WATCH: Willie Rennie’s speech to Conference

Willie gave one of the best speeches I’d heard him give. It was robust and clear – putting the Liberal Democrats back at the forefront of driving change in Scotland.

The text is below.

I have good news for you.

Good news from Scotland.

Last year in the Scottish Parliament Elections we won seats back from the SNP and won massive majorities in the Northern Isles.

In May we won seats on Scottish councils and now have a hand in running four councils including Argyll and Bute led by our very own Aileen Morton.

In June we went further and secured victory in Edinburgh West with Christine Jardine,

In Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross with Jamie Stone,

East Dunbartonshire with Jo Swinson.

And Alistair Carmichael is back with a big swing and an even bigger majority.

Three new Members of Parliament or, as I prefer to describe it, quadrupling.

If anyone ever tells me again that polling day organisation doesn’t matter all I now do is get a map and point to North East Fife and tell them – two votes.

Elizabeth Riches would have been a wonderful addition to our growing and winning group of MPs.

Elizabeth – thank you for your work ethic and your dignity. You are a credit to our party.

So now a third of the Liberal Democrat team of MPs are Scots.

In fact half of all our UK parliamentarians in Cardiff, London and Edinburgh are Scots.

The Deputy Leader and the Chief Whip are Scots.

Some say the Scots are coming but I’m afraid they are behind the times – we are already here.

It has been suggested that we should reform the Barnett Formula to reflect the new Scottish share.

But I can assure you that as long as I lead the Scottish Liberal Democrats we will respect the minority that is the Liberal Democrats from England.

So we won seats in Holyrood, we run more councils and we have more MPs.

We did it with a positive agenda to invest in people and with complete clarity against independence.

This time we put the amorous pigs behind us and got the help of a boisterous ram, and a herd of slightly confused alpacas.

The SNP have at last recognised that people do not want another independence referendum.

It is three years to the day since the last one.

The SNP have cooled on the idea. And that is thanks to everyone who campaigned and voted for the Liberal Democrats.

People who voted for us in June can see the positive results already.

And thanks to the Liberal Democrats the SNP are on their way out.

They are going to lose the next election.

And it is not before time too.

They used to boast about team, record, vision. It is what they say won them the 2011 election.

For those unfamiliar with the performance of the SNP Government let us look at that mantra now.

The vision – that was independence and it has gone – at least for now.

The team – it’s now widely recognised they have the weakest team of cabinet ministers since devolution.

And record.

Scottish education used to be the pride of the nation. It was seen across the world as the gold standard.

Now it has slipped down those international rankings.

Scottish policing used to operate with public consent. Local forces connected to their communities. Crime levels at a record low.

Now it’s in complete turmoil. It’s been through two chairmen, a chief executive, a chief constable and its second chief has stepped aside. And that’s just in four years.

The NHS is something Scots cherish. It’s part of our very being.

But now people wait for weeks to see a GP, consultant vacancies are growing, we’re short of nurses.

And waits for young people needing mental health support are up to two years.

On education, on police, on health their record is not something to crow about.

They have no vision, a weak team and a poor record.

By the SNPs’ very own test they are failing.

They spend more time obsessing about power and control than delivering on health, on crime and on education.

People are fed up waiting on the SNP to deliver on their promises.

And they will tell the SNP loud and clear – your time is up.

After 14 years the SNP will lose next time.

The big question is what comes next.

This month marks twenty years since Scotland voted to create the Scottish Parliament.

It was a parliament that great liberals such as, Malcolm Bruce, Ming Campbell, Ray Michie and David Steel led the charge for.

The Scottish Parliament has Liberal foundations of which we should be proud.

We did not just make the Scottish Parliament, we made it work for Scotland too.

With Jim Wallace we formed the first Scottish Government.

We certainly had a reforming zeal.

And so many of the ideas were liberal ideas.

I still recall Labour turning up to negotiations after the first elections with a thin letter asking if we’d like to join a Labour Government.

We said “No” and we worked with them to imprint Liberal Democrats onto every page of a joint programme for government. And together we achieved so much.

Free bus passes for pensioners.

Ambitious renewable energy targets

The abolition of Scotland’s section 28.

A boost for teachers’ pay and conditions.

Free personal care for elderly people.

Free dental and eye check-ups.

Free tuition for Scottish students.

Nursery education for three and four year olds.

New schools and new hospitals

An ambitious land reform programme including the abolition of feudalism

Secured status for the Gaelic language.

Formed NHS 24.

And proportional representation for local government.

This was an active government. Focussed on the day job, not distracted by independence. Determined to deliver change for the long term, not calculating everything for short term advantage.

This is what government is about. That is what the Liberal Democrats are about.

Just like in 1999 we will be ready for the change that will come next time.

Just like in 1999 the Liberal Democrat programme will be bold, ambitious and focussed on changing our country for the better.

Just like in 1999 we will be ready to win.

We are going to be helped in this by our new leader Vince Cable.

Vince has strong links with Scotland – the place where he was first elected was in Glasgow.

We are fortunate to have a strong and serious economic thinker at our head.

Vince has already set out how he will build a UK-wide programme for the economy that tackles inequality, puts the long term future of the country first and puts our young people at its heart.

To our new leadership team Vince Cable and Jo Swinson I say “we are with you all the way”.

And our party’s unique stand on Brexit meets the liberal need in this age of isolation and divisiveness.

This is an exciting time to have the opportunity to lead on liberal values. And I can announce today that we will open talks with the Scottish Government this week to ask them to back our campaign to give the people across the UK the chance of an exit from Brexit.

And I just want to pay tribute to Tim Farron. He always gave us the support, the encouragement and campaigning energy.

Tim inspired on refugees, on social care and on Brexit.

He recruited more new members than any other leader.

He won more MPs.

And he built our party up when it needed it most.

I will always be grateful for Tim’s leadership and his commitment.

As liberals we believe that power is best exercised when it is shared.

Shared in the nations, regions and communities.

Every illiberal government in the world would rather their ministers were able to get on with things without interference, challenge or scrutiny from anyone else.

They want to make their mistakes in private; squander our money without challenge; neglect the difficult issues with impunity.

The Conservatives in the Commons this week have contrived to hold onto a majority on legislative committees.

The Conservatives have sought to grip onto powers from Brussels that should rightly be in Holyrood.

The EU Withdrawal Bill gives powers to ministers to bypass Parliament and avoid awkward questions.

Ministers want Henry VIII powers to pursue a disastrous divorce.

With a heady mixture of bungling and arrogance the Conservatives are risking the economic and social wellbeing of our country.

The voters will never forgive the Conservatives for a mindless and incompetent pursuit of a damaging Brexit.

Yet whilst the SNP rightly berate the Conservatives for hoarding power in London the SNP reciprocate by hoarding power in Edinburgh.

The SNP have taken control of powers from councils.

They’ve taken control of the fire service.

They’ve taken control of the police

Of social care.

Of enterprise and economic development.

We hear that highways could be taken too.

And now they are planning to take control of education.

So that leaves all of the big services out of the democratic hands of local government.

So I want to give a warning about what that means when you take all that together.

Councils came together in the 1980s to help form the Constitutional Convention, to challenge the Thatcher Government and draw up plans for devolution.

The SNP Scottish Government is on a path to strip out of public life the challenging voice of Scottish local government.

Just like the Conservatives they are opposed to challenge.

So that is a threat to the existence of local councils.

We will lose local accountability, local services and the combined clout to challenge government.

The SNP are dismantling local government. And Liberal Democrats will stand up to them.

The SNP should spend less time demanding and grabbing power and more time delivering on their promises.

The powers of the Scottish Parliament are so much greater now.

We can do so much more to meet the demands of our time head on.

These are powers we argued for so we are well placed to make the best use of them.

Let’s take education.

Nursery is the best educational investment we can make. To give many young children the head start they need to overcome the circumstances of their birth.

That means every two, three and four-year-old to have access to 30 hours of nursery education every week.

School in Scotland should be the pride of the nation once again.

With new investment to reverse the decline of the last decade.

College should be once again the vibrant learning environment for skills and training; confident that they can meet the needs of business and employers.

It should be for all ages. It should be where women can pick up careers again. It should be for lifelong learning.

This is why we argued that we raise income tax by one penny.

One penny to raise £500 million for education in Scotland.

It is more than just an investment in our education system.

It is an investment in the talents of people so that they can be all they can be.

It is not a tax rise for its own sake, it is a tax rise for a purpose.

A tax rise that is not an indication of more to come but a contract with people to fix a problem and to invest in people.

An investment that liberates people to be all they can be, but also invests in our economy so talented people with skills can create economic opportunities, growth and wealth.

It’s a virtuous cycle that benefits not just the students and pupils but wider society too.

That is the liberal approach.

Investing in the individual.

Using the new powers that we argued for to make different choices in different parts of the country. Putting power back in the hands of people.

Our eight years in government in Scotland set out what can be done with the Parliament.

And the response to the challenges of today must be a liberal response.

When nationalism threatens with Brexit and Trump, the response must be an open, tolerant and generous one.

When climate change threatens with hurricanes and floods, the response must be to protect our planet for tomorrow rather than plunder it for today.

When the economic growth of China sometimes threatens people’s human rights, our response must be to stand with the oppressed not surrender for a few jobs.

When some companies offer poor working conditions and pay, our response must be to insist on higher standards and better pay.

When people struggle to cope with poor mental health, we must be there for them

When people are hungry for knowledge and training, we must invest in their talent through education.

When the arrogance of government seeks to hoard power in the centre, we must hand it back to the people.

We will build a platform that delivers an open, liberal, environmentally friendly, economically sustainable and fair society.

Where people have the chance to be all they can be, to live as they wish.

It is about generosity of spirit.

It is about sharing.

It’s a fresh, bright approach to make Scotland the best again.

Change is coming in 2021.

With policies like this.

With ambitions this great.

With determination to change.

We are winning again.

Winning at Holyrood, Westminster and in councils.

Liberal Democrats have a big role to play in the future of our country.

We made the Scottish Parliament 20 years ago.

We forged the first government and delivered radical change.

We crafted the new powers the parliament now has.

We now have a responsibility and an opportunity to craft the new platform for change.

Moving on from the divisions of independence.

Moving up for our country.

That is the liberal response to the challenges of today and we should shout it from the rooftops.

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

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