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Speech Archive

Leader's speech, Brighton 1998

Paddy Ashdown (Liberal Democrat)

Location: Brighton

On the wall of my office at home there is an old faded photograph. It's of my grandfather.

It was taken almost exactly a hundred years ago. He has just returned from the Paris Exhibition, and has brought back the first motor car in Ireland.

And there he is, sitting in it, proudly, outside his house in the little Northern Ireland hilltop town of Rathfriland.

I have his diaries too. In them, he says that this thing, the motor car, will change the world.

His friends tell him this is nonsense. They will only ever be toys for the rich.

Sometimes, you know, our faces are pressed so close to the window pane, that we do not perceive the scale of the changes of which we are a part - or understand their significance - or see their direction.

The Changes of the Last Ten Years

Consider for a moment, the world of just ten years ago, when our party was born.

The Berlin Wall still in place. The Iron Curtain still impregnable. The Soviet Union still menacing.

Nelson Mandela still in jail.

Margaret Thatcher still going "on and on".

William Hague still in short trousers.

And Peter Mandelson still just a gleam in his own eye.

And Tony Blair still a socialist. He had just said this.

"There will be few politicians standing for election next time on a platform advocating free markets."

Who would have dared to predict then, that in the next few years the Berlin Wall would tumble, Germany would unite, the Soviet Union would disintegrate, and the Warsaw Pact would disappear?

That the European Community of 12 would have become a Union growing towards 25?

That a Single Currency would now be just 99 days away?

That the prisoner of Robben Island, would be President of South Africa?

That Ireland would, God willing, be on the threshold of peace?

That the Tories would be swept away in the most crushing defeat in their history?

That socialism would have become a dirty word - in the Labour Party?

And, that the Liberal Democrats would have won so many historic victories - storming Labour's municipal stronghold of Liverpool, and capturing Tory parliamentary bastions like Kingston, Sutton, Newbury, Harrogate, and Winchester - by 21,000 votes?

Who would have guessed, not ten years ago, but two, that we would, today, have won devolution for Scotland, Wales and London? That we would have taken the first steps towards a Bill of Rights? That we'd be months away from the first UK wide 'fair votes' election? And weeks away from the start of the great campaign that will give us the best chance this century of winning fair votes for Westminster, too?

The changes we have seen these last ten years, and especially these last two, would have been simply inconceivable - had they not actually happened.

But - and here is my point - this is not the end of change. It is the beginning.

The very character of modern politics is being transformed.

Now, what's driving that change?

First, there is the globalisation of power.

Businessmen and women who commute between continents. Multinational companies who choose where - or even if - they pay tax. Money that flies round the world so fast, the pound can be halfway down the plughole while the Chancellor's still singing in the bath.

Borders are vanishing. The old limitations of geography and nation no longer apply.

And there is a parallel change taking place in Britain's politics, too. The long, slow decline of the old ideologies of the masses and the classes.

The end of the days when you knew what a politician would say simply from their position on the left or right. You can no longer guess how someone would vote, simply by the cut of their suit.

And then there is the change in attitudes. A new assertiveness. People: better educated, more questioning of authority than ever before, and better informed too.

They can watch wars live from their living rooms.

They can see the Budget analysed before the Chancellor sits down.

They can find out, from the Internet, about a coup in Africa before the Foreign Secretary has had a chance to read about it in his Red Box. Or, in the case of our Foreign Secretary, not read about it in his Red Box.

And they can read what a Minister will say before Alistair Campbell's even told them they're going to say it.

These three factors - the globalisation of power, the decline of class loyalty, and the end of deference - are putting great pressure on our antique political structures, and our antiquated political ways of thought.

The Strange Rebirth of Liberal Britain

Of course, to some, change will be frightening.

But look for a moment at what people are rejecting.

Class conflict. Elitism. Conformity. Centralism.

Things our party has fought against for half a century and more.

Now think what we are gaining. The new values. The 21st century values.

Interdependence. Self-reliance. Openness.

Liberty. Diversity. Pluralism.

Liberal values every one.

What we are seeing before our eyes is the strange rebirth of liberal Britain.

In the words of the leading academic John Gray "Liberal ideas and values now have no serious competitors in British politics." "Liberal values have been accepted as the spirit of the age, even by those who define themselves by opposition to them."

It is, as Bob Maclennan said yesterday, our fate, and our fortune, to be leading the liberal cause in Britain at a time when it has the most relevant answers to the great challenges that face us.

For decades we have circled the walls of Jericho, blowing the trumpets of reform. Now, at last, the walls are coming down.

If we keep our nerve.

If we stay focused on the future.

If we stay players on the field, not spectators from the sidelines.

Then we shall be at the centre of one of the greatest periods of reform our nation has ever seen.

And that means this.

That we cannot set limits on the changes ahead. And we must not allow limits to be set on our ambitions either.

A Liberal Agenda for a Liberal Century

Six months ago, in Southport, we set ourselves the task of becoming, once again, the pathfinders of British politics.

And we've made a good start down that road.

This has been a great debating conference.

The kind of conference that would send a shudder through Central Office and cause apoplectic fits in Millbank Tower.

But in this Party you're allowed to disagree with the leadership.

And I'm pleased about that.

I'm delighted about that!

Now, of course, the thinking doesn't stop here. There is more, much more to be done.

But we have, I believe, begun to create a new liberal agenda for the years

ahead.

A liberal agenda to pave the way for a liberal century.

Based around four great themes.

The powerful citizen.

Living in a strong community.

Supported by an enabling government.

Prospering in an interdependent world.

And the greatest of these is the first.

The powerful citizen.

Individual Freedom, Not a Nanny State

It is this idea which divides us from socialists. Because for socialists, power comes only from the masses and the classes. To the socialist, power in the hands of ordinary individuals is a threat.

And it divides us from Conservatives, too. Because Conservatives think of individuals as subjects, not citizens. As consumers, not people. To be governed. To be ruled. To be bought off. For them, too, the powerful citizen is not to be trusted.

You see, this is what defines us.

Now I don't wish to go back over old debates. I have heard your voice.

But I do want to say this.

We will have nothing to say as liberals if we allow ourselves to become, like the others, mere instruments for holding the centres of power we have, instead of using these for handing on power to those we serve.

We will have nothing to say as liberals if, when we have the chance to show we trust people to do things for themselves, we conclude that they cannot be trusted.

Don Foster quoted Gladstone yesterday. Let me give you the full quote.

"Liberalism is trust of the people, tempered by prudence. Toryism is mistrust of the people, tempered by fear."

Mind you, I suppose, if Gladstone was around today, he might have said New Labour was trust of the focus group, tempered by fear of Rupert Murdoch!

But trust of the people means far more than talking to a few of them before you take a decision.

It means letting them take a decision for themselves.

Giving them the right. Letting them take the responsibility.

Today we do not want men from the ministry telling us what to do.

Jack Cunningham telling us we cannot eat beef on the bone.

Jack Straw telling us it's time to put our kids to bed.

People do not want a "nanny state".

Letting Scotland's People Take Their Own Decisions

You know, there is an extraordinary paradox at the heart of this Government. On the one hand they want to devolve power. On the other they are determined to control it from the centre.

Labour has made the legislative change.

But they don't seem to be able to make the mental leap.

Look at Scotland. Labour sets up a Scottish Parliament. But Scottish Labour must do what London Labour tells it to.

We are proud of having worked with Labour and others to set up a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly. And we want that style of co-operative politics to continue after next year's elections.

But what this Government does not seem to have grasped is that devolution cannot work unless you have the courage to let the people take their own decisions.

The last thing Liberal Democrats want is for Scotland to separate from the United Kingdom - and Liberal Democrats in Scotland will fight separation, tooth and nail - you can depend upon it!

You know, we really should call the Scottish Nationalists the Scottish Separatists, because separatism is what they actually want.

It was Tory arrogance towards Scotland that gave the Scottish Separatists the chance to be strong.

And Mr Blair should take care that it is not Labour arrogance in Scotland that will give the Scottish Separatists the chance to break up the United Kingdom.

The lesson for Labour is clear.

If Labour will not learn to let go, then next May, Scotland will let go of Labour.

So, here's the choice for Scotland next May.

Alex Salmond and the Scottish separatists who want the Scottish Parliament to fail.

The Labour Party, who want to run the Scottish Parliament from London.

The Tory Party who wanted the Scottish Parliament never to exist in the first place.

Or the Liberal Democrats, who have been fighting for a Scottish Parliament for over 100 years. We helped to make it happen. Now we want to make it a success.

You see, the reform of our constitution to empower our people is not an optional extra for a modern Britain. It is the essential foundation stone upon which a modern Britain must be built.

Let me make this absolutely clear. Our work with the Government on the Cabinet Committee is about a programme.

It's not about picking and choosing.

The historic Cook/Maclennan Agreement before the election is a set of proposals which can only work effectively if they work as a whole.

So, there can be no backsliding on Lords reform. What place is there in a 21st century Parliament for people with 15th century titles upholding 19th century prejudices?

And there can be no diversion from the final destination. An upper house based not on patronage, but on democracy.

And there can be no watering down of Freedom of Information either. Some in Labour say they want to see a much weaker Freedom of Information Bill. Well, in the immortal words of Mandy Rice-Davies, "they would say that, wouldn't they"?

But let me place this on record.

A full and undiluted Freedom of Information Bill could have been published by now.

It should be published without delay.

And it ought to be enacted in next year's session.

Anything less will not just damage our work in the Cabinet Committee, it will also fatally undermine public confidence in Labour's commitment to open government.

So the events of the next few weeks will determine the future of our project, with Labour, to give Britain a modern Constitution.

Winning Fair Votes

And no event more so than Roy Jenkins' report on electoral reform.

Roy has already done more than any other single person to break the mould of British politics. And his report will be of historic importance for the better government of Britain.

For most of us, this is an opportunity we have been working for for all our political lives. To make our Parliament more representative of our people. To extend choice, and to rebuild trust in politics. To force politicians to listen to what people want.

Fair votes for Britain. A new voting system for a new century.

And remember, the key agreement we won in Cook/Maclennan was that this decision will be taken not by the parties, not by the politicians, but by the British people. It is their consent we have to win. And winning their agreement will depend less on having a system of PR which is mathematically perfect, than on having one which responds to their concerns, and maximises what they want.

But before the British people give their opinion, Mr Blair must give his.

So let me say something very directly to the Prime Minister.

We have disagreed, sometimes strongly, about properly funded health and education. And on other things too.

But your Government has done some very good things.

Peace in Ireland, devolution for Scotland and Wales, a Bill of Rights for Britain, an independent Central Bank - these are considerable achievements.

You have honoured, when many said you didn't need to, commitments you made on constitutional change before the election. And I respect you for that.

But I have one great question about you.

Are you a pluralist?

Or are you a control freak?

Your language tells me you're the first. But so many of your Government's actions tell me you're the second.

Your Government could become, potentially, a historic one.

But only if it lets go a little, if it relaxes a little, if it tolerates dissent a little, if it welcomes diversity a little, and if it interferes a little ... less.

You miss the mood of the age if you believe that this is a new era of control. You have said you do not want this to be a Britain in which only the Red Rose of New Labour is allowed to grow. Fine - then let it be a nation in which a thousand flowers are allowed to bloom.

So, Blair the pluralist? Or Blair the control freak? Your decision on fair votes will tell us which.

It will reveal what kind of Government yours will be.

It will determine the future course of our work together.

And it will tell us what kind of country you want Britain to be.

Giving People Power Over How Their Taxes Are Used

You see, Fair Votes is about spreading political power.

It is necessary to the creation of the powerful citizen, but it is not sufficient.

Truly powerful citizens must have economic power too - power not just over how their votes are used, but also over how their taxes are spent.

Let me give you an example.

Budget Day.

An ancient, outworn, tradition, that simply cannot be justified. We are kept in the dark for months. And then, one Tuesday afternoon ... Hey Presto! The Chancellor appears before us as conjurer.

Gordon Brown as Tommy Cooper. Magicking our future out of thin air. Just like that!

It may be great theatre. But it's rotten government.

We have to open up the Budget process, and find new ways to reconnect the taxes people pay with the services that flow from them. With more use of earmarked taxes - like our penny on income tax for education. Taxes raised at the same level of government as they are spent. Spending decisions taken at the lowest practical level.

And we need new ways of extending openness and accountability within government too.

You know, Westminster has been quick enough, these last ten years, to impose performance targets on everyone else: teachers, doctors, nurses, almost every worker in the public sector.

Fine. We agree. Quality in public services means focusing on what they achieve, not on what they spend.

But if that is to apply to everyone else, then why not to Whitehall, too?

Why should we not have performance targets for Government as well? Why should those who pay taxes not know how their money is spent, how efficiently it's spent and whether the Government has spent it where they said they would?

And that's exactly what the Liberal Democrats would do.

Nationally AND locally.

Every year, every Government Minister, and every chair of every council committee, would publish a performance contract - a Service Delivery Agreement. It would state what they and their senior public servants commit to do in the year to come. How much class sizes will be reduced?

How many 3 year olds will receive pre-school education? What level waiting times should come down to?

And we'd combine the National Audit Office and the Audit Commission, into a single powerful body, acting as a watchdog for the tax payer. And every year they'd publish a report on the Government's performance measured against their targets and how efficiently they've spent their - no, our - money.

No more vague and undeliverable promises, made at elections and forgotten straight afterwards.

A whole new climate of enterprise and innovation in the public sector.

A new responsiveness to the needs and priorities of the citizen.

Utopian?

No. The Government are slowly stumbling down this path themselves.

Gordon Brown seems to understand the need for contracts, too.

But once again, Labour have got the right idea, but drawn the wrong conclusion.

Gordon Brown wants contracts which make ministers responsible to him and the Treasury.

We want contracts to make them responsible to Parliament and the people.

It's not always easy for New Labour. So many changes! I could almost sympathise with them.

Just consider the case of Mr Iain Coleman, the new Labour MP for Hammersmith and Fulham.

Now, it could not be said that Mr Coleman thus far has made a major impact on the public mind. Indeed, before the incident I am about to relate to you, his most notable act was to allow himself to be set on fire by a fellow new Labour MP.

Who said: "Iain bet me a hundred sovs that I wouldn't set him alight - so I got my lighter out."

His defence to the Sergeant at Arms was, you might think, a unique one. He claimed that setting fire to a Member of Parliament was one of our ancient rights and privileges.

Well, thank goodness for that!

Anyway, to continue with the story.

Mr Coleman had a parliamentary aide who recently resigned - who can blame him?

He left behind a helpful note for his successor. Which, I think you will agree, gives you a fascinating insight into New Labour's fraternal views about its members.

Let me read it to you.

"As you are probably aware" he wrote, "most active members of the Labour Party are social misfits, rejects of society or mentally ill."

"They will ring up and assume that anyone who is in the office runs the Hammersmith and Fulham Labour Party. The best way to deal with these people is suggest they leave a message on the party's Ansafone downstairs for Sue and she will deal with it."

Good old Sue!

And what was Labour's official response to this view of their members?

They said they were aghast ... at his frankness!

Now perhaps I'm being a bit unkind to Labour in this speech. But I have to tell you. I spent a long time trying to find things to say about the Tories. But I just simply couldn't. They are just so irrelevant.

But I want to stop this talk going around the press gallery, that we haven't spent enough time talking about the Tories at this conference. It's absolutely untrue! We spent half an hour on Monday discussing how to improve funeral services.

So we can leave the Tories lost in their internal civil war.

We are clear of our route map to a Britain of powerful citizens.

Individual choice and freedom, not a 'nanny state'.

Constitutional change, to give people power over their politicians.

A new contract between tax payer and tax spender.

Personal empowerment. Political empowerment. Economic empowerment.

Enough?

No.

Building Strong Communities

No individual, however powerful, can exist alone. We need a context for our lives which enables us to understand our rights and recognise our responsibilities. A context which acts as a forum for common action. That supports us and enables us to support others.

Which is why we need strong communities.

And, that's why, more than ever, Britain now needs energetic, innovative local government.

In the words of John Stuart Mill, "It is but a small portion of the public business of a country which can be well done, or safely attempted, by the central authorities".

I agree.

Councils should have greater powers to act on behalf of those they serve, especially to improve education, and health services, as we have advocated this week. And they should get the freedom to raise far more of their funds locally. So they cease to be merely central government's land agents and become instead free, innovative players in their own right, the embodiment of the communities which they represent.

I want to see councils become centres of innovation.

That's our vision.

Compare that with the meagre reforms in the Government's recent white paper on local government, which may be well-motivated, but are so unambitious and so hopelessly over-prescriptive.

Once again the Government's message is "modernise, but only on our terms".

So here's a challenge for all my Liberal Democrat colleagues in local government.

We have, at this conference, agreed to introduce this new idea of Service Delivery Agreements and performance measurement for government.

Why not start by introducing this radical new approach to government in the local councils we control.

That's one way we can begin to rebuild trust in local government - trust that has been so tragically lost because of the scandals in so many Labour and Tory authorities.

Mr Blair says Britain's rotten boroughs must be cleaned up. We agree.

Doncaster. Westminster. Paisley. Islington. Glasgow. Sheffield. Hackney. Hull.

These councils, most of them Labour, have shamed local government, and have shamed our democracy.

But if Labour really want to clean up local government, then the means to do it is staring them in the face. They should have done it already. They can do it simply. They must do it now. The way to clean up local government is to introduce fair votes.

And incidentally, as we know, the most successful local authorities are not those that try to do everything themselves but those that succeed in building effective partnerships with the people they serve.

Developing Community Politics

Let me give you an example.

A triumphant lesson in the community politics we invented.

Do you remember the Beatles song, Penny Lane?

Well there is a real Penny Lane. It's in Liverpool, and it's where the very first Focus leaflets first began. And in the real Penny Lane there are some local playing fields, which were used by some of England's best footballers, like Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman, when they were kids.

And guess what? Liverpool's Labour council were going to sell these playing fields off to the developers.

But, this May, Liberal Democrats won control of Liverpool, and we saved Penny Lane playing fields. And, because we Liberal Democrats believe local people can do a far better job of looking after their own assets than the council ever did - or could - we gave them to a community trust - run and owned by Penny Lane people.

You see, it's just common sense. After all, who's going to look after playing fields best? The people who use them.

And how do you make playing fields a real community asset? You give them to the community so that they actually own them.

You see in Liverpool we've given people back control of their green spaces.

And now Liverpool are keen to do the same with their schools.

Now we debated the issue of neighbourhood schools yesterday.

Speaker after speaker said they agreed with the principle of giving more power to people. What they questioned were the practicalities involved.

Fair enough.

Perhaps we didn't leave enough time for consultation and explanation.

So the proposal we debated yesterday will not be in our programme for next year's elections.

But our colleagues running Liverpool, with all that experience and enthusiasm for devolving power to local communities, want to look again at this, consider all the practicalities involved. And report back to us.

And if their experience shows that this can work, we'll bring it back to you for full consultation and debate. And if it doesn't, we won't.

You see, it's practicalities, not ideologies, that matter to us.

Enabling Government

The practicalities of providing enabling government.

Separating the job of "governing" from the job of "doing".

Active Government. But active in enabling citizens, not in interfering in their lives.

Government that acts as partner, not master.

Government that rows less and steers more.

Our structures of government in Britain, local and national, are, frankly, left over relics of a past industrial age. Large, monolithic, hierarchical.

Do you realise that the size of central government today is bigger than when we governed half the world, 60 years ago?

And, you will remember, more recently, under the Tories, Whitehall hived off around a third of all it does to privatised utilities and arms length agencies.

So, has this resulted in fewer ministers? No, it's resulted in more.

And, during this Parliament, we will devolve much more of what we do to Scotland and Wales. And a good thing, too!

But, do we plan to reduce the number of MPs at Westminster?

No. Not even by a single one!

We, Whitehall and Westminster, have spent the last two decades telling everyone else in the public service that they must do more with less.

But we are now doing less, with more.

No wonder the public doesn't trust us!

Well, we Liberal Democrats believe it is perfectly possible for the House of Commons to run just as effectively with 150 fewer MPs.

And I can name them!

I've got a little list.

Peter Lilley's on my list.

Portillo's not been missed.

Michael Howard's on the list.

Lots of Tories on my list.

Red Ken's not on my list.

But then he's on Tony's list.

They'll none of them be missed!

They'll none of them be missed!

And talking about people losing their jobs, there is something I want to say to you about retirement.

Tackling Poverty in Work and Retirement

Our new pension proposals are a shining example of government helping people to do things for themselves. Offering choice through the private sector. Encouraging self reliance and rewarding those who can make their own provision for old age, while supporting more effectively those who cannot.

Remember the Government saying it would "think the unthinkable"? Well, we thunk it - they flunked it!

Time has now run out. The Government can't get away with just changing ministers any longer - they have to start changing policies. The pensions green paper this autumn will be a crucial test.

Liberal Democrats are clear about what we want to see. We want to give people more control over their pensions. But we accept that while most can make provision for their later lives, some cannot.

So yes, that does mean redistribution as well. And, unlike Labour, we do not shy away from the word.

Some of the poorest people in this country are the oldest pensioners. And we're going to raise their pensions by over two hundred and fifty pounds a year for the over 80s, and over a hundred and fifty pounds a year for those over seventy-five.

That's practical help for the most needy.

And we are prepared to change our tax system to help those in work, and on the lowest incomes. There is something badly wrong with a system which taxes even those on the minimum wage.

Well, we'll do something about that.

And we'll shift tax away from earnings and jobs, and onto pollution and the use of finite raw materials. Taxing the things we don't want rather than the things we do.

Now what would that enable us to do? With that, and closing tax loopholes, we can take those earning less than ten thousand pounds a year out of income tax altogether. And give millions of people new incentives to work.

There you are. More practical action from the Liberal Democrats. To save the environment. And tackle poverty.

So far, I've been talking about the Liberal Democrat vision for Britain .

The powerful citizen, living in a strong community, backed by an enabling government.

These are necessary for a Britain in which the talents of people can flower.

But they are not, in themselves, sufficient.

The Interdependent World

For we are no longer an island.

We are living in an increasingly interdependent world.

We've had a glorious, sunny week here in Brighton. As we sit here, secure in this hall, it is very difficult to imagine that just two hours flight from here, there are, perhaps 100,000 people, mostly women and children, and the elderly, who have been driven by the Serbs from their homes to live without shelter in the forests of Kosovo. And the first winter snows are only weeks away.

A human tragedy of terrible proportions is about to unfold.

Not in far away Africa, but here on our continent of Europe. But there's been almost no attention paid to it. That's one of the reasons why I've decided to go there tomorrow.

But here's the point.

Here we are once again. Another crisis on our own doorstep, in our own continent of Europe. Yet the European response has been, once again, hopelessly inadequate.

Just as in Bosnia, where the US had to bail out Europe's failure, and a European peace accord was signed not in London, or in Paris, or in Bonn, but in Dayton ... Ohio.

Sooner or later, we Europeans are going to have to wake up to the fact that we cannot continue to expect Uncle Sam to bail us out every time there's trouble in our own back yard.

Sooner or later we are going to find that our interests and those of our friends in the United States do not always coincide.

Ming Campbell warned the Government what would happen in Kosovo five months ago. He and I were told by the Government in July that President Milosevic would be stopped. But he hasn't been. He continues his brutality. He continues his ethnic cleansing. The Balkans stand once again on the threshold of war.

The international community, led by the West, must say to President Milosevic: STOP. Or we will use air power to stop you!

Give free passage to the United Nations humanitarian organisations, especially to reach the refugees in those forests.

Recognise that the problem of Kosovo is a regional one, that can only be solved with a regional solution.

And agree to start peace talks now under the chairmanship of the international community.

Crisis in Kosovo. Chaos in Russia. Financial collapse in the Pacific Rim. Of course each of these involves human tragedies which reach out to our conscience and imagination. But each of these also has the potential to reach out and threaten our security and our prosperity.

This remains a dangerous world.

So what to do? How to act?

Taking a lead in Europe

The truth is, that to be effective in today's world we have got to get our act together here in Europe. Sadly we have, once again, a Government which, rather than leading on Europe, is being led by events on Europe - or even worse, waits for a lead from the press barons.

Last year the Prime Minister told us: "We cannot shape Europe unless we matter in Europe."

Quite so - but without British involvement in the Euro, we will matter less and less in Europe.

This is not the moment to be marginalised. Nor is it the moment to hide behind business. Urging captains of industry to go over the top first, to be mown down by the Sun and the Sunday Telegraph.

Nor is it the time to ask everyone else to pick up the bill for the Government's own lack of resolution. Exporters punished by the high pound. Companies threatened by high interest rates. Jobs destroyed by both!

While Britain looks for leadership, this Government seems to be following the leadership style of Gilbert and Sullivan's Duke of Plaza-Toro.

Remember him?

"In enterprise of martial kind,

When there was any fighting,

He led his regiment from behind,

He found it less exciting."

The policy of our Government on Europe seems to be to dare only to delay, to decide only to defer, to commit only to be uncommitted.

So I say again: This Government will be forced by events to act on Europe, to commit themselves to entering the Euro, and to hold a referendum sooner than they think, probably before the next election.

But it's not only the UK that must change its ways on Europe. The European Union must change its ways, too. If it does not the historic opportunity to enlarge Europe to the east could be lost, and at the same time the dangerous gulf between Europe's political elite and Europe's people could widen even further.

The old tangle of opaque regulations and fudged treaties may have served us well enough up to now. But the benefits of these careful ambiguities no longer match the problems they create. Fears of conspiracy, and of erosion of national identity, however unjustified, are rife.

It's time to grasp the nettle.

To draw up a Constitution for Europe, which limits the powers of Europe's institutions. Clarifies the relationship between the centre and the member states. Guarantees the rights of European citizens. And boosts the Union's transparency and accountability.

This is our chance to reinvent Europe, from the bottom up. And let's start by removing some of the absolute absurdities that can come from Brussels.

Let me give you an example.

Across Britain there are many shopkeepers who put pounds and ounces on the food they sell, alongside the weight in grammes and kilos. Not because they're wedded to the past, but to help their customers - the elderly especially. But, do you know, from the end of next year Europe has decided they will be banned from doing this. It will be a criminal offence. A criminal offence!

They will not be allowed to use any other measurement except the official European one, even if it helps their customers. This is farcical! It is, almost certainly, an infringement of freedom of speech, and quite probably a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.

And in our European campaign next year, we will campaign to get this and other similar lunacies removed.

There is something ludicrously wrong with a European Union which can bring the full weight of the law down on a greengrocer who tries to help his customers, yet sits helplessly by while its continent erupts in bloodshed.

You see, we are friends of Europe - and we are proud to be. But we are candid friends.

We are pro-Europe - and we are proud to be. But we are clear about its limits and firm on its failings.

And determined to put them right.

So, when it comes to next years European elections, a vote for the Liberal Democrats is a vote for the only party committed to Europe and to reforming Europe.

It will be quite simply the strongest vote you can make.

Our Strength, Our Opportunity

Now right at the beginning, I started this speech by saying that we are living in a period of profound change.

For some, that change will be a threat. For us, it's an opportunity. An opportunity to unlock the potential of every individual and to rekindle our lost sense of community.

There's been talk in some circles of a third way in politics. It's good to know that others are groping for the path of liberalism that we've been following for so long. At this conference we have taken many more long confident steps along that path.

That the other parties will follow us, I have no doubt. But they cannot catch us because they are still too weighed down with their old ideological baggage.

We've come equipped for the journey. We know the terrain. And we know our destination.

So now, we must bring all our skill, all our strength, all our determination, to bear, in order to use this moment of unique opportunity, so that the days ahead can determine the decades to come.

And we can do it. For in the last ten years we have fought our way back to the very centre of British politics.

I have talked about the unimaginable changes around us in these past ten years - but the change of which I am personally most proud is the transformation of our Party and of our political prospects.

The dominant agenda of ideas - the powerful citizen, the strong community, enabling government - is ours.

Unprecedented electoral strength, is ours.

And so, today, we have arrived at the very threshold of an historic achievement.

If there is one thing I now ask of you and which I shall demand of myself in these vital days, it is this.

To have the self-confidence.

To show the daring.

To take the risks.

Which alone can win the prize.

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