Jump to content

Speech Archive

Speech to the “Real World” Rally, London 1996

Paddy Ashdown (Liberal Democrat)

Location: London

The “Real World” book says this;

“The Millennium should be a time for Britain to plan for the future as well as to reflect on our past. We face important challenges. But these challenges are barely discussed, let alone addressed. Instead the country seems to be drifting aimlessly into the twenty-first century”.


With the General Election just around the corner we are within a few months of the most important choice for this country since the war.

What we decide in that Election, and what the new Government does after it will shape this country and determine its success or failure in the first decades of the next century.

Yet, in the battle of spin doctors and sound bites the really big issues aren’t being debated, they are being ducked.

That, we are told is the way it must be. Its the only way to win elections.

Hasn’t Tuesday’s Clinton victory proved it?

Ignore the tricky issues - concentrate on the triangulation.

No tough messages, please.

Puff small things up into big ones. And ignore the really big ones altogether

Don't frighten the horses - above all don’t frighten the middle classes.

This is the time of the politics of quietude

This may prove - it has proved for President Clinton, and Labour hopes it will prove for Tony Blair - a winning strategy for the election.

But I cannot think of a worse strategy for a successful government after the election.

Someone said to me recently “the real problem about our politics today is that there are no really big issues to confront us”

Nonsense! Indeed exactly the opposite is the truth.

We have never, in this last half century, been faced with bigger issues than confront us now.

The globalisation of unaccountable power, the impact of the information revolution, the decline of the effectiveness of the nation state, the rise of individual autonomy, the fracturing of society, the decay of democratic institutions, the growing chasm of poverty within countries and between them, the challenge of global interdependence.

The tragedy of politics today isn’t that the issues are small. The issues are huge. Its the ideas that are small.

And because the ideas are small the politicians are getting smaller, too.

This is the age not of the politicians, but of the political mechanic. The person who stands behind the leader, but is almost as important. The person who understands that knowing what you believe is less important than knowing how the system works - and getting it to work for you.

In fact believing things can be dangerous it can make some people dislike you. And that wouldn’t do at all.

So it becomes the purpose of the spin doctor and the sound bite to transmogrify the difficult into the easy.

The rough into the smooth.

The challenge into the opiate.

We are, to coin a phrase, sleep walking into the next century - and into the disasters which are inevitable, if we will not face up to what is ahead.

There is no more telling example of this than the environment.

The environment used to be the fashion on every politician’s lips. Now, when what matters is action, it is barely discussed.

Yet the rapid deterioration of the global environment is without doubt the most serious and difficult practical and real challenge that faces humankind today.

And it falls to our generation to address it, before, some argue, an irreversible decline in some aspects of our global safety, sets in.

If we do not then future generations may say “that was the last time they could make things right. But they failed because they went on sleeping”

I recently saw a report written in America in 1980. It was called “Global 2000”. And it said:

“If present trends continue, the world in 2000 will be more crowded, more polluted, less stable ecologically, and more vulnerable to disruption than the world we live in now. Serious stresses involving population, resources, and the environment are clearly visible ahead. Despite greater material output, the world’s people will be poorer in many ways than they are today.

“Prompt and vigorous changes in public policy around the world are needed to avoid or minimise these problems before they become unmanageable.......If decisions are delayed until the problems become worse, options for effective action will be severely reduced”.

That was sixteen years ago.

Well, important decisions have been delayed - and options for action have been reduced - and they look like being further still.

I just wonder - and worry - what the state of the world will be in another sixteen years time - in 2012

Now, I cannot speak on behalf of the other politicians gathered here today. I can only speak on behalf of the Liberal Democrats.

We accept and enthusiastically agree with the concerns and aims of the Real World agenda - not just the rhetoric.

We agree that Parliament, political parties, politicians and the media are so far failing to address these challenges.

That we must incorporate environmental objectives into every area of government policy.

That we need a fundamental shift in attitudes and policies if we are to live in balance with our planet.

And that if we are to succeed in the future we have to be serious about tackling poverty, renewing our democracy and reviving our communities, adopting a new strategy for transport and housing. Above all looking ahead and planning for the future.

Let me explain why.

Renewing and reforming our democracy.

Building a sustainable economy.

Creating a just society.

Eradicating poverty and expanding opportunities.

These four issues are crucial, not just to creating a decent Britain in the years ahead, but to creating a successful Britain, too.

Take Democratic Renewal.

British politics is not working.

The widespread public disillusionment and dissatisfaction - particularly among the young, challenges the whole political class and the whole political system.

If we will not reform our politics, then our politics will fail. It is as simple as that.

We have to clean up the mess in our political system and reconnect politics with people.

Freedom of Information. A Bill of Rights. Devolution.

Fair votes. Reform of Parliament. Greater use of referendums.

Stripping away secrecy and making Parliament more representative.

Involving people and giving them more power in their local communities.

These are the bones of a new democratic settlement which will transform our 19th Century system of Government into something suitable for the challenges of the 21st Century.

They are, quite simply, the essential ingredients necessary to make government successful again.

But Britain can never be successful while it is divided and while so many of our people are abandoned to hopelessness and dependency.

We have to widen opportunities and break the trap of poverty in which so many are imprisoned in our country.

For liberals - and Liberal Democrats - education is the best way to do this.

Which is why we put education first and would make it the first call on the nation’s public finances. And yes, that includes, if necessary, asking people to pay more in tax so that all can have more knowledge in their heads and more opportunities in their lives.

But education, though fundamental, is not sufficient.

Social justice and greater opportunities means firm action to tackle poverty as well.

We would, for example, free three-quarters of a million of the lowest paid from tax altogether, by taxing top-earners at 50% on earnings over £100,000.

We would break open the benefit traps that lock people into poverty and dependency - for example, by integrating the separate Income Support and Family Credit system.

We would improve access to childcare and re-training, and allow those out of work the longest to turn their welfare benefits into working benefits in order to get back into work, learning new skills earning a wage and creating new wealth.

But as Ralph Dahrendorf’s Commission last year said, wealth, real wealth is not just a money thing.

Its about the quality of life as well. And that means placing environmental sustainability the heart of the new agenda.

It means developing a coherent strategy for sustainable development, linking economic success with social stability and environmental sustainability.

These proposals have to be integrated for one simple reason . Because they cannot be achieved in isolation.

A failing economy will not value social or environmental sustainability.

A divided society is unlikely to prosper and even more unlikely to value and protect its environment.

Environmental degradation affects us all rich and poor.

There are those who argue that environmental sustainability and economic success are inimical to each other. Exactly the opposite is true. In the future the successful advanced economies will be the green economies, the clean economies. In the future successful firms and successful countries will be efficient in our use of primary raw materials and energy as we are in our use of capital and labour

So we need strategies to;

Become more energy efficient and environmentally-friendly in our use of energy. That means putting a new priority on conserving energy, while phasing out nuclear power and boosting renewable sources of energy.

It means pricing the congestion on our city roads and putting the money into improving public transport.

It means developing new ways of measuring national success so that it actually reflects the quality of our lives.

It means that there has to be a fundamental change to our tax system.

A shift towards environmental taxation

In all developed countries over the past 20 years, taxes on labour have increased, yet taxes on the use of natural resources have actually fallen.

By shifting tax away from the things we want more of - like jobs - onto the things we want less off - like pollution - we can both protect the environment and create new jobs.

I am not talking about raising taxes - I am talking about shifting taxes. The total burden can - should stay the same - but its effect would be radically different. Instead of penalising jobs and wealth we would penalise pollution and the consumption of finite raw materials.

It is a “win, win, win” policy.

It seems to me, common sense. So why is it that no-one else is promoting it?

The ‘Real World’ coalition understands, as I hope and want Liberal Democrats to, that the decisions that we take - or duck - over the next ten years will shape our country’s future well into the next century.

You understand why it is so important to make the next election more than an unintelligent, superficial slanging match.

You have a vital role to play in lifting the sights of electorate and media alike.

Otherwise these great issues will be by-standers at the next election.

Progressive politics has always been at its strongest in Britain when Parliamentary forces have articulated the concerns of masses beyond Parliament.

It was true when the Labour Party in Parliament spoke for the working classes represented in the Trade Union arm of the Labour movement.

It was true in the nineteenth century, when the Liberal Party spoke in Parliament for a previously unrepresented coalition of manufacturers, religious dissenters and professional middle classes, fighting against the privilege and patronage of the landed interest and the Established Church.

Today, I believe the Real World coalition articulates another range of issues, and body of people, whose voice is hardly heard in Parliament and mainstream politics.

And with the Real World coalition strong, loud, and focused - in the election campaign, in the next Parliament, and beyond - perhaps these issues will no longer be forgotten - and the chance of the next Government being one of political reform, social and environmental sustainability will be greater.

And of that happens we will not duck the issues. We will not sleep walk into the next century. And our country will be better prepared to face the huge challenges ahead.

Let me assure you - in that struggle you will find the Liberal Democrats resolutely at your shoulder - speaking for the Real World Agenda, making the Real World Agenda a reality.

Back to top

Home | About | Resources | Contact Copyright © British Political Speech 2017 | Terms and Conditions | Privacy Policy