Lib Dems Willie Rennie urges Alex Salmond to start listening

Willie Rennie Willie Rennie delivered the closing speech to the Lib Dem's Inverness conference

Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie has told the SNP's Alex Salmond to start listening to ordinary people.

In his Inverness conference speech, the MSP accused the first minister of cosying up to "rich and powerful billionaires".

Mr Rennie also pledged that his party would bring people together during the debate on Scotland's future.

The Scottish government has already said it wants to hold an independence referendum in autumn 2014.

The MSP told the party faithful that the Lib Dems would be the "guarantors of change".

Mr Rennie said: "Be in no doubt. Other parties might say they want home rule but they are only taking their first, hesitant, infant steps.

"We will need to be the ones who bring people together and bring people along.

Start Quote

Our first minister prefers to court the rich and the powerful rather than the dispossessed and the vulnerable”

End Quote Willie Rennie Scottish Liberal Democrat leader

"We will be the guarantors of change.

"We have wanted home rule for 100 years."

Mr Rennie said his party would set out a vision for Scotland as a "powerful force" within the UK, with domestic control through home rule.

He said: "And when Scotland does vote No to the SNP plans then we Liberal Democrats will have an important job to do in taking the country forward.

"It may be that - after the 'No' vote - the SNP can survive the ending of their dream.

"We and they could well be able to work together afterwards to shape a home rule future for Scotland."

Mr Rennie also confirmed that the former national leader of the Lib Dems, Charles Kennedy, would spearhead the party's referendum campaign.

Turning his attentions to Mr Salmond and the SNP government, Mr Rennie said the first minister needed to "look again at his diary and make the time to lead on drugs".

He added: "Our first minister prefers to court the rich and the powerful rather than the dispossessed and the vulnerable.

"Giggling on the golf course with Donald Trump - who denies climate change.

An intriguing debate right at the close of the Liberal Democrat conference here in Inverness on the party's strategy anent the forthcoming referendum on independence.

Each side in the argument claimed that their rivals would be playing into the hands of Alex Salmond.

The call was for a Home Rule alternative to be placed on the ballot paper, alongside the option of independence. Advocates said that, otherwise, Mr Salmond would cry foul and might win more support for his proposal to end the Union.

But the bulk of the party preferred the alternative argument, advanced with passion by their President, Malcolm Bruce.

This was to the effect that Mr Salmond simply saw a Home Rule or Devo Max (or indeed Devo Plus) option as a safety net, a parachute or a Get out of Jail Free card.

"Up the back of the bus with Brian Soutar. The man who denies gay people equality in our Scotland.

"And now he's got Rupert Murdoch on speed dial; inviting him round for fireside chats at Bute House."

The Lib Dem MSP added: "Rupert, Brian and Donald - the would-be midwives of an independent Scotland.

"It's too much time with the bilionaires."

Mr Rennie's comments came after Donald Trump said he may spend more than £10m campaigning against a planned offshore wind turbine development, saying it would affect plans for his luxury Aberdeenshire golf resort.

Opposition parties also criticised a meeting this week between the first minister and News Corporation chairman Mr Murdoch in Edinburgh, where they discussed Scotland's constitutional future and the Leveson Inquiry into press standards - prompted by by phone-hacking allegations which led to the closure of the News of the World.

Mr Souter, an SNP donor, previously funded a campaign against abolishing controversial laws banning the promotion of homosexuality in schools.

Mr Rennie said the need to respect different views was a "massive challenge" to some in the SNP, adding: "The SNP heavies, the cyber-nats - the people who attack personally anyone who disagrees with them.

"It's ugly politics, and they will hunt down one-by-one on the internet those who stand in their way."

'Don't question loyalty'

Mr Rennie said: "If they are not careful, they will cause Scotland to become a divided country, setting Scot against Scot for a generation.

"My message to the SNP is simple: please don't question my loyalty to my nation just because I don't agree with your policy."

The Lib Dem leader also sought to rally support ahead of May's council elections, after his party was badly defeated at last year's Scottish Parliament poll.

Mr Rennie said party councillors had been working hard - cutting crime, boosting recycling, hitting homelessness targets and, in Aberdeen, bringing the city council "back from the financial brink".

Willie Rennie and Nick Clegg at the Scottish Lib Dem conference The three-day Scottish Lib Dem conference also heard from UK leader Nick Clegg

He defended his party's UK government coalition with the Tories, saying the partnership had cut tax for those on low incomes, reduced the cost of fuel in the islands and was delivering more Holyrood powers through the Scotland Bill.

"I am not ashamed to say that I am pro-coalition but I'll never be pro-Tory," he added.

Mr Rennie said the Lib Dems in the Scottish Parliament had forced the government to reverse college cuts and put more cash into social housing and early intervention.

On the issue of currency for a possible independent Scotland, the Lib Dem leader told the conference: "They [SNP] started by saying it would be a monetary union like the Euro - then they turned on their TV news and didn't like that.

"Then they said it would be monetary and fiscal union with the rest of the UK, under-pinned by the Bank of England - then they worked out that is what we've got now."

'Play at your peril'

Mr Rennie said the monetary union set up after the separation of Czechoslovakia fell apart after a few weeks.

He said: "Scotland is not 1990s Slovakia - but we shouldn't believe that nothing like this could happen to us.

"It did on Black Wednesday, when UK interest rates went up to 15%, as the speculators tried to wreck currency after currency in the Exchange Rate Mechanism.

"That's the power of international forces. Play with them at your peril.

"That is the risk - and that's the reality the SNP deny."

Mr Rennie also called for freedom of information laws to be extended, and called for an investigation into the practices of all health and police authorities, after NHS Ayrshire and Arran was ordered to release more than 50 reports on serious incidents at its hospitals and clinics.

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