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Speech to the European Election Campaign Rally, Stockport 1999

Paddy Ashdown (Liberal Democrat)

Location: Stockport

It’s great to be back in Stockport.

I can remember coming here two years ago and urging you to go out and get Andrew Stunell elected in Hazel Grove. You did - and he was.

I can remember the last time I was here, two months ago, when I urged you to go out and win control of Stockport Council. You did - and it happened.

So my message to you today is simple.

Go for the treble!

Make it Liberal Democrats at every level.

Work every muscle for these last 72 hours to get Chris, Flo and the team elected to represent the North West in Europe.

And if you work as hard as you did for the local elections, we can do it.

We had a tremendous set of results across the North West last month. Massively increasing our majority in Congleton. Gaining seats from Cumbria to Crewe. And of course winning more than three times as many seats as Labour in Liverpool - what an endorsement of the first year of Liberal Democrat power in that great city!

BECOMING A PARTY OF POWER

We have come a long, long way in these 11 years since our Party was formed.

Who would have thought back then, as our Party’s very survival hung in the balance, that we would this week be celebrating our first ever national fair votes election?

That we would now be running traditional Labour strongholds like Liverpool and Sheffield?

That for the first time in 50 years we would be in national government - in Scotland.

No longer can they dismiss us as a Party of the rural fringe. We are now a truly national Party, gaining in strength across Britain.

No longer a Party of Protest. We are now a Party of Power.

LIBERAL DEMOCRATS - THE OPPOSITION LABOUR FEAR MOST

We are the powerful opposition who Labour fear - here in the North West, and at Westminster.

It is the Liberal Democrats who have led the fight against Labour's mean-minded cuts in help for lone parents, and those with disabilities.

It is the Liberal Democrats who are fighting the Government's nasty and intolerant Asylum Bill.

It is the Liberal Democrats who were the first to warn of the dangers of genetically modified food, long before the Tories jumped on the bandwagon.

It is the Liberal Democrats who are fighting rotten government in Britain’s town halls.

And it is the Liberal Democrats who revealed the shocking effects of Labour's decision to stick to Tory spending plans for their first two years.

Rising class sizes in our schools. Declining rail and bus services. Falling police numbers. Our pensioners still among the poorest in Europe.

And in the NHS, 5,000 fewer beds. More cancelled operations. And longer and longer waiting times. Here in the North West, the number of people waiting longer than six months to see a specialist has trebled in just two years.

That’s the effect of two years of budgets - devised by the Tories, delivered by Labour, exposed by the Liberal Democrats.

And it is the Liberal Democrats who have shown that Labour's fantasy figures for future spending are just a fraction of what they pretend.

So insubstantial that in the first month of Labour's first budget of their own, NHS waiting lists have actually started rising again - by nearly 20,000.

In fact Labour's plans are so unambitious that even Peter Lilley can now back 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, the Liberal Democrats are more ambitious for Britain. We believe Britain can have better schools, and a better health service, and a higher quality of life, if only we are prepared to be more radical in our thinking. And every vote for the Liberal Democrats on Thursday will be a vote to tell the Government just that.

THE MODERNISATION OF BRITAIN

But Liberal Democrats know that we will never achieve our country’s full potential in the next century if we tie ourselves to the tired old thinking of the last.

That is why we were the pioneers of the movement for reform and modernisation in Britain today. And in partnership with the Government at Westminster, we have now finally begun the process of reforming our dusty old political system to match the new realities of today’s world.

The European Convention on Human Rights is now part of UK law. A Freedom of Information Bill has been published. The House of Lords is beginning a process of fundamental change.

A Scottish Parliament is now a reality. A Welsh Assembly too.

In London a regional assembly is imminent. And in Yorkshire, and the North East, campaigns to follow suit are already underway.

We have fair votes, for Scotland, Wales and Europe. And in Scotland fair votes for local government is a part of the tremendous deal won by Jim Wallace and his colleagues in the new partnership Government.

The process of change has begun.

But it will not be complete until we have reformed Europe too, and until we have fashioned a new role for Britain in Europe.

SOVEREIGNTY OVER SENSE - THE CONSERVATIVE OBSESSION

You see, we are creating a new kind of political system.

We’re leaving behind the old idea that everything has to be done in one place - by one all powerful, unchallengeable Government in Westminster.

That might have made sense 100 years ago - but it doesn’t make sense now.

Before us is a 21st century sovereignty of the people. Where power moves closer to the people. Where Government as a whole interferes less in people’s lives. And where the question of what decision is taken where is determined, not by ideology or narrow nationalism, but by what gets [the best] results.

But the Conservatives don’t understand this. They still think that what matters more than anything else - more than jobs, more than the environment, more even than peace - is defending the 19th century concept of the absolute sovereignty of the Westminster Parliament. Or, to put it another way, they can see no distinction - ever - between the interests of a power hungry Westminster elite, and the interests of the British people.

So, whatever the Scottish people think, a Scottish Parliament must be bad - because it means less power for Westminster.

Whatever the needs of local communities, local government must be weakened - because it is a rival source of power.

Whatever the benefits of Europe for ordinary people, the European Union must be feared - because it is a threat to the 19th century idea of narrow nationalism.

But surely what really matters is not the effect of a decision on a few stuffed shirts in central London. It’s whether it means a better deal for the British people.

Power isn’t owned by the House of Commons. It’s invested in it by the people of Britain to be used in their interests. And if you can get better decisions by sharing decisions with others then that’s what should happen. What matters is what works.

For instance, a Single Currency may well mean that MPs in Westminster can interfere less - and a good thing too, given the mess they’ve made of things in the last fifty years. But it would mean good news for jobs, and business, and cheaper mortgages, and cheaper cars, and cheaper holidays, and economic stability, and even for lower taxes and better public services.

It may not be in the interests of the Westminster elite. But it is in the interests of the British people.

And that’s the case the Liberal Democrats will put to the people in a referendum, as soon as the Government call it. And the sooner the better.

EUROPE - WHAT WE GAIN

Let’s be clear. The Liberal Democrats don’t believe in exchanging Westminster supremacy for Brussels supremacy. We believe in taking decisions at the lowest level they can effectively be taken. That’s why we are the Party of devolution - to the towns and cities, and regions and nations of Britain.

But there are some things we want which we can only get by working with our European partners.

A lasting peace in the Balkans. Cleaner air and seas. A strong voice in world trade negotiations. A strong and stable currency that can rival the dollar and the yen. The benefits of a huge single market, with all that means for jobs and prosperity.

You know, the single market has scrapped so many tax forms that British companies save £135 million a year just from the time it used to take to fill them all in.

But we could be gaining even more if we weren’t always Europe’s Johny-come-latelies.

We stayed out of the European Community for 16 years. First we pretended it wouldn’t happen. Then we pretended it would fail. Then we pretended we didn’t need to be part of it. Every time the Government was wrong. And all the time Britain fell behind.

And what that meant was that by the time we joined we had to sign up to rules that had been written by others which we hadn’t been able to influence.

By excluding ourselves from the Single Currency we are making exactly the same mistakes, all over again. British businesses are already losing out to their European competitors because of our self-imposed exile. If we stay out much longer then hundreds of thousands of jobs will be put at risk.

And we are also losing influence in Europe. Influence we should be using to fight for Britain’s interests and for Europe’s reform.

LIBERAL DEMOCRATS - THE PARTY OF REFORM IN EUROPE

You see, by marginalising Britain in Europe we are able neither to share in its successes, nor tackle its failures. Britain is losing twice. We are losing out on the benefits of Europe, and we are losing out on the chance to reshape Europe for the future.

But with the Liberal Democrats Britain would win twice - by benefiting from Europe, and by influencing the future shape of Europe.

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.

So just as we are the Party of Reform at home, so we are the Party of Reform in Europe too.

We are pro-Europe. But for us it’s not Europe right or wrong. 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 Conservatives held back.

That’s why, alone among the parties, we want to see more power for the elected MEPs over the unelected Commission.

That’s why we’re determined to root out waste and fraud.

That’s why we want to see power decentralised in Europe - over farming and fishing policies, for example.

That’s why we say Europe has to be less secretive. People have a right to know how their Government has voted on their behalf.

And that’s why we say it’s time for a European Constitution - to set out what Europe can do, and what it can’t.

CONCLUSION - AMBITIOUS FOR BRITAIN

Europe has to get serious about reform. And every Liberal Democrat vote on Thursday will tell the Government that.

And every Liberal Democrat elected on Thursday will fight for that.

For a Europe that is democratic, not bureaucratic.

For a Europe that is decentralised, not centralised and secretive.

For a Europe that puts the people of Europe first, not politicians and elites.

For a Europe that reaches out to the East, and to the Balkans, and 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 are mere bystanders.

This is an ambitious goal.

But we are ambitious people.

We are ambitious for the Liberal Democrats.

We are ambitious for Europe.

Because we are ambitious for Britain.

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