents to shape the prospects of the pupils they teach. 
These national tests will undermine that progress and strip power from teachers, introducing the destructive teaching to the test. 

It will be the most damaging blow to education in Scotland since devolution.

So we will use our influence and votes in the next parliament to stand up for teachers, pupils and schools and speak against national testing and league tables.
Schools are only the start.

The Police Federation has spoken out against their target culture.
The Royal College of Nursing and the Royal Medical Colleges say targets are “skewing clinical priorities and wasting resources.”
And Audit Scotland warn of the risks of too narrow a focus on targets.

It takes ten years to train a GP.

It takes four years to train a nurse or a teacher

It takes two years to train a police officer.

Yet political masters think they know how to treat patients better than nurses and doctors;
Know how to prevent crime in our communities better than police;
Know how to teach children better than teachers.

Top down targets and controls are suffocating the public sector.

So every vote for the Liberal Democrats next May will be a vote to allow teachers to teach, nurses and doctors to treat and police to protect.

Liberal Democrats will stand for a liberating agenda of rolling back the top down target-driven, one size fits all culture that distorts our public services.

We will stand up for our police, our nurses, our doctors and we will stand up for our teachers.
Our freedom agenda will push democratic power to communities too, reversing the Holyrood hoover that sucks power away from local people.

Our plan is to set local communities free so they can make judgments that are right for them. 

This plan will allow our public sector to reflect the rich diversity of our country. 

Shetland is different from Shettleston. Ecclefechan has different needs from Edinburgh. 
Just like Holyrood, local councils should raise the majority of the money they spend. Holding the purse strings means you can shape your own future.

It means ending Holyrood control over business rates and the council tax so councillors are truly accountable to local people for the taxes they raise and the money they spend.

We will create new burgh councils where there is local demand, allowing local communities to take charge.

And the Crown Estate will be transferred, not just from one remote government in London to another remote government in Edinburgh, but to local communities.

And we want to inject local democracy back into the police too.
Our proposals will make the senior police chief in each of Scotland’s 32 council areas accountable to the local authority, ending the one-size-fits-all policing model.

The opportunity is so great to give power back to the public servants and local leaders, and to give accountability back to communities, that I am today proposing a Public Service and Leadership Bill.

A Bill to set a new relationship both between government and our public service workers, and between government and our local communities.

I want to release the potential of the people of our country. 

So we will empower our teachers, nurses, doctors and police officers and we will empower our local communities.

Dispersing power away from the all-controlling government;
Away from the unelected quango remote from the real impact of the decisions they take.  

Away from the minister who thinks they know best;
Real power in your hands.
And it will take Liberal Democrats to do it.

And we will create the pathways for everyone to reach their potential too.

Earlier this year I visited an organisation called Urban Therapy in central Fife. It’s a social enterprise that provides counselling for people with mental health issues.

The service they provide is in such demand that people are travelling from as far afield as Glasgow to get help.

With one in four people in Scotland experiencing a mental health issue in their lifetime it is little surprise.
But yet our mental health services are underfunded and don’t get the support they need.

Poor mental health holds people back which is why we need a dramatic change in the attitude from government.

Waiting times for young people for basic treatment can be up to a year. It is hard for anyone to get the help they need.

We will change that. We stand with the powerless against the strong. Mental health will be taken seriously.

No more six month waits. Professionals on standby in every A&E. The beds and the therapy people need.

The Cinderella service of mental health is going to the ball with the Liberal Democrats in the next parliament.

Education liberates the individual to be all they can be. It is the route to individual opportunity – for freedom. 

Liberal Democrats have a solid record of educational transformation in Scotland.

We abolished fees, stood up for college funding, transformed pay for teachers and delivered nursery education for three and four year olds. 

But now we must go further.

We know too many children are held back by the circumstances of their birth. Too often if they are born poor, they die poor.

So we want to introduce a pupil premium.

It will be a financial payment for every pupil who needs a helping hand at school.

Liberal Democrats will use the next five years to make sure this generation of pupils, whatever their background, achieve more than any generation before.

And that will need an urgent expansion of nursery education too.
Professor James Heckman won a Nobel Prize for his work on early education.

He is clear that the best educational investment we could make is at the earliest age.

It’s about supplementing the work of parents. Not replacing them.
And to do it we need five years of Liberal Democrats in the Scottish Parliament to invest in nursery education.

So I want those three positive initiatives as part of our liberal agenda for Scotland.
Releasing the potential of people.
Empowering our public sector workers.

Trusting our local communities.
That is a positive agenda for strong Liberal voices.

And we need the next five years with more Liberal Democrats to make them happen.
And we saw on Monday in Canada that Liberal hope can beat fear.

We can do it too.

We are not going to do it in exactly the same way.

My dad is here today. I spoke to him earlier.

He is content for me to go for the top job without him doing it first.

Just like Canada we can have a new approach from the Scottish Government. We can do things differently.

An approach that is prepared to heal the divisions and which is prepared to listen to other viewpoints.

One which will not stand for narrow sectional interest and abuse of opponents, and does not obsess all the time about whether the people they are speaking to are “one of us”.

My commitment to the United Kingdom remains as strong as ever. No-one should ever doubt that. But I recognise that many liberal minded people have supported independence. 

Many felt compelled to back the nationalists even if they were unhappy about the performance of the SNP in government.

I want them to know they now have another option.

I want to make a direct plea to supporters of independence today:
If you want to fix the problems facing your local GP surgery;
If you want to end industrial-scale stop and search on our streets;
If you want to put mental health on an equal footing with physical health.

If you want all these things then try out the Liberal Democrats.
Because that is the choice.
Five years of another referendum campaign with the nationalists.
Or five years for health.
Five years for education.
Five years for freedom and liberties with the Liberal Democrats.
Because who can believe the space that has opened up.
The Labour Party is destined to march to the hard left of politics.
With the SNP running ahead to get there first.
Meanwhile the Scottish Conservatives are crawling to the right.
They have delivered a devastating assault on renewable energy, a kick to working people with tax credit cuts and trade union changes, attacked our hard-won human rights, flirting with EU exit and will leave refugees on sinking boats on the Mediterranean.
Unlike those who are veering off to the left or right we are sticking to the radical, liberal, centre ground. 
We offer a combination of economic discipline with social justice so that there is opportunity for everyone, no matter what their background.
So we will be there for all of Scotland.
If you are a liberal but did not vote for us last time.
If you share our values.
Then try us out

If you are an aspirational Scot with a social conscienceWe are the party for you.

If you want a diverse, plural politics where we hold the government to account but do so constructively.
If you support independence but are disappointed by the SNP in Government.If you If you want to free up teachers, nurses, doctors and police officers to perform.
If you want to push power to communities.
If you want to end the second class status of mental health.
If you want to tackle educational inequality.
If you want to create opportunity for everyone no matter what their background.
Then the choice is clear.
Give the Liberal Democrats five years: for health, for education, for justice and opportunity for all.

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

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This entry was posted in News.


  • Richard Underhill 24th Oct '15 - 3:04pm

    On mental health ‘the professionals’ have advised the UUP leader that a target of zero suicides is achievable. He has accepted that advice, challenging as it seems, but the issue should be debated more widely.

    Another issue which can lead to stress and depression is in what he called ‘equal marriage’, so he has changed his mind and told his party that they should respect each other’s views, but they are ‘on the wrong side of history’.

    The Labour candidate for London Mayor and the Tory leader in Scotland have been on ‘Have I got news for you’ albeit not together. They should learn from what Tim Farron said in the Commons ‘Say NO’ because otherwise you are Charles Kennedy or you are a prat.

  • A lot of good stuff there. Willie is one of my MSPs, but unless he says that he personally supports cannabis legalisation I’m not voting for him. I signed an internet pledge promising not to vote for any candidate who did not say that they personally supported the legalisation of cannabis regardless of which party they were from or any other policies they had.

  • nvelope2003 24th Oct '15 - 9:41pm

    Is the legalisation of drugs more important than anything else – even the survival of Liberalism ? Seems rather a selfish view.

  • nigel hunter 24th Oct '15 - 10:26pm

    People these days do seem to have selfish views, whats in it for me-ism. BUT we all need support from others one way or another.Its only when people realise this that things change from self to us. Divisions ,us and them ,destroy .Hope of a better society for all is the goal. Inform the people of what Liberalism brought forth to our United Kingdom like school meals and pensions in1906 etc. Bring hope to all.

  • Well I’d say that politicians refusing to deal with issues because they’re risky and kicking these issues into the long grass with fudges and delays rather than dealing with them and yet still expecting to be elected is pretty selfish of them. If they’re scared to deal with something through fear of losing votes surely the solution is to ensure that not doing anything costs them votes too?

    I think a mass Internet pledge promising not to vote for any candidate that didn’t endorse full legalisation is the way to go, it could be promoted like the mass epetitions and everyone that signs it could leave their postcode and email address and receive an email telling them what each of their candidates have said about the issue. It would be a good way to put pressure on candidates to represent people and get things done.

  • “This speech sets out our record with five MSPs and the positive change we can bring to Scotland with more of us in the next five years.”

    I predict that Lib Dems will lose all their seats at the next Scottish Elections.

  • @Will it would be difficult to lose all five. While the Carmichael debacle could lose the two FPTP seats in the Northern Isles, it would need the vote to drop low to lose the list seats. However the list is always an unknown quantity with the Greens having success and taking list votes.

  • @Will

    Scotland has eight electoral regions. The lib dems currently have three list seats each in different regions which would all be lost on a small drop in support across each of those regions. There is no fixed percentage of the vote that makes a list seat a certainty but as a general rule, but if a party gets no FPTP seats in a region then 6% of the vote in that region will likely gain them a list seat while 5% of the vote will most likely not be enough.

    In addition to those 3 seats the party also have two island FPTP seats in the Highlands and Islands region, those could be lost or one of them could be lost as well, but if both are lost its likely the party would gain a list seat in that region as the share of the vote in the Highlands and Islands is pretty high in comparison to the rest of Scotland. The reason they don’t have list MSPs in the Highlands and Islands is because FPTP didn’t leave them underrepresented in that region in 2011.

    I therefore predict that the party will win 1 or 2 seats next year, down from the five they have now.

  • a list seat in Highland and islands replacing the 2 constituency seats is possible, being leader might assist W Rennie and holding a list seat in NE is also possible. A lot depends on the Greens.

  • @Bruce. We will see, I doubt Willie will keep his seat in Mid Scotland and Fife. As Caron notes, the Lib Dems have achieved a great deal at Holyrood in the last five years despite their being so few of them. But the problem is the Lib Dems don’t seem to have any radical policies any more, cop-outs and fudges just aren’t going to inspire anyone so I expect the Lib Dems in Scotland to just sort of drift of into irrelevance and die out like the SDP did.

    In 2007 the Lib Dems had two FPTP seats in Mid Scotland and Fife. In 2011 they lost both of those but managed 5.9% across the region which was enough to get one list MSP (Willie Rennie). If that vote falls just one percentage point to 4.9% then that seat will almost certainly be lost too.

    This time the election in Mid Scotland and Fife is being fought without the benefit of incumbency in 2 seats. This is the time to be bold and radical and take a risk.

    I don’t know why the Lib Dems would be so scared under an electoral system like we have in Scotland, you could advocate all the radical things the Greens do and still get more than 6% of the vote across a region. If every single person that didn’t want cannabis legalised refused to vote Lib Dem and just 1 in 3 of them who wanted it legalised did the Lib Dems would still get over 6% of the vote.

    Even the old Scottish Socialists who eventually split and went into irrelevance as all far left parties seem to do managed 6 list seats at one point. Seriously, in 2003 when legalising drugs had way less support than it does now an extremely radical party full of hard left Marxists advocated legalising cannabis and had opposition to this published on the front page of the Daily Record Scotland’s biggest selling tabloid, and they still got more votes and seats than the Liberal Democrats managed in 2011!

    It’s a paradox, they’re scared to be bold and radical because they fear electoral suicide but the reality is not standing for bold radical policies is what is slowly killing their party.

  • nvelope2003 25th Oct '15 - 5:48pm

    I do not think the fall in Liberal Democrat support had much to do with whether to legalise cannabis but everything to do with joining the coalition and then the continuing rise of the SNP. Experience would seem to indicate that the latter cannot continue indefinitely as some event will come which will cause the SNP to lose some support and then other parties will recover. The Liberal Democrats cannot do much now just as the Conservatives had no success when Tony Blair was at the height of his popularity but now they are the Government. Maybe Justin Trudeau is the model to follow – up from 3rd place with 34 MPs and now the Government with 184 MPs. Come the hour come the man !

  • @DavidW

    “I therefore predict that the party will win 1 or 2 seats next year, down from the five they have now.”

    I think that if we manage to win 2 seats then I hope that Willie is one of them although I am not too sure as he may have put of alot of the voters with his constant bleating about the SNP.

  • Will: Well criticism for its own sake is silly but if he does not agree with the SNP what is he supposed to do ? Has Scotland become like East Germany in the 1970s when everyone had to agree with the ruling party ?
    Apparently the only issue which is of interest to Scots is whether cannabis is to be legalised. What a fall for a nation which was once the power house of intellectual thought in Northern Europe and now prefers to dope itself into oblivion !

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