READ: Willie Rennie's speech to the Scottish Liberal Democrat Spring Conference 2017

In his speech to Lib Dem activists, Willie Rennie makes the compassionate case for the union and lays out the case for Liberal Democrats as the rallying point for liberals and progressives against the forces of division

By Willie Rennie MSP Mar 24, 2017 3

2017 is a year of anniversaries in the Rennie family. 

My parents mark their 60 years of marriage next week. 

Janet and I celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary in October. 

And our first son, Alexander, was born 21 years ago in November.

Janet and I set up our first home in a little village in Cornwall called Egloskerry.

Alexander was born in Derriford Hospital in Plymouth.

My father served some of his national service in Hereford.

My first proper job was in Cornwall.

My son’s first job is at Butlins in Somerset.

That’s my family.

Our family story is like so many others in Scotland and in the rest of the United Kingdom.  Our lives are intertwined, connected. We are one.

Our lives are intertwined, as well, with people from all across Europe who have set up home here. Europeans who live, work, pay their taxes, have married and brought up families here. 

Like my Polish sister-in-law, Monika, living and working in Scotland for a decade and now choosing to make home with her new family in Scotland.   We are one.

So the debate on the constitution is personal. 

It is not a dry, dusty debate about government structures. 

It is about family, community, destiny.

I want to bring communities and peoples together, not drive them apart. 

 That is why I will oppose erecting a barrier, any barrier, in the heart of my family just like I will oppose erecting a barrier, any barrier, in the heart of the United Kingdom or the European Union.

The United Kingdom and the European Union is my family.

 Erecting barriers and division with Independence between us and the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland is just as objectionable as the division we are seeing with the people of Europe with Brexit.

It upsets me when I hear Conservatives describing European people as takers not givers. That somehow they are only interested in what they can get from our welfare state and our NHS.

And it upsets me when I hear nationalists describe British people as quislings, the far right, selfish, mean spirited and insular.

Conservatives want me to choose my British family over my European family.

Nationalists want me to choose my European family over my British family.

My message to them both is clear: I choose my family over your division.

It looks as if the First Minister is determined to re-run the referendum of only 3 years ago. 

It is not a battle I want after all the division of the last campaign.

But if the nationalists think by asking the question over and over again they will beat us into submission then they need to think again. 

And it will take more than threatening to bring back Alex Salmond to make us change our mind. 

I will stand up for our United Kingdom family. We will lead the way on the kind of campaign for the United Kingdom that we want to see. We should set the terms.

I am sure some businesses may benefit from independence.  I have heard there is particular excitement in the flag factories of Falkirk. 

And the face painters of Arbroath … well they are over the moon.

But we know the economic case for independence is weaker than even in 2014, so I will not dwell on that today.

The new case for the United Kingdom is a positive, uplifting one that focusses on the ties that bind us rather than the differences some would use to divide us. It is that emotional case. It is the Liberal case for unity. The compassionate case.

It goes to the heart of who we are.

Britain is full of people who care.  We, together, care about the environment, poverty at home and abroad, the sick, the elderly, the young.  Our country is jammed full of people who want a better world.

The Oxford Committee for Famine Relief was a group of concerned citizens who first met in 1942 to relieve famine in Greece. We know it today as Oxfam. 

In the wake of the First World War Eglantyne Jebb, and her sister Dorothy Buxton campaigned for children afflicted by famine.

In the early twenties they filled a ship with 600 tons of aid bound for Russia to save the lives of 300,000 children and more than 350,000 adults.

Save the Children has now grown and saves hundreds of thousands of lives every year.

Both charities born in the heart of Britain – showing compassion to the world

British people, with compassion and care, digging into their pockets.

We should celebrate our generosity and compassion. 

It is a mark of the country that we are.

No Scottish nationalist will tell me that I should be ashamed.

I am proud of who we are.

That compassion has built some of the best public services too.

It is why we built the best health service in the world. 

The second biggest aid budget in the world.

The welfare state to help people in need.

Public compassion has driven that state action.

Of course there are political differences within our country but so are there within Scotland.  You just need to travel between Perth and Dundee to see those differences.

Think about this: there are ten times as many Remain voters in England as there are in Scotland.

Think about this: a majority of people in England did not vote for the Conservatives.

Just because some English people have repugnant views does not make the entirety of them repugnant.

Just as some Scottish people have offensive opinions does not make us all offensive either.

Just as David Coburn – our MEP who has been banned from editing his own Wikipedia page - is not representative of all Scots, Nigel Farage – that tweed-clad xenophobe - is not representative of all English people.

I admire the great historical figures of progress from all parts of Britain: Emmeline Pankhurst on votes for women, William Wilberforce ending the slave trade, William Beveridge building the welfare state.

Our United Kingdom is an uplifting, mutually beneficial partnership that we should cherish rather than trash.

So as we head into another referendum the responsibility on liberals is great.  We must stand up and be counted for our values.

This is a battle of ideas and values, not of identities and flags.

We must stand up for our family whether in Britain or across Europe.

We must make the positive, open, internationalist case.

Tell our friends about how compassionate, tolerant and generous the United Kingdom is.

We should be like Laura Muir, always willing to run another lap.

Send a message of hope that things can be better still.

We can turn back the tide of division. 

We can celebrate both our differences and the ties that bind us.

We can say no to independence and yes to partnership. 

We can, once and for all, put an end to the claim that if you do not believe in independence you do not believe in Scotland.

So if our First Minister gambles with our country again I can tell you now that the Liberal Democrats will campaign for Scotland’s partnership within the United Kingdom.

We will not just campaign with numbers on a spreadsheet but with smiles in our hearts.

I want all people who live in this country to rise up and say we stand with our neighbours; that we cherish compassion of British people; and we value our partnership.

Our job is to turn back the tide of division.

The Conservatives have been gambling too.

Their EU referendum gamble put their party before our country.

Reckless on the economy.

Risking our security.

Threatening our environment.

Diminishing our place in the world.

Holding Donald Trump’s tiny hand.

All to unite a fractured party more interested in reaching for the past than recognising the modern Britain we have become.

This is the biggest change of our international posture in a generation: from partnership through global organisations to a futile attempt to build our own power base in the world.

Theresa May knows the price of Brexit, Ruth Davidson knows the cost.  But yet they both charge towards the cliff at an ever faster rate.

In the Budget the Chancellor had to create a war chest to fight off the effects of Brexit.  It is a colossal £60billion. 

Heriot Watt University has just told us they are cutting 100 jobs – and say Brexit is one of the reasons.

And prices in the shops are on the rise.

Energy prices are on the rise.

Jobs are being lost.

That’s the hard cost of a hard Conservative Brexit. 

It is hitting us in our pockets and costing our country dear.

And we haven’t even left the European Union.

I have heard the Conservatives are launching a new bus on Monday. It’s now got a £60 billion bill plastered on the side. 

It turns out the Conservatives are building a wall and they are expecting us to pay for it.

Of course we must respect the referendum result. But political leaders have got a responsibility to lead. 

And leadership is what this country is missing at one of the most significant periods in modern political times.

Labour has shown an astonishing level of indifference to the fate of our country.  No challenge, no questions, just compliance.

They have turned the fine tradition of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition to Her Majesty’s Obedient Opposition.

That’s why it would only be right for the British people to take charge of the final say on whatever deal is agreed by the Conservative Government with the EU.

A Brexit deal referendum is the right and democratic thing to do.

When they look back at this time our grandchildren will be astonished that we did not take our time and ask ourselves whether we really wanted this.

When the Brexit deal proves to be so damaging why would we not ask the British people a new question?   

I told this conference in the autumn that I will not give up on Europe. And I won’t.

We can win the case. Public opinion can change.

We saw it with the invasion of Iraq.

From jeering our Charles Kennedy in the street at the start, people turned to oppose the Iraq war.

Political leadership is sometimes about persuading people, not just repeating what the last focus group told you. That is followership.

So when the jobs are lost, the mortgages rise, the prices in our shops increase, the foreign investment declines. 

As the cost becomes ever more apparent the mood, the view, the opinion of the merit of Brexit will go into reverse.

Our job as Liberal Democrats will be to be there, to be the gathering place, to give the leadership, to win the cause.

The Conservatives have abandoned the internationalist posture this country built over generations. The Labour party timidly accept that approach.

The SNP wish to compound the break-up of Europe with the break-up of the UK.

And this week we heard Jim Sillars say he won’t back independence if it means being in the European Union.

He speaks for one in three independence supporters.

Mike Russell and the notoriously shy and retiring Alex Salmond have been unusually coy on the subject.

You haven’t heard any senior nationalist say “the only way to keep Scotland in the EU is to have independence”.

They used to say that all the time, didn’t they? Now they never do.

They now say that their dissatisfaction with the UK Government “transcends the issue of Europe”.

So the evidence is mounting – the nationalists are preparing to sell out Europe in a desperate bid to win independence.

Some people have thought about whether, perhaps, Scottish independence is the best way to stay in the EU.

But it’s clear to me that if you trust the SNP on this then you are going to be disappointed.

So let me tell you of the fundamental risk that independence now poses.

It is to leave Scotland outside the UK and outside the EU.

The worst of all worlds. What a disaster that would be. 

No, I tell you there is a better way.

The best way for us to stay in the European Union is through the United Kingdom.

With the economic consequences of Brexit becoming clear.

People like John Major, Alan Johnston and Tony Blair backing a rethink.

Our victory in Richmond Park showing there is a momentum in the UK for change.

We had the nation’s eyes on us and we won.

Even Bob Geldof campaigned down Richmond High Street with me.

A good job he came on a Wednesday because I am told he doesn’t like Mondays.

Pro EU people should not fall for the nationalists’ trick.

They should back the only Pro-EU party

The party that will never use Europe for narrow ends.

The party that has always stood up for Europe.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats.

It is the Liberal Democrats that speak for the majority of people in our country.

A majority of people in Scotland voted for Scotland to remain in the United Kingdom – we stand with them.

And a majority of people in Scotland voted for the United Kingdom to remain in the European Union – and we stand with them too.

No one else stands with the majority of Scotland – for the United Kingdom and for the European Union.

Liberal Democrats do.

And we will stand against the actions of the political fireraisers of our time.

A majority of people in Scotland want to keep the United Kingdom but the SNP want to burn it down.  They do not speak for Scotland.

And a majority of people in Scotland want to keep the European Union but the Conservatives want to burn that down. They do not speak for Scotland.

They are each lighting the match in response to the actions of the others.  Determined to start fires that threaten our economy, security and our environment.

Scotland has had enough of their fire raising.

It doesn’t have to be like this.

We can put out the fires that destroy.

We can build a better future for the whole UK.

Last week Kezia Dugdale made the case for Federalism. Welcome Kez.

It makes a change to see Labour fighting the battles of 2017 not 1983.

Or 1917 Moscow in John McDonnell’s case.

We have the opportunity to build something bigger.  To grow the movement for a federal UK.

It’s federalism we have been advocating for one hundred years.

In the last twenty we have seen the idea develop.

Power is now shared around the UK more than ever before.

We can do more. Federalism is the long-term and viable future for the UK that saves us from the forces of perpetual division.

It would move us on from the Punch and Judy show of Westminster versus the rest.

So that is why I can tell you today that I have appointed Jeremy Purvis to lead a new group that will work with people from other parties and none to develop the case for Federalism in the United Kingdom.

More and more people from different parties and different parts of Britain are looking at federalism. We will be there to help bring them together.

If you are tired of division. Tired of history repeating. And repeating. And repeating.

Fed up with the fires that destroy.

Then it is time to try something new.

Federalism is the stable, secure and respectful future that we can bring.

And while the SNP and Conservatives are busy lighting fires, they ignore the need to get on with the day job.

There is work to be done.

The SNP delayed hard decisions in the run up to their last referendum.

Then they started taking decisions.

They bungled most of them.

Now they have stopped taking decisions again.

It is hard to know which is worse.

Scottish Education used to be one of the best in the world. It is now slipping down the international rankings. Reforms are chaotic and regressive.

On mental health, we once had a world leading mental health strategy but now don’t even have one.  The SNP let it rot.  

During the Budget talks with the SNP we discovered that they are much further behind on mental health than we feared.

The SNP railed against the Council Tax for decades, describing it as evil and unfair.  But now they have saved it from abolition.  They ignored their own independent Commission, forced through arbitrary increases and locked the Council Tax in place for another generation.

And then there is Keith Brown.  Our economy secretary.

Not only is our economy lagging behind the rest of the UK with growth slower, employment lower and productivity still behind.

There was Amazon.  He paid them millions of pounds in grants but didn’t bother to check if they paid the proper living wage.

And then there was China.  He got the First Minister to sign an agreement with Sinofortone and CR3 worth, we were told, a whopping £10billion. 

But he didn’t bother to check on their human rights record first.  It was not good.  One stands accused of corruption and abuse in Africa.

And he didn’t bother to check if Sinofortone had any money to spend.  Which it turns out they didn’t. They run a pub in the Cotswolds.

No living wage, no human rights check and no money.

These people aspire to run an independent country but they could not run a human rights check in a china shop up the Amazon. 

But it does not have to be like this. 

Liberal Democrats engaged constructively with the Scottish Government to try to make big improvements to its budget.

Ours was a £400 million package for our economy through investing in people.

For mental health with support for early treatment and in primary care, the police and A&E departments.

For investment in colleges to bring back part time courses especially for women and mature students.

For a pupil premium in schools that has been proven to give poorer children the opportunity to be all they can be.

For more cash into our police to help them recover from the botched SNP centralisation.

This was a chance for the Scottish Parliament to use the new powers that we argued and campaigned for.  This was a chance to deliver a positive programme of reform to make our country the best again.

But this was a missed chance because the SNP just wouldn’t do it, because they have their eye on their very different prize. 

It is time to get on with the day job, to focus on our people, to make a difference for everyone. 

This is not the time to divide our country once again with yet another independence debate.

And we are six weeks away from our chance to send a message on all of this.

The council elections are a chance for us to show who we are.

We have a message of hope not division.

A Liberal Democrat councillor elected on May 4th will be an advocate for your community, not a cheerleader for independence.

They will be an advocate for better mental health.

For investment in education

For a stronger economy.

Against a Conservative hard Brexit.

For Scotland in the United Kingdom.

And for the end of the Council Tax.

I have been knocking doors and speaking with voters across the country.

I have joined some of our excellent new candidates who are leading the way.  Carole Ford from Glasgow, Trish Robertson in Culloden, Hal Osler in Leith, Claire Graham from Musselburgh, Rosie O’Neil from Bearsden.

Kevin Lang, Daniel Coleman, Ben Lawrie, Sarah Dickenson, Kris Chapman, Jane Ann Liston. Catriona Campbell.

I have been on the doors with Alex Cole-Hamilton and Mike Rumbles who have been working hard at Holyrood and then getting out to support local candidates in the evenings.

First class, dedicated advocates for their communities. All and every one.

We have a great team.

We need strong liberal voices for the challenges we all have ahead.

The optimistic forces.  The Liberal case. The international posture.  It needs standard bearers.

As we face the forces of division we have to ask ourselves who we are and what we will do.

The question that will be asked of us in years to come when people ask about this time is this.

What did you do?

When the world in 2016 and 17 faced Brexit, Trump, Le Pen in France and Wilders in the Netherlands, what did you do?

What did you do when our country of 300 years faced break up?

I don’t just want to say that we mocked them for their terrible hair.

I want us to be able to say we stood strong for the international, liberal answer.

We stood with Justin Trudeau for refugees, with Emmanuel Macron for social progress, for D66 in the Netherlands for European values.

And for a positive future for the whole of the UK, free of the division of the SNP.

We will be able to say we stood for a better, open, positive world based on partnership, trust and generosity of spirit.

What did we do? We did the liberal thing. And we got back to winning again.


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