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Leader's speech to the Scottish Party Conference, Paisley 1997

Paddy Ashdown (Liberal Democrat)

Location: Paisley

Fellow Liberal Democrats, it's great to be here.

It’s great to be in the home straight before the election.

We are now, at most, nine weeks away from the election day, and may be less than three weeks away from the start of the campaign itself.

I know how hard you have all been working over the last year. I have seen the local by-election results to prove it.

But from now on these efforts need to be doubled. Everything we do as a party must be focused on the election. There is only one judgement now for all our work and campaigning and that is measured by votes in the ballot box.

We are now in the last fading, twilight days of this rotten, discredited and sleazy Government.

They were routed in Wirral. They’re squabbling amongst themselves like rats in a sack. And I suspect now, that the longer they leave it, the harder they will fall.

Well they can run - but they cannot hide. For now the account must be settled. They must now pay for what they have done.

And the bill is a long one.

This is the Government which gave us the poll tax, and shamelessly used Scotland as its guinea-pig.

The Government which has brought us a new scandal every week, from 'cash for questions' to 'arms to Iraq'.

This is the Government which gerrymandered Scottish council boundaries for its own ends - but still failed to win a single council.

This is the Government which has squandered 210 billion pounds of North Sea Oil money and privatisation receipts while quadrupling the national debt.

This is the Government responsible for the BSE fiasco which has done so much needless damage to the Scottish beef industry.

This is the Government which received only a quarter of the votes of the Scottish people in successive elections, but has exercised absolute power through Ministers and their quango placemen.

This Government has no further role to play except to hang on miserably until the bitter end.

They must go.

They have nothing further to say.

No vision for our country.

No plans for the future.

No message for our comfort.

No hope for our hearts.

No place to go.

No weapon left but fear.

And they will use it. Since they cannot brighten our path to the ballot box with hope, they will frighten us to it with fear.

They will say they are the party of low taxes - despite the 22 tax rises since 1992.

They will say they are the party of sound economics - despite running up a national debt of nearly 400 billion pounds.

They will say they are the patriotic party - while rejecting all the values that have made our country great.

But most of all, here in Scotland, they will say they are the party of the Union and that any form of Home Rule will send Scotland tumbling down into some sort of Third World status.

They say we will undo a thousand years of British history!

Well actually, Prime Minister, there hasn’t been a thousand years of British history!!

Of all the absurd things our Prime Minister has said that must rank as one of the most absurd of all.

I do hope the Prime Minister will take a history lesson before the campaign begins.

The Prime Minister has said of Northern Ireland that, “because of its history, there has been an Assembly in the past. That does not apply elsewhere.”

Clearly the Scottish Parliament that existed up to 1707 has slipped his mind.

At a different level he’s even forgotten the old Greater London Council which only went in 1986.

The last thousand years of history? His memory doesn’t even stretch to the last decade of his own Government!

I wonder if he can remember the General Election manifesto he stood on as a candidate in 1974. “Devolution”, it said, “would act as a spur to commerce and industry”.

Now he says it is ‘the politics of the madhouse’.

Perhaps he should tell this to Lord Tebbit who wrote earlier this year that: “Unionists will not save the Union by mocking the idea of a Scottish nation.”

Or Lord Hailsham, once Lord Chancellor - now more famous as the father of our hapless Agriculture Secretary. He wrote in 1992 that it was ‘idle’ to pretend devolution to a Scottish assembly was either impossible or a constitutional error.

Or Sir Edward Heath - who only last weekend said that nothing had changed since 1974, so far as he was concerned. He still supports a Scottish Assembly and believes “it has no danger to the unity of the United Kingdom. None whatever.”

John Major does not see that by bringing power back to Scotland we are bringing government closer to the people, and making government more responsive to people’s needs, not less.

He does not see that Britain’s strength lies in building on our diversity, not on preserving our centralism.

He does not see that by meeting the aspirations of Scotland’s people for their own Parliament we are strengthening our Union, not weakening it.

The Prime Minister seems to believe that the Union is so weak that power must be concentrated, centralised, and guarded jealously by Westminster - which means, of course, guarded jealously by Tories like him. And he seems to believe that Westminster is so weak that, if it loses some of that power it will lose it all. So he concludes that if anything changes, everything will collapse.

But Britain’s flexibility and diversity has, historically, been its strength not a weakness.

Perhaps John Major should leave Westminster for Murrayfield this afternoon.

Then he would see how our unity is strengthened by our diversity.

This afternoon the Scottish captain Rob Wainwright and Irish captain Jim Staples will be facing each other at Murrayfield. Head to head. Locked in competition against one another.

But in the summer they will join together with Englishmen and Welshmen, to win together for the British Lions in South Africa.

When the Scots pull on their shirts this afternoon they will be proud to be Scottish. Proud of their history. Proud of their heritage. And so they should be.

In the summer, when they swap their blue shirts for red they will be proud to be British. Proud to be pooling together our collective resources. Proud to be standing cheek to cheek, jowl to jowl with Englishmen, Welshmen and Irishmen.

So, is it a threat to the Union that we have four different national football sides?

Is it a threat to the Union that England and Scotland have different legal systems?

Is it a threat to the Union that we have different established churches?

That you have a different education system, or your own proud, independent banks?

No - these are not threats to our Union. They are our strength. Even, perhaps, our glory.

The real threat to the Union is not our diversity - not our differences - but the determination of the Conservatives to trample these down under.

It is not a Scottish Parliament that poses a threat to the United Kingdom. It is the Conservatives’ contemptuous rejection of Scotland’s claim of right and Scotland’s sense of nationhood. That’s what poses the real threat to the Union.

What a pity then that in the face of Conservative contempt for Scotland, Labour has sounded such an uncertain note.

Michael Forsyth started his scaremongering about a tartan tax. Labour’s response was to risk Scotland’s carefully constructed consensus, seven years in the making, by erecting a new and quite unnecessary double fence for the Scottish people to leap.

Hardly the new politics!

Amid this confusion we Liberal Democrats have stood like a rock.

On election day there will be no doubts. No ifs. No maybes. The Liberal Democrat guarantee is the bankable guarantee. If you want to cast one vote for a Scottish Parliament with meaningful tax powers then it has to be a vote for the Liberal Democrats.

Only the Liberal Democrats can make the difference.

This is our message. And it’s a strong one. And I believe it will help us gain votes and seats on election day.

You know, in war they use a technique called 'nightwalking'.

Here is a description of nightwalking. See if it reminds you of anybody:

"There is one thing and one thing only that matters: the feet of the person in front. That is your universe entire, the focus of all your attention. Look up, look sideways, just blink too long and you may lose the precise trail being trod. And may stumble. And may make noise. And may be shot at."

The only thing that matters is the feet of the person in front. Stay as close as you can. Or you might be shot at.

I think Labour’s shadow cabinet have been doing some weekend training in political nightwalking!

I think they’ve decided to nightwalk to the next election.

Consider last November’s Budget.

Conjuror Ken Clarke’s great con-trick. Less tax, more spending. At least that’s what he would have us believe.

No-one believed him, of course, because after all their broken promises, no-one believes a word the Tories say these days.

And people were right not to believe him, because underneath - it was one great smoke and mirrors con-trick.

A con for our Health Service. A con for our schools. And a con for our local communities.

Nothing for the future.

All the way through the Budget debate we were clear where we stood. Malcolm Bruce was clear. I was clear. And across Britain Liberal Democrats have been clear as you have campaigned for better education and healthcare.

Solid in our principles. Confident on our ground. Clear in our message: Our children’s schools before tax bribes. Our hospitals before tax bribes. Britain’s people before tax bribes.

And Labour said, broadly, the same. They criticised the Budget. They said it was a con. But when it came to the vote the best they could do was abstain.

Well, if you haven’t got the guts to vote against tax cuts in the House of Commons, then you haven’t got the right to campaign against the consequences in the country!

Now note, this was the Budget which at the time Labour’s Deputy Leader said was an unfair Budget for the few and not for the many. Now, Gordon Brown says this is the way it has to be.

That Labour should be nervous about its past I understand.

But why be so nervous about the future?

That Mr Brown wants to make no more promises than he can deliver, I am pleased.

But why must that mean making no promises at all?

That he wants to ensure that Labour will never again return Britain to punitive rates of taxation, I am prepared to applaud and support - even though I know some of his MPs would not.

But what I cannot understand is how Labour can spend six months telling us the Tory Budget was a fraud, and now may spend the next two years applying it.

I don’t want taxes in Britain to be a penny higher than they have to be. But to rule out the possibility of any tax increase whatsoever is a counsel of despair for education, for the NHS, for our public services and for the country as a whole.

If all that changes after the next election are the names on the nameplates above Number 11 and Number 10 Downing Street then I genuinely fear for this country’s future.

So, if your school is about to lose a teacher you can blame the Tories. But don’t look to Labour for help. They say they will do nothing.

If your hospital is in crisis - blame the Tories. But don’t look to Labour for help. They say they will do nothing.

If elderly parents are about to lose the care they need to live because of council cuts - blame the Tories. But don’t look to Labour. They say they will do nothing.

Just look at the two Crime Bills pushed through Parliament by the Government this year, one for England and Wales, one for Scotland. The second a carbon copy of the first; Michael Forsyth riding roughshod over the different legal system and traditions north of the border to win a few cheap votes and a quick cheer from the party faithful.

Both bills were fundamentally illiberal. Both sought to restrict judicial freedom in a way never seen before. Both of them were attempts to deceive the public into believing the Government were seriously tackling crime while really doing nothing of the sort.

And there was another thing they had in common. On both of them it was the Liberal Democrats who led the opposition. Labour stayed away.

Two clear examples of how the Liberal Democrats will make the difference.

Just look at what’s happening in Scotland’s schools.

Class sizes have risen since 1992, and they’re still rising.

The backlog of repairs and maintenance has increased since 1992, and it’s still increasing.

More and more schools are becoming dependent on PTA funds for essential equipment like books and computers, creating a hierarchy of rich schools and poor schools - fundamentally undermining the ethos of Scottish education.

What I said at Budget time and what I have been saying ever since is that there’s no point moaning about the problems in our schools if, when it comes to the crunch, you’re not prepared to invest in doing anything about them.

Where the Tories obscure and Labour fudge, the Liberal Democrats are clear. We need both higher standards and extra investment. The two go hand in hand - and only we will deliver them

Early years education for every 3 and 4 year old whose parents want it - the most important investment we can make.

Smaller primary class sizes, and extra resources for books, equipment, and teacher development.

And better post-16 training and adult education later on.

Guaranteed.

Elect Liberal Democrats, this is what you get. Around £200 million extra for Scottish schools - every year. Over a Parliament that would add up to a billion pounds of extra investment in our children’s futures across Scotland.

At local level the Liberal Democrat commitment to education already shines through.

In the Borders Archy Kirkwood, David Steel and Michael Moore have joined forces with councillors fighting tooth and nail to save music tuition and hot school meals , and to stop the closure of rural primary schools in the face of the worst council funding squeeze ever seen.

That determination has brought success - a success which is reflected in education departments in Liberal Democrat administrations up and down the country.

When it comes to the things which matter most to people it is the Liberal Democrats who are fighting hardest for them.

An example. Nothing is more important to people than their health.

You don’t have to be an expert in public policy to understand the crisis now going on in our Health Service - you only have to read the newspapers and use the evidence of your own eyes.

Every week, there is new evidence of a closed ward or axed service.

So what do we do?

The NHS has three main problems. Lack of investment. Lack of accountability. And lack of strategic planning. And in each case it is only the Liberal Democrats who will make the difference.

We will bring proper accountability to healthcare in Scotland, so that the people taking key decisions are answerable to the local people they are supposed to serve.

We will bring better planning to the NHS in Scotland. At the moment there is no planning. There is panic. What we see is the haphazard, crisis driven, chaotic closure of hospital wards and NHS services.

Well we’d stop that. Tomorrow. For six months. While a full NHS audit was done, matching needs to facilities.

And we’d put in place a proper system for NHS strategic planning for the future. And we’d make that a responsibility of the new Scottish Parliament. And then we’d ensure that the Scottish health service operates on a five-year rolling programme, to provide stability and long-term confidence.

That would cut bureaucracy. And save money. Which we will put into further care.

But that’s not all. We will put more real investment into the NHS in Scotland as we will across the UK.

We will freeze prescription charges - which have risen by 3000% since 1979.

We will abolish charges for eye and dental check ups.

We will invest two hundred million pounds across the UK in NHS recruitment and improvements. That’s enough to pay for 10,000 extra nurses or 5,000 doctors.

And we will spend one hundred and fifty million pounds more, reducing waiting lists, to no more than six months by the year 2000.

These aren’t just aspirations - like the Labour Party have for health.

They’re not even plans - like the Conservatives make at Budget time and then break a year later.

They are commitments. And they’re fully costed.

The eye and dental checks will be paid for by putting five pence on the price of a packet of cigarettes. If you don’t believe that’s a price worth paying to restore free eye and dental checks - don’t vote for us.

The extra nurses and doctors for better patient care; and reduced waiting lists will be paid for by closing off a tax loophole on the payment of wages in kind.

This is the Liberal Democrat Guarantee for Scotland’s Health.

And like every other policy that will be in our General Election manifesto it will be subject to the Liberal Democrats’ Tax Contract with the British people.

That any extra taxes we ask for will be targeted, specific, costed, and independently monitored to see that they deliver value-for-money.

That we will target that extra money not on more bureaucrats and more managers, but on specific practical things that improve the quality of people’s lives.

That we will be specific about where the money will be spent and what it will achieve.

That we will see that every promise we make has a bill attached.

And that we will insist on minimum waste and maximum value-for-money.

The media talk a lot about pacts. But this is the only pact I’m thinking about.

A pact with the people of Britain.

A new contract between government and citizen that will rebuild trust in taxation and reconnect tax payers with tax spenders.

It is now crystal clear to anyone worried about the state of our schools, our hospitals or our society, that it is only the Liberal Democrats who will now make a difference after eighteen years of Tory government.

Ours is the crucial role in defeating the Tories.

Ours is the crucial role in ensuring real change after the election.

Ours, uniquely, is to work with others when the nation benefits but oppose them if they do the nation harm.

Never before has our party gone into an election campaign so strong, so independent, so certain about the role only we can play, and so clear on what marks us out from the other parties.

Our long-term outlook.

Our commitment to defending individual liberties against the intolerance of both right and left.

Our belief in local democracy and open government.

Our green agenda.

Our unashamedly internationalist vision.

Our commitment to providing public services to be proud of - properly funded, and with every penny accounted for.

And our unique guarantee - no fudges - to legislate for a Scottish Parliament.

I am determined that this country goes into the next century facing up to the challenges before us, not evading them. Head held high in pride and self-confidence. Not so timid that even their politicians prefer to follow, than to lead.

That will not happen if things stay as they are.

It will only happen if Liberal Democrats are able to make the difference.

We are now the strongest liberal force in Britain for 60 years After the next election, we can be stronger still.

There are just days to go.

Make use of every single moment of them!

Good campaigning. And good luck.

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