Put Recovery First - Willie Rennie's speech to the Scottish Liberal Democrat spring conference 2021

By Willie Rennie Mar 09, 2021 4

Councillor Liz Barrett.

Councillor for the ancient capital of Scotland.

Victor over the SNP in John Swinney’s back yard.

Winning from third place.

Thank you, Liz.  You are a true liberal champion.


Conference, it’s almost six years since we lost our Charles, Charles Kennedy. 

But last week we were treated to a wonderful tribute to his life in that BBC Alba documentary: A good man speaking.

We all have our own personal recollections of Charles.  

Mine was the extraordinary courage it took, just days after acknowledging his alcoholism and resigning as Leader of the Liberal Democrats, to come to Dunfermline. 

He came to help me win that by-election.

He would have been forgiven if he had chosen to hide away, to recuperate, to nurse his wounds, but instead he chose to face it up.

As we walked down the High Street, surrounded by the mass ranks of the media, a voice from a pensioner at the back shouted – “we love you Charles”. 

As quick as a flash he retorted: “now madam, I am in enough trouble as it is”.

But that lady spoke for us all. 

And if there is a lasting legacy from Charles Kennedy’s life it should be the conduct of the debate, of elections, of political life.

That would be a good way to remember our Charles.

I think Charles would be pleased with how the Liberal Democrats have conducted ourselves over the last year through the pandemic.  To put recovery first. 


We set aside our differences to work together.

Working constructively with the government to deliver funds for business, tourism, fishing; an expansion of testing; access for parents of new borns; and a faster roll-out of the vaccine. 

Ministers have recognised the part we have played from the First Minister to the Health Secretary to the Economy Secretary. 

We rolled up our sleeves to get us through this pandemic.

There was a lovely sight this week that has made all that work worthwhile. 

After months of separation, families are safely back together again in care homes.

It was certainly the right thing to do.

And we are putting recovery first in this year’s Scottish Government budget.

Liberal Democrats voted for stage one of the budget.

We secured £120million extra for mental health, taking the total budget to £1.2billion.

We won extra funds for bounce back support for schools.

We levered in extra support for businesses who have lost out through the pandemic.

We made the case. We won the argument. We put recovery first.

But Liberal Democrats want to go further.


After the UK Budget on Wednesday there is more available for the Scottish Budget.

That is why I want to agree with the Finance Secretary an additional package of measures to be added to the Budget next week.

More to help education bounce back.

For councils who have been short changed.

For eye services in Edinburgh.

For the North East which has been underfunded for years.

For farming and environment schemes that have faced a significant cut.

If we can see these priorities, and more, reflected in the final budget on Tuesday we will put aside our differences with the SNP again and vote for that budget to put recovery first.

Those would be good wins for the Liberal Democrats.

After the year the social care sector has been through it needs our attention. 

But the problems are not new. 

It has been undervalued for years. 

So we need change that will help care users achieve their goals, supported by care workers with decent pay and better career prospects. 

We have genuine concerns about the reach for easy, superficial solutions. The SNP want a national care service. But that is the default solution for every problem they encounter. 

If in doubt take all the powers, hoard them in the centre, cut out local communities. 

But we know what happened the last time they centralised a much-valued service. 

Police Scotland. I don’t need to say any more. 

No, we cannot afford to repeat that. 

We need to address the fundamentals at the heart of our care service. 

That means addressing the funding. 

Pay staff more because they deserve it, with fair work conditions across the entire sector. 

That will cut staff turnover, keep experienced workers, and allow care users to build relationships and trust with carers. 

Create national standards and conduct regular inspections with real enforcement. 

Invest to create care services that help the user achieve their goals. 

Take a preventative approach that fosters wellbeing. 

Expand self-directed support.  

Involve care users in commissioning services. 

This is significant reform, for the good of us all. 

And I commit us in the next parliament to build a cross-party consensus to make that happen. 


At the heart of the recovery must be education.

A great liberal cause. It always has been.

You’ll remember at the autumn conference I set out our plans for education recovery after 14 years of SNP rule where Scottish education – which used to be the pride of the nation as one of the best in the world – is now judged average.

So I said it was time to put the experts back in charge – the teachers.

They have shown creativity and resilience during the pandemic, while their controlling national agencies have been flat-footed.

We’ll put serving teachers in charge of the SQA and Education Scotland after the dreadful handling of the exams last year.

We will ask teachers to lead a literacy task force, and lead reforms in primary school maths too.

We will improve teachers’ terms and conditions, so we recruit and retain passionate teachers.

And today I have more plans.

Because it is going to take more for education to bounce back.

More in-class support for children who need it.

And more resources in every classroom, with a better Pupil Equity Fund.

This isn’t about making children sit at desks for longer.

It’s about making every hour in school count for more.

It means getting every trained teacher, and every available pupil support assistant, into classrooms, not on the waiting list for a supply day.


A guaranteed job for every available teacher to help us cut class sizes.

We need the talents of everyone in education, just like we needed everyone possible for our NHS.

With this investment we can bounce back for our children.

We can give them all the help they need to achieve their potential.

Liberal Democrats will put recovery first for education.


You know that I will never stop campaigning for mental health.

I have spent the last five years taking it up the parliament’s agenda.

The SNP approach has been far too slow.

People waited an age for mental health services before the pandemic.

Much more needs to be done for recovery.

I have just finished reading an email about a 17 year old school pupil who has been unable to see her mental health practitioner for a year because of the lockdown.

And what is even worse is that her autism diagnosis took three years.

It is heart-breaking that her potential is being thwarted at such an important phase in her development.

The clock is ticking for young people.  They won’t get these years back.

That’s why the endless waiting times need to come down.

Why the barriers to getting help need to be taken down.

That’s why we got £120 million in the Budget for mental health.

We will train more mental-health specialists for community centres, hospitals, workplaces and schools.

Our country’s recovery will need the skills of professionals in mental health.

People can count on the Liberal Democrats for good mental health.


Can I turn now to say a word about Anas Sarwar.

The first ever leader of a Scottish political party from an ethnic minority background.  The first Muslim. We should all celebrate that.

I am looking forward to working with him;

to look for the opportunities for partnership;

to rekindle the old alliances that created the Scottish Parliament;

that delivered more powers and that delivered progressive good government for the first eight years of devolution.

There is much on which we can agree.

We can work together on reforming the United Kingdom.

The current set-up is just not working. 

We’ve seen that through the EU withdrawal bill and the trade bill. 

We need a better way of working together to create economic growth and deliver progressive change.

That means federalism, which will give Scotland and the nations and regions of the UK more authority.

With it should come proportional representation, a written constitution, replacing the House of Lords and decentralising power in Scotland too.

I am grateful to Ming Campbell, with Wendy Chamberlain, Fred Mackintosh and Robert Brown for agreeing to revisit our federalism plan. 

Ming wrote our first report a decade ago that led to the Smith powers on tax and a £3bn welfare budget for the Scottish Parliament.

And he has already reached out to Labour and Gordon Brown to build the unstoppable momentum for change.

For reform.

For partnership.

For a better way of working together.

To grow the economy together, tackle the climate emergency together, to support the NHS together and bounce back education together.


Contrast that with the SNP. 

Their top priority – above everything else, above jobs, the NHS, education and the climate – above all – they want another independence referendum.

We can read it in the papers this week. 

The SNPs Westminster Leader wants another independence referendum by Christmas.

Despite being in the middle of a global pandemic which has taken the lives of thousands, the SNP still think now is the time for another independence referendum.

We know what that means because we have just been through one in 2014.

That was painful.  Bitter arguments between families, friends and neighbours.

And it took years.

And we went through another one in 2016 with Brexit.

That was painful too, and it took years just to start the negotiations and it is going to drag out for years yet.

The SNP are divided and now they want to divide the country once more.

Independence would be Brexit Mark 2.

Years and years of arguments followed by years and years of argumentative negotiations.

The EU was forty years old, and it is taking years to deliver Brexit.

The UK is 300 years old.  The ties are deeper and stronger so the separation will take so much longer still.

The next independence referendum would be like two Tasmanian devils in a never-ending cage fight.

Meanwhile the people who need jobs, the NHS, education and action on the climate will be kept waiting and waiting.  

They can’t afford to wait.

Reasonable people will think, even those who may support independence, that now is not the moment we should choose to hold another referendum.

That is why the Liberal Democrats say Put Recovery First.

Recovery should come before any referendum on independence.

There can be few SNP supporters who look at the events of the last couple of months and be happy.

The SNP riven with division.

An SNP Government which keeps information locked behind closed doors.

That ignores votes in parliament.

Supporters of the SNP look at a bitterly divided leadership - over trans rights, independence strategy and sexual harassment.

With their two First Ministers trading insults about failure and ego in the middle of a global pandemic.

There are many people who have voted SNP in recent years who are thinking again.

I know I have spoken to many of them.

They are questioning whether all the things that attracted them to the SNP are still there.

They see an SNP Government after 14 years in power but with very little to show for it.

One that talks a good game, announces endless policies, sets up commissions and inquiries, runs consultations but just can’t quite deliver.

Even before the pandemic mental health waits were too long.

Before the pandemic Scottish education was a shadow of its former self.

Inequality was growing and poverty was getting worse.

Homelessness was far too high.

These SNP supporters are deflated by the wasted potential.

Millions of pounds wasted at BiFab, with no green jobs to show for it.

Millions more at Ferguson shipyard, and the ferries are still not ready for the islands.

A new Queensferry crossing that closes because of falling ice.  Who knew it gets icy in Scotland?

And vision.  There is no vision now. 

It’s all about the factions and the internal fighting. 

It’s the sign of a party that has been in government for 14 years, that has run out of energy and run out of ideas.

These SNP supporters are depressed. 

So I want to make an appeal directly to you.

Everyone deserves the opportunity to work hard and build a good life for themselves, their family and their community.

Everyone deserves to be paid a fair wage, to afford a home and to be able to use good public services.

But for many, that’s not the reality today.

People are working hard; they’re playing their part, whether that means taking care of their family, earning their degree, or working to afford their rent or their mortgage.

And yet too many are trapped by a lack of opportunity.

Liberal Democrats are on your side.

Liberal Democrats will have a needle-sharp focus on investment in thousands of decent jobs, high quality education, good mental health services and tackling the climate emergency.

And we want Scotland to have a bigger say in the UK through reform of our country.

If you are tired of the SNP fighting, and disappointed by what they have achieved, then why not try the Liberal Democrats at this election.

Test us out.

What have you got to lose?

If you back the SNP, they will just carry on regardless.

If the SNP get a big majority, they will carry on unchecked and out of control.

With my Liberal Democrats there is a chance for change.

The Liberal Democrats can make the difference at the next election.

We can make gains in every region. We can win new seats.

The Conservatives can’t.

They have replaced Ruth Davidson, who was popular, with Boris Johnson’s choice of leader who is not.

Their tide is running away. They are set to lose seats. Every poll says so.

Anas Sarwar will take time to find his feet. So Labour are unlikely to make the necessary progress on their own.

And the Greens will always back the SNP when they need them.

The Liberal Democrats, with our plan to put recovery first, are ready to win more seats.

Our gains will make the difference between a government that can do whatever it wants, however damaging, and a government that has to listen.

I am ready.

With a decade of experience leading the Liberal Democrats in Scotland.

Rebuilding our party with wins in Holyrood, Westminster, Europe and by-elections.

Working with others to win in parliament on education, on mental health and on the budget.

I am ready to lead the Liberal Democrats to the gains that will put recovery first.

I am ready to win.

Liberal Democrats have done the right thing through the pandemic.

We worked to win support for business, more testing, faster vaccinations, care home visiting, support for parents of new borns.

We have a plan to win. Put recovery first.

Jobs for young people desperate for work.

A bounce back plan for education.

Support for mental health and our NHS.

Action for business.

Reform of the UK.

Reform of social care.

Support for the climate and nature.

Our plan is a winning plan.

Liberal Democrats are winning.

We won with Liz Barrett in Perth – taking the seat from the SNP from third place.

We won a big vote in parliament to declare a mental health crisis. 

We won a big vote in parliament to publish the international report on Scottish education.

We won a big vote in parliament to reform the SQA exams body and split Education Scotland.

We won extra funding in the budget for mental health, for education bounce back support and for businesses.

We are on a winning streak right now.

And we will win in May too.

The Liberal Democrats, with our put recovery first plan, are ready to win.

Our great candidates are ready to win. More women to win than ever before.

Molly Nolan, Katy Gordon, Rosemary Bruce, Catriona Bhatia, Carole Ford, Susan Murray, Jacci Stoyle, Jenny Marr, Beatrice Wishart.

Join us, we are ready to win.


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