THIS is a time of huge challenges for Scotland, and for Britain as a whole. The economy, rising unemployment, the threat of climate change and still a society that is too unfair and too unequal. It is time for a fresh start in Britain; time to turn away from the old mistakes of the past and try a different approach. The same old swinging pendulum of red-blue, blue-red politics in Westminster has been allowed to fail for far too long.
Labour's time is up. They didn't deliver what they promised, and now they've run out of ideas and out of steam. The Conservatives are just waiting their turn, so arrogant they think they deserve to be in power without even telling us what they stand for. And the SNP is irrelevant in UK politics – they aren't interested in getting a better deal for Scotland at Westminster, only in destructive politics to break up the UK. It's the Liberal Democrats who have the record, the strength and the vision to change politics for good, shifting power back to where it belongs – with the people.
It's liberals who invented the state pension and the NHS, liberals who were first to campaign to protect the environment and liberals who first put concern for human rights into our foreign affairs. The Liberal Democrats are a pioneering party – the party of Charles Kennedy and Ming Campbell, who stood up against jeers and derision to campaign against the illegal invasion of Iraq. We led calls for a Scottish Parliament while Labour and the Nationalists stalled, pushing for practical, workable devolution for Scotland. And we've pioneered policies for radical tax reform that would put 700 in the pocket of almost every working man and woman, paid for by taxing the very wealthy and polluters more.
That's what the Liberal Democrat conference is going to be all about this week: setting out why we offer the country a better future because we're different from the old establishment parties, and more ready than we've ever been to lead change in Britain. We are being honest about what we can deliver and what we stand for so that people know what they can expect from the Liberal Democrats: a fair society, a new, stable, green economy, and a politics free of corruption in which power is shifted to the people.
The next government has big challenges on its plate. The economic crisis has put huge strain on public finances. Based on the government's own figures we will borrow 175 billion this year alone – that is 5,550 every second. With national debt rocketing it is impossible to be sure what the next government will and will not be able to afford. The only thing that is certain is that when money is tight political parties have to make tough choices about how to spend what little there is. Because balancing the books mustn't be just an accountancy test – this process must be driven by our values or it could destroy our precious public services. We need austerity, yes, but it must be austerity for the purpose of delivering a better society.
That's why at this conference, the Liberal Democrats are adopting a strict spending rule. Where we have identified a need for new spending – to create jobs, improve education or keep people safe, for example – we will identify a cut we can make elsewhere to find the money, so that spending doesn't increase overall.
That's how we can make sure our aspirations for a better future will be deliverable even in these tough times. We can save money by slimming down the bureaucracy, databases and agencies of Labour's centralised command-and-control state, by scrapping the hugely expensive like-for-like replacement of Trident that we no longer need, and by reducing the cost of public sector pensions for the highly paid. By having the courage to take these big, long-term decisions, we will be able to free up resources to protect front-line services, and invest in improvements like extra police or creating new green jobs.
Our first priority has got to be a new sustainable economy. We want to put Britain back to work and fight climate change by investing in green economic growth. By focusing growth on renewable energy, affordable homes and green infrastructure we could create thousands of new jobs. Plus we need a totally new approach to banking. A crucial part of that is splitting up high-risk casino banking from high street lending and current accounts – to make sure ordinary people's savings aren't put at risk. As we re-privatise the banks, we need to break them up, creating a diverse, competitive banking industry that has a much bigger place for small, local and regional banks with their roots in the communities they serve. As part of this process, I believe we could and should try to give the Bank of Scotland back its independence rather than letting it be permanently lost in the leviathan of the Lloyds Banking Group.
Under the Liberal Democrats, Scotland would be a different, better place. We'd have a fair society, a stronger economy and a different political system where everyone's voice counted. So if you want things to be different, really different, then choose the party that is different – the Liberal Democrats. There is hope for a different future, a different way of doing things in Britain, if we're brave enough to make a fresh start.