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Leader's speech to the Spring Party Conference, Cardiff 1997

Paddy Ashdown (Liberal Democrat)

Location: Cardiff

I want to start by telling you a story.

One December, a British Ambassador in Washington was called by an American radio station. They asked him what he would like for Christmas.

He said that, as a servant of his country, he couldn’t possibly accept a personal gift. But the journalist persisted. And eventually the Ambassador, anxious no doubt to get back to whatever it is that Ambassadors do, said: ‘Oh, all right then, I wouldn’t wish to cause offence. Perhaps just a very small box of crystallised fruit?’

He then forgot all about it.

Until Christmas Day.

When he turned on his radio and heard the announcer say ‘On this holiday morning, with the new year just a few days away, we called the representatives of three great nations to find out what they would like for Christmas.

‘First we asked the German Ambassador. He said he would like to see the final resolution of the East-West conflict and a long unbroken period of world peace.

‘Then we asked the French Ambassador what she would like. And she said she would like to see the elimination of crime and corruption from our society so that the youth of the world could march without fear into the future.

‘And then’, said the Announcer, ‘then we asked the British Ambassador what he would like for Christmas ... and he said he’d like a small box of crystallised fruit’.

Fellow Liberal Democrats, there is now a desperate need in this country for leadership in our politics. For ambition. For self-confidence. For vision.

Yet all we are being offered from the Conservative and Labour parties is a small box of crystallised fruit.

The challenges before us are huge. They have never, perhaps, been bigger.

How do we maintain decent public services? How can we re-establish the common values that bind us? How do we learn to live more lightly on our planet? How do we tackle poverty, at home and around the world?

No, the issues are huge. But the ideas and the responses we are offered are tiny.

From John Major, the big idea to shape our time:

The Cones Hotline.

Or the promise of a toilet every ten miles on the motorway.

Or a cadet force in every school.

You know, there will be schools where the children have no inside toilets. But they’ll have a cadet force.

There will be schools with more than forty children to a class. But they’ll be able to join the cadets.

And there’ll be schools with leaking roofs and repairs waiting years to be fixed. But don’t worry, they’ll all be able to join the cadets!

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve nothing against cadets. Unlike John Major and Michael Portillo, I’ve actually been one!

But it does suggest an astonishing sense of priorities, a puny shortage of vision, and a terrifying lack of ambition for our country.

These are indeed the small ideas of timid minds.

And what are we offered from Her Majesty’s Official Opposition?

Unfettered by the realities of office, untainted by recent failure; surely they must be a seething cauldron of great ideas and charismatic inspiration?

Well, yeeees.

There’ll be national homework periods.

There’s a distant, uncosted promise of a 10p tax band - this year . . . next year . . . some time . . . never.

Oh ... and there’ll be a clamp-down on that great social evil of our time - the squeegee merchant!

There are patients waiting on trolleys in hospital corridors because of the financial crisis in the NHS.

There are youngsters sleeping rough on our streets because they’ve nowhere else to go.

There are thousands of old ladies denied a decent pension, denied the care they need because of cuts, living in poverty, too scared to step outside because of crime, too frightened to turn on the heating because of the cost.

But we are told we can’t afford to tackle these problems.

So let’s get rid of the squeegee merchants instead.

Everywhere I look, I see this extraordinary discrepancy:

What is ahead of us are huge challenges to confront. What we are offered is the politics of toytown.

Or perhaps it ought to be The Wizard of Oz. Do you remember the Wizard of Oz? Do your remember the cowardly lion?

That’s what I thought of when I saw that poor, sad lion on the Conservatives’ latest posters.

That lion, you know, is a lion with a history.

The Tories chose it to frighten us all into voting for them.

But - and this is absolutely true - that lion was actually screen-tested for a part in John Cleese’s film - “Fierce Creatures” - and failed. Because it was too timid!

Seems a pretty good bargain to me. We get John Cleese; they get the lion!

Now I don’t want to be too beastly to Brian Mawhinney. He had a real triumph last week. He got - at last - a defector of his very own!

Mr Stuart Hughes.

The former Chief Whip of the Monster Raving Loony Party!

Now Mr Hughes has a history, too.

Finding the Monster Raving Loony Party insufficiently loony, he formed his own breakaway party - the Jolly Green Giant Party!

And in case you think I am making this up - that’s absolutely true as well!

But it seems that not even the Jolly Green Giant Party was loony enough. So Stuart has decided to join the looniest bunch of the lot. The Tories!

Now that is what I call “a marriage of true and settled minds.”

I am afraid to say, however, that even with that political career behind him, I don’t think Mr Stuart Hughes is yet fully prepared for Mrs Teresa Gorman and Mr David Evans!

That’s the modern Tory Party for you. Mr Stuart Hughes in one end. Mr George Gardiner out at the other.

But seriously, we are about to enter the last election of the century.

There are just 50 days or so to go.

50 days that will set the course Britain takes for the next fifty years.

And the election campaign, and the way it is fought, and the choices which are put before the country will settle the pattern of our lives for decades ahead.

And an election campaign of sourness and soundbites, which ducks the issues, which is bereft of new ideas, and which substitutes abuse for open debate is just not good enough for our country.

For this is almost certainly the last election of the Millennium. It should be a time of national renewal. An opportunity to unite us as a country, to point us, not backwards, to what has been, but forward to what can be. To liberate, to challenge - to inspire.

That is the sort of election which we Liberal Democrats shall fight.

50 days which are worthy of the 50 years ahead.

For the new ideas are our ideas. We have the power to see them adopted. And it is our duty to see that they are.

It is not only true that we can make the difference. It is also true that it is our duty to make the difference. Because no-one else will.

You know, the whole of our politics now seems to be infected by a terrible fatalism.

We are told that nothing can be done. We are told there is no other way. We are told we must accept things as they are.

We are a ‘can-do’ nation. But we are being let down by ‘can’t do’ politics, and ‘can’t be done’ politicians.

We can’t ask people to pay more for their child’s education or their family’s well-being.

We can’t ask people to pay for more childcare, to help women back to work.

We can’t ask them to use their cars a little less to protect our environment or save our children from asthma.

We can’t ask those who have most, to share a little, to give opportunities to those who have almost nothing.

New thinking is out.

Debate is dulled into a deadening conformity.

Conservative assumptions go unchallenged for fear of offending the conservative press.

Don’t frighten the horses - above all, don’t frighten the focus groups.

You know, in the services, there is a technique called ‘nightwalking’. It is a method of stealthily getting from A to B without making a noise or attracting attention. Here’s a description of it. See if it reminds you of anything.

“There is one thing and one thing only that matters: the feet of the person in front. That is your universe entire, the focus of all your attention. Look up, look sideways, look left, look right, just blink too long and you may lose the precise trail being trod. And stumble. And make a noise. And be shot at”.

The only thing that matters are the feet of the person in front. Stay as close as you can. Or you might be shot at.

I think the entire Shadow Cabinet has been away, taking weekend courses in political nightwalking.

I think they’ve decided to nightwalk all the way through to the General Election.

My fear is that, with the Tories tough talking, and Labour nightwalking, Britain will be sleepwalking right through the election, and into the next century - lacking leadership, lacking vision and lacking the optimism that breeds confidence and courage.

Forget all those daft Tory posters. That is the real danger of this election - that nothing changes.

And you know, there’s an important relationship between optimism and tolerance, and between pessimism and intolerance.

Confident, buoyant countries welcome diversity and challenge: they see impending change as an opportunity to be embraced and exploited.

Small-minded, defeatist countries see change as a threat: and their instinct is to retreat. To withdraw into bitterness, intolerance and prejudice.

If there is a single epitaph for this Government - for these last five years - let it be those terrible words of John Major’s, two years ago.

Do you remember them?

“It is time to condemn a little more, and understand a little less.”

Just think about that: “it is time to condemn a little more and understand a little less.” From the Prime Minister.

The man whose job it is to lead Britain - appealing for less understanding in our times.

Sixteen year old children leaving care homes where they’ve spent the whole of their lives. No work. No training. No benefit. Nowhere to sleep but the street. No way to live but beg. Because it’s time to condemn a little more and understand a little less.

Single parents, stuck in poverty on sink estates. No way out. Can’t afford childcare. Can’t even afford the cost of travelling to work. Attack them for a roar at a Tory Party Conference. Because it’s time to condemn a little more and understand a little less.

Refugees fleeing persecution. Seeking asylum. Asking for our protection. Lock them up. Deny them benefit. Turn them away. Because it is time to condemn a little more and understand a little less.

Young men and women sleeping in shop doorways just the thickness of a plate glass window away from job ads they’ll never have the skills to apply for. Attack them. Demean them. Demand they be hosed off the streets if it wins you a few more votes. Because it’s time to condemn a little more and understand a little less.

This idea - “it is time to condemn a little more and understand a little less” - has sounded through this Parliament - through the last five years - like a cruel drumbeat. Driving the Government. Mesmerising the Labour Party.

It is the reason why, leaderless, our politics now falls into step behind every latest spasm of nonsense put out by the right-wing press.

It is the reason why new laws are drafted, not with due consideration, but to appeal to the carefully whipped up vindictiveness of a Conservative Party Conference.

It is, above all, the reason why Mr Jack Straw and Mr Michael Howard are now involved in this bizarre public contest - to win the 1997 Attila the Hun prize for who can condemn most and understand least.

Since it’s a telephone poll, incidentally, Jack Straw is bound to win, of course!

If you want to see the illiberal drift of British politics, just consider the Police Bill introduced by Michael Howard.

A Bill which would have given the police the power, whenever they thought it right, to bug or burgle any house in the land.

From the very start, we spoke out in opposition. It was just instinctive.

But for Labour, appearing tough on crime was more important than standing up for individual freedom.

And you know what I found most depressing? Labour’s undignified U-turn finally came only after the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph said it was alright to oppose the Bill.

And then .... a spectacle to strike fear into the heart of any citizen - Michael Howard and Jack Straw sitting down to decide together how best to protect our freedoms.

A process, indeed, whose most likely outcome is something more extreme than either of them would have thought up in the first place!

On measure after measure of law and order, Liberal Democrats now stand alone in opposing this new and dangerous authoritarianism that has gripped British politics.

This attitude is not just the enemy of tolerance and decency. It is also the enemy of common-sense.

Of course crime and anti-social behaviour are a problem. They’re a huge problem. And we have to tackle them.

Let’s give the police the resources they need to do the job.

Let’s put more effort into preventing crime in the first place.

Let’s deal with young offenders in a way which stops them getting sucked into a life of crime.

Let’s give the victims of crime a new deal from the criminal justice system.

Instead of dealing with the symptoms, let’s start tackling problems at their roots.

Only this Government would pile millions more into prisons and boot camps, but cut millions more from our schools and colleges.

Let me tell you another story.

A month ago, at half term, I met a headmaster from Oxfordshire.

His school has been hit by cuts for three consecutive years.

His roofs are leaking. His classes are up to 40. And now it looks as if he’s going to have to sack yet another teacher.

No. I didn’t meet him lobbying in Parliament. He’d given up on that.

I met him on his way to Covent Garden in London. With his guitar. To busk. To raise money for his school. To keep that teacher. He said it was the only thing left he could do.

I don’t know about you, but I am ashamed that education in our country has come to this.

And what a contrast! One “can-do” individual, struggling to solve a problem our “can’t do” politics says we can’t do anything about.

Well, we Liberal Democrats reject that. And the whole timid ‘can’t do’ culture of our politics. We say we can do. We say we must do. And we say we will do.

We will turn the next Parliament into a ‘Parliament for Education’.

We will provide a massive 10 billion pound programme of education investment to make that happen.

We will turn the year 2000 into an ‘Education Millennium’ for our country, where we concentrate less on grand monuments, and more on creative minds. On the ideas and innovations and intellectual capital that will give choices to our children, decency to our society, and prosperity to our country.

These are the grand phrases.

But they are not good enough. So let me tell you what they mean.

They mean smaller class sizes, giving pupils and teachers the books and equipment they need, giving every 3 and 4 year old the guarantee of nursery education.

No. That’s still not good enough. I want to tell you precisely what that will mean - in detail - for your local school.

It will mean that a typical primary school with 250 pupils will, next year, get an extra 16,000 pounds for new books, computers and equipment.

It will mean that a typical secondary school with 1,000 pupils will, next year, get an extra 110,000 pounds to spend on new books, computers and equipment.

And it will mean that by the end of the next Parliament, we will have provided enough money to ensure that no child between 5 and 11 - no child at either infant school or primary school - need be in a class of more than 30.

Now that’s not a wish-list. That’s ‘can-do’ politics.

It’s not one of those never, never promises we keep hearing from Labour and the Tories. It’s a clear, costed commitment.

And here’s another.

Today, on Mother’s Day, a commitment to every mother and father of every baby born this year. That from the age of three, your child will have the chance of two years, high quality early learning to give them the best possible start in life.

You know, 2000 babies will be born in Britain today. They will celebrate their third birthday on 9th March, in the year 2000.

When they grow up, they’ll have no memory of this Millennium at all. But if we deliver, they’ll remember this pledge. Our Millennium Pledge.

Of course this will cost.

But it will create, too.

Better opportunities. Youngsters with more initiative - and a clearer sense of right and wrong. Less crime. Higher standards of education. And a stronger economy later on.

And immediately, 35,000 new jobs in teaching and support staff for pre-school education alone.

And that’s a commitment - and its costed.

Yes, we’ll have to put a penny on income tax to pay for these commitments. How much is that? Well, taken with our other tax changes, that’s an extra 45 pence per week for the average tax payer in Britain.

So it’s very simple. If you don’t think giving these children that chance is worth an extra 45 pence a week, then its simple. Don’t vote for us.

But if you do think it is worth spending 45 pence a week for our future, then the only Party who will give you that investment are the Liberal Democrats. If that’s what you want, then your vote can make a difference - and with your support the Liberal Democrats will make a difference.

So if your local school is losing a teacher - blame the Tories - of course you should.

But don’t look to Labour - because they’ve adopted the Tory Budget. They’ve decided they’ll do nothing about it.

And do you know why we are able to make these commitments while others cannot? It’s because we are prepared to talk some common-sense about tax.

You see, here is another issue where our politics is dominated by fatalism and timidity - by the idea that the British people are a bunch of mean-minded misery guts, as obsessed with tax as the politicians and the press.

Well I just don’t believe that.

What people talk to me about is not the level of tax, but the state of the NHS, or the cuts in their children’s schools, or the crime on their streets.

People don’t want to pay any more tax than they have to. Of course they don’t. And they certainly don’t want to give politicians blank cheques with their money. But most of all what they don’t want is yet more fantasy promises they can’t believe either.

They want to be told the truth.

Okay. Here’s the first truth.

Promise minus cost equals lie.

And here’s the second truth.

In real life, you don’t get something for nothing.

And here’s the third truth.

If we want better public services then they have to be paid for.

What people want to know is how much? Where’s it coming from? What do you get for it?

And we Liberal Democrats will tell them - precisely.

We won’t throw money at problems in the old socialist way. Our proposals are modest, specific and targeted. And every extra penny spent will be monitored so that it delivers higher quality services, higher standards and better value for the taxpayer.

We will give the National Audit Office and the Audit Commission a new responsibility - to follow every extra pound we invest in education and the NHS, to see that the money goes where we say it will and delivers the improvements we promise.

And we will strike a new Tax Contract with the British people. We will send this Tax Contract out to every taxpayer with their annual tax demands, showing them where their money is going, what it is buying, and giving them a chance to say where they would like to see more money spent, or spending cut.

Just consider what this would deliver for our Health Service.

Over the last six months I have visited hospitals all over the country. I have met patients and relatives, doctors, nurses and managers. I have seen with my own eyes what is going on in our NHS.

It is, in the words of a senior doctor at the British Medical Association, the worst financial crisis in the NHS for ten years.

So let me now set out precisely what the Liberal Democrats will do about it.

We’ll halt, for six months, the closures of beds and wards, while we match NHS facilities to patient needs

Then we will invest an extra 200 million pounds a year in recruiting and retaining staff, especially in our hospitals.

That’s enough for either 5,000 more doctors or 10,000 more nurses.

And we will invest an extra 150 million pounds to cut waiting lists to a maximum six months within three years.

And how will we pay? We’ll close the loophole used by the very rich to dodge the National Insurance that all the rest of us have to pay.

But it doesn’t stop there.

We’ll attack the extra bureaucracy created to run the Government’s internal market - and shift the money into patient care.

We’ll reintroduce free eye and dental checks for everyone in the country, as the first step towards a Health Service that puts as much emphasis on preventing illness as on treating it.

And how will we do it? With an extra 5 pence on a packet of cigarettes.

And if you don’t think paying 5 pence more for a packet of cigarettes for free eye and dental checks is worth it - then it’s very simple. Don’t vote for us.

But if you do think an extra 5 pence on a packet of 20 cigarettes is worth paying for free eye and dental checks, then the only Party who will give you that investment are the Liberal Democrats. If that’s what you want, then your vote can make a difference - and with your support, the Liberal Democrats will make a difference.

So, if your hospital is in crisis - blame the Conservatives - of course you should.

But don’t look to Labour - they say they will spend even less on the NHS than the Conservatives!

And in every area of policy the story is the same.

If you want to protect the environment for the future, your vote can make a difference - because the Liberal Democrats have the policies to put the environment at the heart of government - and with your support we will make the difference.

If you want to build new homes to house the homeless, your vote can make a difference - because the Liberal Democrats will sort out the rules that stop these homes being built - and with your support we will make the difference.

If you want to see politicians doing something about the poverty in our country, your vote can make a difference, because the Liberal Democrats say something can be done - and with your support we will make the difference.

Our proposals to tax earnings over 100,000 pounds at a top rate of 50% mean we could free 500,000 of the lowest paid people in Britain from the burden of income tax altogether - helping thousands of low-paid women, in particular.

At a stroke that would make lower-paid jobs more attractive to people out of work.

It would put much-needed cash into the pockets of thousands of people struggling to survive on very low wages - again, many of them women.

It would benefit 99.5% of all tax payers, and reduce the 90 billion pound benefit bill that is such a burden on this country.

Now that’s ‘can do’ politics for you.

But if you’re against asking the very rich to do their bit to help the poorest in our country, then it’s simple. Don’t vote for us. Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber can flee the country now!

But if you do think that we must now give opportunities to those who have been left out, then there is now - amazingly - only one Party dedicated to doing this, and that is the Liberal Democrats. With your vote you can make a difference - and with your support, Liberal Democrats will make the difference.

At this moment, when our country so desperately needs a lead, I think back to David Lloyd George and his “People’s Budget” in 1909. A Budget to pay for the Liberals’ great war against sickness and poverty in unemployment and old age. A Budget which laid the foundation stone of our welfare state.

As he told one cheering crowd:

“The Budget is introduced, not merely for the purpose of raising barren taxes, but taxes that are fertile taxes, taxes that will bring forth fruit ...

“We are raising money to provide against the evils and sufferings that follow from unemployment. We are raising money ... to provide for the sick and the widows and orphans. We are providing money to enable us to develop the resources of our own land.

“I do not believe”, he said, “that any fair-minded man would challenge the justice and the fairness of the objects which we have in view in raising this money”.

Maybe not any fair-minded man. But the House of Lords rejected that Budget, and the King even sent a message of complaint from the Royal Yacht - that’s right, the Royal Yacht - it was causing trouble in those days, too!

But note. Lloyd George didn’t turn to his spin doctors for advice. He didn’t retreat into his shell, terrified of the Tories’ ‘Tax Bombshell’ campaign. He didn’t say “I’m sorry. I can’t do anything. I’m not prepared to exceed Mr Balfour’s spending plans.”

He set off round the country, arguing his case before huge crowds, and winning people’s support for that great Liberal programme which marked the birth of Britain’s welfare state.

He had conviction. He had belief. He knew that people wanted a fresh approach.

Now in this election, while the other parties will offer up their small boxes of crystallised fruit, let us make the case, once again, for fertile public expenditure that will bring forth the fruits of education, health and decent public services. Our Party now carries the torch of conscience and reform.

We carry the torch of radicalism in our defence of individual liberties and progressive social policies. And in our fight to control the abuse of power and modernise our political system, we carry the torch of liberals and democrats and radicals and reformers in every generation for four hundred years who have fought the vested interests of the day, to modernise our political system, and control the power of the State. In every generation, we have been opposed by the conservatives and the reactionaries. In every generation, we have succeeded through our tenacity, through the force of our ideas, and through the strength of our cause. Now, in the last decade of the twentieth century, we have our own battle royal to fight. Before us stand, once again, the forces of conservatism who will scaremonger about the consequences of change. Before us, once again, stand those who speak of our Constitution as though it were a dead thing - a museum-piece - when it is, in fact, a living thing - changing, evolving, modernising itself over the last four hundred years.

This has not been its weakness - it has been its strength. The people of this country know our politics is a mess and they know the mess must be sorted out. We draw our inspiration from the oldest principle of British radicalism - the struggle to control the abuse of power - and from the most recent expression of liberal belief - community politics. Fused together, these two create an idea that is immensely powerful - the idea of returning power to the people. Protecting individual rights. Opening up government. Handing power to local communities. Giving people information, responsibility, a direct say.

Getting more women and ethnic minority MPs into Parliament to make it more representative.

Dispersing the power concentrated in Westminster and Whitehall. Bringing power down to our local communities and to the separate nations of our United Kingdom. Here in Wales, six billion pounds of public money is now spent by government appointees over whom the Welsh people have no control, and a Welsh Secretary of State who they did not elect. It is time to give Wales more control over Welsh affairs. It is time to give the Scottish people more control over Scottish affairs. It is time to give people all over our United Kingdom more power in their communities. It is part of our Party’s historic mission. And I am determined that it shall be a lasting achievement of Liberal Democrats in the next Parliament. We have, through choice, been able to work and agree with the Labour Party in this one crucial area - despite our different values, our different policies and our different beliefs. Now that may be criticised by some. But it will be a great source of hope for millions in Britain who despair of politicians ever working together for the good of the country. Now that’s ‘can do’ politics. That’s the Liberal Democrats making a difference.

The next Parliament must not be another Parliament of broken promises. It has to be a Parliament of promises kept, trust repaid, guarantees delivered. At this Conference we have set out our priorities for Britain in the next century. In the local communities of our country, we are already making a difference. Now it is time for our Party to do nationally what we have done locally - to become a party of power and make a real difference to people’s lives. There will be those who say this is an impertinence. Who will say that as the Tories fail and Labour appear to thrive, ours will a marginal voice. How dare they? We have won the power to make the difference. We have proved ourselves in local government. We have proved our ability to change the agenda. To put education at the forefront of national debate. To demand open, honest taxation. To set a new style of co-operation in politics, which puts country before party where it is right and where it can make a difference. Yes - we have earned the right and the power to make a difference. We have proved our ability to win. So get out there and enjoy yourselves!

I want every single one of you to look back on these next fifty days and be proud: proud to have been part of this great campaign. Proud that, like Lloyd George, you went to the country with a message you believed. Proud to have said what you think needs to be done for your country. Proud to have stood out against the fatalism of British politics.

Proud to have said - it does not have to be like this. Yes, it can be done. Tell them how it is. Tell them what we will do. Tell them we will be their champions. Tell them their vote can make a difference.

Because, with their support, WE Liberal Democrats will make the difference. Good luck. Good campaigning.

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