Alistair Carmichael MP - Spring Conference

Alistair Carmichael MP, Shadow Scottish Secretary
Speech to the Scottish Liberal Democrat spring conference in Aviemore
1 March 2008

Fellow Liberal Democrats, I am delighted to have this opportunity to address you this morning. This is a special conference for me. This year it is twenty-five years since I first attended and addressed a conference of what was then the Scottish Liberal Party. I know. It is hard to believe that a quarter of a century has passed since the slip of a boy that I used to be first shared with you his views on the impact of high transport costs on island communities.

I mention this because I think it is worth reflecting briefly on just how far we have come in that time. Twenty-five years ago the Scottish Liberal Party had three MPs – Jo Grimond, Russell Johnston and David Steel and a handful of councillors. The SDP had Bob MacLennan, Dick Mabon and of course Roy Jenkins who had won the Hillhead by-election the year before. The paid staff of the Scottish Liberal Party were two in number, although we did have a collection of party office bearers that some thought showed potential. The party chairman was one Mr Ross Finnie. His vice-chairmen included a plain Mr Jim Wallace and the not yet right honourable Mr Malcolm Bruce. Where are they now? Contrast that with our position today.

Twelve MPs in the House of Commons, second only to the Scottish Labour Party.
Sixteen MSPs in the Scottish Parliament.
A member of the European Parliament.
157 councillors exercising power in no fewer than 13 local authorities including the great cities of Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee.

Conference, the change and progress that we have seen in those twenty-five years has changed our party beyond recognition. It offers our generation of liberal democrats opportunities of which preceding generations – not less able or committed or worthy than ours – could only dream. We should be proud of what we are and just how far we have come.

Of course, we are not the only ones who have seen change over this time. Twenty-five years ago I would not have predicted that Scotland would one day have a first minister who was so desperate to salvage his broken promises on police numbers that he would be reduced to asking for a walk-on part in Taggart. The most dramatic changes, of course, have been in the Labour Party. Twenty-five years ago I was a first year student at Glasgow University. I was, in fact, a member of the Students’ Representative Council. To be honest I don’t know what most of my fellow SRC-members of 1982 – 83 are doing now but there is one whose career has been well documented. She was a young woman of tremendous passion and commitment. She would spend every free moment going from picket line, to demonstration, to Labour Party meeting, pausing only to lambaste the rest of us for our lack of ideological purity and commitment to the cause - whatever the cause of the day happened to be. Who was this socialist dynamo? You may have heard of her. Her name was Wendy Alexander. The student Wendy Alexander used to make tremendously passionate speeches. She would quote – sometimes at length – from the works of the great socialist thinkers. From Karl Marx to John MacLean. These days when she makes speeches she quotes from “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”. From “Das Kapital” to “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” – doesn’t it tell you all you need to know about New Labour? Just last week I sat on our benches in the House of Commons and watched in amazement as Labour MPs tried to shout down Nick Clegg at Prime Minister’s Questions. It was a carefully orchestrated effort. What was the subject that provoked their ire? He had merely sought to draw attention to the fact that this winter some 25,000 of our most vulnerable citizens will die because of the cold. Think about that – 25,000 deaths. Any decent politician would have heard that figure in stunned or maybe even embarrassed silence. Instead, the once proud party of social justice brayed at the top of their voices to hide their own embarrassment. Shame on them. But, conference, their embarrassment will not last for ever.

A day is going to come that Gordon Brown can not put off for ever. A day when he will have to account for his government to the British people. Last October, having marched his troops to the top of the hill, he was able to march them down again. Sooner or later he is going to have to march them back up that hill and this time he will have to stay there. This time he will have to face the electorate. And when he does, I look forward to the role that this party is going to play in ending their embarrassment.

Nick Clegg yesterday set us the challenging and ambitious target of at least doubling the number of our MPs within two general elections. That is a challenge that we in the Scottish Party should relish. We have a history, after all, of out-performing our cousins south of the border in returning Liberal Democrat MPs and believe me, we are not going to give that up easily. Come the next general election it will again be the Liberal Democrats who will present a coherent, radical and progressive alternative to a tired, timid and discredited Labour Government.

So today I ask those Scots who since 1997 have put their faith in New Labour: Is this really what you thought you were voting for ten years ago? Did you really expect to see a Labour government preside over the widening of the gap between the rich and the poor? Did you really expect to see a Labour government take away our freedoms and try to introduce 90-day detention without charge? Did you really expect to see a Labour government take our country to war in Iraq and to mislead the British public in order to do so? To these people I say: “The things you thought you were voting for ten years ago – social justice at home, integrity in our dealings abroad, care for the weak and the vulnerable are still as valid today as they were then - but surely by now it is apparent that New Labour is incapable of delivering them.

New Labour has let you down. The Liberal Democrats will not.” Last May the Scottish people changed our politics for ever. I am excited and inspired by the new politics in Scotland. It offers new opportunities for the Liberal Democrats of the sort that may only come along once in a generation. For the first time in my adult life the Labour Party has lost its stranglehold on Scottish politics.

At the next election we can take them on and win, and win we shall. Fred McIntosh will win against New Labour in Edinburgh South. Katy Gordon will win against New Labour in Glasgow North. Matt Duncan will win against New Labour in Aberdeen South. Amy Rodger will win against New Labour in East Lothian; and Kevin Lang will win against New Labour in Edinburgh North and Leith. You maybe get the idea.

Did you know that in our three top target seats at the next general election a combined total of just another 4,266 votes will elect us three new Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament? Our prospects for progress are real, not fanciful. They are all achievable because, more than ever, the political debate in Scotland is moving on to our territory. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than it is on the debate about Scotland’s constitutional future.

Last July, when I first took on this job, at my first Scottish Questions in the House of Commons I challenged the Secretary of State to work with others to address how we move devolution on to the next level. He was not interested. Des Browne said in terms that devolution was an event and not a process and that was the end of the story. Except, of course, it was not and a few months later the Labour Party and the Conservatives were sitting round the table with Nicol Stephen and myself working up the details of what will be the Constitutional Commission. Time there was that the Labour Party in Scotland could have suffocated that debate in its infancy, but no more. Conference, understand this. Whatever Gordon Brown may wish, the Constitutional Commission is a process about giving more powers to the Scottish Parliament.

If the Prime Minister really thinks that he can use it to take powers back to Westminster then he is only showing just how out of touch with mainstream Scottish political opinion he really is. There are many on the Labour back benches at Westminster who tell me, “I’m no real fan of devolution”. I usually reply, “Yes – me neither”. Because I am not. I am no devolutionist and this party has never believed in devolution either. It was the Liberal commitment to home rule that motivated me to join the party in 1980 and it is still home rule that I believe in today.

So let us, as a proudly and staunchly federalist party, reclaim that vocabulary. For the benefit of any of our friends in the media, let me also be quite clear – home rule does not mean independence. As federalists our place within the United Kingdom is not just a matter of convenience, it is something in which we believe. Let us be clear about what we do mean. Those who believe in devolution saw the creation of the Scottish Parliament as a gift of power from Westminster to Edinburgh. Something which could be taken back at will. As Tam Dalyell once said, power devolved is power retained.

Those of us who believe in home rule saw the creation of the Scottish Parliament as an overdue expression of the sovereign will of the Scottish people. With devolution, what Westminster gives Westminster can take away. With home rule, what the Scottish people have taken only the Scottish people could give back. It is clear that in a range of areas the Scottish people now want to take more control over their own affairs. First and foremost we want our parliament to have more say over how its budget is set. Government is a two-sided equation. At its most basic it is about how, on the one side, you raise the money and, on the other, about how you spend it.

Since 1999 Scottish political debate has all been about how you spend the money. That has not been healthy for our politics. It is not sustainable. It has to change. What then of the other players in this, the SNP? Where do they stand? They are curiously reluctant to engage. It is not difficult to see why they prefer conversation to debate. Remember their position last May. Alex Salmond was going to lead us to the promised land of independence. And when pressed on what “independence” would look like, we were pointed towards a sunny upland where we would have control of all our own affairs. Or at least all our own affairs apart from a couple of minor matters. Things like our currency and interest rates. They would continue to be controlled by the Bank of England. Or, to put it another way, an independent Scotland would control everything apart from her own macro economy. The SNP version of independence is not about removing control from London, it is just about removing our influence there. As ever with the SNP, logic takes second place to emotion.

Yesterday Nick Clegg spoke of a new Scottish enlightenment – a new age of thinkers and creativity. He articulated a vision of a changing society and the role that we can play in bringing about that change. I share his sense that change is coming. The establishment will be scared by the prospect of change. Liberals will be challenged and inspired by it.

Liberal Democracy must be at the heart of our new, changed society. For us as a party this offers new opportunities. The only limit on our achievements will be our own ambitions. So let our ambitions be bold. Let our vision be clear. Let us put our case to the Scottish people with confidence and conviction. Do that and the people of Scotland will respond. Do that and we will build a liberal and democratic Scotland.