By Tom Leatherland

 

The Scottish spring conference this year was in Edinburgh’s Assembly Rooms on George Street, making it an easy venue for those of us in Fife to get to, except for the many members who are still at work who therefore couldn’t make the Friday. The band of pensioners who went along on Friday were fortunate to hear some of the best debates, before numbers were increased on Saturday by younger elements of the team.

As ever, the atmosphere throughout was positive and cheerful, with a real feeling that with a good effort and some effective campaigning on the Liberal Democrats’ positive policies in the lead-up to the May Holyrood election, we should be able to get back more MSP’s than won seats in 2011 when anti-Westminster coalition feelings were at their strongest.

As an environmental scientist, I was particularly supportive of the second motion on ‘Tackling Climate Change and Protecting Nature’. There was a proposed amendment, making the point that fracking could be adequately regulated to ensure that it didn’t cause excessive local environmental damage. The debate was particularly lively, but unfortunately my bid to speak against the amendment wasn’t called. While I agree that fracking could be adequately controlled, the regulatory measures required could make it uneconomic if the price of oil stays low, and it would increase our carbon emissions. I’m pleased that the executive has subsequently confirmed that our manifesto will confirm our continuing support for the current moratorium on the grounds that it would be incompatible with Scotland’s aim to meet carbon dioxide emission reduction targets. My wife was luckier, and did get invited to the podium to make her point.

The ‘Plan for the Islands’ promoted (unsurprisingly?) by Tavish Scott and Liam McArthur, sought an ‘Islands (Scotland) Bill’ which would among other things transfer management of the seabed around islands to the relevant Councils, rather than to Holyrood; extend ‘road equivalent tariff’ ferry fares to the northern as well as the western isles and introduce a working, active ‘Islands Plan’ to address the interests of islands including better mobile phone and broadband coverage. It was passed unanimously.

Willie Rennie’s clear and rousing address was perhaps inevitably very well received, but his themes of fairness and actions to ensure equal opportunity for all, in all things but particularly through the education system, must surely chime with us all.

The last two debates on Friday concerned ‘Empowering Public Sector Workers’ and ‘Supporting the Rights of Children and Young People’. The first of these called for the Scottish Parliament to champion a liberating agenda to roll-back the top-down, target-driven, one-size-fits-all culture coming from the SNP which distorts our public services, a reduction in form-filling by staff and the safeguarding of public sector workers who whistle-blow on practice which may put individuals or communities at risk. The second gave rise to some lively contributions on whether or not all physical punishment of children should be prohibited by legislation.

Saturday brought an even more lively debate on Willie’s plan to get more women MP’s and MSP’s elected by having all-female candidate short-lists in the 5 top Scottish seats most likely to be won and not held by incumbents. Several of the contributions were clearly heartfelt, and it’s noteworthy that the award given at the end of the Conference for the best contribution from the floor went to a lady who’d gone to the podium and put up a terrific  argument against positive discrimination in favour of women. This was however ultimately the losing case, and the crucial amendment was passed with a 75/25% majority. I voted for the change, but this was only after I’d had a chat with Willie about it one (freezing, damp) day when we were out campaigning in Anstruther.

Other highlights of the second day were Tim Farron’s speech, which demonstrated just what a good ‘front man’ and presenter we have as our new leader; the financing of local government (we voted for changes to the current banding system, to collect more ‘top-end’ money, plus seeking additional new income sources, rather than making a wholesale change to some sort of local income tax); and our ‘pre-manifesto’ for the Holyrood election. While I’m happy with the pre-manifesto as far as it goes, I did submit a speakers card seeking to try to emphasise that Scotland doesn’t just need ‘an innovative economy’, it needs a ‘growing and thriving innovative economy’ with wealth-creating industries (includes food & farming) helping generate the taxes and personal incomes we need to support the services and welfare provisions we need. I again wasn’t called to speak, but this didn’t stop me from subsequently submitting my views to the policy team, and I’ll be interested to see if they’re picked-up in later editions of the manifesto!

All in all it was an interesting couple of days and we were sent away by Tim Farron to go out and get our message across to voters, maybe on the doorstep, before the May election.