Liberals Are Not Quitters: Read Willie Rennie's speech to our Autumn Conference


“You can imagine that this was not the speech I was expecting or hoping to deliver today.

The grief this week has been palpable. 

Not just the fear of what a President Trump could bring but the sense of loss of what could have been. 

The first woman president, committed to expanding healthcare, internationalism, equal rights, tolerance. 

A president full of hope and opportunity – looking for the best in people, not the worst.

It was the same sense of loss, even of bereavement, that so many people felt after the Brexit vote.

The result was the opposite of everything we have worked for over the decades.

It made many wonder if they even recognise the country we live in any more.

So what do we do?  How do we respond?

Of course we could turn our backs, cut the ties, walk away.  We could partition the country and hope we live in the best bit.

But Liberals are not quitters.

I refuse to give up on America, I refuse to give up on Europe, I refuse to give up on the United Kingdom.

I am optimistic about our country’s future.

I want our relationship with others to be open and progressive.

I will not give up on that ambition.

Our country should not.

And our party will not.

On America, we need to use those old ties to encourage President Trump up a path of compassion and tolerance.

We should work within NATO, G8 and every other opportunity, including that Special Relationship, to steer President Trump in the right direction.

We must continue to believe in our relationship with the United States of America.

On Europe, when few, if any, Government ministers even now know what Brexit means it would only be right for the people of our country to have a say on the final deal agreed with Europe. 

A Brexit deal referendum would be the democratic thing to do.

So we will use our power in the Houses of Parliament to give the British people their say on the Brexit deal in a referendum. 

If there is no agreement to a Brexit deal referendum, we will refuse to vote to trigger Article 50 in the House of Commons and House of Lords.

That is the public service we will provide:

To fight our corner and promote liberal values.  To persuade people to demand an end to the Brexit when the consequence of Brexit becomes most stark.

No matter how disturbed by the results in June and this week, as liberals, our response must be one of hope, not despair.

A mile from this venue is the Abbey Church, the final resting place of Robert the Bruce.

Perhaps we should be inspired by his relationship with that famous spider.

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again.

This is a Robert the Bruce moment for us.

Just because the progressives have failed on Europe and the United States does not mean that we give up on the USA, EU and UK. 

We don’t give up on people. 

We must try, try and try again.

We can look to the other side of the Atlantic for hope. 

Further north we saw the hopeful, inspired victory for the forces of progressive leadership in the election of Justin Trudeau.

A liberal to his core, a battler for his cause, our cause. 

Winning from third place to defeat the forces of conservatism. 

Giving hope that a positive, optimistic, progressive, internationalist vision can win and shape the nation.

Supporters of our liberal cause closer to home inspire me too. 

Two weeks ago I was delighted to present our very own Ming Campbell with a lifetime achievement award. 

Contesting the seat of Greenock twice, fighting three elections in North East Fife before eventually winning thirteen years later Ming was not handed success on a plate. He worked to win.

Alex Cole Hamilton fought elections for us for over a decade and lost every single one. 

But not this year. His irrepressible nature is infectious.

That’s why he’s a winner. 

There are battlers like Ming and Alex across this party. Some who didn’t win this year but whose time will come. Look at some of the successes.

From Tavish and Liam in the Northern Isles confounding the critics to win with almost 70% of the vote.

We had the biggest swing to us from the Conservatives for two decades in Witney with the brilliant Liz Leffman.

We have won over 20 by-elections across the country since May.

20,000 new members – many of them here today.

And Councillor Trish Robertson who came from fourth place to win in the Culloden and Ardersier by-election.

Well done Trish, well done everyone. Liberal Democrats, we are winning again.

And we can send a powerful message to the government on Brexit and Heathrow by helping Sarah Olney in the Richmond by-election.

If you have not already done so, please pledge your support for the campaign. 

Visit, phone, donate money.  Do what you can to help us win.

We won in May because we provided an optimistic, progressive and open voice for the country.

We told people about our passion for civil liberties, for the environment, for a transformational investment in education and for supporting people who need mental health services. 

Standing up for optimistic, progressive, open liberal values whether it’s on a zip wire, a slide, a quad bike or clearing out a pig sty.

This is the speech I had intended to deliver; about our successes in May and since; about our optimistic campaign; and our plans for the future of our country.

We are winning again and in next year’s council elections we can win too.

People will have a choice.

They can choose a Liberal Democrat councillor who will be the local champion, work to fix the potholes, campaign for a new school, win home care for local people.

Or they can choose a nationalist who is obsessed with independence.

That is what next year’s elections will be about. 

A champion for your community or a cheerleader for independence.

Put that on those Focus leaflets.  Tell people on the doors. Stick it in the local papers.

Our success in by elections across the country shows we are winning again. 

I want to see more Trish Robertsons winning across the country. 

When this conference is over go out there and make it happen.

Last weekend, on a crisp clear winter’s morning on my way to a meeting of Argyll and Bute members I ran up the Cobbler in the Arrochar Alps.

Despite the snow, the wind, the hat, the hood and the scarf a walker spotted me at the top of the mountain. 

Who says politicians aren’t accessible – they are even now available for consultation with a wind chill factor of minus seven!

The walker told me he was exasperated with the First Minister. 

He said that his relationship with friends, family and neighbours had been broken because of the independence referendum and he did not want to go through that all over again.

And he is right. 

We need to put an end to the division over independence. 

We have had enough division this year already. 

Let us unite the country not divide it.

And I want to be clear with you too.

I stood on a platform, which you voted for at this conference in the Spring, against independence and against another independence referendum.

We made this choice for inside or outside the EU, and before the case for independence was undermined by plummeting oil prices, which blew Scotland’s finances apart.

I will be keeping my word with the voters as will every other MSP who stood on that platform

In all circumstances, I said No and I mean No. 

I want a federal United Kingdom. 

Federalism where power is transferred to the nations and regions of our country.

When I commissioned Ming Campbell’s report – Federalism the Best Future For Scotland - in 2011 I succeeded in bouncing the other parties to support radical and substantial change.

We are now delivering it through the results of the Smith Commission which is a major step towards federalism.

We need change towards federalism in the rest of the UK too.

I also want a written constitution.

I want proportional representation.

I want to abolish the House of Lords and replace it with a democratic revising chamber.

I want a comprehensive package of reforms to modernise and open up our country.

To transfer power back into the hands of people.

To give them hope and optimism that change is possible.

I won’t stop agitating, persuading, campaigning and reasoning until we get it.

That is my ambition and we will not stop until we get it.

Millions of people in America told the world that they felt left behind and voted for President Trump.

Millions of English, Welsh, Northern Irish and Scots felt left behind too and voted for Brexit.

They were so desperate for change that they were prepared to put up with repugnant views in order to get that change.

Too many are left behind.

Too many people are forgotten. 

It is the responsibility of the progressives to show a different way.

Hope, optimism and change.  Just like we showed in May.

The Hailesland Centre is a small, unremarkable building in south west Edinburgh.  

It is what happens inside that is inspirational. 

In the midst of a noisy, electrically-charged community it is a peaceful oasis of calm.

The life chances of young children and families are transformed by this nursery school.  

These are the centres, these are the children and families we must invest in so everyone can win.

That is why Liberal Democrats are dedicated to early years expansion investment like no other.

We made change for early years when in government in Scotland and in the United Kingdom.

In the last parliament we won the argument to expand the provision for two year olds.

We have stated our new ambition.  Every child aged from two to four should receive 1000 hours of early years support within five years.

We have identified the funds to make it happen faster through our penny on income tax.

This is the kind of investment we need to make so that no-one is left behind.

Oak trees grow from little acorns. 

That is how we deliver change.

More needs to be done.

Change is what we need because what the government provides now is just not enough. 

It is little surprise that people reject government if government fails to deliver.

What we were promised has not been delivered by this SNP Government. 

Look at delayed discharge – ministers said that would be gone by now but thousands are still stuck in hospital when they should be at home.

GPs – they said we have enough but too many people are waiting too long to see their doctor because of shortages.

Fuel poverty – that was supposed to be eradicated by now but it is getting worse.

On the Living Wage – giant companies like Amazon don’t pay the living wage but still receive millions of pounds from the SNP government in grants.

Climate change – the government struggles to meet its own climate change targets but gives big tax breaks to airline big businesses.

The new Forth Crossing – it was supposed to open next month but is now so late the SNP are asking us to celebrate the fact that it is now the world’s biggest free-standing structure that is not a bridge.

And the great dereliction of duty.  The dodgy deal with the Chinese state owned company CR3. 

The SNP signed a deal with this Chinese company without checking who they were.

They denied it was a deal when we asked them about human rights.

Then they condemned us for killing the deal, which they had just said didn’t even exist.

Then they say the deal actually wasn’t dead.

But still haven’t checked who this Chinese company is.

Then, get this, they tell us the position is crystal clear …. and that it’s all Westminster’s fault anyway.

And this is a Government that wants to negotiate international trade deals for an independent country.

At this rate they’d end up buying bananas from Alaska.

Human rights get ignored whilst they pretend they know what they are doing.

Big business gets the breaks whilst everyone else gets left behind.

Public services get worse whilst they argue for independence.

And all along the SNP point the finger of blame everyone else but themselves.

No wonder people feel let down.

I have given you two speeches.

One on how we are winning again and have more to offer.

On how we have set the agenda from childcare to federalism.

How we are holding the SNP to their promises, for a strong future for Scotland.

We aspire to build an optimistic, progressive and open country.

On early education and childcare, on fuel poverty, on mental health, on house building, on attainment in schools – these are the building blocks for a liberal future for Scotland.

We are clear on a vision for Scotland, in a federal UK, in Europe and with the United States of America.

The second speech recognised the knocks that liberal values have had this year, and the hurt and the sorrow we share because of it.

The conclusion to each of those speeches is the same.

That we must pick up again.

That the world is better when it is tolerant and open, with people respected and their human rights and freedoms treasured.

To give people the life chances that they deserve.

We will take our part in making the case for those values.

We are battlers.

We take inspiration from those who have gone before us.

Use the energy from those who have just joined us.

Build on the success of liberal winners here and abroad.

We will not give up or compromise our values but will work hard to convince ever more people that they have the potential for so much good in the world.

That is how we respond, we grow, we unite.

Strong liberal voices, winning again.


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