Speech to the European Election Campaign Rally, London 1999
Paddy Ashdown (Liberal Democrat)
Well, this is it. My last campaign. My last rally. My last speech as leader of this great Party.
It’s rather an emotional moment.
Looking around this theatre and seeing so many old friends and colleagues, it’s terribly tempting to use this speech to look back over the last 11 years. To reminisce about the days when we stood within the margin of error of nothing in the opinion polls, and our Party’s very existence seemed in doubt.
And the good times too. By-election victories - each result seeming even better than the last. And that tremendous day two years ago when we scored our most successful election result for 70 years.
We’ve had some fun over the years! And we’ve had some successes, too.
And winning fair votes for these elections is one of the biggest.
A lot has changed since our Party was formed.
Back then Labour stood on a platform of socialism!
Back then the idea of Liberal Democrats running Labour strongholds like Liverpool and Sheffield was about as likely as, well, the Berlin Wall collapsing.
Back then the Tories had a right wing, deeply unpopular, electoral liability of a leader presiding over a party civil war on Europe ...
Well, not everything’s changed.
And something else that hasn’t changed is our Party’s fundamental beliefs and values
OUR UNCHANGING VALUES
We are still the Party you can rely on to defend civil liberties - standing up to the Government over their nasty and intolerant asylum bill.
We are still the Party which cares about Britain’s international responsibilities - from our duty to the people of Hong Kong a decade ago, to our duty to the people of Kosovo today.
We are still the Party which puts concern for the environment at the very heart of our vision - that’s why we were the first to warn of the dangers of genetically modified food.
We are still - no, we are more than ever, the Party you can rely on to speak up for quality public services, and to expose the Government’s shameful record - whether that Government is Labour or Conservative.
Higher school class sizes, rising hospital waiting lists, falling police numbers. And future plans from Gordon Brown that are so unambitious that even Peter Lilley can endorse them!
And we Liberal Democrats are still, just as we have always been, the one Party - the only Party - you can depend upon to fight to put Britain at the heart of a successful Europe.
Just as we did in 1992, when we joined the Conservatives in the division lobby to ensure the passage of the Maastricht Treaty - against Labour's unprincipled opposition.
I remember being condemned for that. I remember being told we had helped keep the Conservatives in office. I remember being told we would pay a price for it at the ballot box.
But I don’t regret it. I am proud of it. Because it was the right thing for Britain.
CHURCHILL’S GRAND VISION
For the heart of Europe is Britain’s rightful place.
Because without a successful Europe we cannot have a successful Britain.
Let me quote from the words of another:
“Nothing less than Europe and Europeanism will generate the vital force to survive.”
“No one party or section of mankind must bar the grand design of a united Europe.”
“[Europe] must strive for economic harmony as a stepping-stone to economic unity.”
“Inseparably woven with this is the approach to a uniform currency.”
The words, not of some starry-eyed philosopher or utopian academic, but of the Conservative Party’s greatest ever leader, Winston Churchill.
What a contrast! What a long, sad and miserable descent!
From the grand vision of Sir Winston Churchill to the puny posturing of William Hague.
From Europe as “vital force” to Europe as conspiracy theory.
HAGUE’S CONSPIRACY THEORISTS
That’s what it’s like, isn’t it, the Tory view of Europe?
They think the whole European Union is a plot got up to do down Britain.
To straighten our cucumbers. To ban our sausages. To steal away the Great British Pound!
For them, everything’s a plot. Everyone’s against us. No-one can be trusted!
They’re determined to see Europe not as partnership but as persecution.
To see our neighbours not as colleagues but as conspirators.
But the sad thing for William Hague is that even his own MEPs aren’t convinced.
Do you know how many of them voted for him in the Tory Leadership Election? Not one. 18 MEPs. 18 votes. Every one for Kenneth Clarke.
And each and every one of his MEPs is a signed up member of the European People’s Party group in the European Parliament.
The pro-federalism, pro-Qualified Majority Voting, pro-Single Currency, European People’s Party, who boast of being “the euro’s most faithful supporters.”
THE SINGLE CURRENCY - WITH CHRIS AND DEBBIE
Because the truth is that even the Tories’ own MEPs know that the Single Currency would bring real benefits to the people of Britain. And staying out will have real costs.
Now some say the Euro is a busted flush because it’s slipped in value. This is just scaremongering rubbish. In fact the Euro has slipped by 14% in the last six months, mostly because of the strong dollar. But the dollar itself fell 60% between 1985 and 1987, before rising back again. No-one said then that the dollar was done for.
That’s what happens to currencies - they go up and they go down. And none more than the pound. The fact is that our currencies will be less volatile in the Euro than out of it. That’s one of the reasons for going in!
In the long run, the performance of the Euro will depend, more than anything else, on the economic performance of the countries in the Euro. And, for both this year and next, growth in every single one of the 11 Eurozone countries is actually predicted to be higher than growth here in the UK.
Whatever the value of the Single Currency today, the benefits of joining it - at the right moment, and after a referendum - are undeniable.
I don’t just mean they’re undeniable for Eurobond washers and the City. I mean for every single British family.
Let’s imagine a couple - let’s call them Chris and Debbie. Any similarity to anyone you may have seen on a Party Election Broadcast is, of course, entirely intentional.
Now Chris and Debbie live on a housing estate - near Luton, we are told.
They have a mortgage of £55,000, below average for the South East. But even so, with the Euro their mortgage rate would be nearly 3% lower, saving them £126 a month - £1,500 a year.
Not bad! Enough, in fact, for one of those nice Mediterranean holidays Chris and Debbie enjoy so much. And of course the holiday would be cheaper too, because there’d be no need to waste money changing currencies. They’d probably save enough for a couple of nice bottles of Chris’s favourite Beaujolais.
And when Chris got back to work, he’d find another pleasant surprise. A better company car, thanks to the car makers finally realising that with a Single Currency, they couldn’t any longer get away with charging up to a third more for cars in Britain than they did on the continent.
Debbie, meanwhile, was getting ambitious. She’d heard about how easy it was to set up your own small business these days, now that all the banks across Europe were fighting to lend to you, and she was going to set up her own gym.
She was just leaving for the bank when she heard the TV still on. A commentator was making predictions about the next week’s Budget. Apparently the Chancellor had an extra three to four billion pounds a year to spend, because lower interest rates in the Euro meant it was cheaper to service the Government's debts. Should he spend this on schools and hospitals, or a 2p cut in income tax?
“And of course the Chancellor will be immensely glad the referendum vote went the right way,” the commentator was saying. “If the Tories had got their way we could have been looking at a 4p tax rise.”
Debbie turned the TV off and thought for a moment. I must remember to send off that Liberal Democrat membership form, she thought.
So, cheaper mortgages. Cheaper holidays. Cheaper cars. More jobs. And, potentially, both lower taxes, and better public services.
Five gains the Euro would bring to the average person in Britain.
Five ways that Britain would pay a high price for letting the Tories loose on Europe.
TORIES - BECOMING THE ‘OUT OF EUROPE’ PARTY
And as the rest of Europe heads towards more prosperity and stability, William Hague’s Conservatives are heading for the exit door.
Don’t just take my word for it. Take the word of Dr Alan Sked, who use to lead the UK Independence Party. Not any more. Now he’s telling people to vote Tory.
Or listen to what Michael Portillo said recently to a meeting of right wing Conservatives: he told them he knew many of them wanted to leave the European Union altogether, but they shouldn’t admit it because it would weaken their chances in a referendum.
You bet it would!
And when the Tory spokesman was asked, just last week, point blank, whether the Tories would consider leaving Europe. He wouldn’t even answer the question.
The Conservatives began this election campaign as Britain’s “edge of Europe” Party. But their real destination is to become Britain’s “out of Europe” Party.
You see, the Tory Party is now in the grip of the “Hornchurch tendency”. Why Hornchurch? Because it’s six stops beyond Barking!
Just think what they would put at risk in terms of jobs and investment.
If Britain followed the Tory line, of no independence for the Bank of England, and no relationship between the pound and the Eurozone, we would have interest rates back up to their General Election 7% level. Just think what that would be doing to our mortgages, to business expansion, and indeed to our public finances. Nine billion pounds a year it would cost the Treasury. That’s the equivalent of four pence on everyone’s income tax - or 54 major new hospitals every year. That’s the cost of the Tories’ obsession with putting dogma before common sense on Europe.
And they would risk everything that we have gained from being in Europe.
WHAT WE GAIN FROM EUROPE
Cleaner air, seas and beaches that we could never have achieved on our own.
The chance to live, work and study in other EU countries - as over a million Britons are already doing - and the right to have your qualifications recognised there.
The jobs and prosperity that come from being part of a single market of 370 million people.
A common set of standards to protect us all from shoddy and dangerous goods.
A powerful voice in world trade negotiations that is helping to save every British household a pound a week, every week, on their shopping bills.
Now think about the future.
How can we hope to limit the powers of the huge multinational companies, unless we act collectively?
How can we help the emerging democracies of central and Eastern Europe to develop and prosper, if not through the European family of nations?
And how can we hope to build a lasting framework for peace and stability in the Balkans, other than by bringing the region under the EU’s umbrella?
You know, the EU is so popular that there are six countries currently negotiating to join. And another seven desperate to be allowed to.
It is a tremendous success story of our era.
But the Tories would risk it all.
‘JUST WILLIAM’ AND HIS ‘PICK AND MIX’ EUROPE
Have you heard their latest harebrained scheme? They call it a “pick and mix” Europe.
“Pick and mix.”
They seem to think you can treat international politics like a trip round a sweet shop. Can you imagine it? Every country picking which rules they will have and which ones they won’t. Which common standards to take home, and which to leave on the shelf.
The single market would unravel faster than you can say William Jefferson Hague.
It’s the sort of thing a schoolboy would come up with.
Who on earth would think you could make Europe work like that? Just William.
Who on earth would believe you could bring 30 countries together for any common purpose like that? Just William.
Who on earth would believe that Britain’s interests could be promoted in a chaotic Europe like that? Just William.
And if those nasty continentals won’t let us have our way, then presumably the response will be, in the immortal words of Just William’s playmate, Violet Elizabeth Bott, “We’ll scream and scream and scream, until we make ourselves sick!”
That’s the Tory way in to Europe. We saw it with the beef ban. You lose friends, then you lose influence, and finally you lose the argument and Britain pays the price.
You see, with the Tories Britain loses twice. We can neither share in Europe’s successes, nor tackle its failures.
And Labour? Labour are full of good intentions. But they are too timid to give a lead on Europe. Too scared of right wing media moguls to stand up for Britain’s real interests. Too obsessed with the headlines in tomorrow’s newspapers to get stuck into the serious reforms Europe so urgently needs. They are sitting on the fence on the Single Currency when they should be leading the debate.
But with the Liberal Democrats Britain wins twice - by benefiting from Europe, and by being in a position to shape Europe.
LIB DEMS - CLEAR ON EUROPE’S LIMITS AND FIRM ON ITS FAILINGS
That’s why Europe needs a strong force of Liberal Democrats in the European Parliament.
Because Liberal Democrats understand the importance of Europe, we also understand the importance of having the right kind of Europe. An open, responsive, representative Europe accountable to the people.
We are pro-Europe. But we are clear on its limits and firm on its failings.
That’s why, when European Commissioners were charged with presiding over mismanagement and fraud last January, it was our MEPs who led the fight to force their resignation. While Labour and Tories held back.
That’s why we are determined to see more power for elected MEPs over the unelected Commission.
And that’s why we say it’s time for a European Constitution - to set out in plain language what Europe can do, and what it can’t.
CONCLUSION - WINNING IN EUROPE
Europe has to get serious about reform. And every Liberal Democrat vote on Thursday will tell the Government that.
And every Liberal Democrat MEP elected on Thursday will fight for that.
For a Europe that is democratic, not bureaucratic.
For a Europe that is open, not secretive.
For a Europe that puts the people first, not politicians and elites.
For a Europe that is a guardian of peace and stability across our continent.
For a Europe that can win for Britain’s people what we cannot win alone.
And for a Britain determined to play our full part in making it a success, rather than pretending we can be mere bystanders.
So, this is the last time I will say it to you.
Get out there!
Campaign your socks off.