THE Liberal Democrats began their charm offensive in Scotland last night as their conference got underway in Glasgow by declaring they would be “heartbroken” if the country opted to back independence next year.
Opening the five-day event at the Scottish Exhibition Centre, party president Tim Farron said he shared values with many people in Scotland, and said he feared the remainder of the UK would be worse off as a result.
His call came after Scottish leader Willie Rennie called on pro-independence supporters not to question the “loyalty” of pro-UK supporters like him.
And, as the Liberal Democrats step up their efforts to back more powers for Holyrood, he called on Scottish party leaders who support the Union to sign a declaration on “joint commitment to a beefed-up devolved chamber”.
The conference comes as Scotland prepares to mark one year to go until the referendum on independence.
Party leader Nick Clegg told delegates at a party rally last night that he and colleagues would spend the next year continuing to make the case for Scotland in the UK.
But outside the venue yesterday, a small protest against the UK government’s bedroom tax was held, with the Lib Dems still facing a major deficit in the polls following their decision to enter into a coalition with the Conservatives.
In the traditional opening address last night, Farron said: “Of course that we would surely be poorer apart. And not just economically poorer, it goes far deeper than that. I don’t want to get soppy, but just know that the rest of Britain would be heartbroken if you left.”
He said that his desire for Scotland to remain in the UK was “based on more than affection”. He went on: “It’s about values. Values of community, of collective endeavour and basic decency. If you want to know my main, even selfish, reason for being so passionate that we win next year’s referendum it’s because I share those values too.
“Those values are not just Scottish. They’re my values, they’re values shared by people in Cumbria, and indeed in communities throughout the United Kingdom. Those of us who believe in more compassionate, caring and consensual values should stick together not break apart.”
In his own speech to Scottish members, Rennie accused First Minister Alex Salmond of questioning the motives of pro-UK campaigners in Scotland.
“We are for Scotland as much as any nationalist and nationalists should remember it,” he said. He added: “I know David Cameron is a Tory but I have never doubted his commitment to Scotland. This questioning of loyalty will not help the nation come together after the referendum.” He said Salmond should “not question my allegiance to my country”.
The Scottish Conference also heard calls from Business Minister Jo Swinson to take on payday lenders. She told the conference: “As a government we have made clear the need to tackle the key problems, and we’re putting in place a tough new regulator with much sharper teeth. Later this month tough new rules proposed for payday lenders will be published by the Financial Conduct Authority, which takes over responsibility for the industry from April. We have given them sweeping new powers to ban products, impose unlimited fines, and order firms to pay money back to consumers.”
However, SNP MSP for Highlands and Islands Mike MacKenzie said: “People in Scotland wouldn’t have been hit with Westminster’s unfair welfare cuts without the help of the Lib Dems. The privatisation of Royal Mail wouldn’t be happening without the support of the Lib Dems, and shouldn’t be happening.
“We are reminded yet again that a government rejected by Scotland is making important decisions that affect Scotland. With a Yes vote next year we will no longer be subject to destructive decisions made by Westminster.”