Speech to “Britain’s People, Britain’s Future” Rally, Ryde 1996
Paddy Ashdown (Liberal Democrat)
Location: Ryde, Isle of Wight
Ladies and gentlemen, it is great to see you all here tonight. And it’s great to be here.
In fact, I can think of 1,827 good reasons, straight away!
I am sure no-one here needs reminding what those 1,827 reasons are! - but I will remind you anyway!
At the last General Election, on the Isle of Wight, with an electorate of 100,000 people, you were just 1,827 votes away from defeating the Conservatives.
You were 1,827 votes away from sending another sensible Liberal Democrat voice to Parliament.
And you were 1,827 votes away from electing a hard-working local MP, in touch with the everyday concerns of people on this island.
If just 914 of the people who gave the Conservatives one last chance in 1992 had voted Liberal Democrat, then Peter Brand would now be the Member of Parliament for the Isle of Wight - fighting for a fair deal for the island, for our children’s education and decent services, and fighting against this Government’s misdirectred policies and misuse of power.
One thing is absolutely certain. Peter himself, everyone in the Isle of Wight Liberal Democrats, and the Liberal Democrats NATIONALLY, are all ABSOLUTELY determined that next time we’ll do it! And with your help, I know we will do it.
And, you know, there are a lot more than 1,827 reasons why it’s so important that we do!
Look back at this document, and you’ll find some of them!
It’s the Conservative Party manifesto from 1992. It’s called ... “The Best Future for Britain”. A document of fine words, bold promises ... and a man on the front who five months after the election devalued the pound, who last summer couldn’t even get a third of his own MPs to support him as Prime Minister, and who a week ago wouldn’t even speak in the Commons as Prime Minister to defend HIS ministers against the withering criticisms of the Scott Inquiry HE set up.
Let me give you a few reminders of what that 1992 manifesto said. I quote exactly.
Page 1 ... “The respect with which Britain is regarded in the world has rarely been higher”.
“It is difficult to remember the Britain we were elected to transform in 1979 ... a depressed, divided country, accustomed to failure ...”
Well, thank goodness for seventeen years of the Conservatives!
The first chapter is called “Taking Responsibility for Britain”. Responsibility?! When was the last time a government minister took responsibility for anything? This is a government which never apologises, and a Prime Minister who never gets rid of anyone.
But “Taking Responsibility for Britain” is what it is called, and this is what it says:
“Britain needs firm leadership at this time ... “
“What is needed to trigger confidence and growth is a Conservative victory with a decisive majority”.
“We will promote enterprise through low taxes, sound money and a stable currency”.
Low taxes? They put our taxes up by more than ever before.
Sound money? They clocked up fifty billion pounds of debt, which we’re paying for now with savage cuts to education, police budgets and vital social services.
A stable currency? The day Norman Lamont said he would never devalue, the pound went through the floor while he sang in the bath!
The 1992 manifesto concluded: “The challenges of the 1990s demand a responsible and sure-footed government ... It is time to go forward with conviction and confidence!”
... Conviction and confidence! ... Well, I suppose it could have been worse ... they could have said “competence”!
I just wonder how many people who voted for the Conservatives, not just here on the Isle of Wight, but across Britain, now feel cheated? I bet you there are more than 1,827!
And who can blame them for feeling cheated?
The Conservatives won the last election on a false prospectus and fraudulent promises - promises they have been breaking ever since.
Do you remember what John Major said about tax in the election? “We do not see any need to increase the tax burden”. “We have no need and no plans to extend the scope of VAT”.
What a cheek! Not only have the Conservatives put VAT on fuel - they’ve introduced more than 20 new taxes - on everything from air travel to insurance against crime - the biggest tax hike in British history.
But tax is just the start of it.
What about the manifesto commitment to “put savings from greater efficiency” back into the NHS? Try telling that to people waiting for treatment, while more and more money is diverted into bureaucracies of managers and accountants.
What about the manifesto commitment to “give the police the support and resources they need”? Try telling that to the Chief Constable of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight who needs over 500 extra officers to get close to police numbers in the rest of the country, and whose force has actually been cut.
I think that 1992 will come to be seen as the Conservatives’ “one last chance” election. The election when, after thirteen Conservative years, the people of Britain wanted change, but clung on for fear of something worse.
Of course there are good things that have been done over the last seventeen years - like reducing trade union power.
But there have been so many wasted opportunities - like the one-off, golden opportunity of North Sea oil, squandered when we should have been investing in our future.
There have been so many dogma-driven mistakes - the billions wasted on the iniquitous Poll Tax; the billions wasted on rail privatisation; two recessions, boom-and-bust, and a collapse in house prices, all caused by the Government’s own economic mismanagement.
There have been so many people let down, left out, left behind - waiting for the trickle-down that never came.
And now - what’s left? No direction. No honour. No respect. It is time for the Government to go. It is time for change.
But that means going forwards, not turning back. Change that is good for Britain, not bad for Britain.
And that is what the Liberal Democrats are committed to: change for the long term, that takes Britain forward, that prepares Britain for the next century.
A Liberal Democrat vote is not a vote for a return to Trade Union power, irresponsible economics, government held to ransom by left-wing lunacy. A Liberal Democrat vote is a vote AGAINST all these things - and the strongest possible guarantee that they will not happen.
A Liberal Democrat vote is a vote for the change people want and Britain needs - not for the change Britain does NOT need.
A Liberal Democrat vote is a vote to clean up the system, to invest in education, to get the economy working and creating new jobs.
It is a vote to open up politics, to take the political system in this country, our archaic institutions, to shake them by the scruff of the neck, and drag them kicking and screaming out of the nineteenth century - and into the twenty-first!
It is a vote to look long term, to protect our environment for our children and to make the most of Britain’s membership of the European Union for Britain’s people.
It is a vote to tackle poverty and division, to build on the best of our public services, to breath new life into the proud spirit of community in Britain.
It is not just a vote to kick out this discredited Government. It is a vote for something fresh and clear and strong to put in its place.
There are difficult choices for this country. But people have to face up to them. And politicians have a duty to address the issues, instead of ducking them.
John Major, desperate to hang onto power, will spend the next year avoiding saying anything that exposes the divisions in the uncomfortable coalition of warring factions that is now the Conservative Party and the Major Government.
Tony Blair, desperate to get hold of power, will spend the next year avoiding saying anything that exposes the divisions in HIS coalition party, the old divisions so cruelly exposed once again in the Harriet Harman affair.
I am lucky. I am determined to change the way that power is USED in this country. And I don’t have to fudge things to hold a divided party together.
So what you’ll be hearing from ME over the next year are some plain truths about what needs to be done so this country HAS a future.
And you know, we haven’t got long to sort things out. We can carry on fudging for five years, maybe - but not much longer.
Britain now needs more than good intentions. We need ACTION. And that requires some hard-headed decisions and clear commitments.
Take our political system.
The Scott Report has given us a rare glimpse behind the veil of secrecy that hides our government - and what an ugly mess it has exposed.
We have seen decisions made in secret, the representatives of Britain’s people misled, a government so powerful it can treat Parliament with utter contempt, and a Parliament so weak it is unable to control government ministers.
What other organisation that valued its reputation and expected the highest standards would allow people to get away with incompetence - let alone deciet - of the sort exposed by Scott?
But then, we live in what is no better than an “elective dictatorship” - not my words, but those of top Tory Lord Hailsham - an elective dictatorship in which minorities rule with unrepresentative parliamentary majorities, local democracy has been totally undermined, individual rights are unprotected, secrecy holds sway, and government acts unchecked by effective scrutiny from Parliament.
What a rotten mess! And it’s a mess that Liberal Democrats are determined to clean up.
That can’t just be done by changing the nameplate on Number 10 Downing Street. We have to change the whole way power is USED in this country.
It means opening up government, decentralising power, reviving local democracy.
It means reining back the power of the unelected, unaccountable quango state, entrenching our freedoms in a Bill of Rights, enacting root and branch reform of Parliament.
It means giving people fair votes in the ballot-box, freedom of information to find out what’s going on, real say through referendums on issues like our future in Europe.
The Liberal Democrats’ programme of reform and renewal amounts to the most radical overhaul of British political life for three hundred years. But we have to change the way Britain is run - and we have to do it soon.
You see the desperate state our country’s in in other areas, too - in our public services, in our environment, in our education system.
We can’t go on with things as they are. It’s not things changing that this country should be worried about - but things staying as they are.
Think about education.
Well-educated people aren’t just the guarantee of a tolerant, civilised, law-abiding society. Knowledge, skills, ideas are the raw materials for any successful economy in the next century.
Other countries recognise this - not just in Europe, but all round the world. And they are racing ahead and leaving us standing when it comes to education.
Britain just can’t afford to be left behind. But while every politician mouths the platitudes, when it comes to saying how things all the things that need to be done will be paid for ... both other parties have nothing to say at all!
I don't believe in throwing money at any problem. But if you want to give pre-school education to all three and four year olds - to which we are committed; if you want to tackle the underfunding in our schools - which is urgent; if you want to give adults in and out of work chances to retrain and learn new skills - which is so vital for their prospects and our country’s success in the future; then you need more money.
And where the Conservatives cut, and Labour dodge the question, it’s only the Liberal Democrats who pledge to invest. Our commitment is crystal clear. We will invest an extra 2 billion pounds in education - raised, if necessary, by reversing the penny cut off income tax by the Conservatives in the last budget. Two billion pounds extra into education - that is the Liberal Democrat guarantee.
And the savage cuts to school budgets and other services that we’ve seen over the last couple of years have one purpose - and one purpose only. Our schools have suffered, our children’s education has suffered, so that the Conservatives can dangle tax bribes before us at the next election! Doesn’t it depress you?
We all know what those tax bribes will be like. A penny or two off income tax. In your pocket one day. Back on your payslip the next. Cuts which will last a few months till after the election, when they’ll go back up again.
Just remember: there’s no such thing as a free tax cut. It’s our children who are paying now - with their education. And it’s we who’ll pay after the next election when our taxes go back up again - just like they did after 1992.
Meanwhile, from the Labour Party, all we hear is the deafening sound of silence. Well, to be fair, not quite silence. We hear the complaints about the cuts. But when it comes to opposing the tax cuts that cause the cuts in our schools, the Labour Party sits in glorious abstention!
Such is the nature of our appalling political debate at the moment. The two other parties shadow box across the political specturm, guided by the lodestone of the polls, concerned only at being outflanked by the other - on tax, on law on order, on caution.
What choice are we being offered?
On many issues, there is such agreement about the fundamentals, that small differences become for one side great threats to the nation, and for the other side, universal pananceas, when in reality they are neither.
On other, more difficult issues, both other parties conspire in fudge and avoidance. On student poverty and the crisis in higher education, for example, where Liberal Democrats have thought about the problem and come up with innovative ideas to raise standards and create opportunities for more people - both other parties have taken refuge in a review - a JOINT review - that won’t report until after the next election!
It makes you wonder just what the next election will be about!
It won’t be about principles - for the Conservatives are without principles, and Labour have effortlessly dropped their principles.
It won’t be about great ideological differences - for between the John Major’s Conservative Party and the Tony Blair’s Labour Party there is precious little ideological difference.
It will be about the Conservatives’ record - which is appalling - and Labour’s claim to manage things better - which is debatable.
It will certainly be negative, and dirty, and deceitful - for since the last election both other parties have been eager students of all that is worst about American campaigning.
Well, in this battle ahead, the Liberal Democrats will not be negative, we will not be the purveyors of empty rhethoric, we will not be an ehco, but a choice.
Brtiain can go on ducking difficult decisions - but not for much longer if we want a successful future.
There is no point being timid. There is no point trying to con people. And the Liberal Democrats are determined to offer something different.
This is a historic moment in British politics, and, I believe, a historic time for our Party.
There is such a strong mood for change in our country - and the Liberal Democrats are in the vanguard of the movement for change, as we have always been.
Independent of vested interests - of either trade unions or big business; independent in our thinking, the Liberal Democrats are the guarantee that change happens, and the guarantee that we get the change that Britain needs.
Liberal Democrats now have more councillors than the Conservatives. Liberal Democrats now run four times as many councils as the Conservatives, including major councils with big budgets like the Isle of Wight.
If, seven years ago, I had said we’d become the second party of local government in Britain, I’d have been called mad! Now it has happened. And I am confident that our successes will continue, that our party will continue to grow and grow - and as we have shown in local government, there is no glass ceiling.
Whatever level of government you look at - local, national, European - the Liberal Democrats are now the strongest liberal force in Britain for sixty years.
In more and more communities across our country we are putting Liberal Democrat values and Liberal Democrat priorities into practice.
We now have a great opportunity to do the same nationally.
Here on the Isle of Wight you have an excellent, hard-working team of local councillors, and an excellent prospective candidate in Dr Peter Brand.
You have got the Conservatives firmly in your sights, and I know you can win.
Give the local campaign team all the support you can.
Then, when the Prime Minister finally gives the country the choice only his MPs had last summer to back him or sack him, he’ll not only receive a rather different result, but Parliament will receive a top-quality, hard-working Liberal Democrat MP for the Isle of Wight, carrying on the tradition of Stephen Ross, speaking for you and standing up for your local community.
Keep working hard for local people, keep up the campaigning, and make sure that next time, there’s no doubt about the outcome!