Liberals from the Highlands and Islands have always been at the heart of our party. From the late great Jo Grimond and Russell Johnston, great leaders like Bob Maclennan, Charles Kennedy and Jim Wallace in Scotland, to our current team at Westminster, Highland and Island voices have shaped who the Liberal Democrats are.
In Danny Alexander and Alistair Carmichael, I have Liberals from the Highlands and Islands with me right at the heart of British Government. At Holyrood too Highlanders have made their voices heard. And on the Highland Council we've boosted our numbers with Carolyn Carrick's stunning by-election win before Christmas.
The last time I was here in the Highland capital we were looking ahead to the Scottish parliamentary elections. They didn't quite turn out the way we had hoped, indeed it was a painful experience. As a party we lost a lot of excellent people from the Scottish Parliament. And a few weeks later we had the hardest loss of all - the sad passing of Andrew Reeves. These elections will be our first in Scotland without Andrew and to say he will be sorely missed is a huge understatement. His humour, commitment and sheer force of personality have been steering us through election campaigns for many years. But what Andrew would have wanted is for us to put last May behind us and move on.
That's exactly what Willie Rennie has done at Holyrood. And with his team of Alison, Tavish, Liam and Jim he is more than making up for in quality what we lack in numbers. Doing what Liberal Democrats do best - punching above our weight. Whether it's on defending the right of Scots to go to the Supreme Court. Being prepared to speak out against restrictions on free speech contained in bad law on sectarianism. To the campaign to protect the Scotland's colleges; to increase affordable housing; to promote equal marriage; Willie and his team have been holding the SNP to account and running rings around Labour and the Conservatives.
And we have a proud record of achievement in councils up and down Scotland. In Edinburgh, where Liberal Democrats have cut crime by a fifth thanks to real, community-based neighbourhood policing. In Fife, where Liberal Democrats have improved recycling rates and made it one of the greenest councils in Scotland. And in Aberdeen, where Liberal Democrats know a thing or two about clearing up Labour's mess. They brought the budget back from a cliff edge and are now held up as an example to follow by Audit Scotland. Our councillors don't get the same recognition as our MPs, MSPs and our MEP but they are the unsung heroes of politics here in Scotland. The work they do and the commitment they show to their local areas is crucial. Liberal Democrats have always understood that politics is local. Across Scotland, Liberal Democrat councillors are fighting for the things that matter most to their communities. Our councillors are the lifeblood of this party. Without their good work we would not be able to make the difference we are making in Holyrood or Westminster.
But that election last May altered more than the balance of power at Holyrood. The SNP victory changed the landscape of Scottish politics and it presented us all with a new and formidable challenge. The SNP now has a mandate to ask the people of Scotland whether they want to be separated from the rest of the United Kingdom? Do the Scottish people want to stay within the family of the UK or break up the longest and most successful political and social partnership of nations in history?
My hope, and that of our party, is that the people of Scotland choose to stay in the UK. As an Englishman I believe that our countries are much stronger together than they would be apart. That Scotland, like the other parts of the UK, has fared better in this global economic crisis than many of our European neighbours because we are part of one of the world's strongest economies. That we have all been protected from the worst of the recession by the credibility and low interest rates the UK government has been able to secure and maintain.
But the question of Scottish independence shouldn't be a numbers game. Too much of the debate over independence is about what divides us, not what unites us. The people of the United Kingdom have a rich shared heritage. We share a culture, a history and an identity. We live side by side in towns and cities across the British Isles. Scottish, English, Welsh and Northern Irish people are together every day, in offices and factories, school classrooms and playing fields. We have rallied together in hard times. Our forefathers fought together and died together, just as brave Scottish, English, Welsh and Northern Irish service men and women are fighting side by side in faraway lands right now. For centuries we have crossed each others borders, married each other, raised families together. What Scot doesn't have any English, Welsh or Northern Irish in their family tree? I believe the bonds that bring us together are stronger than the forces that would tear us apart.
But it is not for me to tell the people of Scotland what they should think. The debate over Scotland's future is one for the people of Scotland. The referendum - which our excellent Secretary of State for Scotland Mike Moore is doing such a great job ensuring will be legal, fair and decisive - must be made here in Scotland for the people of Scotland. And I hope all of you will support Mike and Danny, and Willie and all of our team in Scotland in making the case for staying in the UK.
Liberal Democrats believe Scotland is stronger when its two governments are working together. And we also believe in making Scotland stronger still. We have always been a party that is committed to devolution. For Liberal Democrats devolving power is in our DNA and we are delivering that in Government. The Scotland Bill which Mike Moore is leading through Parliament is the biggest single transfer of power from the UK to Scotland since the Act of Union. More power for Scotland because Liberal Democrats are in power in Westminster.
But don't think we're stopping there. That's why we have set up the Home Rule Commission to look at the next stage in the relationship between Scotland and the rest of the UK. And who better to lead that process than Ming Campbell, a statesman who commands such huge respect on both sides of the border. We need to settle the independence question first. But if the Scottish people decide they want to remain in the United Kingdom, then we can get on with the business of giving Scotland more power.
ECONOMIC VISION FOR SCOTLAND
Liberal Democrats in the Coalition Government don't believe in simply throwing a few headline measures at Scotland and hoping that is enough. We have a real vision for Scotland's future. I want nothing short of a green economic renaissance for Scotland. A Scotland where green jobs fuel a thriving economic future. Dockyards reopened as wind farm factories. Wind and wave power providing the green energy of the future. Scottish universities developing new green technologies for Scottish companies to export around the world. With Scotland's young people trained in the skills they need to be at the heart of our green economy.
It is early days, but we are seeing the start of this green energy revolution already. Between April last year and January this year, more than half a billion pounds was invested in renewable energy in Scotland, creating more than 2,500 jobs. And there is much more in the pipeline because Liberal Democrats have a vision for Scotland's economic future. A nation with vast natural resources. A nation of thriving businesses with skilled, motivated workers. A nation at the heart of a green energy revolution.
We don't believe in putting Scotland in its box. We believe a strong Scotland is good for the United Kingdom and a strong United Kingdom is good for Scotland. Four strong countries pulling together as one United Kingdom.
WHAT LIBERAL DEMOCRATS HAVE DONE FOR SCOTLAND
Nonetheless these are anxious times. I know how families are feeling. And I know how people worry about paying their bills. If you haven't had a pay rise for two years or more. If you can't plan for the future because you look around and you worry about what might happen if you lose your job or if your partner does. And all the while things are getting more expensive. One day you come back from the supermarket and wonder why your weekly shop costs more than it did. The next your gas and electricity bills arrive and they've gone up again, just like they did last time and the time before. You fill up at the petrol station and the price has gone up again since the last time you filled your car. If you're young and you don't own a home you wonder if you ever will. You get up early, you work hard, you never ask for anything and yet everything is getting harder.
We are coming out of a crisis, an economic heart attack, and there is no magic wand that will make everything better overnight. But as we build a new economy from the rubble of the old, Liberal Democrats in the Coalition Government are giving you real, practical help in tough times. That's why we have cut your taxes, even as we've had to take difficult decisions to raise money elsewhere. Thanks to Liberal Democrats, by raising the point at which you start paying income tax, we put £200 a year back in your pockets last year and another £130 from next month. And we want to go further and faster, lifting millions of the poorest workers out of tax altogether by raising to £10,000 the amount you can earn tax-free, putting £60 a month back in your pockets. Already we have lifted 72,000 Scottish workers out of paying tax altogether and two million Scottish workers have received a tax cut. Liberal Democrat tax cuts for the many - not the few.
This Coalition Government is standing up for the culture of work that is such a proud part of Scotland's history. By making sure that work always pays. By making sure people can keep more of the money they earn. And by making sure our young people have the skills they need to enter the world of work. And for those of you whose working life is over, Liberal Democrats are on your side too.
Thanks to our pensions triple lock, a million Scottish pensioners will receive the most generous rise in the state pension for a generation. From next month, you will receive an extra £5.30 a week. No more of Labour's insulting 75p pension rises. Liberal Democrats are giving you real help.
In November Danny Alexander announced that the Scottish Government was to receive £103m from the Fossil Fuel levy to invest in renewable energy. That is real investment in Scotland by Liberal Democrats in Government. Last week this government's policies led to a reduction in fuel prices on the islands through the Rural Fuel duty derogation scheme. Labour didn't do it. The SNP said we wouldn't do it. Now we have done it. Liberal Democrats in Government delivering for Scotland.
So we go into this May's elections with our heads held high. A record of fighting for local communities in councils up and down Scotland. A record of holding the SNP's feet to the fire in Holyrood. And a record of delivering real help for Scottish people in Westminster. Putting more money in your pockets. Making work pay and giving our young people a fighting chance. And putting Scotland at the heart of the new, green economy that will fuel Britain's future. From our grassroots to our Government ministers, Liberal Democrats are building a freer, greener and more liberal Scotland in a fairer, greener and more liberal United Kingdom.