02/03/2012 11:57 GMT

Nick Clegg Defends Union In Speech To Scottish Liberal Democrats

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has urged Scots to say "No" to independence before working to achieve more devolved power within the United Kingdom.

His comments to the Liberal Democrat spring conference in Inverness echo a plea by David Cameron last month, when the Prime Minister promised to consider granting more power in return for rejecting independence in a clear Yes-No ballot.

Today, Mr Clegg issued his own plea, telling delegates that the four countries of the UK share a culture, history and identity.

"We live side by side in towns and cities across the British Isles," he said.

"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 servicemen and women are fighting side by side in faraway lands right now.

"For centuries we have crossed each other's 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."

He said the independence referendum, which the Scottish Government wants to hold in autumn 2014, must be made in Scotland.

But the UK Government has called for the date to be brought forward, possibly to autumn next year.

Mr Clegg said Scotland is stronger when London and Edinburgh work together, highlighting previous efforts to secure more devolution through the Scotland Bill.

The Lib Dems are looking at how to extend power further through the Home Rule Commission, headed by Sir Menzies Campbell MP.

Mr Clegg continued: "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."

The Lib Dem leader, speaking on the first of a three-day conference at the Eden Court theatre, touched on the party's poor results in the Holyrood election last May. Just five MSPs were returned to the 129-seat Parliament.

Mr Clegg said the election was a "painful experience", but congratulated the Scottish Lib Dem group for "punching above our weight".

He said the party has defended the rights of Scots to go to the Supreme Court, fought for funds for colleges and promoted same-sex marriage.

At council level, he said recycling rates are improved and budgets have been brought back "from a cliff edge".

Referring to the SNP's landslide victory at Holyrood last year, Mr Clegg said the balance of power has altered.

Defending the 305-year-old political union between Scotland and England, Mr Clegg said: "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."