Monday, October 10, 2011

Willie Rennie's conference speech was a failure........

.......if you are judging it on the usual formula for keynote speeches by senior politicians. They so often are sterile affairs, with a bit of spin, interspersed with a few cheap gags, sometimes fairly personal gags, about opposition politicians. These sorts of tub thumping speeches, I suppose, have their moments, but Willie's first ever speech as leader was different. It had heart, soul, optimism and passion. Yes, he talked about some of the less attractive traits of nationalism, but there was not one single personal attack on anybody. His speech was full of ideas and liberal values.
Where he did pull others up was where they were using their power in the wrong way - the Scottish Government on the single police force, the Catholic Church on equal marriage. He talked about how liberal values drive us to stand up against that sort of behaviour, to be awkward. He outlined the great, practical achievements of our councillors, MPs, ministers and ordinary members. I was particularly delighted to see a name check for two particular people - Jenny Dawe, whose leadership of the City of Edinburgh Council has seen a return to financial stability after the mess Labour made, better social care, more housing and safer streets, and Ewan Hoyle, whose determination saw his evidence based drugs policy adopted in Scotland and the UK by Liberal Democrat conferences.
The 24 hours he spent with Clare Lally and her family, seeing the fabulous care they provide for their severely disabled 4 year old daughter Katie, has clearly left an impression on him. He was clearly horrified by the bureaucratic morass that forced them from their own home into a council house - for which the council refused to them build a ramp.
And then there was an affirmation of the positive, human benefits of the union - talking about how Scots had achieved great things within the British family.
Here is Willie's speech in full. It was the best leader's speech I've heard in a long time. It may have broken a few of the unwritten rules of the standard format of these things,  but it was all the better for it.
I am very pleased to be here to give my first speech to you as leader.
Since I was elected I have not sat still.
Over the summer I’ve been out and about, experiencing real life away from Holyrood.
Meeting homeless people in Dundee;
Shepherding sheep on Rob Livesey’s farm in the Borders;
And joining people with mental health issues at their work project in Kirkcaldy.
It is good for political leaders to go to unexpected places and do unexpected things.
But the experience that will stay with me is my 24 hours with Clare Lally and her wonderful family in Duntocher. 
Clare and Derek have two very bright and charming four year old twin daughters Holly and Katie. 
Katie was starved of oxygen at birth and as a result cannot walk, talk or swallow. 
Through tenacity and strong human spirit she has survived numerous life threatening episodes. 
That is remarkable. But what is even more remarkable is the sheer intensity of the care provided by Derek and Clare. 
“24-7” is insufficient – it does not do justice to their focus over years.
To me this is a real test for all liberals. 
Clare and Derek, their family and friends do it themselves.
They do not want the state to take over their lives. 
They do want a little bit of flexible help to make life possible. 
They want an enabling state. But we seem incapable of providing it. 
They wanted to stay in their own, private home;
But the council refused to make alterations to their house unless they moved into a council house.
They reluctantly made the move.
Not unreasonably, they asked the council for a ramp to push Katie’s buggy down to the car.
“Oh no”, said the council. “That house isn’t suitable for a ramp”.
This kind of bureaucracy and blinkered thinking must change.

Clare is prepared to be awkward because she’s standing up for her family. 
Now I’m working with Clare to take the lessons of my experience directly to councils and government.
We all need to work to improve support for the thousands of carers across Scotland.
For Katie
For Clare
For carers all across Scotland because it’s right, they deserve it and they need it now.
I didn’t know it when I was growing up, but I was raised a liberal. 
Like Clare I was prepared to stick out, standing up for what I thought was right and prepared to be awkward.
I think my mother described me as a “spirited child.”
I know my three older sisters definitely agreed with that. And they still do.
Although there is no strong political tradition in my family, public service was important. 
My dad was the local shopkeeper and session clerk of the kirk.
My mother was secretary of the community association.
My grandfather was the minister.
We lived above the shop at the centre of a vibrant village in Fife.
The harvest thanksgiving, flower show, highland games, Boys Brigade, Sunday school and a lot more. 
After school I’d be in the shop stacking shelves, unloading lorries and packing bags of potatoes and porridge oats.
Turning 17 I flew the nest for Paisley where I secured a degree in biology.
Then I spent time living on the 27th floor of the Red Road Flats in Glasgow.
Like many Scots I sought opportunity south of the border where I worked for seven years in Cornwall before returning to Scotland.
Every year thousands of Scots seek opportunity, fame and fortune in all parts of the UK.
And, from there, the world.
Scots have made a huge impression on the world across history.
We all know that.
Modern day Scots have become leading figures in UK institutions -
Sir Kenneth Calman was the UK Chief Medical Officer and vice-chancellor of Durham University;
Think of Kirsty Wark at the BBC – not just there for Scotland.
Sir Sandy Macara was head of the British Medical Association.  He led that organisation’s work on proving the safety of the life-saving MMR vaccine.
They weren’t held back by the United Kingdom; the UK gave Scots that platform.
And it allows every Scot to spread their wings.
Individual Scots have more opportunities to achieve all they can – in work, education and quality of life - because of the UK.
So we will need to make that very positive argument in the next few years; the very human, very individual benefit of the United Kingdom.
Because, for all the opportunities there are for Scots across Britain, we still have a government in Scotland that wants to put up a barrier.
In place of low hedges they want high fences.
The risk is that it deprives us all of opportunity.
That’s the risk isn’t it? If you slam the door in someone’s face, they can choose to lock the door from their side.
So, our job is to set out the positive benefits and opportunities to individuals from Scotland within the family of the United Kingdom.
Our history has always been to keep that family together, while giving people more control over their own lives.
Our commitment goes back to the days of Jo Grimond and before. 
We are federalists because we believe in a radical redistribution of power from the centre.
We should be proud of our record
You should be proud of your part in our march towards Home Rule for Scotland
Our efforts as a party, working with others:
Formed the Constitutional Convention;
Created the Scotland Act of 1998;
Formed the Scottish Parliament;
Created the Calman Commission;
Drafted the new Scotland Bill upon whose threshold we see the biggest transfer of fiscal responsibility to Scotland for 300 years.
We’ve been prepared to be awkward to achieve our ambition for Scotland.
And earlier today we voted for our plans to go further still after we have delivered Calman.
Our campaign for “Home Rule” takes another step forward on this very day.
And we should make sure the language of ‘home rule’ comes home to the Liberal Democrats.
Home Rule in the hands of nationalists are simply words to use as a stepping stone and a disguise for their true aim.
Although there may be some liberals who support the nationalist cause, nationalism is not liberalism. 
Nationalism will do anything to achieve separation, liberalism is an approach to life – it’s the means and the end.
Under Liberal Democrats, Home Rule is an end and is a truer cloth.
Let’s raise the money we spend in Scotland.
And give Scotland the choice on all its domestic policies.
We invite Scots to look at Home Rule and support our intention to win it for Scotland.
But our plans are not just about powers to Edinburgh but to the diverse communities right across Scotland. 
Giving people real power to determine priorities for their area. – whether that be jobs, education, crime, care or health.
If people want to do something then they should have the power to make it happen.
The independence that we’re interested in is for the individual not for nation hood.  Every minute you spend on promoting nation is a minute you can’t spend on promoting people.
We want people to show that they know best about their areas.
Our campaign against the centralisation of police and fire is about that.
Today I want to tell you something new about the Scottish Government’s police plans.
They are designed to put politicians in central government fully in the driving seat of Scottish policing, risking the independence of the police.
They deny it, of course.
Their published plans explain at great length how it won’t happen.
But look at what those published plans actually say about who will really run the show.

Who will appoint every single member of the police authority? The Justice Secretary.
Who will appoint the convener? The Justice Secretary.
Who will set the Budget? The Justice Secretary.
Who has to approve every chief officer appointment? The Justice Secretary.
Who has to agree the policing plan?  The Justice Secretary.
But who says that he won’t have any control at all over the police?
The man who is the Justice Secretary.
Well, he would say that wouldn’t he!
The last politician to try to take such a domineering place at the heart of policing was Conservative Home Secretary Michael Howard in the 1990s.
His plans were defeated by the House of Lords by people like Willie Whitelaw and Jim Callaghan.
For the SNP to adopt failed Michael Howard policies from the 90s shows how there is “something of the night” about them and just how illiberal they have become.
We might think today that ‘there’s no harm in it’ and ‘what does it matter?’
I don’t expect ministers – even with these new powers – to start to order individual arrests.
That’s not how it’s going to happen.
But it’s when a crisis comes that we will first notice;
If there are major industrial strikes. If there are riots.
It’s when that happens that we might come to regret that control of the police has come to be bound so tightly to one politician.
Absolute power in a time of crisis is a dangerous combination.
The Liberal Democrats will stand up against a single police force because the idea is misguided, ineffective and illiberal.
It’s odd, isn’t it?
We remember the fears that people had about devolution: that it would result in Labour domination and “Strathclyde writ large”.
Who would have imagined that it would be an SNP Government that exerts such domination, control and manipulation?
That is why we are right to make sure that communities and individuals have more control over their local areas.
That might make life awkward for the powers-that-be but that is a fact of liberal life. 
We’re the ones who are prepared to be awkward because we know that concentrating power at the centre corrupts.
And we’ve already seen that creeping, political control over our independent civil service:
Scotland’s Permanent Secretary expressing overt political opinions in a drift from impartiality. 
Government agencies being used to make a party political case for the ruling party. 
And intimidation of business and charities to adopt their view of the world.
This is a sinister development that threatens and gives an insight into what an independent Scotland may look like – and it isn’t pretty.
What’s also is unacceptable to liberals is the control that some leaders of the Catholic Church are seeking to exert over people of the Catholic faith. 
I have the utmost respect for the work of the Catholic Church in so many areas.
But to threaten to invoke some sort of block vote is an affront to a liberal democracy and one that we must challenge.
Many individual Catholics have told me they will not be following their leaders against the issue of equality for same sex marriage. 
We are not imposing anything on the Church, so what I find difficult is that they want to impose on everyone else.
A liberal Scotland is where everyone can have their own freedom of thought and belief.
Over six in ten people support same-sex marriage, so to threaten politicians with the votes of 800,000 people of the Catholic faith may backfire on the church.
Ten years ago politicians stood firm against those who threatened the parliament over Section 28.
Liberal Democrats will stand for what is right and fair again.
Challenging an organisation with 800,000 followers may seem difficult but we are prepared to be awkward to stand up for what we believe to be right.
I believe we are right on all this.
We can be proud to tread the liberal road.
We were also right to join together with the Conservatives in the national interest to face up to the economic challenge.
The world is in turmoil, with every home anxious about their future, work and cost of living. 
That’s why Nick Clegg, Vince Cable and Danny Alexander are standing firm on the economic plan, dealing with the deficit and creating the conditions for jobs with cuts in corporation tax and investing in enterprise zones and technology centres. 
The consequences are tough but I have confidence in their ability to make the right call.
Across the world, economies are failing because their governments lacked the resolve to put the national interest first.
The UK already has Greek levels of deficit.
But we still enjoy German levels of interest rates because we took the tough decisions.
People’s jobs, businesses, pensions and mortgages are safer as a result.
And here in Scotland we must refocus the budget on the economy and jobs – and through close working with the Scottish Government we will seek to make improvements to their budget.
That’s why this week the team in the Scottish Parliament have urged them to use the extra money - sent by the Treasury - on Scotland’s colleges; to reverse the 40 million pound cut. 
And the Scottish Government should unlock Scottish Water funds to build more transport and housing projects across Scotland. 
Our votes will be there to support the Scottish economy.
We can be proud of our values:
Aspiration and Opportunity: supporting people to get up and get on in the world irrespective of their background
Community: local people know best, not bureaucrats in government
Sustainability: long term solutions, not quick fixes
Outward looking:  always looking out to the rest of the world, not closing it off
We can be proud of what we are doing as Liberal Democrats.
Proud that it is Liberal Democrat Michael Moore taking Scotland forward with new powers to take decisions in Scotland.
Proud that Jenny Dawe and the Liberal Democrats in Edinburgh have cut crime by one fifth by focusing on community neighbourhood solutions.
…of Elizabeth Riches and Tony Martin in Fife who have pushed recycling rates up to 70% - making it one of the greenest councils in Scotland
Proud of John Stewart who led Aberdeen Council back from the cliff edge where Labour had left their budget so that Audit Scotland now hold them up as an example for others to learn from.
…of Peter Barrett in Perth who this month met the 2012 homelessness target established when Lib Dems were in government in Scotland.
Proud of Councillor Mike Dillon in Paisley who left the SNP last week to rejoin the Liberal Democrats.
Proud of Victor Clements who increased our vote in Highland Perthshire at a by-election the week before that.
…of our ministers in London who made sure no child is detained at Dungavel anymore.
…of Glasgow member Ewan Hoyle for his excellent work on developing a new drugs policy for the party across the UK.
Proud that our MEP George Lyon not only works in Europe to change banking regulation to defend us all but also stands ready at every opportunity to support our local campaigns across Scotland.
…of our Deputy Leader Jo Swinson who has run a remarkable campaign to make young women feel proud of themselves and to turn against air-brushed images.
…of our strong liberal voices at Holyrood who are standing up against the noise on the Supreme Court, Sectarianism, prison reform and so much more.
Proud of Danny Alexander who has delivered hundreds of pounds of income tax cuts for every working Scot; and has spent the summer standing up to the Tories.
He has shown that the big political debate in this country is whether to give tax cuts to the rich with the Tories or to stand firm for tax cuts for everyone else with the Liberal Democrats.
Be proud that we are prepared to be awkward. Just like Clare Lally, we are prepared to be awkward because it’s what we believe.
On local solutions to crime, on tax cuts for people on modest incomes, to ending child detention – we should be proud of what we are doing.
These are things that no other party could do or would do.
If we didn’t exist as a party then there are 300 people in this room, hundreds in our constituencies and thousands across Scotland who would have to invent us.
Our party should be one of optimism, passion and vision.
This is a moment to stand tall.
For you - and for me - to make sure Scotland has strong, liberal voices.


Douglas McLellan said...

I am sorry I missed it but I still think the tone on nationalism is wrong (John Stuart Mill was an early Liberal nationalist).

And the intimidation line is not one I've heard in the voluntary sector before. Which makes the sinister line seem remarkably out of place and frankly unworthy of the type of Lib Dem I feel I am.

That said the stuff on gay marriage was excellent.

Graeme Littlejohn said...

Douglas, journalists, civil society and charities have told me in private on many occasions that they have been threatened into silence by the SG, threatened with funding cut, withdrawl of support, or limited access to Ministers.

This now seems to be changing, as after 4 years of this treatment they are simply fed up.

As Willie said, many Liberals may have natioanlist tendencies, but SLD exist to bring about federalism, home rule for Scotland and has no truck with an independent Scotland that would harm the interests of out country.

Andrew said...

I'm with Douglas to a point. The tone on nationalism (or at least independence) WAS wrong. And the other line I think Douglas is referring to was more than a little misguided.

Liberalism is not by nature anti-independence. But liberalism is, philosophically speaking, internationalist rather than nationalist in its outlook. If we're going to challenge nationalism where it manifests itself, then we should also challenge unionst nationalism as well as seperatist nationalism.

As for the equal marriage issue, I was delighted that Willie had the courage to challenge the powers that be within the Catholic Church in a way that no other political leader has yet done. It was superb stuff, all the better and more genuine for the fact that Willie didn't need to do it. On this issue he has shown some true leadership and an ability to tap into the public mood.

GavinS said...

John Stuart Mill was an early Liberal nationalist if, and only if, that is what you want to find in his writing. It's a big stretch to suggest he's a likely supporter of the SNP.

The textual evidence normally given for the 'liberal nationalist' claim is the Sixteenth Chapter of 'On Representative Democracy' which is not exactly at the top of the running order within that piece of work.

Unremarkably, if you read the chapter itself, Mill's view is much more descriptive than prescriptive. He's basically saying that all representative democracies are defined states with links between their people.

He goes on to say, for instance:

"No Bas-Breton, nor even any Alsatian, has the smallest wish at the present day to be separated from France. If all Irishmen have not yet arrived at the same disposition towards England, it is partly because they are sufficiently numerous to be capable of constituting a respectable nationality by themselves; but principally because, until of late years, they had been so atrociously governed, that all their best feelings combined with their bad ones in rousing bitter resentment against the Saxon rule. This disgrace to England, and calamity to the whole empire, has, it may be truly said, completely ceased for nearly a generation. No Irishman is now less free than an Anglo-Saxon, nor has a less share of every benefit either to his country or to his individual fortunes than if he were sprung from any other portion of the British dominions. The only remaining real grievance of Ireland, that of the State Church, is one which half, or nearly half, the people of the larger island have in common with them. There is now next to nothing, except the memory of the past, and the difference in the predominant religion, to keep apart two races, perhaps the most fitted of any two in the world to be the completing counterpart of one another. The consciousness of being at last treated not only with equal justice but with equal consideration is making such rapid way in the Irish nation as to be wearing off all feelings that could make them insensible to the benefits which the less numerous and less wealthy people must necessarily derive from being fellow-citizens instead of foreigners to those who are not only their nearest neighbours, but the wealthiest, and one of the freest, as well as most civilised and powerful, nations of the earth."

All fairly Victorian in its outlook and the situation in Ireland has moved on a long way since.

It doesn't sound, though, like Mill thought small nations based on historic grievances (frankly rather more clear-cut grievances than any Scotland has) were necessarily for the best.

Dogulas McLellan said...


Working for a charity that represents around a million people in this country I can be critical of the SNP on several levels but can honestly says that I have never seen the SG as threatening or intimidating.

I think that linking SLD *policy* on Scotland (Home Rule/Federalism) and *liberalism* per se was wrong. The two are not linked.

@Andrew - I totally agree!

I was more meaning liberal nationalism where the form of nationalism in which the state derives political legitimacy from the active participation of its citizenry. As Liberals we can and should have no problem in the people of Scotland shaping their own state (although Tavish had a big problem with that). As SLD we can advocate a certain shape but again, that shape is not based on Liberalism per se.


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