Rennie: Brexit stalemate won't end on 29th March

Liberal Democrats are a force for liberation. We are optimistic, outward looking, far sighted. A force for reason.

By Willie Rennie Mar 06, 2019 5

Willie Rennie has today delivered a keynote address to the 2019 Scottish Liberal Democrat spring conference in Hamilton. You can read his speech here:

My elder son has left home and has started his career as a lighting engineer in concert halls and theatres. 

So when I told him … I had a big part . on stage … in Hamilton today … he was very excited. 

I wasnt going to miss my shot to make that joke. 

This is the room where it happens. 

That is the musical Hamilton. As the U.S. republic blinked into the light it was Alexander Hamilton who wrote a series of essays called The Federalist papers. 

He recognised that for a country to thrive it needed institutions that shared power, allowing each part to thrive while having a care for the success of the whole. 

What a message! 

I believe our party is the proud flag bearer of that tradition. 

I believe people can do great things with power in their hands. 

Be aspirational for them and their family but caring about others whether they are around the corner, across the world or in the future.   

I am a hopeful, optimistic person.   

Its why I am a liberal. 

But even I am tested by what is happening. 

I can understand why so many people are pained and troubled when they look around Britain today. 

An endless loop of Brexit negotiations, where nothing ever really changes. 

You know its not going well when the National Union of Groundhogs have gone on strike. 

We live in a country where the political establishment in the two largest parties fails to provide any kind of vision or leadership at one of the most important periods in our countryhistory. 

Where the leader of the official opposition presides over a culture of bullying and anti-Semitism. 

Jeremy Corbyn is turning his back on a peoples vote even when his own party backed it. 

A man who offered so much hope to young people in 2017 has now driven even his most ardent supporters to despair. 

Where the Prime Minister is incapable of explaining the point of her Brexit deal – and its the only job she has got to do.  

Theresa May cant even win over those who are paid to agree with her.   

A woman who promised so much strength and stability but who is about as stable as RabC Nesbitt after a night out in Govan. 

Even the jam she promises for tomorrow is already mouldy. 

What did this country do to deserve these two leaders? 

This is a special kind of hell. 

We deserve better than this. 

Our country deserves better this. 

We can deliver better than this. 

So we need hope. 

I am determined to provide that hope.  

We must step up to fill the void. 

I must admit that the last two elections were of deep concern to me. 

The trend over the last seventy years was the breakdown of the two party system. 

That changed in 2015 and 2017 where the two old parties got similar shares of votes as they did in the 1950s. 

Although we increased our seats from one to four in Scotland it is not enough. 

We must do better. 

So many people want a strong force for moderation, reason, optimism.  

Reform, not destruction. 

They support a modern, respectful, outward looking, confident and compassionate country; 

That shares aid with those in need and stands against tyrants, even when they fly the red flag; 

That pools sovereignty with others to overcome the challenges of security, climate change and corruption; 

One that builds a strong economy where our efforts and ideas are rewarded, and pays for the common services that we share; 

That cares for those in need so they can have a chance too, with good health and education; 

That stands against anti-semitism on the left and the narrow nationalism of the right. 

I want us to step up with people who share those values. 

Weve got to do that for the sake of our country. 

We will play our part.  Many are in this room today. 

People like Wendy Chamberlain - our stand-out candidate in North East Fife. 

Craig Harrow who will win back Charles Kennedys seat for the Highlands. 

Jenny Marr who will make an excellent Member of Parliament for the Borders. 

John Waddell and James Oates – our energetic new standard bearers for Aberdeenshire. 

I have already been campaigning with them because I am determined our team will grow. 

And to all of those in this room helping them: 

To our new candidates relishing the contest when it comes: 

To the experienced campaigners by their side: 

Thank you for what you do to bring our values to life and make our mark on the world. 

But I want to reach out beyond our party too. 

I have been a member of the Liberal Democrats for thirty years. You are my family.   

But I am not tribal. 

The space we need to fill, the change we need to bring, needs everyone who shares that vision to play their part. 

I offer the hand of friendship to those who believe our country can do better than this; 

People who have given up on the Conservative and Labour leaderships; 

People who are craving change. 

Leaving your party after many years is hard.   

It is a risk.  I get that.   

To those in parliament and across the country who have taken those first, bold steps I am full of admiration. 

To those in Scotland yet to decide - you know who you are. 

I say to you: why settle for what you know is not right when you could forge something new that is worth fighting for? 

Labour and the Conservative Parties are no longer broad churches but narrow sects. 

To miss this chance today will fill you with regret tomorrow. 

So, come and talk with me.   

Lets work together.   

We have a responsibility to make it happen. 

Look at the challenge that we face. 

We know Britain isnt working as it should.  

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, thats not the reality today.  

People are working hard; theyre playing their part; and yet too many are trapped by a lack of opportunity. 

They see the powerful evade their responsibility for the last recession.   

When people work so hard to stand still, it grates to see the bankers and the billionaires get richer; 

And then the billionaires sail off to the tax havens. 

Our joint mission must be to ensure every individual achieves their potential.   

It is to create a fairer society. 

So let us seize this chance.   

Let us not miss our shot to build something bigger. 

Like minds should work together to demand better. 

I respect those who voted to leave the European Union.   

They tell me that our country can be stronger if it stands alone.   

They believe that Europe is holding us back.  

I politely tell them that this country has never stood alone.  

It is why we are leading members of NATO and the United Nations.   

It is why we have the second biggest international aid budget, one of the best armed forces, and the best diplomatic services in the world.   

We play our part, and do so by working together with others. 

Our country stands for something good.   

And we do good things with the European Union. 

Our economy is bigger than the basket-case of the 1970s, because we trade freely with each other. 

We are safer because we share intelligence and security with each other. 

We carry even more influence in the world because we stand together with each other. 

So we are a country that people respect.  

Thats not because we are on our own but because we work together. 

For the sake of the country. 

We must work together for the greater good. 

We must never walk away. 

And I say that in the face of new divisions on Brexit.   

Some on the extreme want no ties with the European Union at all.   

But over the last two years many of those who voted and campaigned for Brexit have slowly realised the value of a close relationship with the European Union. 

So those who campaigned for leave are divided.   

They are incapable of agreeing what kind of Brexit they want even though it was apparently clear in June 2016. 

If even the Brexiteers cant agree amongst themselves what Brexit actually means surelywe should put it back to the British people to decide. 

We cant trust government so let us trust the people. 

This is one of the biggest decisions of our lifetime. 

It will affect our economy and our way of life. 

Reversing it if it all goes wrong wont be easy. 

The Prime Minister is incapable of building a majority for her plan. 

And this is only the beginning.   

We have years of stalemate, infighting and indecision ahead even if we get a withdrawal agreement. 

I have a warning for you.  

This wont be over on the 29th March. 

The negotiations over a proposed free trade agreement will cripple our country for month after month, year after year. 

But there is a way to make this torture stop. 

We can break out of this stalemate by letting the people decide. 

That would be what democracy is actually for. 

History has its eyes on us. 

We need a peoples vote, the country needs a peoples vote. 

The UK doesnt walk away. We stand up for who we are. 

Scotland does not walk away either.   

The United Kingdom is our country. 

Our family ties. 

Our trade. 

Our safety. 

Our work. 

Our freedoms. 

Of course the United Kingdom makes mistakes, just like the EU makes mistakes and just like Scotland makes mistakes.  

But walking away from who we are is not the answer. 

Two forms of nationalism are gripping our country. 

With their easy slogans. 

Their lazy facts. 

Their divisive rhetoric. 

Their false patriotism. 

There are striking parallels between the claims of the brexiteers and those who argue for independence.  

And it annoys them both when you point them out. 

But even their own side has woken up to the similarity. 

The Brexiteers predicted Brexit would be easy, the opportunity would be great, the easiest negotiations in history. 

The Nationalists predict independence will be easy, the opportunity will be great, the easiest negotiation in history. 

Yet the Nats tell us breaking up a 40-year-old partnership with Europe is devastating, I agree. 

Then they tell us that breaking up a 300-year-old partnership with the UK will be simple.   

That does not make sense. 

Its not remotely credible. 

They are fooling no-one but themselves. 

There are many people I meet who tell me they backed independence in 2014 but are thinking again. 

They are thinking again because they see the chaos of breaking a long term economic partnership and think: why would I respond to chaos with more chaos? 

And Nicola Sturgeons answer is: yeah snap, I want some of that, and I want it within three years. 

Instead of wasting our time and our money on yet another independence campaign the First Minister must deliver on her promises. 

The abolition of bed blocking – promised four years ago but thousands still stuck in hospital. 

The closure of the education attainment gap – promised four years ago but still far too wide. 

The legal right to NHS treatment – promised eight years ago but thousands are still waiting.   

First Minister, spend your last days in government fixing those problems, not breaking up the country. 

But with all those failed promises at home, the First Minister travelled to the United States to tell CNN about the next phase of her campaign for independence. 

There is no pretending any more. 

The next campaign for our country has started. 

But she has side-lined the facts, the evidence that big bang change, dividing countries and partnerships is costly and damaging. 

It strikes at the heart of who we are. 

Scots are proud that we stand up for ourselves, that we never walk away. 

So let us put our energy, our intellect and our ingenuity to better use than another divisive campaign for independence. 

Let us say that we can do better for our country.   

Let us stand up against poverty. 

Stand up for mental health. 

Stand up for good jobs. 

Against climate change. 

For our partnership with England, Wales and Northern Ireland, with the EU and the world. 

Stand up. Dont walk away. 

Its twenty years since the reconvening of the Scottish Parliament. 

Our party helped Scotland on that long journey to gain the extensive powers that are now held in the Scottish Parliament. 

From the packed halls and the marches of the Constitutional Convention in the 1980s. 

To the Scotland Act of 1998. 

To the radical proposals of our partys Steel Commission and Campbell Commission which set the agenda for further strength. 

To the cross-party Calman and Smith Commissions which shaped new legislation. 

Orderly, thought through, consented by election and referendum, and decisive.  

A model of how to deliver sensible constitutional change that reflects the diversity of our country whilst retaining a valuable partnership of 60 million people. 

But be in no doubt, our continuing mission is to reform the United Kingdom. 

A written constitution, an elected house of lords, proportional representation and a federal structure with power in the nations and regions.  

A more equal society that is fair to everyone. 

This is unfinished business for the Liberal Democrats. 

Scotland isnt fair to everyone. 

Itsomething we need to tackle especially when it comes to our children. 

In Scotland today vulnerable, disabled schoolchildren are being physically and mentally harmed by restraint practices in Scottish schools that may be illegal. 

This is the conclusion of a report by the Childrens Commissioner.   

Over 2600 incidents were recorded in just one year. 

Its supposed to be the last resort.  Many believe it should never be used at all. 

But 2600 incidents dont sound like a last resort to me. 

A child with a mental age of three was left traumatised and distraught after being locked in a school cloakroom for hours. 

There are reports of children tied to chairs, prevented from going to the toilet and being dragged across the floor causing injury. 

The childrens commissioner says the Government is not complying with the advice from United Nations committee on the rights of the child. 

The commissioner says that the current guidance is inconsistent and ambiguous. And he is not certain that restraint is used as the last resort. 

I am proud that Beth Morrison, a parent and a member of this party, has led the charge to get change for children. 

A lonely battle at first, but she has courageously continued to get this onto the desk of those in authority. 

Thank you, Beth. Your efforts are so important. 

The First Minister boasts that Scotland leads the world on human rights. 

But the indifference on the rights of children when it really counts is part of a wider problem. 

I for one wasnt proud when the First Minister signed a £10billion agreement with a Chinese company with a poor human rights record. 

I am not proud that the government dithers and delays on the incorporation of the UN Convention on the rights of the child.  

And I wasnt proud when the First Minister ordered her MSPs to vote against raising the age of criminal responsibility to 14, in the face of a clear recommendation from the United Nations. 

Even Turkey and China have a more enlightened age than Scotland. 

So if Nicola Sturgeon is serious about human rights she must make the changes we needand our children deserve.  

We are not leading the world, we are stuck at the back of the class. 

End child restraint for disabled children and stand up for their rights. 


Back in 2016 the Liberal Democrats were the first to advocate the use of the new income tax powers gained by the Scottish Parliament. 

We said a modest rise could secure a significant financial investment for education without resulting in adverse behavioural change.   

It was an important progressive argument. You got something for something. 

In the hands of the SNP thats gone. You get ramping up tax at every budget. 

The balance has gone. 

The SNP broke their 2016 manifesto and put up income tax. 

Then the council tax increase, breaking the promise by the SNP.   

The plastic bag charge goes up – and the money doesnt go to charities. 

The tourism tax. 

And of course the workplace car parking levy – a last minute, poorly prepared amendment to the transport bill. 

An impression of a government that is ramping up tax at every budget. 

Putting the balance at risk. 

All five of these increases were not in the SNP manifesto.   

Many of them werent even in the Green manifesto. 

The Scottish Government are being reckless and cavalier with taxes and taxpayers.   

Any reputation for sound financial management has been lost. 

Its another example of this government treating councils with disrespect. 

Handing councils a bunch of taxes that wont work and wont raise the money they need is not reform.  

They are green behind the ears if they think that counts as reform. 

By contrast Scottish Liberal Democrats can be proud that we get things done. 

Our badgering for two years got the SNP to switch position and support a peoples vote on Brexit.  

Years of campaigning by our MSPs got the Scottish Government to agree to make big changes in support of mental health, to introduce extra childcare for children from the age of 2, and to bring in a pupil premium to help every child get the best start in education.  

We led the charge on Police Scotland, on human rights, on industrial scale stop and search of young people. 

Week after week, month by month we built the case. 

We even persuaded the Scottish Conservatives that P1 testing of children was a bad idea 

And Jo Swinson won huge changes on equal pay and shared parental leave by working hard, building support and winning the argument.  

What an asset Jo is to our party. 

So I say you get big change by making a big case and a big effort to win support. 

I am proud of what we achieve.  You should be proud of what we all achieve. 

And I remember working with the late and great Paddy Ashdown. 

He took that same road, to doggedly and determinedly build the case for humanitarian intervention for Hong Kong citizens and people in the former Yugoslavia.  

His was a lonely voice at first but he championed an idea that grew in strength. 

It is that vigour and energy that I will remember most and miss most about his life.  Thankyou Paddy. 

Liberal Democrats are the liberators. 

Its why I see the value of good mental health services because it liberates people from their illness.   

Its why I am committed to investing in high quality early education because it liberates children from the circumstances of their birth.      

Why I am so committed to international aid because it liberates people across the globe from poverty and war, and gives women and girls control of their lives. 

Why renewable energy deserves our support because it liberates future generations from the affliction of climate change. 

And we start this year, determined to grow. 

Open to work with others who share our values. 

Clear that our country must change, and not just slip back to how things have been. 

Prepared to step up to fill the space occupied by Conservative and Labour leaders who have failed. 

With brilliant new candidates joining experienced and committed campaigners; 

As those in other parties look for a new way ahead. 

These are people who want to change the way the country works without splitting up the country. 

What starts with our united voice here must spread to others across our country. 

Liberal Democrats are a force for liberation.   

We are optimistic, outward looking, far sighted.  

A force for reason.   

A party of reform, a party of human rights, a party of opportunity, a party of internationalism.   

That is who we are. 

We can all say loud and clear that we demand better.

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