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Leader's speech to the Spring Party Conference, Nottingham 1996

Paddy Ashdown (Liberal Democrat)

Location: Nottingham

Oliver Cromwell, speaking on the eve of battle to his russet-coated captains, said: “Know what ye fight for - love what ye know.”

Today, in no more than forty minutes, I’m going to spell out just what it is that we fight for, what unites us as a party, and what we believe.

Others, on both Left and Right, may have cast off their anchors of belief, to drift on the tides of opinion, scavenging for bright ideas.

But I’m going to remind you why we continue to hold to the beliefs we have always held ... why a changing world has given them new importance ... and why, I believe, they will be at the centre of the new thinking and the new politics.

I’ll explain why it’s no accident that we Liberal Democrats can be clear and specific about what needs to be done in Britain - because our ideas are anchored in a cohesive, deep-rooted set of values that we haven’t had to abandon in a changing world.

I shall call upon some strange witnesses. I shall touch on the first Henry Ford, on chewing gum, on holidays in the Galapagos Islands. I shall ask you to think about sun-dried tomatoes, and stone ground flour, and Singapore. And I’ll be drawing lessons from George Soros, South Korea, Ralf Dahrendorf and the Ryder Cup!

I begin with the politics of today; which means, as so often, starting with Mrs Thatcher.

Because I do not believe that it is yet fully understood just how much - and just how permanently - Mrs Thatcher changed things.

She was the great destroyer.

Her thousand bomber raids on British institutions and much of our way of life were painful and destructive.

Some of them, history may say, were necessary.

But in the end, she failed.

She failed because, although she could knock things down, she had no talent for construction.

And she failed most, those to whom she promised most.

In a recent pamphlet, John Gray, the distinguished political philosopher, described the failure of Thatcherism as “a narrative of our times yet to be fully chronicled: the poignant irony of Essex man and woman struggling up the economic escalator, only to meet the bedraggled figures of the professional middle classes staggering down.”

There was energy in Mrs Thatcher’s time - even if most of it was destructive.

But today, even that’s gone. Today, all that remains are a few sad refugees of the Right, repeating her slogans and hoping to frighten us by invoking her name.

Thatcherism has not so much ended, as flickered out - in the long, sad, grey twilight of the Major Government.

All that is left is the casualty list.

Our precious democracy, infected by greed and self-interest - slipping further and further into disrespect.

Our economy: - bloated with bouts of consumption, but undernourished with sustained investment.

Our public institutions demoralised.

Our public services commercialised.

Our public spaces neglected.

Our civic society in ruins.

And over all, the dark stain of poverty, hopelessness and crime spreading out from our neglected inner cities to contaminate almost every community in the land.

What Mrs Thatcher left us is a bomb-site Britain.

The question for the country at the next election is this: what should we build on it?

Some say that we should reconstruct the past - build a better yesterday. More modern, of course: but a re-creation of old values, old institutions, old ways of doing things.

When we leave Nottingham later today, I want none of us to be in the slightest doubt about the Liberal Democrat view: that option - the option of a better yesterday - is no longer open to us.

Let me explain why.

When national governments worked in the past, they worked because the nations they governed were manageable entities: self-contained and self-determining; able to establish their own laws, control their own economy, shape their own destiny.

Governments could, by-and-large, deliver what their people wanted; and so people, by-and-large, believed in government.

This was the understanding that sustained the old establishment consensus in Britain - and which underpinned the social market which has dominated the politics of Europe since the war.

But those with eyes to see can see that this old order has failed in Britain - and even now, it is failing right across Europe, too.

It is failing because its time is over. And it’s time is over, because of two great, irreversible changes which have affected every developed country in the world.

And they are these:

First - least recognised, rarely talked about in Westminster, but relentless in its all-pervading force:- the globalisation of power.

And second, the explosive growth of individualism - of individual autonomy and individual choice.

The phrase “the globalisation of power” is not a pretty one. But its effects, both frightening and liberating, are enormous. Here are a few examples.

- A board of directors in South Korea can now have a greater influence on jobs in Wales than its own Secretary of State.

- An international satellite broadcaster can now have a greater influence on opinion than the most respected national newspaper.

- A single currency speculator - say George Soros - can now have a greater influence on the value of the pound than our own Chancellor of the Exchequer.

- Acid rain produced in Britain can destroy the pine forests of Norway. And corrosion in a nuclear power plant three thousand miles away can contaminate Britain’s grasslands and threaten our children’s health.

All this is with us now ... is with us forever ... and it has changed everything.

Yet politicians, of both Left and Right, continue in their furtive conspiracy of pretence and promise.

They pretend that all power still rests in their hands. And they promise us that which they can no longer deliver: - taxes that always go down, living standards that always go up, jobs that last for life.

The politicians promise. The public rightly doubts them. And politics sinks still lower in public esteem.

But there is a good side to all this.

The age of deference, if not quite dead, is dying on its feet.

And the age of the individual is coming along famously.

We’re seeing the beginning of the end of the politics of class and nation.

And that’s the second reason why a return to a better yesterday is impossible.

People don’t pull their forelocks any more. They don’t want their lives to be laid out for them by well-spoken persons of superior breeding They want to think for themselves, choose for themselves ... be themselves.

Now, the market understands this very well.

Go into a supermarket, a newsagent’s - even a building society. What is on offer, is choice.

Not just white flour and brown flour - but stone-ground flour, too. Tomato ketchup and sun-dried tomatoes. Not just one computer magazine, but twenty-three. Four kinds of mortgage; fourteen different personal pension plans; Bali, Benidorm or the Galapagos Islands for your holiday.

The market believes that the individual has the ability to choose ... and the right to choose.

The market dislikes elitism. It promotes choice and welcomes pluralism.

The market respects the individual as consumer.

But when it comes to the individual as citizen, politics in Britain denies us all of these.

The first Henry Ford once famously offered his public any colour they liked, as long as it was black. Today, eighty years later, the British political Establishment offers you any colour you like - as long as it’s blue or red.

The assumption is this: if you’re not in one box, then you must be in the other. Don’t offer people wider choice: they wouldn’t know what to do with it.

So, two things have changed for ever. The state has less power; and individuals want more power.

The state that claimed the power to please the masses no longer exists.

And the masses that the state once tried to please no longer exist

So a return to a better yesterday is not an option. We need to build something new in its place.

Two propositions are now put before us: one from the New Right and the other from the New Left. Each addresses one half of the problem but ignoring the other.

The New Right says this: if the unlimited power of the global market is the problem from abroad, then the uncritical embrace of the free market must be the solution at home. The answer, they say, is to re-create the United States in Britain.

But with US solutions come US problems: exclusion, fracture, deprivation, lawlessness, greed. Ghettoised poverty for many. A citadel life-style for the few. And armed security guards protecting one class of citizen from the embarrassment of the other.

There are already signs in this country - too many signs - of widening social rifts and growing social tensions. To take further steps along this New Right path is to risk certainly the cohesion, and perhaps even the civilisation. This is not the path for Britain to travel.

The second and more recent proposition comes from the New Left - and emphasises the dangers of unfettered individualism; those who claim all rights but shrug off all responsibilities. The answer here, they say, is to create a new morality - a new state-sponsored morality. To reshape Britain in the image of Singapore.

To start with, the ideas are perfectly good ones: community based projects; residents helping older neighbours, the promotion of social cohesion.

But it ends by telling people how to live their lives. By limiting freedom of speech. By spot fines for chewing gum and neglecting to pull the lavatory chain.

It ends in policies which punish the sinner, but ignore the sin. Policies which have more to say about driving beggars from the streets, than housing the homeless and helping the poor.

It reminds me of the old medieval rhyme at the time of the enclosures:

“They hanged the man and flogged the woman/ That stole the goose from off the Common.

“But they let the greater thief go loose/ That stole the Common from the goose.”

This is not an acceptable solution in a free society, either.

Cohesion perhaps: but this is organised cohesion - state cohesion. Whatever the aim, this kind of thought-police centralism will be intolerable to those who are hungering for greater personal autonomy.

So we need another solution. A solution that takes account of both these two new irreversible trends: the growth of global power at one end, and the growth of individual power at the other.

And there is such a solution. Listen to this:

“We champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals and their right to develop their talent to the full”, so that no-one is “enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity”.

It comes, of course, from the preamble to our Party Constitution.

Now, cynics might seek to dismiss those twenty-five words as no more than apple-pie and motherhood: as admirable sentiment but with not a lot of substance.

But to read them like that is to read them wrong.

Because, if a government really did champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals; if it really did encourage them to develop their talents to the full; if no-one really was enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity: what sort of society would we have?

We would have a society not just of individuals - but of self-reliant individuals.

And that, fellow Liberal Democrats, is the clear, central purpose of this party. To create a better society in this country, founded on the self-reliant individual.

The concept of the self-reliant individual is now the only political idea that makes sense for this country, for now and into the next century.

It is that understanding that must fire our imaginations.

Individuals: responsible; fully-equipped; making choices; taking power; using power.

Each valued. Each different. Each respectful of each other.

Each entitled to be heard. Each required to bear responsibility for their actions. Each contributing to the creation of this country’s wealth and this country’s own self-confidence.

Now, if we start, clear-eyed and confident, with that objective in our sights:- then what does it mean for policy?

What it means, above all, is that policies and priorities become almost self-determining.

We are not born self-reliant. We have to be equipped for self-reliance.

That means, not the end of government, but a changed focus for government - a changed role for government.

Government which empowers and enables.

Government which is on the side of the citizen, not in charge of the citizen.

Government whose first duty is to ensure that every single person goes through life, fully equipped with knowledge, skills, rights, self-confidence.

Spend a moment or two now, just contemplating with me, the full and extraordinary significance of that which we call education. Because education is much, much more than reading and writing and arithmetic, and having to go to school every day.

Education is the one gift we can give our children that no-one can ever take away again.

It is the source of that rough curiosity of spirit that is the wellspring of true liberty.

It exists in all circumstances.

It endures in all conditions.

It is self-contained.

It is self-perpetuating.

It equips the individual throughout life to rise to the unknown challenge and cope with the unforeseen change.

Education won’t guarantee you freedom or fulfillment - but without education, you will be denied both of these.

It is education - and only education - that makes possible a tolerant and civilised society.

And of course, it is only education - liberating and nourishing the brains and talents of our people - that can provide sustainable national economic prosperity - and without such prosperity, let there be no misunderstanding, all other objectives become nothing but self-delusion.

The surprise, therefore, is not that we Liberal Democrats make education and training the cornerstone of our proposals. The surprise is that others do not.

Some say that our willingness to put a penny on income tax to pay for education may be electoral suicide. What I know for certain, is that not to do so would be national suicide.

That is why we are right to fight the school cuts, right to fight for investment, right to put our children’s education first.

And this commitment to a society of self-reliant individuals makes other decisions inevitable.

We need to change our welfare system: from one which breeds dependency and discouragement, to one which lifts people out of dependency and into work. And we need to recognise that a welfare system will be respected and supported, only if it is seen to favour those who can’t help themselves, above those who won’t help themselves.

But ultimately, what distinguishes the society built around the self-reliant individual is not people’s entitlements from the system, but the power that they exercise over the system.

And from that perception, many other actions flow.

Self-reliant individuals must have access to information and democratic influence.

That’s why we need a Freedom of Information Act. Why we need a voting system that gives people more choice and influence and power. Why we need referendums on issues like Europe. Why we need a Bill of Rights to protect our freedoms.

And that, it follows, is also why parliaments for Scotland and Wales are essential; why local government must have its autonomy and pride restored.

And why a campaign of destruction worthy of Mrs Thatcher herself must be waged upon the quango.

I can think of no part of our sick system that has done more to distance individuals from their democratic rights than these unelected, unaccountable, over-protected, over-rewarded, self-perpetuating groups of anonymous meddlers.

(From which, you may safely conclude that I am, in the main, more often than not, intemperate though it may seem, not overly fond of quangos.)

And certain other things also follow from a society built around the self-reliant individual.

The first is that fairness is not just desirable but essential. Without fairness, justice is impossible, social cohesion unsustainable.

And for Liberal Democrats, fairness is not a simple absolute. Fairness is rooted in local understanding, the product of agreement within a community, not imposed from outside. Accountable and open to change as circumstances change.

The second is that, in the society of the self-reliant individual, the enemy is exclusion.

I have already praised the market and it has many virtues - but compassion is not one of them.

Only very rarely, in the discouragement of monopolies, for example, should governments interfere in the operation of the market. But Government’s can - indeed must - be ready to help the market’s human casualties. If they do not, the excluded will in the end destroy the system that excluded them.

The Dahrendorf Commission said last year - and I quote:

“ ... wealth is more than GDP growth; economic development has to be sustainable, not only in environmental terms, but also in social terms; inclusion is not an optional extra, but a condition of long term wealth; stakeholders are as important as companies, communities and shareholders; the public domain, with its values of service, continues to have a significant place, even in a globally competitive economy”.

What this describes is the beginnings of a new economics and a new society whose centre-piece is that self-reliant individual.

What will it be like, this new economy?

It will encourage small businesses and self-employment - rewarding initiative and allowing everyone to make their economic contribution.

It will be strong on competition and brutal with monopolies.

It will invest for the long-term.

It will have a flexible labour market, creating for people employment choices, throughout their working lives.

It will equip its people with skills and rights and knowledge and self-confidence: so that they see this flexibility not as threat but opportunity.

It will recognise pension provision as deferred wages over which the holders have absolute right of disposal.

It will share profits.

It will understand that quality of life, clean air, clean water, are not impediments to prosperity, they are part of prosperity.

And it will recognise that there is a level of unemployment above which a stable society becomes unsustainable.

We will not promise jobs for all - for that is as much a lie as promising permanently lower taxes.

But we do recognise that work - the esteem, the wages, the fulfillment, the prospects that come with work - these are fundamental to self-reliance.

I suspect that in the future redistributing work will be more important than redistributing wealth. And goodness knows, there’s enough that needs doing.

So we need better childcare to enable parents to work, and benefit reforms to help the long-term unemployed back into work.

We must change absurd Treasury rules to kickstart major investment projects. That’s the way to get people working, building new homes, creating new nurseries, modernising our railways.

And we need a myriad of innovative, small-scale initiatives, like community enterprise and local trading systems, to give people a stake where at present they have nothing.

But the implications of a society built around the self-reliant individual stretch well beyond jobs.

A society which respects people’s choices will encourage diversity. It will accommodate different life-styles. It will be heedless of gender or sexual orientation. It will value people’s abilities, not penalise their disabilities. And it will cherish pluralism and the wide richness of ethnic traditions and cultures in Britain today.

And that means tolerance - because the only kind of social cohesion which can endure is not the kind imposed from without, but the kind that comes, willingly, from within.

So I don’t mean token, condescending tolerance - I mean a tolerance strong enough to live contentedly with conflict.

Some political theories believe you can abolish conflict and contention. We Liberal Democrats welcome them. We know that conflict, disagreement and debate are indissolubly part of choice, pluralism and diversity:- and when shrewdly channeled can provide a dynamo for change and a force for understanding.

You see, to live with conflict, you must understand your neighbours and their differences. If you cannot live with conflict, then you will seek to obliterate those differences. That is the way that starts with discrimination and ends up with ethnic cleansing.

So, here we have the self-reliant individual: the cornerstone of our new society. Autonomous, self-confident, equipped. An owner of opportunities, a possessor of skills, a maker of choices. Strong enough to accept responsibility; to welcome challenge; to resolve conflict.

But is that enough? Is that all we need?


Because no man is an island. The individual is an “I” - but there is also the “We”.

And from the beginning of civilization - indeed, it’s one of the defining characteristics of civilisation - humankind has recognised the need to be more than singular; to be a part of something more.

Now there are some who believe that “we” is a singular concept, that it can refer only to one group, define only one identity, fix only one position.

But just use the word yourself - and see how many ‘we’s’ there really are.

“We’re having Christmas at home this year.” That’s we the family.

“We’re getting up a petition to save the school.” That’s we, the parents - the local community.

“We got a new export order this morning.” That’s we in our place of work.

“We’re playing away this Saturday.” That’s we the team - we the supporters.

“We’re meeting in Nottingham in March.” That’s we, this party.

And when the Ryder Cup is being played against the Americans, millions of people in England, Scotland and Wales will cheer as Bernard Langer or Seve Ballesteros sinks the winning putt and shout, “We’ve won!”

And what’s that ‘We’? Michael Portillo, please note: That “we” is Europe.

We do it quite easily and quite naturally. We belong to, and identify with, all at the same time, an almost infinite number of groups and communities.

For the self-reliant individual, the “we” of the community is absolutely vital.

It’s within our communities that we most readily identify ourselves, understand our responsibilities, and recognise our interdependence on each other.

It is within the community that we can both serve and preserve the spirit of voluntarism that’s still so strong in Britain.

It is within the community that much of the present power of Westminster and Whitehall could more fairly and more efficiently be exercised.

It is also, as we have seen so movingly this week, within our communities that we share sorrow, find courage, and give consolation.

And it is within the community that we can begin to reconstruct what Ralf Dahrendorf calls our “civic” culture, which has been so systematically destroyed these last seventeen years.

Because it does not matter how many individual choices we may have, or how self-reliant we may be. If our lives draw nothing from, and contribute nothing to, a public culture, then they will still be impoverished

So, we Liberal Democrats see the community as a framework for recreating a powerful public culture, diverse in its range, rich in its options, strong in its common institutions.

Now let me return to that “we”, and use it in a different - wider context.

And I will take myself as an example.

If someone asked me what I am, there may have been a time when I would have replied, “I am British” - and that would have been enough.

But today, I have to give you a rather more complex answer.

I would have to say: I am Irish by birth. I am a West Countryman by choice and love. I am British by nationality - and proud of it. And now, if I am lucky, I may have French grandchildren - and I will be proud of that, too. For I am also a European, by culture, heritage and history. And beyond that, I must recognise ties of duty and love right out to include the great wide circle of every human being living today.

The point is this: I cannot identify myself adequately, unless I do so with reference to all these things.

To say only that I am British diminishes the identities to which I feel entitled and limits the space I want to call my own - and which I want my children to call their own.

It is this understanding that drives our Party’s internationalism.

That’s why, when others have dithered and dodged, we have been clear, united and firm on Europe. That’s why, when others ignored it, we understood the importance of Bosnia right from the start. That’s why, when others turned their backs, we were the only party to stand by Britain’s moral duty and stand up for the rights of the people of Hong Kong.

So this is our vision for our country in the next millennium.

The self-reliant individual, living in strong communities; equipped and supported by an active and enabling government,

It has always been there at the heart of our party. We have always been the party that puts the individual before groups, classes, cliques or factions. For that reason, it can belong to no other party.

No, what’s new is not the idea itself, but the circumstance of time and social change in which we hold it.

Those two surreptitious newcomers, the forces of global power and the drive for individual autonomy, have changed our world already and will change it much more.

The idea of individual self-reliance is now not only the way to liberate human potential - it’s also imperative for economic success.

So it is time now to make that which today lives only in our imaginations a reality: a nation of tens of millions of individuals, astonishing in their diversity, reveling in their own abilities and achievements, coping with conflict, working together in groups and communities, exploring and conquering the opportunities which now open up before them.

It is time now to remember who we Liberal Democrats are, what we are, what we stand for ... to take risks, seize opportunities and keep our eyes on the big things ... to reject the politics of the safe harbour in favour of the politics of the open sea ... to make this next year the most eventful and significant in our short and crowded history.

It is time now to prepare for the battle ahead.

It is time to drive this discredited, sleazy, rotten government out of power, out of office and out of our lives.

But there is something even more important for us to do. Even more important than getting rid of this government.

It is to act as the catalyst for the deep changes which I have been talking about this afternoon.

Without that fundamental shift, without creating communities of self-reliant individuals, without transforming government, we could change Britain’s leadership and still not change Britain’s fortunes.

Once in every generation or two comes the liberal hour, when our enduring values and the needs of a changing society come together in a burst of creative reform.

Fellow Liberal Democrats:

That opportunity lies before us.

That responsibility is ours.

That hour is now.

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