I think I speak for everyone when I say our hearts go out to the family and friends of Alan Henning. He was a good man, trying to do good things for people – many of them Muslims – suffering in Syria and now he has been killed by this brutal organisation who are perverting and twisting the Islamic faith for their own ends. My message to Isil is this: If you are doing this to break our resolve – you won’t. If you are doing this to intimidate us – you won’t. If you are trying to drag us into a religious war on your terms – you won’t. Britain – calm and determined – we are going to play our part in hunting you down and ridding the world of your barbaric violence. What you’re doing is sick and twisted – and you are not going to win.
I cannot tell you how much it means to me to be back here in Glasgow this evening. A city at the heart of this proud nation of Scotland, a nation at the heart – I am very happy to say – of our United Kingdom. There was so much to celebrate about the referendum campaign – not just the result of course – but the way it engaged and enthused millions of Scots. Record turnout, passionate debate, grassroots campaigning on an unprecedented level. It has sparked a debate about how we devolve greater power not just to Scotland, but to Wales, Northern Ireland and to England and its cities and regions.
The referendum also brought out some of the best in us as a party. Not just our senior Scottish figures – Willie, Alistair, Danny, Jo, Charles, Ming and Mike. But great as that team is, and lucky as we are to have them in our ranks, this was a campaign won through the blood, sweat, tears and camaraderie of an army of grassroots campaigners.
That’s what you, conference, did. This was your victory. Not just the thousands of Liberal Democrats in Scotland but all those from south of the border who joined them in spreading the word that we are all better together. So, I am very proud to welcome you to this gathering of a proud, united party in a proud United Kingdom.
Delighted though I am about the choice the Scottish people made and of our part in that campaign, we must remember that this was a close run thing. Many, many Scots chose a different path. Many feel bruised that the future they wanted for their country will not come to pass. Many people feel that right here in this city, where a majority of Glaswegians voted for independence. Scottish people did not vote to maintain the status quo. Now is the time for us to come together, to heal our divisions, and to get on with the business of giving the people of Scotland more power over their own lives. We must unite Scotland behind change and put the divisiveness of the last three years behind us to build One Scotland.
We now have a rare opportunity, a rare moment of consensus. There will be more powers, more control and more freedom for the people of Glasgow and the people of Scotland, just as there will be for the people of Wales, Northern Ireland and England. And I want to be very clear on the steps we will be insisting on to deliver this.
First, new powers for Scotland will be delivered as promised – no ifs, no buts. And not conditional on any other reforms. We are the guarantors in Government that there will be no backsliding on this. And what is right for Scotland is every bit as right for Wales. Under our watch Welsh Home Rule must become a reality. I don't need to tell anybody in this hall how proud Kirsty and her team are in their country.
Second, we do need to settle the question of English and Welsh MPs voting on English and Welsh-only matters. But this must not be a politically motivated stitch up to give the Conservatives a permanent majority when they have a minority of the votes cast in England. Fairer votes for English matters, not Tory votes for English matters. David Laws has put forward our proposal for a Grand Committee with the power to vet English laws, made up of English MPs on a proportionate basis. Welsh MPs, selected on the same basis, would take part when matters that affect both England and Wales are debated.
Now let’s see whether the Tories are serious about fair constitutional reform or whether what they were really hoping for all along is a grubby power grab in Westminster without a mandate from the voters to do so.
Third, we need a new constitutional settlement for the United Kingdom and this must be led by people, not politicians. We want a constitutional convention with a Citizen’s Jury at its heart, starting next year with a clear timetable.
And fourth, and most important of all, I want a much more radical approach to decentralisation in England – devolution on demand – a new legal right for local areas to demand more powers from Whitehall. We need to give communities the opportunity to decide their own affairs, not just accepting scraps handed out by politicians in Whitehall, but what they want for their local area. I simply will not allow the Conservatives to rearrange the deck chairs in Westminster without ensuring that Westminster gives away more power.
We believe in individuals. We believe that if you break down the barriers that prevent people from getting on in life they can flourish. Spreading opportunity, especially for young people, is at the heart of everything we have done in Government. The infant who gets a free, healthy meal at lunch time, helping them to concentrate and learn in the afternoon. The child who gets one-to-one tuition or after school classes to help them keep up with their classmates because we introduced the pupil premium. The young adult who can learn the skills he or she needs for a fulfilling and well-paid career because of the massive expansion of apprenticeships that we delivered. The young parents who can decide for the first time how to share their leave after their baby is born. Who can to go back to work if they want to because we have extended free childcare.
The gay couple who can now marry. The low paid worker who no longer pays any income tax and the millions more who can keep more of their own money. The retired couple with more money every month because we introduced the triple lock on pensions.
That is a record of action I am proud of. A record of action putting opportunity at the heart of this Government’s agenda. And there is so much more we can do. Think for a moment about what people’s lives could be like in 2020, after the Liberal Democrats have been in Government again. School children eating healthy free school meals, not just in the early years but every year in primary school. Young adults who can afford their daily commute to work or training because we have cut the cost of their bus travel. Fathers able to spend more time at home with their babies. More young parents able to return to work because we have extended free childcare even further. More low paid workers no longer paying income tax and millions more paying less tax. Pensioners continuing to get generous rises in their state pensions because we have written the triple lock into law. Our children no longer paying for our generation’s mistakes because the deficit has been eliminated and debt is falling. And every family safe in the knowledge that the NHS is properly funded now and in the future.
More opportunity. More freedom. Fewer barriers. I am proud of our record of action and I want us to be in Government again so that we can do more. So that we can continue to build a stronger economy and a fairer society, where everyone has the opportunity to get on in life.
That’s what we are fighting for. So what are we fighting against? Imagine again what it will be like in 2020, but this time with the Conservatives in Government on their own. Britain, diminished and divided after a botched attempt to renegotiate our relationship with Europe and a vote to withdraw from the European Union. Companies pulling out of the UK left, right and centre, the markets losing confidence, hiking up our borrowing costs and halting the recovery in its tracks. Workers fearing for their jobs, not just because the companies they work for are plunged into uncertainty but because their bosses can fire them at will, no questions asked. The young and the working poor hit time and time again as George Osborne takes his axe to the welfare budget with no regard for the impact on people’s lives. Schools run in the interests of profit for shareholders rather than the life chances of their pupils. A Home Office state snooping on your emails and social media. Opportunity reserved for a few at the top and everyone else told to make do with what they’ve got. A Tory party leadership in hock to their right wing, desperately running after and pandering to UKIP’s ugly nationalism. A Prime Minister trapped between being a poor man’s Margaret Thatcher and a rich man’s Nigel Farage. “Compassionate Conservatism” just a sound bite from a bygone age.
Now imagine five years of Government under Prime Minister Miliband and Chancellor Balls.
The two men at the heart of Gordon Brown’s operation as Labour sucked up to bankers in the City of London and then watched as the economy collapsed around them. A Labour Chancellor with his hands on the nation’s credit card. Borrowing a few million here, a few billion there. Throwing good money after bad at every problem that comes along. Debt piling up and up until the day of reckoning comes. A recovery squandered. Recession. Unemployment soars again – especially for the young. Fear, insecurity, opportunity stifled. Hopes and aspirations killed stone dead. A generation thrown back on the scrap heap just when it looked like they had reason to be optimistic again. Our children forced to pay for the mistakes of the generations before them.
We can’t allow Labour to throw away our recovery. And we can’t allow the Conservatives to put the interests of a few above the needs of the many. The only party that can build a stronger economy and a fairer society, so that everyone can have the opportunity to get on in life, is the Liberal Democrats.
That’s what we’re fighting for. And make no mistake, conference, this is the fight of our lives. Once again, we are the underdogs. Written off. Dismissed. Told that we can’t make a difference. I don’t know about you but I’ve heard this all before. We have upset the odds before and we will upset the odds again. If we want to make a difference to people’s lives, we can – but we have to fight for it. If we want to give young people the opportunity to reach their potential, regardless of their background, we can – but we have to fight for it. If we want to build a stronger economy and a fairer society, we can – but we have to fight for it. If we want to stop Labour and the Conservatives from taking Britain backwards, we can but we have to fight them tooth and nail to do it.
Liberal Democrats, we have never shied away from the fight before and we won’t do it now. This is the fight of our lives. I’m up for it. I know you’re up for it. We may be the underdogs but we have the values, the beliefs and the resilience to win. So let’s go out there and campaign like we never have before – and let’s win.