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Leader's speech to the Scottish Party Conference, Aberdeen 1996

Paddy Ashdown (Liberal Democrat)

Location: Aberdeen

Exactly a year ago, I was addressing your local election rally in Perth, a week before your local elections.

A month later I was back for your Spring Conference ... to celebrate your successes!

You might remember that I also used that opportunity to spur on my English and Welsh colleagues, on the eve of our elections, to follow your example!

And in Liberal Democrat successes, as in so much else, Scotland leads the way!

You beat the Tories into fourth place.

We in England beat them into third place.

Across Britain, the Liberal Democrats are now the second party of local government in Britain.

Providing first-class service and first-class government, right across the country.

And I'd like to take this opportunity to say a big thank-you to all the Liberal Democrat councillors who've been struggling over recent weeks to set new local council budgets without the resources to meet the tasks you're being required to carry out, let alone anything else. Trying to square the circle is tough work!

Since that Spring Conference a year ago, I've been to Perth again; we've had our highly successful Federal Conference in Glasgow; I kicked off my Britain-wide tour in the Scottish Borders; and I joined Donald Gorrie for a great public rally in the heart of Edinburgh West.

And now, for this year's Conference, I join you in Aberdeen - next door to Malcolm Bruce's seat - in a corner of Scotland where at the next election the Liberal Democrats are the only realistic challengers to the Conservatives, and where that Liberal Democrat vote will harry the Conservatives out of office, out of Scotland, and out of our lives.

Right across Scotland, from Stewartry to Shetland, from Kelso to the Kyle of Lochalsh, Liberal Democrats are a strong, independent force, growing in strength, and making a difference.

In Westminster, Scottish Liberal Democrat MPs are a team of real quality and real standing - an asset to the Liberal Democrats, not just here in Scotland, but right across Britain.

And if quality is what shows in Scottish Liberal Democrat MPs at Westminster, it's quality and quantity which shows in Liberal Democrat councillors in the council chambers of Scotland.

Liberal Democrats now have a record 125 councillors in Scotland. The Conservatives only 80.

In Scotland's three biggest cities we have twenty-one councillors. The SNP have two.

And when the unitary councils start their work on Monday, Liberal Democrats will not only be the main opposition to Labour in councils like East Dunbartonshire, Fife and here in the City of Aberdeen, we will be helping to run the Highlands, the Borders, Aberdeenshire, Dumfries and Galloway, and Shetland.

By contrast, the Conservatives will have power and influence on not one single council. The only place where the Conservatives will have a seat of power in Scotland will be in the chair in the Secretary of State's office in St Andrews House in Edinburgh! A seat he holds, not because of Scottish votes, but because of a minority of English voters, who gave the Conservatives a majority in Westminster at the last General Election.

Where else, but Scotland, in the whole democratic world, could a Party winning 7% of the seats in an election still end up exercising most of the power?!

Yet such paradoxes are nothing new in Scotland.

After all, where else in the world do you find a country with its own legal system that does not have its own Parliament to legislate for that system?!

But I believe the paradox of Tory power without mandate, Tory power without representation, Tory power - almost - without responsibility - has now become a paradox too far for Scotland.

Unrepresentative Westminster rule in Scotland has now become unsustainable. The hour for Home Rule has at last come. And the Scottish Liberal Democrats, whose historic mission has been to deliver Home Rule, are the guarantee that the Scottish people's claim of right to their own Parliament at last becomes a reality.

A Parliament with teeth. A Parliament with real power. And a Parliament that maintains Scotland's place in a Union that the majority of Scottish people support and enjoy.

What the Scottish people do NOT self-evidently support is this Government. What they do NOT enjoy is confidence in anything this Government says or does.

But let's face it, the Scottish people aren't alone in THAT! The British people have now lost all faith in this Government.

You only have to look at how the BSE catastrophe now engulfing the country has been handled, to see why.

Our rural communities are facing their biggest crisis for thirty years.

Like me in Somerset, and my colleagues in other parts of the country, Malcolm Bruce here in Aberdeenshire has been besieged by cries for help from people who are simply desperate - not just farmers, but thousands of people whose livelihoods are hanging by a thread in industries that dominate our rural communities.

Already in Aberdeenshire, 3 cattle markets have closed for good, 200 jobs have been lost already, and thousands more are hanging in the balance. Malcolm is not here now, because he is taking the Scottish Agriculture Minister round the farmers and meat companies in this area, showing the Government why immediate emergency intervention is so vital.

I have been saying since last weekend that what is needed now is clear, decisive action to meet explicit, defined aims: to clear BSE from the British cattle herd and food chain, re-establish the reputation of British beef, and restore consumer confidence.

Prime Scotch beef has always been in great demand on all the best tables all round the world, and we must strive to get it back there as soon as possible. Painful though decisive action is, without it the industry will collapse, and our rural communities will just bleed to death.

I have told the Prime Minister that he can rely on our support if he produces a package of measures that has that effect. This is a time when politicians have to work together to restore confidence, and rescue livelihoods that are being destroyed.

That doesn't stop us criticising the Government. It means that when it comes to action, then where we can agree we should work with them to save jobs, business and farms.

So here are our proposals. To restore confidence, and ensure that we are able to promote a "BSE-free" national herd, we need four actions.

First, we need to take out of the food chain all dairy cattle which could have had access to BSE infected feed in the late 1980s. That requires a selective cull of older cattle, and there is no point ducking that.

Second, as soon as this first action is taken we need to have in place a Quality Assurance Scheme that guarantees the quality of beef on our shelves.

The failure of successive governments to invest in and promote such a scheme is one reason why producers of quality beef, like the beef this part of the world is famous for, feel unfairly tarred with the brush of poor-quality beef.

Third, we need to work WITH our European partners on this. As I predicted on Monday, there is a real danger that in fashioning a stick with which to beat Britain, our European partners create a stick with which they themselves will be beaten in the future, as their problems emerge.

This is not only a British problem - it's a Europe-wide one, which needs a Europe-wide solution.

Finally, we need to recognise that for as long as one department is responsible for both food production and food safety, for both the producer interest and the consumer interest, a conflict of interest is inevitable.

We must, now, separate responsibility for food safety from MAFF's responsibility for food production, establishing a new Food Commission to represent the consumer interest in the same way the US Food and Drug Administration does in America.

That's not a piece of hindsight after the BSE crisis. That's what we established as Liberal Democrat policy back in 1993.

These then are four immediate steps the Government could and should take. And if the Prime Minister brings forward plans along these lines, then he will have our support. This is what co-operative politics is all about.

At the same time, there is no getting away from the lessons of this BSE crisis for the way that Britain is being run.

For the BSE affair reads like a medieval morality play on modern-day Conservatism.

It encapsulates the failures of this Government. It contains in a single issue, all the British people's fears about the Conservatives. In the BSE saga we see all the failures of this Government and of modern Conservatism:

It begins with an obsession with low-cost, profit-driven deregulation.

It grows through a market-knows-best, the-people-know-nothing philosophy.

It is compounded by weak and indecisive leadership.

It festers with the reputation for broken promises and trust betrayed.

And it contains within it all the bitter fruits of a European policy so damaging to our national interests that it amounts to one of Britain's greatest foreign policy failures since the Second World War.

Think, first, about deregulation.

Every six months the Government launches new deregulation drives, to get rid of "red tape". You see, anti-bureaucrat, "get-of-our-backs" deregulation makes easy, populist headlines - though it makes you wonder who's been in office for the last seventeen years!

But politicians should remember, when they call for new bonfires of controls, that the very purpose of these controls is to prevent bonfires of people in tragedies like the Phillipino disco two weeks ago, or the bonfire of cattle carcasses we are likely to see in the weeks ahead, or the bonfire of jobs that is already starting to engulf rural Britain.

And anti-regulation has been part of a wider agenda - geared to intensifying production and maximising profits in every sector of our economy and national life - not just in our private industries, but in our public services, too.

Tighter regulation on animal feed stuffs was called for in the late 70s - and rejected.

Then, once the BSE problem was first identified in the 80s, tighter controls were rejected again.

Then, in the 90s, once the link between BSE and CJD was increasingly clear, tighter regulation was rejected once again.

In the end - catastrophe, as consumers finally lost confidence in both British beef and the British government at the same time.

The reason we were given was expense. Well, whatever the cost of action earlier, in 1979, in 1985, in 1989, it would have been less than Britain's farmers, Britain's meat industry, and Britain's rural communities are having to pay now.

This brings me to the second failure of the BSE crisis. A failure of leadership.

What we have seen is a copy book example of Majorism in action.

What was needed from this Government was clear and decisive action to restore consumer confidence in the beef market. Instead, we've had nothing but prevarication and indecision.

The Government first took refuge in scientific opinion, while shouting "don't panic"! A sort of cross between Dr Strangelove and Corporal Jones!

But scientific opinion is not a substitute for judgement. As Mrs Thatcher once famously said: "Advisers advise; ministers decide".

Then the Government said the decisive programme of action proposed by the Liberal Democrats at the start of the week was unnecessary. Then the National Farmers' Union produced similar proposals. And finally, the U-turn. Not with grace and confidence. But in chaos and confusion - most notable for the undignified attempts to shift responsibility onto everyone and anyone else - Opposition politicians, the media, Europe, Macdonalds, and lastly and most desperately, the poor long-suffering public themselves.

On Wednesday, Mr Dorrell, the Health Secretary, told us: "it's not the cows that are mad, it's the people". The Prime Minister joined in, accusing the nation of mass hysteria.

I am reminded of Berthold Brecht's famous comment of 1930s Germany: "the government has decided that the people are wrong, and the people will therefore be abolished".

The collapse of consumer confidence stems, too, from a broader crisis now enveloping this Government - a crisis of trust.

The last election was won on a fraudulent prospectus, and its record ever since has been a record of broken promises and betrayed trust.

VAT on fuel. Devaluation. Cash for questions. The Scott Report. These are just the tips of an iceberg of broken trust upon which the Conservative ship of state is now impaled as irretrievably as the Titanic.

People have not believed the Government on BSE because they no longer believe this Government on anything. This is not just an issue of confidence in British beef - it's an issue of confidence in this Government.

Finally, with the crisis at its height, the country has had to pay the heavy, unnecessary, price of British European policy over recent years - our alienation of all possible European allies.

On a day when our Prime Minister is meeting with his European counterparts on the first stage of this crucial Inter-Governmental Conference on Europe's future, just reflect on the failure of that European policy as it now affects Britain's farmers and Britain's rural communities,. Britain's industries and Britain's consumers.

Take British policy towards Belgium as just one example.

Do you remember, a year ago, the triumphant breast-beating of Tory backbenchers and the right-wing press when John Major refused to accept Belgian Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene as President of the European Commission? They loved it.

Eventually, of course, we ended up with the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Jacques Santer, as President of the Commission - a man whose views, by his own admission, were identical to those of the Belgian Premier we rejected.

So the sole achievement of this conspicuous, futile, counter-productive, tub-thumping wielding of our much-vaunted veto was ... nothing more than the alienation of the Belgian government.

And who said the art of diplomacy was dead?

Twelve months on, will someone give me one good reason why, on the issue of British meat, the Belgian government should give any support to a British Prime Minister who humiliated their OWN Prime Minister for no better reason than the appeasement of his own back-benchers and right-wing media puppeteers?

The reality is that the most notable achievement of British foreign policy over recent years has been the comprehensive alienation of every possible European ally by obstruction, insult and childish jingoism.

Or look at the Dutch, with a government with whom we have always had close ties, which stood out most firmly for British membership against de Gaulle's opposition, and which has always done its best to help Britain.

Nothing more powerfully demonstrates how profligate this Government has been in offending our natural allies than the comment, in a recent Dutch Government report, that that only thing to do about British obstructiveness was "just to carry on without them".

And you know, you can just imagine what the headlines would have been like in the Times or the Telegraph, let alone the Sun or the Mirror, had, for instance, the Spanish been appealing for European aid in the face of a collapse of their fruit market because they'd all been using the wrong pesticide.

I can see the gentle headline in the Sun now: "Brussels Bureaucrats Waste British Billions on Stupid Spics".

The point is this. If you've spent the last seventeen years deliberately making enemies in Europe, it is hardly surprising when you turn for friends in a crisis, that they are difficult to find. And for that, British farmers, British workers, British consumers and the British countryside are now paying a very heavy price.

The Conservative Party still talks about Europe as if our partners are our enemies. But Britain's real enemy in Europe is the rise of protectionism.

We saw it this week, as Euro-sceptics like Edward Leigh jumped up and started demanding trade retaliation. Britain needs a trade war like a hole in the head.

And that danger - the danger of protectionism - is at the heart of our case for closer European co-operation, on the table at the Turin summit today.

Sir Leon Brittan put his finger on it when he wrote last year: "The European market is not an achievement that Britain can assume will never unravel, for the forces of protectionism and narrow national interest will always seek to gnaw away at it".

Markets will always be at the mercy of protectionist pressures, and the European single market will be especially vulnerable for as long as it operates with a collection of different currencies.

The speed and enthusiasm with which other European countries have been prepared to use Britain's BSE problem to gain a trade advantage shows the extent of protectionist sentiment still present in Europe and the dangers, by erosion or crisis, which threatens the unravelling of the Single Market itself, unless it is secured by a single currency.

That's why the Liberal Democrats' policy towards EMU combines economic realism with political commitment. Above all, and alone in British politics, Liberal Democrats say, unequivocally, that a Single Currency would be good for Europe, and if Britain can be part of it, then Britain should be part of it,

But if this crisis has told us everything about the Conservatives - and quite a lot about the Labour Party - it has also told us a lot about the Liberal Democrats.

What the Liberal Democrats have done from the very start of this crisis is to put forward practical proposals to rebuild consumer confidence and stop the devastation of our rural communities.

The reason for our clear position and clear policies is two-fold.

First, as I said when I addressed the Rural Forum Conference in Ayrshire in 1994, the Liberal Democrats, unlike the Labour Party, "are a Party rooted in the countryside ... aware of the complexities of rural disadvantage, as well as the seriousness of the problems".

But at the same time, the Liberal Democrats are the only Party in Britain free of vested, sectional interests. Unlike the Conservatives, for instance, we can address this crisis from the perspective of consumers and rural communities alike, without being in hoc to the farming lobby or the food industry. And that means we can be open and fair.

And that perspective - that position - goes to the very heart of what this Party has to offer the Scottish people and the British people.

Values, policies and an approach that puts people first - wherever they live and whatever they do.

We are not for one group of people against another group of people. We want everyone to have the best opportunities, and the best support, to make the most of their lives.

The policies to get us there flow from the same values we have always held - policies to foster self-reliant individuals, in strong communities, supported by active government.

Education to equip people with skills, and to bring out their talents.

Empowerment to give people more say and influence - be they tenants on housing estates or voters wanting to make a difference or have their say on Europe.

Policies to tackle exclusion, help people back into work, and to invest in Britain's long term future.

Fellow Liberal Democrats, this may be your last Scottish Conference before the General Election.

We go into that campaign in a very strong position.

We had a terrific boost at the start of the year when Emma Nicholson left the Conservatives and joined the Liberal Democrats. We have had further boosts with some terrific local election results over recent weeks.

But underpinning all this has been eight years of steady growth since our Party's formation, which give us terrific momentum for the campaign ahead.

For the good of the country, this Government must go. And Liberal Democrats, in Scotland and across the country, are determined to see them go.

Go out there, after your Conference, keep up your stirling work, and make sure that when that election comes, you send even more Liberal Democrat MPs to Westminster, to make a difference, to put liberal democrat values into practice, to change our country for good.

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