Speech to the European Election Campaign Rally, Sheffield 1999
Paddy Ashdown (Liberal Democrat)
This is a rather emotional moment for me. The start of my last campaign as Leader of the Liberal Democrats.
But looking back on the last 11 years I am proud of one thing above all others. It is, like all our successes, something we have done together. We have transformed our Party from a Party of Protest to a Party of Power - a Party achieving real things and making a real difference to people’s lives.
In this month’s elections we took another giant step forward. We have increased our support in Scotland, Wales and England since the General Election. And we are the only Party to have done so.
We are in Government in Scotland. We are in a pivotal position in the Welsh Assembly. And we have won control of councils across England from Cornwall to the Scottish borders - in Cambridgeshire, Gloucestershire, Hertfordshire, Cheshire, and of course, the heart of what they once called the socialist republic of South Yorkshire - but now the jewel in the Liberal Democrat crown - Sheffield City Council.
Two of England’s greatest cities - Liverpool and Sheffield - are now being run by the Liberal Democrats.
I remember coming to Sheffield in 1992. Then we had just six councillors . Now we have 47, an MP, and, for the first time ever, we are now on course to have Liberal Democrats representing Sheffield and Yorkshire in the European Parliament.
For more and more people, when it comes to the things they care about most, it’s the Liberal Democrats they trust to deliver, and the Liberal Democrats who have the power to deliver.
LABOUR’S LET DOWN ON PUBLIC SERVICES
In Britain today it is the Liberal Democrats, not Labour, who are the authentic voice for high quality, value for money public services. And we didn’t need a focus group to tell us that what people care about are good hospitals, good schools and effective policing.
You know, in politics, what matters is not the promises - it’s the record.
So after two years, let’s take a look at Labour's record.
At the election Labour promised they would get more police officers back on the beat. Have they?
No. They’ve cut police numbers by nearly 800. By 150 in Yorkshire and Humberside alone.
And it’s the same story for public transport under Labour. Rail branch lines being closed. Commuter lines more and more overcrowded. And a Government dragging its heels.
So what’s the excuse?
Not leaves on the line.
Not the wrong kind of snow.
This time it’s the wrong kind of Government.
“We regret to announce the late arrival of the Strategic Rail Authority. This is due to a signal failure at Westminster.”
The Government are failing pensioners too. Britain’s senior citizens remain among the poorest in Europe. The pension supplement for the over 80s - our poorest group of pensioners - remains stuck at a miserly 25p, where it’s been for more than a quarter of a century.
And in the NHS, Labour said they would cut waiting lists. But people are now waiting longer. And the number of people waiting for treatment for more than a year has doubled.
Labour says its the length of the list that matters. We say it’s how long you have to wait. After all, if you’re waiting for a bus it’s not the length of the queue that counts, it’s how long you have to wait ‘til the bus arrives.
So much then, for Labour's promise to - remember it? - “save the NHS”!
And for education, education, education ...
... read cuts, crowding and crisis.
In Labour's first year in office, education spending fell by around £50 per pupil. Fewer and fewer teachers are entering the profession. And for most children, class sizes are now higher than they were when Labour came to power.
The fact is, that across this Parliament, investment in public services will rise even more slowly than it did under John Major.
What makes it worse is it didn’t need to be like this.
At the Budget the Government had a clear choice. A tax bribe or investment in public services.
They chose the bribe.
We would have chosen public services.
That is the big difference between us.
For Liberal Democrats, investing in education is the first priority. In smaller class sizes, in books and equipment, in high quality nursery education. For us, schools and hospitals come before tax bribes.
THE CONSERVATIVES - DIVIDED AND DANGEROUS
You know, Gordon Brown’s plans for our public services are now so unambitious, even Peter Lilley is backing them!
For the last two years we’ve had Tory spending plans carried out by Labour. Now we’ve got two years of Labour plans endorsed by the Tories!
Well, some of the Tories.
You don’t think you’d get them all agreeing do you?
Today’s Tory Party is split down the middle.
On one side the people you’ve actually heard of - Kenneth Clarke, Geoffrey Howe, Michael Heseltine - trying to drag the Party back to sanity.
On the other the wild-eyed disciples of Maggie - desperate to turn the Tories into the ‘fringe dwellers’ of British politics. William’s weirdos.
And let’s be clear. In the battle for the Tory Party, it’s William’s weirdos who are winning.
And of course William’s weirdos don’t just want to take their Party to the fringes of British politics.
They want to take Britain to the fringes of Europe as well.
They would put at risk all that Britain has gained from being in Europe.
Jobs. Trade. Cheaper prices in the shops. Better protection for the environment.
BRITAIN - BETTER OFF BECAUSE OF EUROPE
By working with our partners in Europe we have been able to clean up our air, our beaches and our seas, in a way none of us could have achieved acting alone.
The single market has scrapped hundreds of tax forms, saving British companies £135 million a year. And by ending long delays at border crossings we have cut the time it takes a lorry to drive from, say, Sheffield to Milan, by a whole day.
It was the EU’s collective clout in the world trade talks six years ago, that helped win a deal which is saving every British family £50 a year.
And European funds are behind dozens of projects here in Yorkshire, helping small business, creating jobs, regenerating our inner cities.
Let us be clear. Because we are in Europe we are better off. We are richer. We are stronger. We are safer.
SECURING PEACE IN EUROPE
Let’s think about that last point - security and peace - for a moment. For it was war and our determination to end wars in Europe which was the original driving force behind the creation of the European Community. To bind together the countries of Western Europe in such a way as to make it impossible for them ever again to go to war with one another.
And we have been tremendously successful.
The last 50 years has been the longest period of unbroken peace in Western Europe for more than 300 years. Our destiny is now so inseperable from that of our European neighbours that it is unthinkable that war could ever again break out between us.
But while we have succeeded in securing peace within our borders, we have failed miserably in preventing bloodshed around them.
I travelled to Kosovo three times last year. On each occasion I warned that unless we showed more urgency and resolve in standing up to President Milosevic his aggression would continue and the atrocities would escalate.
And so it has tragically proved, with results that we can see for ourselves, every night on our television screens. Men, women and children, in their hundreds of thousands, driven from their homes for no other reason than their ethnic origin. The looting, the burning, the rape. The systematic murder of thousands of innocent people.
To have stood by and allowed this evil to succeed would have been to acquiesce in genocide. That is why we had to act. And indeed the strength of purpose shown by the nations of Western Europe over the last two months has been quite without precedent.
But that does not alter the fact that, at almost every stage of this tragedy, we have acted too slowly and too uncertainly. And once again we have relied on the willingness of the United States to take the lead in enforcing the will of the international community against an evil on our continent - on our very doorstep.
THE LESSONS OF KOSOVO FOR EUROPE AND NATO
When the immediate conflict is over; when, as I hope and pray, Milosevic’s forces have been removed from Kosovo and the refugees safely returned to their homes, there are three vital things we must do to show we have learned the lessons of this tragedy.
First. we need to create an overarching settlement for the whole Balkan region. It will not be enough just to watch over Kosovo. We must offer all Balkan nations, including Serbia, a place in the family of Europe. And that means offering every one of these nations a pathway towards membership of both NATO and the EU.
The fact is that the Balkans have only ever been at peace when an overarching power has acted as guarantor. First the Ottomans, then the Hapsburgs, then the Communists. The only hope for long-term stability in the region is for Europe to step into that breach.
The second thing we must do is fundamentally reform NATO.
NATO has not performed well in Kosovo. Perhaps we should not be surprised. NATO was designed for total war. It has neither the structures, nor the culture, to fight the kind of Diplomatic Military Operation we are seeing in Kosovo. But these are the kind of wars I fear we will have to fight more and more in the future. If NATO is going to cope effectively it will need fundamental restructuring at both the political and military level.
And the third thing we are going to have to do in Europe is to start taking defence a lot more seriously.
Europe has become an economic heavyweight, but it remains a military lightweight.
Despite the fact that we have a population half as large again as the US, we spend just two thirds as much on our defence, and our ability to deploy forces beyond our borders is just one tenth of America’s.
We can’t go on relying on Uncle Sam to bail us out every time there’s trouble in our back yard. Because one day we’re going to call for the cavalry, and the cavalry won’t come.
There is a desperate need for a Europe-wide defence review, to look at how, by co-ordinating our efforts more closely, we can get better value for money and greater effectiveness for our military.
And yes, this may well mean a review of defence budgets. Too many European countries have been freeloading on defence and defence spending for too long. Spain, for example, spends just 1.3% of its GDP on defence, and Germany and Belgium not much more. This will have to end if we are to have an effective defence capability on our continent, preserving our continent’s peace.
Let us be clear. Kosovo has raised the stakes. From here, we are going to be in a very different European order. One that will require a stronger and better organised EU, and a stronger and better organised - and properly resourced - Common Foreign and Security Policy.
EUROPE - CRYING OUT FOR REFORM
This is just one of the areas where Europe is crying out for reform.
The Liberal Democrats are pro-Europe. And we’ve always been pro-Europe. But that doesn’t mean we think everything’s perfect in Europe. Because it isn’t.
We are clear about Europe’s limits and firm on its failings.
But if we are going to be in a position to fix those failings we need to be engaged in Europe in the first place.
The Tory approach of trading insults and burning bridges is a recipe for impotence. With the Tories Britain loses twice. By marginalising Britain in Europe we are able neither to share in its successes, nor tackle its failures.
But with the Liberal Democrats Britain wins twice - by benefitting from Europe, and by shaping Europe.
That’s what a Liberal Democrat vote will do on June 10th.
LIBERAL DEMOCRATS - AMBITIOUS FOR BRITAIN
So, when you vote Liberal Democrat on June 10th you won’t just be getting a Liberal Democrat MEP. You will be sending the Government a message: “Be more ambitious for Britain.”
You can tell them they must focus on the long-term challenges. Forget the short-term headlines. Think more radically about Europe’s future.
How refreshing it will be to vote positively.
The Liberal Democrats are ambitious for Britain.
For our hospitals, our schools, our police. For a clean environment and quality public services.
And we are ambitious for Britain’s role in the world too.
In today’s Europe there are so many prizes waiting to be won. Security. Prosperity. Our environmental heritage.
Britain’s voice must be heard in Europe. Britain’s voice must count in Europe.
Only by electing a strong force of Liberal Democrats can you make sure that it does.