Speech by Jim Wallace, Scottish Liberal Democrat Referendum Rally
Edinburgh, 11th September, 2014
One vivid memory of that evening was the learning of the Liberal Party’s commitment to a strong Scottish Parliament within the United Kingdom. I thought it was a good idea then – and it still is today.
Six years later, I joined the Scottish Liberal Party, having read Russell Johnston’s pamphlet ‘To be a Liberal’. And one of the real privileges of my life was to lead the party I joined, aged 17, into the Scottish Parliament, which distinguished predecessors had campaigned for, and which we, as a party through the Constitutional Convention, had done so much to shape. And not only into Parliament, but into government too. So today, on the 17th anniversary of the 1997 referendum, let’s reflect on what we’ve achieved.
Last November I was invited to address a class of first year law students at Aberdeen University. Before going in, the head of the Law School took me aside and said, “Just to be aware. Most of your audience can’t remember a Scotland without a Scottish Parliament.” That a new generation of young Scots takes the Parliament’s existence for granted is a welcome affirmation that we have achieved the permanent legacy of a transfer of power that has brought government closer to the people of Scotland.
But when we talk of powers, we must remind ourselves that powers were not and are not ends in themselves. As a Liberal Democrat, I believe that power should be exercised as close to the people as is consistent with effective and efficient government. That’s why, for example, the Constitutional Convention had a special section on Scotland’s Islands communities and why we have been engaging with the Islands Councils in their “Our Islands, Our Future’ initiative.
Powers are also the means to deliver the kind of social change and reforms suited to Scotland needs and aspirations. It is through the exercise of power that we can support individuals and families, help businesses and build a fairer society – that is what we sought to achieve in government.
Remember the first Act of the Parliament which plugged a legal loophole which had led to a man who’d pled guilty to killing a neighbour being released from the State Hospital. Most commentators agreed that Westminster couldn’t and wouldn’t have acted so expeditiously.
We then legislated to implement a Scottish Law Commission report to simplify the law relating to adults who lacked capacity to enter into legal transactions.
There followed legislation to give communities the right to buy land and individuals the right to responsible access over land, to establish national Parks, We introduced free bus travel for older people, free eye and dental checks and the abolition of tuition fees.
Perhaps most significantly was the ban on smoking in public places. England later followed the trail we had blazed.
And we did all as part of Team Scotland.
Devolution has given us the power to design Scottish solutions to the unique circumstances we face – and to do so benefitting from the strength and stability that we take from being part of the UK: security in defence; security for our pensioners; sharing risk among a population of over 60 million; the economic security and stability from being part of the world’s most successful political,monetary and social union.
It is not a static settlement. It is a home rule settlement which has shown itself to be flexible in meeting Scotland’s needs and opportunities from the early devolution of powers which allow Scottish Ministers to develop our renewable energy resources; through the subsequent transfer of powers which paved the way for renewing Scotland’s rail infrastructure and enacting a more liberal freedom of information regime.
Nor did the journey finish with the 1998 Act. The Calman Commission proposed new powers and the Scotland Act 2012, the responsibility of Mike Moore, increases significantly the Parliament’s powers of borrowing and taxation greatly enhances the accountability of Scottish Ministers and MSPs.
And our journey has continued with the proposals of the Steel Commission and Campbell Commission and the clear commitment of all three UK parties to more powers for the Scottish Parliament especially in relation to tax and welfare. Even Gordon Brown is talking about federalism – a measure of just how far we’ve come! And just as the Convention proposals were delivered after the 1997 election, and the Calman proposals in the first session after the 2010 election, so too will the guarantees given this week.
ut more important than the extent of the powers is the use of the powers. And I briefly want to look at two issues on powers and the operation of the Parliament to nail myths pedalled by the ‘Yes’ side in this referendum campaign.
I have been angered by the lies and deceit in the Yes side’s claims on the NHS. The NHS is fully devolved, so let’s look at figures published today by the Institute for Fiscal Studies which puts a spotlight on the SNP’s stewardship of the NHS in office. Between 2009-10 and 2015-16, spending on the NHS in England will have risen by 4% in real terms. Even with the benefit of full Barnett consequential funding, NHS spending in Scotland will fall by 1% over the same period. The Scottish Government’s priorities under the SNP has been to offer less protection to the NHS than the UK coalition government.
Make no mistake, the Prime Minister cannot privatise the NHS in Scotland. Only the First Minister can do that.
And secondly, can I draw attention to a piece in yesterday’s Guardian where the former Scottish Tory leader reveals the extent to which the SNP minority government between 2007 and 2011, was in cahoots with the Tories. Annabel Goldie says, “The bottom line is that when Alex Salmond needed the Tories, he couldn’t get enough of our help.”
So let’s nail the myth that voting ‘Yes’ will keep the Tories out of government in Scotland. During the three years before David Cameron went through the front door of 10, Downing Street, the Tories had been shaping the government of Scotland through the back door of Bute House – all courtesy of Alex Salmond and the SNP.
But let me finish on a kinder note towards the Scottish Government and quote favourably from their White Paper on the positive case – for a “No” vote.
Such has been the success of the United Kingdom that the Yes campaign wants to keep so much of it:
- The monarchy
- The currency
- The Bank of England
- The National Lottery
- The NHS Blood Transfusion & Transplant service
- The Royal Mint
- Research Councils
- Air Accident Investigation Branch
- Maritime Accident Investigation Branch
- Committee on Radioactive Waste Management
- Green Investment Bank
- Met Office
- Hydrographic Office
- UK Benefits System
- and Strictly Come Dancing
No wonder one journalist asked Alex Salmond whether he’d like to retire to Bournemouth!
Through years of campaigning, the Constitutional Convention, the Calman Commission, the Coalition Government’s 2012 Act, Liberal Democrats have done more to bring powers home to Scotland than the Nationalists have ever done.
Building on the the Steel & Campbell Commissions we will play our part, after a No vote in delivering more powers.
So vote NO next Thursday for Home Rule for Scotland within our United Kingdom.