The Radical Centre

Tonight, I'll be giving a speech in Aberdeen, to lay out where I believe the Liberal Democrats are in Scottish politics - the radical centre.

I'll be speaking to the SCDI and I plan to make clear the desperate need for a party of the radical centre in Scotland - with the SNP and Labour veering ever more to the left and the Tories - unrestrained by the Liberal Democrats ever more to the right.

You can read my speech in full below:

Today, I want to make an important contribution. I want to set out the path ahead for the Liberal Democrats following May’s results. I want to set out that we will not veer off to the left or the right but stay the course that has rooted my party in the radical, liberal centre ground throughout its history.

Whether Jeremy Corbyn wins or not it is abundantly clear that the Labour Party is heading leftwards and, in Scotland, will embark on a fight to the death with the Scottish National Party to be the dominant force on the socialist left.

And with the Conservatives, being true to their path, are taking the Government further to the right without the restraint and radicalism of the Liberal Democrats. In Scotland they are showing every indication that they will use the new taxation and welfare powers to propose a right wing shift here as well.

The need for a radical, liberal centre ground force in politics has never been greater.

The last five years has been the most astonishing period in politics and economics that I can remember.

It is clear that the politics of the period were inextricably linked to our economic fortunes. Recovery and growth in the UK economy were linked to the decision of the Liberal Democrats to put the national interest first and to form a stable government capable of tackling the crisis we inherited.

It is that economic discipline secured by political discipline that I want the Liberal Democrats to keep central to our political character.

There are some things I would soon forget about our time in government but our decision to put country before party for economic recovery is not one of them.

So I can tell you today I will anchor our political purpose in the centre ground. It will be radical and liberal but it will be firmly in that centre ground.

Today I will show that the essential, liberal offer is a robust economy which is linked fundamentally to social justice. Liberal Democrats are for the chance for people to get up and get on in life. We want people to aspire to be better. To improve their lives.

We are for social justice. We want a country where people stand for and with their neighbours. Those less well off. Those who are held back by their circumstances.

In short we are for aspirational Scots with a social conscience.

My late friend Charles Kennedy would often say that the way ahead can be found in the history books.

Liberals were forged through an alliance of radicals, free traders and reformers.

Gladstone was an advocate for “peace, economy and reform” and introduced universal elementary education, reform in Ireland, land reform, co-operation rather than conflict in Europe and broke down trade barriers to grow the economy.

The landslide Liberal Government of the early 1900s delivered the state pension for over 70s, free school meals, labour exchanges, unemployment insurance, health insurance and more. To pay for these social reforms higher taxes were levied on higher incomes and land tax was introduced. And it curtailed the power of the House of Lords which was determined to block the people’s budget.
Education, Europe, Lords reform, welfare reform, land reform and taxation levels for the wealthy. Some things never change!
In more recent times Russell Johnston said, “Liberal positioning in politics is like the nose in relation to the rest of the face: somewhere in the middle and out in front”

David Steel wrote in his book A House Divided on the 1978 Lib-Lab pact: “Each swing of the political pendulum threatens to take the country on yet more violently diverse directions to left and right…The political see-saw crashes up and down ever more violently to our discomfort.”

And the lessons from Gladstone, Campbell Bannerman, Lloyd George, Asquith, Johnston and Steel point the way forward today.

We have always understood that the country needs economic and social liberalism and we understand the relationship between the two. The shift from Gladstone Liberalism and his emphasis on economic reform to break the old economic establishment to Campbell Bannerman and his social priorities to give workers the opportunity to improve their condition was made within one party.

Today we are best placed to get that balance right too as we understand the relationship between economic and social liberalism rather than the plunging, volatile swings from left to right.

Or as David Steel would say the liberal centre ground prevents the see saw crashing up and down.

We are a party of economic, social, constitutional and environmental reform. We want change for the long term and for our neighbours rather than just ourselves. We see the value of altruism, that sense of fairness and opportunity for everyone whatever their background. We want to challenge the establishment, the orthodoxy, the way it has always been.

The prevailing winds of human nature means that a voice for those values is required today too.

Look at the last five years.

In government we created the conditions for business.

Cutting taxes for business to help them boost jobs – the £2,000 national insurance allowance and lower corporation tax.

The supply of finance with the Green Investment Bank, Business bank, export finance, enterprise capital and many other funds.
Boosting technology with a £1 billion investment for broadband and mobile infrastructure with a disproportionate investment in Scotland.

The Technology Strategy Board is investing over £200 million to establish a network of elite Catapults, including here in Scotland with the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult in Glasgow.

And to make work pay we have cut tax for 2.2million people and taken 236,000 Scots out of income tax altogether.
We took the necessary steps to balance the books to give confidence to the markets that Britain was a good place to do business. And we provided the conditions for business to generate the jobs and taxes to pay for the public services we all value. We reshaped that economy to make it sustainable, environmental and innovative.

These are the measures that turned things round.

That was the national interest.

I think more should have been made of this at the time.

The strong economic position we are now in was not automatic.

I hope we will hear before long some of the details of the private briefings given by the Governor of the Bank of England to Coalition MPs back in 2010 that demonstrated how serious the UK’s position was at that time.

And it is in the national interest to remain in Europe too.

Gladstone saw the necessity to seek peace rather than conflict in Europe. A generation ago there were nuclear weapons on the soil of some of our European partners pointed at Britain.

Yet now we are sitting round a table together. Were that the only case for staying in the EU it would be pretty overwhelming.

But it is not the only case.

The economic case for Europe is overwhelming too.

The EU provides the market for 46 per cent of Scotland’s international exports – worth £12.9 billion in 2013 – and more than 300,000 jobs are estimated to be associated with trade with member states.

So when the EU Referendum comes it is vital that all pro Europeans come together, stand together and win the case for our membership of the European Union together.

We must put our differences aside for the greater good. And we need to do so because we cannot rely on the Conservative leadership to make that strong case by themselves.

And I would urge business to speak up for Europe and do so early. Your positive, compelling arguments for trade, business and jobs will be important to convince people of the merits of our continued membership.

The balance between economic and social liberalism is important to us. The balance between economic discipline and social justice.
So I want to talk a little bit about how I see the route to prosperity in Scotland in the future.

First let me speak about participation in the economy.

If our country is going to be a success in the 21st century and beyond then it is going to need the talents and efforts of everyone.

If you want social justice then no one should be left out of the economy or their community.

Too many are at the moment. Even with high employment rates, they can be higher still.

Fundamentally, the route to participation is education.

It has been the route out of poverty and to a life of achievement for a hundred years. The Scottish tradition of education was founded on that notion.

We still don’t do enough.

I have spent the last four years as my party’s leader determined to get a big shift in where we have been putting the emphasis as a country.

If we are going to break the cycle of inter-generational poverty and remove those stubborn barriers that condemn too many people to the margins, then we have to make a radical change.

That’s why I have been campaigning about childcare and badgering ministers for more provision for two-year-olds.

Investment in a child’s education before the age of three is the investment that gets the biggest return: in terms of that child’s achievement and in the benefits to wider society from them being an engaged and successful part of their community.

So I was delighted that from last August 8,400 two-year-olds got a free place in education and childcare. And it rises to 15,000 this month. We still lag England but we are making progress.

Later on in life we need places at colleges and apprenticeships for those who want them.

Colleges have been hit hard in their budgets in recent years.

We need to support colleges.

There have been more than a million extra apprentices across the UK since 2010.

The Scottish Government has maintained high levels in Scotland.

But we can do more to foster a demand for apprentices from companies who don’t have them yet.

We should help everyone get on in life by supporting more women into science, maths and engineering.

And Liberals will always want to overcome the remaining barriers that prevent people from ethnic minorities or the LGBT communities from achieving their potential.

We have come a long way from the time when people from those groups were cut out of promotion and shut out of opportunities.

More and more employers see the value in a diverse workforce that reflects those they serve and can draw on the biggest pool of talent available.

And a final issue of participation is one that I want to take right up the political agenda - mental health.

It is estimated that one in four of us will experience mental ill health in our lifetimes. 2.3 million people with a mental health condition are out of work and research has identified mental ill health as the primary reason for claiming health related benefits.

11,000 local government workers have been absent from work because of a mental illness.

The human cost is immense. And the economic cost from lost participation is equally large.

Despite this, mental health has for too long been the Cinderella service of our NHS. An increase in awareness of the costs associated with mental ill health has, by and large, not been matched by increased investment in Scottish mental health services.

I heard from a constituent who told me that her daughter was self-harming but had waited for one year just to see a consultant.

That’s twelve months from referral from the GP. In those crucial early stages of a mental illness time is critical.

Boosting mental health services will be one of our key future priorities.

All of these things will create in Scotland an expanded, talented, educated, motivated and healthy workforce.
We need to make sure there are the exciting opportunities available to them.

We boost the economy by creating the conditions for business and creating opportunity for everyone using the potential of good education and good health.

Scotland has the comparative and technical advantage in big industries like renewable energy, food and drink and life sciences. We have a high quality tourism offer.

But there are still some big challenges.

One of the biggest is that facing the oil industry. The broad shoulders of the United Kingdom means we can be flexible to provide a taxation regime that incentivises industry investment. We can do that without a dramatic impact on the funding of our schools, hospitals, universities and other public services.

We can focus on the jobs and economic crisis instead of the double blow that we would see with a financial crisis if Scotland were to leave the UK family of nations.

We know the UK introduced tax allowances in the last autumn statement and delivered further changes in the Spring budget. In addition to the cut in the Supplementary Charge on Corporation Tax, the new allowances for cluster areas, basin wide investment and survey exploration will assist the sector.

The UK Government must continue to work in partnership with Oil and Gas UK and the new, unified regulator to provide a stable, financial regime for the sector to maximise the opportunities. This should include further adjustments in corporation tax to incentivise exploration for new fields and extraction in fields that might otherwise not be financially viable.
I have heard the message that a stable taxation regime is required to give the industry certainty about the future so that investment can be made for the long term. That doesn't mean setting tax levels in stone, as sensible adjustments should be made, but an overall regime that provide clarity about the future should be adhered to by all parties.

The opportunity to become a world specialist centre on decommissioning is something that must be seized. For that the industry and government must work together to make that a reality. We export our people's skills across the world on oil exploration and extraction we could do the same on decommissioning.

Continuing to focus on the North East, there is a need for the Scottish Government to refocus. From the £20million annual underfunding of Aberdeen City Council to the single track rail line to the oil capital of Europe to the near gridlock conditions that often inflict the city we need new investment from the Scottish Government in this area. The city deal status that my colleague Danny Alexander instigated presents that opportunity and should be agreed and implemented now.

So the Liberal Democrat approach at every stage on an individual’s journey through life helps them participate.

Childcare and early education, focused on the youngest children, is the best route out of poverty, to break the inter-generation trap that for too long in Britain has meant that if you are born poor you are most likely to die poor as well.
Strong education that equips every individual to achieve their potential.

Skills that pave the way to good job, in dynamic industries of the future and in science, green technologies and manufacturing.
Mental health services that mean the 25% of people who have a mental health problem during their lifetime do not have to sit on the sidelines of society and the economy.

Lower taxes on income to make sure work always pays and that people on low and middle incomes keeping more of what they earn.
And personal freedoms, that come from a liberal society, that means the whole of society can benefit from the talents and contributions of every individual.

This is the balanced offer. The balance between the economic discipline we know we need and the social justice that is necessary. It is the liberal, radical, centre ground offer that has a yawning space in our political spectrum. With the SNP and Labour off to the left slugging it out and the Conservatives veering to the right we can provide that radicalism that moves the country forward.

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