Nick Clegg declares Lib Dem fightback in council polls

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg says his party is holding the SNP to account

Nick Clegg has told Lib Dems to go into the Scottish council elections with their "heads held high", in the wake of last year's "painful" Holyrood poll.

The party suffered a heavy defeat at the hands of the SNP in May but the deputy prime minister said councillors were the "lifeblood" of the party.

Mr Clegg also told the Scottish Lib Dem conference a vote against independence could see increased Holyrood powers.

The comments echoed ones previously made by Prime Minister David Cameron.

Last May's Scottish Parliament election saw the number of Lib Dem MSPs slashed from 16 to five, as the SNP cashed in on a collapse in the party's vote.

But Mr Clegg told delegates the party was "punching above our weight" in Scotland, highlighting issues such as "bad" sectarian law, college cuts, affordable housing and same-sex marriage.

And he said the UK government's Conservative-Lib Dem coalition was aiding economic recovery and helping hard-pressed families, while setting out a green economic vision for Scotland.

The Liberal Democrat leader told delegates in Inverness: "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."

The SNP is looking to make significant inroads during the local authority elections on 3 May but Mr Clegg said his party had a proud record of achievement in councils up and down Scotland.

"Liberal Democrats have always understood that politics is local," he said.

Mr Clegg added: "Across Scotland, Liberal Democrat councillors are fighting for the things that matter most to their communities.

Start Quote

I believe the bonds that bring us together are stronger than the forces that would tear us apart”

End Quote Nick Clegg Liberal Democrat leader

"Our councillors are quite simply 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 and I thank them all."

Making the case against independence, ahead of a referendum expected in autumn 2014, Mr Clegg said the people of the United Kingdom had a "rich, shared heritage".

"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."

Mr Clegg went on: "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."

The Lib Dem leader said the UK government was seeing through the Scotland Bill, to deliver new financial and other powers to Holyrood, while a commission headed by party veteran Sir Menzies Campbell was looking at the next phase of devolution.

Mr Clegg told the conference: "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."

He also set out his vision for a "green economic renaissance" for Scotland, which would see dockyards reopened as wind farm factories, wind and wave power providing the green energy of the future and universities developing new technology.

'Fighting chance'

In the meantime, Mr Clegg said the Lib Dems, in government with the Tories, had cut income tax, putting £200 a year back into people's pockets and had lifted 72,000 low-paid Scots workers out of having to pay tax at all.

He also said older people were getting the most generous rise in the state pension for a generation, while fuel prices were cut in island areas.

Mr Clegg told the conference: "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."

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