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Leader's speech to the Spring Party Conference, Edinburgh 1999

Paddy Ashdown (Liberal Democrat)

Location: Edinburgh

Now we have work to do - and a campaign to win.

And that’s what this speech is all about.


But I want to start by standing back a little.

By painting for you two pictures, from quite different visits I made last year. Visits separated by a thousand miles. But with, you will find, a surprising, connection.

The first was to the Braunstone Estate in Leicester.

Like too many estates in our cities it was run down and neglected. Houses dilapidated almost beyond repair. Walls too far gone to decorate. Rotten windows. Leaking roofs.

These were not empty buildings.

They were people’s homes.

But here is the important bit.

The houses may have been rotten.

But the people certainly weren’t.

After years of neglect, they decided they had had enough.

No, they didn’t petition the Government. Or march on the council.

They took power into their own hands.

They drew up their own plans for the regeneration of their estate. And they put forward their own bid for the funds to carry it out. Their aim was nothing less than a fully community-run project, with power not in the Council Chamber but in the hands of the community. And they succeeded.

Now here’s the second picture. It is totally different – and it comes from the other side of our continent, a thousand miles away.

After our autumn Conference last year, you may remember, I went straight to Kosovo.

And what I saw was barbarism on a grand scale. The Serbs using the weapons of total war against defenceless Albanian villages.

But this speech is not about what needs to be done in Kosovo. That’s for another time.

I want to tell you instead about two seemingly unconnected things which caught my eye amid the mayhem.

The first was the freshly dug graves in every village. And the second the satellite dishes on the walls of every house.

Now, what struck me was this.

That while the graves, according to Muslim tradition, pointed at Mecca; the satellite dishes pointed at Murdoch.

And I fell to thinking, which of these two facts will influence these people most in the future?

The way that their tradition requires them to bury their dead? Or the way that the living get their news, their information, their entertainment.

What I was seeing was how a thousand years of tradition and identity is being eroded by just ten years of global technology.

For me, these two different images, the Midlands estate and the Kosovan villages, illustrate what’s happening in today’s world more powerfully than a dozen green papers or a hundred Westminster speeches.

The first, shows how, even in one of Britain’s most deprived communities, people are solving their problems by taking power for themselves.

The second, shows how, even in a region torn apart by ethnic conflict, people are still subject to the impact of the new global culture.

The first, shows how power is being drawn down from the nation-state, into the hands of individuals and communities.

The second, shows how power is being pulled up from the nation-state into the hands of the global players.

Power being localised.

Power being globalised.

And conventional politics, anchored exclusively in the nation-state, has no answer to either.

In fact, it is deeply resistant to both.


You see, the old political “settlement” is breaking down. Under the old pact between the citizen and the state, national governments offered security and prosperity, in return for supreme power at home and the unchallenged right to speak for their citizens abroad. That settlement is being irresistibly reshaped by the force of events.

Now in some senses, this isn’t new.

We have long understood that our security cannot be defended by national governments alone. That’s why we pooled our sovereignty in NATO.

But nowadays this goes far further than security. Our prosperity too can depend on what happens beyond our borders.

A market crash in Taiwan means factory closures on Tyneside.

The managing director of a car maker in South Korea can have more impact on unemployment in Swansea, than the Secretary of State for Wales.

A trade war about bananas means job losses in the Borders.

In a free and increasingly global market, a national government alone can no more guarantee jobs for all than it can guarantee sunshine on Sundays.

Nor can it guarantee a clean environment. A nuclear accident in the Ukraine means contamination in Snowdonia.

And so on. You see, no country any longer has absolute sovereignty. We are all of us interdependent.

Set a punitive tax rate and business may flee abroad.

In the old days it took time. But with the new ‘weightless’ industries, it can be done electronically - instantaneously.

And if you want to avoid tax, you don’t have to become a tax exile. You can just move your money.

You don’t have to do a Sean Connery - you can do a Geoffrey Robinson!

And consider this. If a man in Scotland buys an album from a company in Germany, through an Internet provider in Belgium, using software from Australia, and downloads the music onto a recordable CD bought from America ... who gets the sales tax? And, just as crucially, how do they collect it? How do they even know?

So here’s the question we are going to have to answer - and soon.

Who will regulate the global players, and how? The currency traders, the satellite broadcasters, the multi-nationals, operating in all countries but responsible to none?

Sooner or later we are going to have to find ways to put limits on the power of the global players. And we cannot do that alone.

The only answers to these questions will be international ones.

But there are a separate set of questions to which the only answers are local.

Because people also want control of their own lives.

They want choice, and freedom, and power, not in the distant Westminster hot house, but in their own hands. In their own communities.


Here’s how I put it in a radio phone-in a few months ago.

A woman challenged me: “How you can say you want power for local government and for Europe. Surely that’s completely contradictory?”

I said: “Well. Let me see if I can explain. Do you have a favourite pastime?”

She said “Yes, I love walking my dog in the park.”

“Right,” I said. “Now, imagine there’s a tree in your park that’s old and rotten. It’s a danger to you and your fellow dog walkers. Who should take the decision to cut it down? Westminster?”

“Of course not,” she replied. “My local council should.”

“Right. But what if that tree was one of only two of its kind in Britain? Who should take the decision then? Your local council?”

“Of course not,” she said. “That should be Westminster.”

“Right! Now what if that tree was dying from acid rain that had blown over from eastern Germany. Who should be responsible for stopping that? Westminster?”

“Of course not,” she said. “That should be Europe.”


If you’re going to succeed nowadays you have to work locally, nationally and internationally.

And when you think of it, that’s true for lots of other things too.

Jobs can be lost in Scotland because of poor planning. That’s a matter for the local Council.

Or because the infrastructure is inadequate. That will be a matter for the Scottish Parliament.

Or because the business tax is too high. That is a matter for Westminster.

Or, as now, with knitwear workers in Archy Kirkwood and Mike Moore’s constituencies, because they’re innocent victims of an international trade war about bananas. Now that’s a matter for the World Trade Organisation in Geneva.

You see, you can’t succeed in preserving jobs, or creating new ones, unless you are prepared to work locally, nationally and internationally.

And, incidentally, that’s why Archy and Mike and I are going to the WTO in Geneva on Thursday to fight the case for jobs in the Borders.

You see what the Banana War teaches us is what happens when international co-operation breaks down. Then it’s the law of the jungle. Where the strong and the bully make policy – and jobs and prosperity are the casualties.

Europe and the US working together have been the driving force which has brought the world freer and fairer trade.

In this futile and damaging trade war both sides have made mistakes – but the biggest mistake of all is to allow this to develop into a dispute where innocent communities pay the price. The US must now step back from the brink and return to the only place this problem can be solved – the World Trade Organisation in Geneva.

Which demonstrates my point.

Whether it’s creating jobs, or reducing pollution, or tackling crime, or protecting consumers, or ensuring our security, or fighting poverty - in today’s world we cannot succeed unless we work locally, nationally and internationally.


Now, what makes Liberal Democrats different is that, for us, this is not new and uncomfortable. It is our very creed. We have always known this.

Internationalism is in our blood.

And community politics is our invention.

Narrow nationalism is not our way. The little England of the Tories. Or the little Scotland of the SNP.

But nor is the stultifying centralism that runs through the veins of Labour, Old and New.

We are a different kind of party.

We believe not in the sovereignty of Parliament but in the sovereignty of the people.

We understand what the others don’t. That you can’t succeed in solving the problems of this country unless you are prepared to work locally, nationally and internationally.


Now at first sight, the local government, Scottish and Welsh elections on May 6th and those for Europe on June 10th, are two completely different sets of elections.

But if you think about it, they’re not!

They are connected in just the same way as that Leicester estate and those villages in Kosovo.

Because what is necessary to make Britain successful is not just having the right kind of Government at Westminster. It’s also having the right kind of government in Brussels, in Scotland, in Wales, and in our local councils.

You see, what we are creating on May 6th and June 10th is a whole new political settlement for our country.

That is why I say these will be the most important set of mid-term elections ever seen in Britain.

Perhaps even more important than May 1st 1997.

Because they will decide not just who governs, but how we are governed.

After these elections Britain will never be the same again. The Government of Britain will move decisively and irreversibly closer to its people.

We are opening the door to the new politics of the 21st century.


Just think about it.

In less than two months Scotland’s health service will be run, not from 400 miles away in Westminster, but from here in Edinburgh. And so will Scotland’s schools and local government and housing and prisons and police.

The Scottish Parliament will have the potential to make a billion pounds of difference to Scotland’s hospitals and Scotland’s schools.

Now sadly, the Assembly in Cardiff will fall short of the proud Welsh Senedd that we Liberal Democrats would like to have seen. But we should not underestimate it either.

The New Labour fixers of Millbank Tower certainly don’t. You know, you wonder whether Labour actually understand the purpose of Welsh devolution. Or are they just taking the Michael?

But seriously, the Welsh Assembly will be able to give a priority to Welsh Schools and Welsh hospitals which Westminster would never have given. It will have powers for industrial development for regeneration, for jobs, for investment.

The First Ministers of Scotland and Wales will actually have more impact on the day to day lives of their people than the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

Now, this is a moment for which we Liberal Democrats have fought all down the years of this century.

All through the long decades when Labour and Conservatives promised devolution in opposition, but betrayed their promises in government, we kept the faith. We kept up the cry for Home Rule - for many years as a lone voice, but, finally, leading a mighty chorus, we won the argument.

For others, May 6th will be just another polling day.

For us it will be victory – at the end of a century long crusade.

I was talking to a Scottish journalist at the bar last night - you know, as one does. Over a couple of mineral waters - doubles.

He said: “What happens in May is going to be the most exciting political event in Scotland for 300 years, and your lot will be at the centre of it.”

And he’s right.

This will be our chance to get things right for Scotland. And I can tell you, Jim Wallace and his team will seize that opportunity with both hands.

And this campaign will be different too. This time it’s fair votes.

Do you know that the day before yesterday the Prime Minister, here in Scotland, said that because these elections were under PR: “It’s a fairer system.”

Those were his words: “It’s a fairer system.”

Well I say to the Prime Minister, if it’s fairer for Scotland then it ought to be fairer for all of us.

Under fair votes, every Liberal Democrat vote will count.

And that means that our Party, here in Scotland, and in Wales, will take another great stride along the path that we have followed these last 11 years - as we have moved from a Party of protest, to a Party of power.

And yes, that will mean working with others - as we have already shown we can. And as fair votes will often require.

But let us make this clear.

The partnership we seek, here in Scotland and in Wales, is not a partnership with this Party or that - it is a partnership with the Scottish and Welsh people.

It’s not who we work with that matters, it’s what we achieve.

The coalition that Liberal Democrats are building is the coalition that brings together business and parents and teachers and patients and nurses. Rural and urban. Highland and lowland. North and south.

These are the alliances that Home Rule can help us create.

A Scottish Parliament, bringing together the Scottish people.

Raising the Standard of Scottish services.

Raising the Standard for Scotland.

And only the Liberal Democrats can make that work.

You see, it all boils down to a very simple choice for May 6th.

If you vote Labour, you vote for a Party that wants to run the Scottish Parliament from Millbank Tower in London.

If you vote Tory, then you vote for a Party that didn’t want the Scottish Parliament in the first place.

If you vote SNP, you vote for a Party whose only vision for a Scottish Parliament is as a stepping stone to separation.

But, if you vote Liberal Democrat, then you vote for a Party that has fought for Scotland’s Parliament all the long years of this century and is now determined to make sure it succeeds – so that Scotland can succeed.

One of the things that has really struck me about this campaign is the extent to which the other parties seem to be changing places.

The “born again” Tories will say almost anything to win votes.

Remember that man of the people Lord James Douglas Hamilton – the man Donald Gorrie defeated at the last election. The man of whom the story is told that he visited a shared ownership housing scheme and mistook it for a timeshare - and actually asked one of the bewildered residents what fortnight in the year they had the house for.

Well, Lord James Douglas Hamilton, ex-minister, ex-Member of Parliament, is trying to make a comeback as a member of the Scottish Parliament. The Parliament whose existence he fought so strongly against when he was at Westminster. And what is his platform for the election? He is campaigning to reopen a casualty ward that was shut by the Scottish Office when he was a minister.

There can be no more perfect illustration of the hypocrisy of today’s Conservative Party.

Now, here is a multiple choice question for you.

Who is David McLetchie?

Is he (A) the full back for Heart of Midlothian?

(B) the Managing Director of Highland Spring?

Or (C) the Leader of the Conservatives in Scotland?

Let me give you a clue.

It’s (C).

David McLetchie. A man so obscure that if Thomas Hardy had met him he would have called his novel “Jude the Comparatively Well Known”.

You know, the more I think of it, the more I realise how far we have come these last 11 years, in more ways than one.

Do you remember what they used to say about us?

Well, what would you now say about the other parties?

In Scotland, you’d say: “those Tories, they can say anything, because everyone knows they’re never going to be in Government.”

And what would you say about the SNP? You’d say: “party of protest. One man band, that’s all they are.”

And what would you say about New Labour? “Nice people ... but no-one knows what they stand for?!”


And it’s true.

New Labour seem so often so uncertain. So unwilling to be bold. So unprepared to raise their sights, and Britain’s horizons.

Time and again this Government ducks the really big issues.

Labour clamps down on underage drinking - but ducks the problems of pensioner poverty.

They give us a task force on air rage, but not on climate change.

The Prime Minister will tell Richard and Judy what to do about Glenn Hoddle - but he won’t tell us what he’ll do about the euro.

We have a jungle of reviews, Royal Commissions, focus groups, think tanks, working parties ...

This Government will do anything in order to do nothing.

Almost everything has been kicked into the long grass.

There’s so much in the long grass now, that to find out what this Government's doing, it’s not David Dimbleby you need. It’s David Attenborough!

Picture the scene - David Attenborough in the New Labour Forest - deep in the undergrowth. Voice characteristically hushed. It is past ten o’clock. And the Home Secretary has sounded the curfew.

“There, not ten feet from me, you might just be able to see the Westminster Fair Votes - a splendid beast, beautifully proportioned - easier to spot, mind you, if the Deputy Prime Minister is not sitting on it!

“If you listen very carefully you may just hear the faint call of the Freedom of Information bird. A delicate creature, but one with many predators. Its location, I’m afraid, is a closely guarded secret.

“And there, look, an EMU – an exotic foreign bird thriving in 11 European countries but not allowed to fly in Britain. It has a unique characteristic. One sight of it and the Government puts its head in the sand.”


Now, Mr Blair likes to tell us that his is one of the great radical reforming Governments of the century.


Can you imagine Lloyd George, in his People’s Budget, saying he’d awfully like to introduce the old age pension but couldn’t because he had to stick to Balfour’s spending plans!

Or Beveridge, deciding that he couldn’t fight the five giants of idleness, want, squalor, disease and ignorance, because it wouldn’t play well with the proprietor of Pathe News!

Or Gladstone saying he wouldn’t go campaigning in Midlothian, because it wasn’t a target seat!

New Labour boasts that it roars like a lion. But far too frequently it squeaks like a mouse.

I do not doubt New Labour’s good intentions.

But I despair at their lack of ambition.

They tinker at the edges but too little really changes.

We may get smaller classes for five to seven year olds - but only by expanding them for eight to elevens.

Queues for NHS operations are down - but only because we’ve doubled them for outpatients.

And we’re told that Labour are helping pensioners – but actually pensioners are worse off today than they were two years ago.

To borrow a phrase - it doesn’t have to be like this.

We can do better.

We can be better.

We Liberal Democrats are ambitious for Britain.

Our eyes are focused not on the next day’s headlines but on the next century’s challenges.

The Government wants to mark the new millennium with a giant upturned wok on the South Bank of the Thames, which will be flogged off in 18 months time.

Why not celebrate the new century by changing Britain in ways which will benefit all the people, permanently.

Here are five things which it is perfectly within our power to do in the next decade, if only we have the will.

Make Britain the world’s foremost learning society.

Give Britain a Health Service we can count on, whenever we need it.

Ensure all Britain’s senior citizens have a decent pension.

Combat crime and violence so that people feel secure in their homes and safe on our streets.

Safeguard our environment so we can be proud when we hand it on to the next generation.

These are our ambitions.

This is our message.

Achievable, costed and clear.

First - and always - education. For Liberal Democrats nothing is more important to our national future.

Yet look what is happening even under a Labour government.

Did you know, that here in Scotland, the education budgets of 29 of the 32 local councils have been cut - CUT - in real terms since Labour came to power?

For every £100 spent by Scottish councils under the Tories, only £96 has been spent by Labour.

That is a disgrace.

That is why the Liberal Democrats will continue to make education our number one priority.

If, as a nation, we will not invest in more books, more equipment, and more teachers, then our country cannot succeed in the future - it’s as simple as that.

So be in no doubt. Investing in education is so important that we remain committed to investing the equivalent of 1p on the basic rate of tax into specific and costed improvements. And if the only way to do that in Scotland is to use the tax varying powers of the Scottish Parliament, then that is exactly what we will do.

So let me make this clear. Here is a message to the other parties in Scotland and in Wales for the day after the election:

“If you’re not interested in investing more in education then don’t even bother to pick up the phone.”

And here’s another message. Every Liberal Democrat vote in these elections will be a vote for better hospitals and a better health service, too.

You know, Labour’s spindoctors are trying to convince us they’re doing brilliantly because the National Health Service is no worse under Labour than it was under the Tories.

It reminds me of a line from the famously bad poet laureate, the McGonagal-like Alfred Austen, who, wrote “On the illness of the Prince of Wales”, this immortal couplet:

“Across the wire the electric message came. He is no better. He is much the same.”

But, actually it’s worse than that.

The NHS is not the same. In many cases it’s now getting worse.

Although waiting lists are, thank heaven, at last falling, the time to get onto waiting lists has been soaring.

Listen to this:

Before the Election the number of people waiting more than 3 months to see a consultant was a quarter of a million.

Today, it’s nearly half a million. Double.

That’s why Liberal Democrats will scrap the waiting list target and replace it with a waiting time limit.

No-one should have to wait more than 6 months for an operation.

But we will do much more than this.

We will shift emphasis from treating illness to preventing it in the first place. You can’t have good health unless you have good housing, clean air, safe food.

And it’s about time the Government woke up to that.

And it’s about time they woke up to their failure to tackle crime too.

Having promised to increase police presence, Labour is actually cutting police numbers.

That’s why Liberal Democrats would provide 6,000 more police officers.

But we don’t just want a bigger police force. We want a better police force.

So let me make this absolutely clear. If there is one lesson that we must learn from the scandal surrounding the murder of Stephen Lawrence it is that every police officer must know that fighting crime means fighting racism.

But security isn’t just about being secure in your home and safe on your street. It’s also about being secure for the future.

It is about having enough to provide dignity in old age.

Some of the poorest in our society are some of the oldest.

And the very oldest are the very poorest.

That’s why, when you turn 80, you get a higher pension.

And so you should.

But do you know how much?

Let me tell you.

25p a week.

Not enough for a first class stamp.

And it has been frozen at that level since 1971!

That’s a disgrace.

And we will do something about it.

We’ll increase the extra pension for the over 80s 20-fold. From 25p to £5 a week.

And we’ll bring in a new rate of an extra £3 a week for the over 75s.

Now that’s a real start to tackling pensioner poverty in Britain.

And the Chancellor could do it if he wanted in Tuesday’s Budget.

And here’s something else which the Chancellor should be doing on Tuesday.

Something else which is absolutely vital for our future.

Shifting taxes off people and onto pollution.

Cutting tax on the things we want more of, and raising it on the things we want less of.

And that’s what the Liberal Democrats would do.

The money raised by our plans to tax pollution will help us to lift anyone earning less than £10,000 a year out of tax altogether. That will mean that 10 million of the poorest in Britain who now pay income tax won’t have to.

Fighting poverty and fighting pollution.

And fighting pollution also means encouraging fuel efficiency. And we’ll do that too. Under our plans the annual car tax would be scrapped completely for any car of 1600cc or less.

And that could be just the beginning.

Some of our European neighbours take it even further. In Italy the tax difference between the biggest car – your Ferrari Testosterone or whatever – and the smallest, your Fiat Shopping Trolley – is a thousand pounds a year.

But surely we don’t always have to take our lead from Europe. We should give a lead in Europe, too.

It is a tragedy that while other nations are now forging ahead after the successful launch of the single currency, Britain is still dithering on the sidelines.

Slowly, at last, almost imperceptibly, Tony Blair is inching forward.

We are told that his recent statement on the euro represented a change of gear.

But who is driving the car?

Not the Government.

Whether we join the euro is, undoubtedly, the biggest question to confront our nation in the next decade. But almost everyone has taken a clearer lead on it than our own Government has.

The TUC has said yes.

The CBI has said yes.

The City of London has said yes.

The Chambers of Commerce have said yes.

David Owen has joined the Tories in saying No. Well, I think that’s only fair - it is their turn!

Dear David, bless him. His final political migration - from Lord Owen of Split to Doctor No.

Meanwhile our Government has said nothing.

And the serious point is this.

The argument in favour of the Euro risks being lost by default, and with it Britain’s whole future in Europe, unless the Government is prepared to take a lead and argue its case.

But Liberal Democrats are not only the voice of constructive engagement with Europe.

We are also the force of reform in Europe.

Of accountability. Of democracy. Of tackling waste. Of reforming the Common Agricultural and Fisheries policies.

Our determination to hold to account the powers of government is as strong in Europe as it is here at home.

That’s why our Liberal Democrat MEPs have led the way in taking the European Commission to task for not cracking down on fraud. And we are proud of them.

And that’s one of the reasons why we will work for a Constitution for Europe to define and limit the powers of Europe’s bureaucrats.


So that’s our programme.

Yes, our ambitions are lofty.

But I remember when they said a Scottish Parliament was a lofty ambition.

I remember when they said a Welsh Assembly was unachievable.

I remember being told that Reform of the House of Lords would never happen.

I remember when we were told fair votes for Europe was lost forever.

I can remember being told, less than a decade ago, that the idea of a Single Currency for Europe was simply utopian.

So much has been achieved already. So much we have done, or helped to bring about.

We are embarked on a voyage to a new political world.

Of course, as with Christopher Columbus 500 years ago, there are the sceptics, who scare us with stories about sailing off the edge of the world. We call them Tories.

And as with Christopher Columbus, there are the doubters, urging a quick return home to the safety of the past. We call them Old Labour.

But, like Christopher Columbus, if we keep our faith and stay true to our course then a new world is opening up before us.

For us Liberal Democrats, this is not a journey into the unknown. It is a course we have been charting for a generation and more.

It is the journey from the 20th century to the 21st.

From the era of Government as master, to the age of Government as servant.


Now the success of this voyage is not certain.

The changes we have begun could lead to a more open, more tolerant, more liberal Britain - or they could be just another brief fluttering of hope, quickly lost through lack of ambition and a shortage of boldness in those who lead us.

More than in any but the earliest years of this century, we in this Party can now influence which of these two paths our country takes.

We cannot do that standing on the touch line.

We can only do it, playing on the field.

We cannot do it, unless we continue to win - and grow in influence and power.

Which is why May 6th and June 10th are so important.

This time, the wasted vote will be the one which keeps things just the same.

To vote in Scotland and Wales for a Party that wants them still to be run from London. That’s a wasted vote.

To vote for a Party that squanders Britain’s opportunities in Europe by once again condemning us to the sidelines. That’s a wasted vote.

To vote to keep in place a rotten Labour Council, or a do-nothing, care less Tory one. That’s a wasted vote.

Remember, this time, it’s the Liberal Democrat vote that’s the powerful vote.

That will clean up our councils.

That will raise the Standard for Scotland.

That will guarantee the Welsh Assembly put Wales first.

That will give leadership in Europe.

Remember this.

Remember, in the next few weeks and months.

Remember, when it’s cold and it’s raining and there are just a few more leaflets to deliver - remember. Remember that you are not just fighting for a candidate, a seat and a party.

You are fighting for the future.

So, here’s my message for the future, to each and every one of you.

Be ambitious for the Liberal Democrats.

But above all be ambitious for Britain.

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