My highlights of Scottish Liberal Democrat Conference

I’m a bit bleary eyed today. One conference is exhausting, two on successive weekends is positively foolhardy. Following that up with a trip to London for Federal Executive is craziness.

I spent the weekend in Dundee where Scottish Liberal Democrats held their main Conference. Over three days, there were no fewer than twelve policy debates, some of them incredibly powerful or controversial. Here are my highlights.

The Secret Courts debate

Yes, I’m biased as I proposed the motion rejecting the Government’s proposals, but the debate itself was very high quality. Liberal Youth co-chair Kavya Kaushik won the Russell Johnston award for the best speech at Conference for her contribution which focused on the three things the Liberal Democrats were best known for: civil liberties, protecting the vulnerable and internal member democracy. Secret courts, she said, flouted all three. Hannah Bettsworth spoke about how she wrote letters to foreign governments as an Amnesty member, and she wondered if she’d have to write to the UK Government for failing to deliver justice.

It was disappointing that not a single parliamentarian was willing to take to the stage to defend eiher this or the so called “bedroom tax.’ It doesn’t show a huge amount of respect for the democratic processes of the party

Crown dependency status for Orkney and Shetland?

This was less a definite declaration and more of an attack on the SNP’s habit of centralising anything that sits still for more than 20 seconds. Orkney & Shetland, the motion argued, should develop their preferred position on their constitutional future, whether that be as part of an independent Scotland, the rest of the UK, or as a crown dependency like the Isle of Man. There is no rant like a Tavish Scott rant. He said:

Shetland and Orkney want to use this period of intense constitutional navel gazing to decide what we want for our future. We are not going to be told what to do by the SNP. Nor by any other government. This is the time to seize the opportunity of Island Home Rule.

We don’t want more centralising, know it all, top down nationalism. This SNP government couldn’t care less about the outer extremities of the country. Ask Raasay’s crofters who only got their rights back after a huge hue and cry that embarrassed the Nationalists into a u-turn.

Willie Rennie’s speech

Willie Rennie is rapidly becoming the Responsible Adult in Scottish politics. Where others are less constructive, he is keen to secure consensus on further powers for the Scottish Parliament if Scotland chooses, as looks likely, to remain in the UK. He reached out to the SNP. telling them that there is a seat at the table for them.

He also sent us out campaigning, initially to two council by-elections at opposite ends of the country, giving us the ammunition we need to take to the doorsteps with confidence – outlining the many achievements of the Scottish Liberal Democrat Ministers in the Coalition Government. And there were James Bond references. Read the whole thing here.

Eternal youth for me

Liberal Youth Scotland again were a credit to the Party. Their members spoke in many debates and their own motion on banning snaring was passed easily. They held a successful quiz on the Saturday night. I was also very honoured to be told that at their AGM they had made me their first ever honorary life member. Eternal youth is mine.

Better Together

Kennedy, Lyon and Darling at Better Together FringeCharles Kennedy and former Labour Chancellor Alistair Darling spoke at a packed fringe meeting for the Better Together campaign. Kennedy joked that he was the good cop to Darling’s bad. I asked Darling a question about how we would use the lessons of the Obama campaign to appeal to crucial groups like women and young people. His reply instilled me with confidence that they were thinking about this stuff.

The best debate ever

I have rarely been as proud of my party as I was on Friday afternoon when we debated how we should best tackle Scotland’s mental health challenge. Speaker after speaker really opened up and shared their experiences and we all learned from them what  needed to change so that people wouldn’t suffer in the same way. We know that if we don’t talk about mental health, nobody will ever understand. And people did talk. By the end of the debate, half the hall was in tears, the other half was in shock. And I had to sum it up and try to do justice to all the contributions. This will get a post of its own, but to give you a flavour of what was said, one person described how she had been off sick twice in her life. One time, she was isolated, at home and nobody knew. The other saw her house filled with flowers and visitors. Can you guess occasion involved Depression and which Cancer? Then there was the guy who broke down as he described how his brother suffered from Schizophrenia and how he felt that children need to be taught from a very early age to recognise the signs of poor mental health and to make sure they get help. The next speaker abandoned her own speech and took his laptop and told us what he wanted to say.

Calamine Cable

You know how soothing Calamine Lotion is when you have sunburn? Well,Vince came on to do his keynote speech immediately after that raw and highly emotional debate. He gave us exactly what we needed – a measured, almost academic, calm speech on the economy. He had praise for George Osborne, even though he said it was no secret that the two of them didn’t always agree. He said that the Chancellor had been pragmatic and flexible when necessary. He had harsh words for the SNP, too. He said he could see the same sort of failings in them as he’d seen in the Labour Party in terms of financial irresponsibility. It felt more like he was gathering us round him, taking us into his confidence. There was no great rhetoric or oratory. It was a carefully crafted masterpiece.

And one low point

I was disappointed when, on Saturday morning, Conference narrowly rejected a motion which would remove the defence of “reasonable chastisement” of children in assault cases. By lunchtime, it appeared that we were protecting islands and animals but not children.

Overall, the atmosphere was positive and upbeat, actually much more so than at Federal Conference the previous weekend.

 

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

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2 Comments

  • Robin Bennett 21st Mar '13 - 5:25pm

    An excellent summary, Caron, for those of us who were unable to attend. Thanks.

  • Allan Heron 22nd Mar '13 - 4:20pm

    “This was less a definite declaration and more of an attack on the SNP’s habit of centralising anything that sits still for more than 20 seconds”

    I’d agree that the others that spoke in the debate made it sound like an attack on the centralisation of the Scottish government, but the motion itself was a declaration and Tavish’s speech even more so.

    It was pretty pathetic grandstanding in my view, and knocks a hole in the approach that has been taken up until now by the party. Whatever happened to needing to deal with the independence question first?

    It makes a case for Shetland and Orkney being a special case. They are not – they are no more than a different case. A similar arguement could be made in relation to the mainland Highlands, the Borders, the Kingdom of Fife etc etc. All with their own unique situations that could be improved by more accountable and local decision making and service delivery. Not special, just different

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