Friends, it’s good to be here. In an ever-changing world, it’s reassuring to know that Brighton conference remains the same. Fabulous weather, delegates compliant with the leadership line – and a conference slogan about building a fairer country.
Of course, the third of these is no joke. 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.
Liberal Democrats campaign to put that value at the heart of political debate. And in government, we work every day to ensure that it’s at the heart of what we do. Now those of us who live in Scotland are well aware that not everyone north of the border wants to acknowledge what we are achieving.
There is opposition – quite a bit of it actually. But my response to them is this: we will stand up for our values and stand by our achievements.
Welfare reform is a good example. We want a welfare system that protects the vulnerable, supports people into work and makes work pay. A system that’s fair to those who need it and fair for those who pay for it.
Not the deep and arbitrary cuts that some would favour but we will never support. And in so many other areas, we will show what Liberal Democrats are doing for Scotland in this government.
Supporting the young unemployed with a Youth Contract that guarantees support to young Scots who are out of work and down on their luck. Supporting older people with our triple lock pensions policy: the largest cash increase in the history of the state pension.
And supporting hard-working people through a fairer tax system. Raising the point at which people start to pay tax, year on year. And cutting income tax for low and middle income earners. With 160,000 low paid Scots coming out of income tax altogether and well over two million paying less than they were when we came to office. By April of next year, a total of £1.2 billion less tax taken from low and middle-income Scots.
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 shown that even in the toughest of times, and against all the odds, Liberal Democrats have done for Scotland what Labour did not and the Conservatives would not.
We have shaped a fairer country. A fairness dividend, delivered by Liberal Democrats, for all of Scotland and the UK.
And in making these changes we will also strengthen Scotland within the UK.
One of my duties as Secretary of State is to safeguard the devolution settlement. That sounds a little grand, but it’s a responsibility I take seriously. As a Liberal Democrat I believe in that devolution settlement. Scots making decisions closer to those they affect while remaining secure within a strong and stable UK. It means the best of both worlds for Scotland.
That’s why, earlier this year, we passed the Scotland Act: the largest transfer of financial powers from London to Edinburgh since the creation of the UK.
It’s why Liberal Democrats want to go further still – with the Home Rule Commission, chaired by Ming Campbell, examining what further powers might be devolved.
There are those in the Scottish National Party who see devolution as a stepping stone to independence. But they are wrong: devolution is about strengthening Scotland within the UK - independence is about taking Scotland out of it.
So I – we – stand up for devolution, and against independence.
And when referendum day comes, Liberal Democrats will be at the forefront of the campaign to keep our UK family together. We will work with others who share our view and we will make clear the benefits of the United Kingdom.
Not just for Scotland but for everyone in the UK family. Whether we look at the size and scale of the UK economy or our place in the international community or our defence capacity and the jobs that come with it.
On these, and so much more, our family of nations is stronger together and we will make the case for keeping it together.
There’s an appetite for that. Poll after poll shows that Scots want to stay in the UK family. For reasons of the head, like the strength of our economy, but for reasons of the heart too – valid, emotional reasons.
For some, that’s because they think of their own family – like mine – living across the whole of the UK. For others, it’s because they trust in the quality and value of UK institutions like the BBC. And for others still it’s about the shared cultural experience of being together in the United Kingdom.
This summer, the Olympic Games brought to the surface a clear pride in Team GB’s achievements. Not a contrived or political feeling but a spontaneous and natural one. Those feelings are more than a match for nationalism.
Of course, the issue of independence cannot be resolved until a referendum agreement is reached between Scotland’s two governments.
I have said from the outset that any referendum must be legal, fair and decisive. That it should be made in Scotland for the people of Scotland.
But a referendum run from the Scottish Parliament, fulfilling the SNP’s election pledge, can only happen if we can reach agreement on devolving the power.
Yesterday I met with the Deputy First Minister for a third round of negotiations and I am more confident than ever that we can reach that agreement. I believe that there is good will on both sides.
We’ve discussed all the substantive issues, so we’re moving on to the crucial detail. And we have now asked officials and lawyers to put pen to paper so that we can both see in print what a package might look like.
We’ll talk again.
But we would not be talking at all if we did not believe that an agreement could be reached. That we can find a way to put this crucial question to the Scottish people.
Should we stay in the UK family, or should we leave forever?
Conference, as Liberal Democrats it is not in our nature to be nationalists. We believe in a fair society where what unites us is so much stronger than what divides us. Where the nations of our country come together and invest, in good times and bad, in our common goals and interests.
So let’s sort out the process, and move on to the argument. Let’s get this referendum started.
And let’s show the people of this country that Liberal Democrats, in government, stand for a fairer Scotland in a stronger United Kingdom.