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Speech Archive

Speech to the Chiltern Regional Conference, Rickmansworth 1996

Paddy Ashdown (Liberal Democrat)

Location: Rickmansworth

Ladies and Gentlemen, fellow Liberal Democrats, it is a great pleasure to be here today.

We meet less than ten weeks away from the local elections. Elections that are crucial for the local communities where they take place. And, with a General Election no more than a year away, crucial as a springboard for the General Election itself.

These elections give us another opportunity to show the people of this country that there is an alternative - a difference choice - to the two old parties - the Liberal Democrats.

Our successes, year after year, prove that the more people see Liberal Democrat action in government, the more they want to see us in government.

And THAT is why we have good reason to feel proud and confident at the moment. Here are some more!

After last years local elections in the Chilterns region we emerged stronger than ever before. We now have a record number of councillors. Over 500 in total. We have strengthened our majority on Newbury and St. Albans City Councils. Taken control of the Vale of White Horse - where we had a net gain of 15!

If that White Horse triumph was one bolt out of the blue for the local conservatives, yesterday they got another! For those who don't know, Wantage Liberal Democrats last night chose Jenny Riley as their PPC.

Jenny has twice been a Parliamentary candidate for the Conservatives. She joined us in 1993.

For Wantage and Vale of White Horse Conservatives reminded of the old adage "bad luck always comes in three's" the election is just around the corner!

We've have also taken control of Aylesbury Vale and Windsor and Maidenhead. And South Oxfordshire District Council.

And in an outstanding victory in November 1995, Daphne Nash gained a County Council seat from the Conservatives in Banbury on a swing of over 20%

Liberal Democrat councillors continue to use their influence to open up their councils, preserve the environment and listen to the local residents.

There is also a great chance of sending more Liberal Democrat MPs to parliament from this region after the next general election.

And for Evan Harris, following in the footsteps of Don Foster, there might even by a chance of following hard on the heels of another Patten! What a marvellous thought.

Quite a success story. And it is all down to your hard work - and unfailing campaigning. Thank you.

We are now the strongest third party Britain has had for sixty years, measured at every level of government.

We have expanded our ground and proved our independence.

We have new members.

I don't need to tell you this. Windsor and St. Albans have seen a large increase in their membership. And Oxford West and Abingdon have become the third largest constituency party in the country. They recruited over 100 new members in 1995 and won the Penhaligan Membership award for their efforts.

Chilterns has now become the first region to win this award twice. And I see from the conference programme you ask if you win the award again can you keep it?

Well you might say that. But I couldn't possible comment!

Talking of membership, one of our newest members is our newest MP! She joined us, from the Tories over the Christmas break! But in the interests of fairness I ought to tell you about our newest recruits from the other side!

Three senior Labour councillors in Lincolnshire left the Labour Party for the Liberal Democrats only yesterday.

You see when people want responsible government and clear leadership, it is increasingly the case that it's the Liberal Democrats who they turn to.

Responsible government and clear leadership. Now there's a novel idea!

Especially when we meet at the end of a week that has shown just what Tories think of responsible government and clear leadership. A week that has seen yet another twist in that 'sordid soap opera' that politics has become under this government. But don't despair!

We may have the worst government this country has had for over century.

We may have a government that breaks it promises, wallows in incompetence, is divided, arrogant, contemptuous of Parliament and unworthy of trust. But there is one thing in which they have taken a lead.

I'll tell you what is.

They have introduced a new language, and it is called "double talk" - and it is the modern version of George Orwell's "new" speak.

I'll give you an example. Lord Justice Scott told us Ministers deliberately misled Parliament. Ah yes! responds the Government, but they didn't KNOWINGLY mislead Parliament - for then they would have had to resign!

Here's another example. This is what John Major said to Scott when questioned about his role in the arms to Iraq scandal. He said "something that I was not aware had happened, suddenly turned out not to have happened"!

A Guardian letter writer was right last week to draw our attention to the comparisons with the nonsense world of Lewis Carroll, one of whose characters, presumably an early trailblazer for Majorisms says; "if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be: but as it isn't, it ain't".

Or as Humpty Dumpty said in Through the Looking Glass "When I use a word.....it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less".

Or my favourite, which must form a vital part of the new rules for Ministerial Responsibility..."Why sometimes I believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast"!

This is the world of "double speak" and "double think". Where ministers hold two contradictory beliefs simultaneously and accept both of them!

Where what ministers say, bears no resemblance to reality. But it doesn't matter because they didn't 'intend' it to bear no resemblance to reality!

What a farce!

I urge all of you to take a look at Lord Justice Scott's report. Some of you might think that the £45 it costs, would be better spent printing focuses! And the time it would take to read it, better spent delivering them!

So for those who choose the latter course, let me tell you his verdict. It is simple and powerful.

A crime has been committed against parliament; against established standards and against openness and honesty in Government. The Government's response is simple and cynical. They admit the crime - but have decided that no-one should be found guilty for it.

I am not sure which is worse. The failure of Government revealed by Scott. Or the arrogance of the Government in dismissing Scott.

The Scott report goes right to very heart of our democracy. Lord Justice Scott has pulled aside the Whitehall curtain which normally hides the workings of our government to reveal a culture of secrecy and incompetence.

Where ministers indulge in "double talk" in order to deliberately mislead parliament and MPs. Where ministers abuse their powers. Where incompetence is condoned. Where ministerial accountability to parliament is ignored. And where a culture of duplicity and deceit rules, in place of openness and accountability.

Three times in his report Sir Richard Scott convicts the Government of failing to discharge its duty of accountability to Parliament.

And in case after case he has indicted the two central personalities, William Waldegrave and Sir Nicholas Lyell.

In Lord Justice Scotts own words Mr Waldegrave 'knew first hand, the facts that in my opinion, rendered the 'no change policy' statement untrue'.

Mr Waldegrave is subjected to a detailed and damning criticism, in which Lord Justice Scott embarrassingly dismisses his arguments. I heard someone recently say "Well if he won't resign from the cabinet, he should at least resign from 'All Souls' on the grounds of diminished intelligence!"

And as for Sir Nicholas Lyell. Scott says his advice was not based on sound legal foundation and that his case on ministerial duty to sign PII's did not stand up. And most pointed of all, that he was 'personally at fault' in failing to brief the prosecuting counsel properly.

These are some of the most damaging and authoritative criticisms ever made against a Government Law Officer.

Yet the government's defence in all of this is that this is not deliberate it was just incompetence.

But incompetence is not a defence against resignation!

To echo Harold Macmillan's famous phrase of years ago - the choice is between being a knave or a fool. Either way, the outcome ought to be the same in a government which places any value on competence and honour.

But not this Government. They have tried to deceive the public before Scott was published. They have gerrymandered the process of Scott - and now they are denying the possibility of debate on Scott.

The Prime Minister has decided that whatever the cost to his Government's reputation and to that of the whole political system, they are going to try to tough this one out.

What was an issue about the competence and accountability of individual ministers has now become a question about the standards of the whole Government. And for that Mr Major and Mr Major is alone responsible.

It was John Major who set up the Scott inquiry. It was John Major who decided on Scott's remit. It was John Major who agreed Scott's procedure. It is John Major who is responsible for, and who is now protecting, those Ministers whom Scott criticises. And it is John Major who has now decided to ignore Scott's conclusions.

So it should be Mr Major who appears before the House in the debate on Monday.

But will he? He will not.

By ducking his clear responsibility to explain himself to parliament personally when parliament debates this on Monday, people will conclude, rightly, that this is yet another example of the government dodging their responsibilities, and dodging their duties of accountability on important matters.

Mr Major's predecessors were not afraid to face Parliament on great issues of importance such as this. It was Mrs Thatcher who spoke for the government in the debate on the Franks enquiry into the Falklands.

It was Mrs Thatcher who faced the House in the Westland debate. And it was Harold Macmillan who, as Prime Minister, made himself personally accountable in the Commons in the debate on the Profumo affair.

But these were governments with a stronger Prime Minister. These were governments with less desperation to cling on to power whatever the cost.

Just look at Ian Lang's statement in the House on Scott. A cocky, even triumphalist statement in which every sentence was riddled with half truths and cynical sophistry.

Well I do not care how much damage the Tories do to themselves. What I do care greatly about is the serious damage being done to the trust and respect of the whole political system, and to Parliament itself.

And this can only get worse over the government's handling of Scott.

This is a government that has been in power for so long that they have become cavalier about what is legal and lost touch with what is acceptable.

The government's behaviour throughout the whole Scott shows the contempt with which they hold parliament and the people it represents. Where Ministers see parliament as an obstacle to their exercise of power. And where they see parliament as an enemy rather than an ally in the cause of good government.

Every moment longer they stay in power, the more poison seeps into our system. For the sake of the whole country they cannot go soon enough.

What is so infuriating is that while the government staggers along, from one disaster to the next, like a punch drunk boxer, there is so much that needs to be done.

Britain needs change. And the right sort of change. Only the Liberal Democrats can guarantee that change. Because only the Liberal Democrats are prepared to offer clear, costed, radical policies to build a bridge to the next Millennium.

Take education. And issue of constant concern to parents, pupils, teachers right across your region in the face of Government cuts.

Education is the key to building that rough curiosity of spirit that is the foundation stone of true liberty. It is the one thing we can give our children which no-one can take away. It is dependent on neither the force of government nor the institutions of the state, but is self-contained, it exists in all conditions, endures in any circumstances, and is the bedrock, not just of a prosperous economy, but of a tolerant, civilised society.

Last October I joined Oxfordshire Liberal Democrats at the launch of their campaign for more investment in schools. In Oxfordshire cuts have been amongst the most severe in the country. Government cuts have meant £62 pounds less for every primary school pupil, and £207 pounds less for every secondary school pupil in Oxfordshire.

In Oxfordshire, 1 in every 6 primary school pupils - 6,5000 children - are in classes of more than 30. That number has gone up by 10% last year alone. This is no way to give our children the education they deserve and need.

You know it. I know it. Only the Liberal Democrats are clear, costed and ready to invest in our children's future. And as a poll among readers of the Oxford Mail, at the time of my visit last November overwhelming confirmed, they know that. Indeed a staggering 80% said they would be prepared to pay extra income tax to fund education.

The only people who don't know seem to know or care are the Government and the Labour Party. The Tories are so scared of defeat that they are prepared to sacrifice a decent education for our children by cutting a penny in income tax in order to save their skins. And Labour is so scared of not winning that they daren't vote against. Well May is a great chance to tell them exactly what local people think of this attitude.

While the Conservatives cut. And the Labour party procrastinate. The Liberal Democrats are the only party in Britain who will give you both higher standards AND extra investment in education.

You see every vote which the Liberal Democrats get will be used to give Britain the change it needs, to clean up the system, to invest in education and to get the economy working again.

A vote for the Liberal Democrats is not just a vote to kick the Tories out. It is a vote for something fresh and clear and honest and strong to put in its place.

It is a vote to clean up the mess in our politics.

It is a vote to take the system of Government in this country, shake it by the scruff of the neck and drag it kicking and screaming into the twentieth century.

It is a vote to clean up the environment.

It is a vote to invest in our children.

It is a vote to give Britain a clear, positive voice in Europe.

It is a vote to build a strong, dynamic market based economy to start creating new jobs.

It is a vote to tackle poverty and division, to rebuild our public services, our public infrastructure, and our sense of community.

It is vote in favour of self-reliance and independence.

And every vote that we get and every seat that we win will strengthen our hand to make these things happen.

This May, and from this weekend right up to the General Election go out there and make it happen.

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