Sunday 28 October 2012

Speech to Scottish Lib Dem Conference

Not long back in the door after Scottish Lib Dem Conference and the follow-up Liberal Youth Scotland event in Edinburgh. Major news includes the formal approval of the Home Rule Commission headed up by Ming Campbell. I make little secret of the fact I support going further than the party, up to and including independence, but felt I had to support the proposals of the Home Rule Commission as they are a significant improvement on the status quo or what is being offered by others in the event of a "No" vote in 2014. Here is what I said:

"When we commissioned this report last Autumn Conference, I warned against two things.

Firstly, I feared it would leave us in a state of limbo on the constitutional question, stating unequivocally that the party opposes independence, but not doing enough, while we waited for the report, to demonstrate to the Scottish people we were not content with the status quo. I think we must acknowledge that in the past 12 months we have spent rather too much time 'doing down' the SNP, much though there is to criticise, and not enough distinguishing our attitude from that of Labour and the Tories.

My second concern was that the Commission would remain behind the curve of Scottish public opinion, failing to build enough on the work of Lord Steel some six years ago. On that point, I am pleasantly surprised. Ming has prepared an ambitious cocktail of new law-making and financial powers, which would give Scotland the kind of autonomy enjoyed by other sub-state units across Europe. Though this 'fiscal federalism' is not my ideal preference, it represents far more substantial progress than the Calman Commission.

Few fair-minded Scots would reject these powers in the event of a 'No' vote in 2014. Nevertheless, I feel we should keep an open mind to going further. Full fiscal autonomy would give Scotland the tools that it needs to secure a more liberal and socially just society. Does it really make sense, for example, for Holyrood to be responsible for health issues like addiction, but not control the drugs laws or alcohol and tobacco taxes in Scotland? Where is the logic in retaining welfare matters, like housing benefit, when the Scottish Government is responsible for the provision of social housing?

In a similar vein, I strongly support the review of the Barnett Formula. For too long the ability to deliver a federal relationship in the UK has been constrained by the structural flaws of ad hoc devolution.

To give proper effect to that, of course, we need a codified constitution. This presents an opportunity for us to commit the UK not just to decentralisation, but to human rights and social justice too. We need our own equivalent of the fundamental freedoms protected in perpetuity in the US constitution, rather than leave such important things to the whims of back-bench Conservatives who would repeal the Human Rights Act. It cannot be right that we give our UK Parliament unlimited power to trample on our liberties.

This is a once in a generation opportunity to write a constitution, whether for a federal UK or an independent Scotland. It is a chance to restate the values of our nation. To make sure this happens, Lib Dems must be prepared to work with all parties, including the SNP. For this question, as Donald Dewar put it, 'is about more than our politics and our laws. This is about who we are and how we carry ourselves'.

I support this motion, and urge you to do too."

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