Secretary of State for Scotland Michael Moore MP and Leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats Willie Rennie moments ago gave their speeches at federal conference.
As speeches go, these seemed to be more about reiterating and emphasising the Liberal Democrat position rather than making new announcements. That is to be expected. They were confident performances, but the heavy emphasis on the independence referendum and nationalism suggests that to a significant degree we are being dictated, rather than leading, the political conversation. Again, that is unsurprising, but as a Scottish Liberal Democrat I'd like to find more opportunities to facilitate debate on our terms and not appear as if everything we do is a reaction to what the SNP are doing.
Michael Moore was first to speak. His speech can be separated into two distinct sections: the first a defence of Liberal Democrat action in government and the second a focus on the independence referendum.
He was keen to play up the Liberal Democrats role in creating a "fairer" Scotland. "A belief in fairness – a society where those in need get help and everyone has the chance to get on – that is the core value of our party" he said. This fairness agenda is "at the heart of what we do" and we are delivering positively, in spite of "not everyone north of the border want[ing] to acknowledge what we are achieving." Fairness is clearly a key Liberal Democrat value, so I won't argue with him on that score. What I might argue with are some of the examples he used to evidence how this quality so positively imbues government policy.
"Welfare reform is a good example" he started. Erm, no it isn't. That welfare needs reforming is unquestionable but the way this has been delivered, irrespective of good Liberal Democrat intentions, has been anything but "fair". "We want a welfare system that protects the vulnerable, supports people into work and makes work pay" stated Moore. As do I. But that isn't, if we're being honest, what is being delivered by the Westminster coalition - as fellow blogger and activist George W Potter frequently observes.
Moore also referred to Liberal Democrats resisting "the deep and arbitrary cuts that some would favour but we will never support". Clearly this is an attempt to distance the party from the worst excesses of Conservatism but it avoids the inconvenient reality that, whatever our view of deep cuts, they are perceived to be happening and we are perceived to be complicit in their delivery. Not a great example of how we are effectively standing up for fairness.
Of course, it did get better. Moore also praised the Youth Contract, the fairer tax system with "160,000 Scots coming out of income tax altogether" and "two million paying less than when we came to office". In regards that last claim, I'd be interested in seeing some statistical evidence not only to substantiate it but to consider the reasons behind it. Two million Scots represent a huge proportion of the workforce. Certainly I am paying less tax than I was in 2010 but this is due not only to government policy but also lower earnings.
Moore was nothing if not positive. "So, when we go to the polls in 2015, we won’t head into battle armed only with words. We have an armoury of evidence and a record of delivery...We have shaped a fairer country. A fairness dividend, delivered by Liberal Democrats, for all of Scotland and the UK." That does sound good. Whether in 2015 we will be perceived as the party of fairness is another question and while I don't doubt that fairness is at the heart of the Liberal Democrat vision we face a real challenge to communicate that credibly.