No-one could deny that the Liberal Democrats have had a rough few years. Beginning in Scotland at the 2011 election, the party suffered electoral drubbing after electoral drubbing, culminating in the spectacular defenestration of most of the party’s leading figures and most of the party at the 2015 general election.
But in Aviemore, at the Scottish Liberal Democrat conference on the 20th and 21st April, it felt like they had turned a corner. Conferences often feel congratulatory, but there was a genuine sense of optimism in the air. Buoyed by their showing in 2017, when the party in Scotland increased their MPs in Scotland from one to four, the party was on top form – personified by Willie Rennie, who bounded to the stage and made it clear that the Liberals were “winning again”.
As well as the expected slogans about being a “progressive alternative”, activists and elected representatives alike were up for discussing the nitty-gritty of policy across a whole swathe of areas. One activist declared it was only the Liberals who weren’t afraid to debate tough issues – and that certainly seemed to be the case. Over the course of the weekend, there were some heavy-hitting debates – including one on removing criminal sanctions from abortion, which included a number of emotional contributions. There was even a willingness to challenge existing views – in a fringe on social care, one member questioned whether it might be time to means-test some aspects of free personal care for older people, a policy introduced by the Lib-Lab coalition in 2002.
There were also big speeches, of course. Willie Rennie, after listing failings from NHS Tayside to Caithness’ maternity services, used his to call for Cabinet Secretary for Health & Sport, Shona Robison, to “accept responsibility” and resign. He went on to address Brexit, dismissing Jeremy Corbyn as a “hard left cheerleader for it” and the Conservatives as imposing a “forty year internal battle” on the country. The final part of his speech was a rallying cry to party activists to get “get out there, get campaigning, get winning”.
UK party leader Vince Cable closed the conference. In contrast to Willie Rennie’s tub-thumping speech the day before, the UK party leader took a more pedestrian approach. After paying tribute to the resilience of activists during the coalition days, he issued a call for a “people’s vote” on the final terms of the Brexit deal. The SNP and Nicola Sturgeon were also singled out as “embarrassingly silent” on such a “fundamentally important question”. As the speech, delivered in the style of a university lecturer and well-received by delegates (though less so by some in the media), drew to a close, Vince Cable looked to the future: “Morale is fantastic”, he said. “There is a very real feeling we are coming back.”
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