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Speech at public meeting in support of "Yes for Wales" Campaign, Llanelli 1997

Paddy Ashdown (Liberal Democrat)

Location: Llanelli

This is a moment of history - in three senses.

First, because the vote on Thursday will be the historic vote which will provide better government for Wales.

Second, because the vote on Thursday will, together with Scotland’s vote today, open the door for a modern constitution which will provide better government for Britain.

And third, because, as we have recently seen, it is time that Britain altered its outdated institutions to bring them in line with the modern age.

You know, in the end, constitutions are far less important than people.

Rule books and codes of protocol, written a century or more ago, and religiously followed ever since, can suddenly seem irrelevant when faced with the strength of human feeling and human needs.

And this is as it should be.

Our country is ourselves, the people within it. The way we do things should be determined by what people want and what will work best, not by ancient rules and codes that date back to some previous age and exist merely because nobody has thought - or dared - to revise them.

A constitution should be the servant of the people, not the other way round. Britain is no longer made up of rulers and subjects. It should be - and is perhaps becoming - a country of citizens, equal before the law, equal in our rights and freedoms, equal at the ballot box.

All a constitution is is the way we organise ourselves. We, the people.

Who we entrust power to? How much? How we stop it being misused - deliberately or otherwise?

Our stability and traditions have sometimes been a source of strength for our country. But more often they have been its weakness. Hanging on to the ways of the past, simply because that is how things have always been done, and because we have lacked the confidence to change, has too often held us back from the reforms needed to adapt our country for the modern age.

For nearly two decades we have had a Government in Westminster for whom reform has been a dirty word.

A Government which pretended nothing was wrong with our political system, despite public confidence in it - and trust in politicians - falling to an all time low.

A Government so convinced of its own infallibility that it ignored consultation and rode roughshod over debate, leading to fiascos like the poll tax.

A Government so arrogant it could preside over the ‘Arms to Iraq’ affair and ‘cash for questions’ without blushing, and so complacent it saw no need to reform the system which allowed them to happen.

It was the 19th century statesman Lord Acton who first spelt out that old dictum that: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

That is as true now as it ever was.

The reforms we need are reforms to protect us from the sort of overbearing, overweening, overcentralised, unrepresentative politics which has been the product of arrogance, complacency and corruption within the Conservative Party over recent years.

But we are not talking here about the failings of one party or another.

We are talking about the kind of politics that develops when one party has an unhealthy and unrepresentative monopoly of power.

The Conservatives may have proved it in Westminster - in both Westminster’s House of Commons and Westminster’s Council.

But Labour have shown it too, in places like Paisley and Doncaster.

It discredits not just those involved, but our whole political system which, up to now, has been too sclerotic, too resistant to change, to adapt to tackle this.

Well, on May 1st the complacent Conservative Government was soundly beaten, across the whole United Kingdom. And Wales and Scotland led the way.

And that’s significant. Because it was here, in Wales, and in Scotland, that the Conservatives lied and scaremongered most about the effects of political reform.

They tried to convince people that our political system was so fragile, that if it was so much as touched the whole thing would come toppling down.

They tried to pretend our constitution was some kind of dusty museum piece, shrouded in mystery, beyond the understanding of us mere mortals, unaltered for a thousand years; rather than the living, breathing thing it is, drawing its very strength from the fact that it is constantly changing, evolving and renewing itself down the centuries.

You see, Conservatives fear change. It’s instinctive for them. Resisting reform and democracy is what they’re best at. It’s what they’ve always done.

Listen to these words.

“Our system of representation possesses the full and entire confidence of this country”.

The Tory Party Chairman railing against proportional representation?

No. The Duke of Wellington, opposing the extension of the franchise in 1830.

And who said this:

"Touch one atom of our glorious constitution and the whole is lost."

William Hague, firing up the faithful at the Welsh Tory Conference?

No. Lord Eldon, Tory Grandee, defending the rotten boroughs in 1832!

And who said this:

“Constitutional change ... would endanger the very fabric of Britain ... it would destroy in years what has been built up in centuries”.

Some die-hard Tory opponent of votes for women, fighting the Suffragettes to the last? No this time, it was a modern Tory - John Major!

Resisting reform is the reason the Conservatives exist. It’s why they’re called the Conservatives!

But in the end, you know, they have always lost. Because the case for reform has always been too strong.

And having resisted reform and lost - they’ve then set themselves up as the defenders of the very constitution they opposed.

So I hope that, on September 18th, Wales will again, just as they did in May, say ‘No’ to the Conservatives by saying ‘Yes’ to change at the ballot box.

And if you do, then you will stand up to the scaremongers, and the doom-merchants of the Conservative campaign. And you will say: ‘Yes, we can take control of our own affairs. Our own schools. Our own hospitals. Our housing. Our jobs. Our environment.’

‘We can take the decisions that affect us ourselves. Here. In Wales. And we can do it better than ministers and civil servants in London.’

You see, the heart of the Conservative case is very simple. The Conservatives, quite simply, believe you can’t trust the people of Wales to run their own affairs. They believe that the only people who can be trusted to run Wales are, guess who, the Conservatives - from Westminster.

Well it would have to be from Westminster wouldn’t it? For they have failed to win a single seat in Wales itself.

I hope - I believe - that Wales will reject that view of Wales on September 18th, as powerfully as they rejected the Tories from Wales on May 1st.

If you have the courage to give Wales its own Assembly - a real voice in Europe, fighting for Welsh interests - then you will be striking a blow not just for yourselves but for better government for all of us in the UK.

For far too long we have struggled by with our ‘make do and mend’ political system, making up the rules as we go along. And, of course, when no-one knows what the rules are, that allows those in power to write their own rules.

For all the Tories’ talk of upholding the constitution, they have actually ridden over it roughshod.

The very Tories who now tell us that Britain will fall apart if we touch so much as a hair of the Constitution, are the very Tories who, in government, cut down our proud system of local government, destroyed Parliamentary accountability in one area of government policy after another, established such a tangle of arms length agencies that in the end no Conservative Minister was ever responsible for anything, and set up such a forest of quangos, that nowadays 40 per cent of public money in Wales is disbursed, not by elected representatives but by institutions dominated by Tory placemen.

84 quangos now spend almost two and a half billion pounds across Wales. They meet in secret; their members are not required to declare their interests and have no accountability to the people whom they serve.

There are 1400 quango appointees across Wales. And just 1200 elected councillors.

That’s the democratic deficit for you!

How dare the Tories tell us that we cannot put more democracy into our constitution, when they took so much of the democracy out of it!

A ‘Yes’ vote on Thursday will be a vote to make these bodies accountable to the people of Wales.

To create an elected Assembly with powers to reform them, restructure them and hold them to account.

An Assembly with the ability to reduce their numbers by merging them, taking on their powers itself, or delegating them to local authorities as appropriate.

An Assembly with the right to appoint remaining quango members itself, in line with strict Nolan Committee rules, rather than having this done by a remote Secretary of State in Whitehall.

But that is not all.

A Welsh Assembly can be a real economic powerhouse for Wales, working with an expanded Welsh Development Agency, clearing a path through the forest of agencies that currently exist.

A Welsh Assembly will be able to set Welsh priorities according to Welsh needs, allocating the annual budget between health, economic development, council services like education, and other spending areas; and it will do it in open debate, in full view of the people of Wales.

A Welsh Assembly will be a powerful voice for Wales in Europe, scrutinising EU documents and administering European Structural Funds in Wales.

A Welsh Assembly will have crucial powers to protect the precious and unique Welsh environment from exploitation and harm.

And, with the Liberal Democrats strong in it, a Welsh Assembly will put our children’s education right at the top of the agenda, and leave no stone unturned in our efforts to secure greater investment for our schools, and the higher standards that go with them.

So if anyone tells you tomorrow that the Assembly on offer next Thursday isn’t worth voting for, just tell them this.

It can take those quangos and democratise them.

It can take those economic agencies and co-ordinate them.

It can take government and bring it closer to the people.

Three solid reasons why a Welsh Assembly is worth having.

And here’s another one. Along with the new Scottish Parliament, a Welsh Assembly would be the first body of government in the UK to be elected with an element of proportional representation.

What does that mean?

It means three things.

First, it means there will be representation on it for all four parties in Wales - including the Conservatives - and that’s healthy for democracy.

Second, it means no one party is likely to win overall control. Even if it had been elected this May, when Labour won a landslide in the Commons, a Welsh Assembly would have had only a slim Labour majority. By 1999 it’s likely the votes will mean no party has total control to do what they wish - and that means that they will have to work with each other - and that will be good for Wales.

Third, it means each party’s representatives will be more representative of the whole of Wales. It won’t be urban Labour versus Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru from the countryside. It’s likely every party will have representatives from every part of Wales.

And what does this mean for the people of Wales?

It means every vote for the Assembly will count equally, whether you live in a one-party stronghold of a marginal. It means a strong opposition. More scrutiny of decisions. More open debate. Parties representing the whole of Wales, rather than just the little corner they’re traditionally interested in.

And what that all adds up to is - better government.

In the Westminster Parliament the system will still foster conflict and confrontation. But in the Welsh Assembly it will reward those who seek to co-operate; who search for consensus; who try to find the common ground where they can. All the things people up and down Britain have been crying out for politicians to do for decades.

And all of Wales will benefit. Not just the more heavily populated South and North coasts.

For rural mid and west Wales it means four parties representing them where now there are just one or two.

And while in Westminster needs of the rural areas are often lost amid the clamour of urban voices, in Cardiff the special needs of people in rural Wales will be heard more clearly, and responded to more quickly.

Wales, along with Scotland, is at the leading edge of constitutional change within the United Kingdom. In a very real way you are marking the path for England to follow in the months and years to come. Not just for devolution, but for the whole cause of political reform in our islands. Freedom of Information, a Bill of Rights, fair votes and greater democracy for the towns and regions of England.

Thursday’s vote is not about breaking up the Un nine out of ten people in Wales voted for parties wanting to retain the Union. You’d have to be mad to interpret that as a vote for separation.ited Kingdom. How could it be? The Union has been a great success. On May 1st

But fewer than two in ten people voted for the status quo. A clear majority wanted some sort of reform to recognise the unique position of Wales within the Union, to recognise the diversity within the UK, to recognise that Welsh priorities might actually be better set in Cardiff, by an Assembly elected by the people of Wales, than by a Secretary of State and his civil servants in Whitehall.

Thursday’s vote is about recognising the United Kingdom’s diversity as a unique strength, rather than a source of shame.

And it is unique. After all, which other country has four different national football teams. And five different national rugby sides - if you include the Lions.

So, on Thursday, I hope Wales will vote ‘Yes’.

Don’t be duped by the voices of the conservatives. The conservatives in the Conservative Party who have lost all their Westminster seats already; or the conservatives within the Labour Party, for whom fear of losing their cosy little powerbases outweighs all other concerns.

Change is their enemy. And fear is their greatest friend.

A win for the Conservative ‘No’ campaign on Thursday would be a victory for nervousness over courage and common sense. An expression of lack of self-confidence.

But Wales has no reason to lack confidence. This is a great nation. An integral part of the United Kingdom, but with a proud history and heritage of its own.

The future is yours. All you need is the courage to grasp it.

President Kennedy said this:

“To be courageous requires no exceptional qualification, no magic formula, no special combination of time, place and circumstance. It is an opportunity that is, sooner or later presented to us all...In whatever may be the sacrifices he faces if he follows his conscience...each man must decide for himself the course he will follow. The stories of past courage can define that ingredient...they can teach, they can offer hope, they can provide inspiration. But they cannot supply courage itself. For this each man must look into his soul.”

Now is the time for Wales to look into its soul. To have confidence. To believe in yourself. You have every reason to.

So, I hope Wales will vote ‘Yes’. And if you do, then your voice will change not only Wales. It will also reverberate into every cobwebbed corner of the British constitution.

You have the opportunity to change Wales for good.

You have the opportunity to begin to change Britain for good, as well.

Now that is a Millennium Project we can all be proud of!

Take the opportunity.

Seize it.

Say yes to a Welsh Assembly.

A People’s Assembly.

To blaze the trail for political reform.

To bring government closer to the people.

To take Wales into the new century with a new Constitution, a new spirit and new pride.

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