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Speech to the 48th Congress of Liberal International, Oxford 1997

Paddy Ashdown (Liberal Democrat)

Location: Oxford

Fellow Liberals, welcome.

Welcome, after 50 years, back to Oxford. And welcome back to Britain.

Welcome back to a city now represented by a liberal Member of Parliament for the first time since the 1920s.

And welcome back to a Britain where the forces of liberalism are in the ascendance - stronger, and in better heart, than they have been since the first years of this century.

Just six months ago the Liberal Democrats had our most successful national election result for over 60 years - winning 46 seats, more than doubling our previous result.

And we achieved this because our message struck such a chord with the British public.

It was a message which had at its heart some of the most fundamental liberal values which have sustained our movement for the past half century.

Social justice. International co-operation. Education.

And our fight, as we have always fought, to break the monopoly of power held by central government in Britain - what has been called our ‘elective dictatorship’. The system which allows our Government to do whatever it likes, subject only to the need to seek re-election once every five years.

The 19th century liberal John Bright may have described England as “the mother of Parliaments”, but increasingly the mother is in need of a makeover. Our political evolution over a period of centuries has been relatively peaceful and gradual, but it has left us without a written constitution and reliant on a set of mere conventions and guidelines, which can - and are - easily ignored by any government secure in its majority and determined to impose its will.

And in this area, working with the new Labour Government, we have already made some progress.

We are proud to have won Scotland her own Parliament, and Wales an assembly, both endorsed by the people of those nations in referendums this autumn. Soon the decisions which uniquely affect those nations will be taken by those nations, in those nations, rather than centrally in London.

We are proud to have won, after decades of argument, a fair voting system for choosing the British representatives to the European Parliament, finally bringing us into line with the rest of Europe. And to have won the promise of a national referendum on a change to proportional representation for elections to the House of Commons.

And we are proud that, although we remain outside government, we are influencing policy on freedom of information, decentralising power, and obtaining the first ever guarantee of human rights in our country, through our membership of a joint committee with Prime Minister Tony Blair and his government colleagues.

This is, in itself, something of an innovation for the United Kingdom, which has had nothing but single party government since 1945. We are quite comfortable with our strategy. We call it ‘constructive opposition’.

We support, and work with, the Government where we agree with them, such as on constitutional reforms. And we oppose them where we don’t, for example, on their failure to provide enough money for schools and hospitals.

Now this may sound like common sense to you - it certainly does to me - and for many of you I suspect it is common practice too! But it is such a novelty for Britain that it has left many of those in other parties quite confused!

For example, there was a by-election last week for a seat in the House of Commons. The Conservatives went around telling people not to vote for us because we were in league with the Labour Government. But the Labour candidate told people not to vote for us because we always voted with the Conservatives!

Still, our candidate turned a majority of 2 into one of 21,000, so we must be doing something right!

During the summer one of our national newspapers ran a large feature article under the banner headline: ‘The Strange Rebirth of Liberal England.’

It highlighted not just the success that the Liberal Democrats are enjoying, but also the the fact that our agenda - the liberal agenda - is increasingly influencing the new Labour Government.

I make no complaint about this. Although I am reminded of the words of Benjamin Disraeli, the British Conservative Prime Minister of the last century, who observed of a colleague that he had “caught the Whigs [as the Liberals were then known] bathing and walked away with their clothes”!

There is a serious question behind this, and it is one pertinent across the world, although particularly, perhaps, in the western democracies.

It is this.

Is there a need any more for liberals in today’s world?

Or, put another way, a few aberrant dictatorships aside: ‘we’re all liberals now, aren’t we?’

Well no, we’re not.

A lot has happened in the last 50 years.

Then the Cold War was just breaking out. Now it is over.

Then one in three people lived in the colonies of the European powers. Now it is less than a million worldwide.

Then the plans for apartheid were just being drawn up in South Africa. Now its last vestiges have been dismantled.

These events were momentous. They have shaped our time. The role of liberals in achieving them was great. They are major triumphs for our cause.

But we should not let the past blind us to the present.

As William Wallace’s superb draft statement makes clear, liberalism is as vital today as ever. We cannot afford to let up on our vigilance.

I will not rehearse all the challenges listed in the statement. However, I do want to say something about what I see as three of the key challenges facing us as liberals and world citizens as we move into the new millennium.

The first is to remember - and to remind others - that democracy and liberalism are not necessarily the same thing.

There is such a thing as an illiberal democracy.

There is no shortage in the world of democratically elected leaders, and even parliaments, who use the power they have to bypass or ignore rival power sources and to impose restrictions on freedoms of speech, and of movement, and to discriminate unfairly between different races of people.

Wherever people tire of traditional politicians there is the danger of the demagogue appearing. The populist anti-politician - usually publicising themselves with huge amounts of their own money - who promises quick fixes by banging heads together and ruling by decree. They may be democratic, but they’re surely not liberal.

Even in the west, we are not immune from this danger. Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, Ross Perot in the United States, Sir James Goldsmith in the UK. Even Margaret Thatcher, while coming to power through an existing party, used her mandate to attack other centres of power, actually abolishing the Greater London Council, and giving many of its powers to her Government’s appointees.

Every politician with power has these kinds of temptation. The task for liberals is to create political structures which do not allow them to be satisfied.

The strong constitution which cannot be over-ridden or disregarded.

The alternative power centres which cannot be abolished or neutralised.

Minority rights which can withstand the majority’s will.

Each of these is as important in its way as democracy is, if we are to create free, tolerant, liberal societies. But too often in today’s world they are being forgotten.

It is our task to remember them. And to promote them. And to remind people of the, admittedly boring and usually unwelcome, fact that constitutional liberalism is a vital element of a free society.

The second challenge I want to touch upon is an economic rather than a political one, although its consequences are political too.

The idea of the global marketplace is, by now, a familiar one to all of us. It is, by and large, a good thing. The idea of free trade is central to us as liberals and an important strand in our philosophy.

There is probably not a politician anywhere in the world who is unaware of this phenomenon. However, in Britain at least, precious little thought has gone into how we respond to its effects.

Let me give you an example.

Here in Britain the new Labour Government has got itself into something of a mess about whether Formula One motor racing should be included in a forthcoming ban on tobacco advertising.

The problem, they argue, is that the sport is so mobile that the only effect of a tobacco advertising ban in Britain - or indeed across the European Union - would be to force the sport elsewhere, and at the cost of allowing even more tobacco advertising onto British TV screens when pictures are beamed back from elsewhere.

In other words Formula One is, in the jargon of today, practically a ‘weightless’ sport.

What do I mean by this?

I mean that the company has no physical encumberances.

It has no factories, no sales outlets and only a handful of staff.

In fact it has virtually no tangible assets whatsoever.

It doesn’t even have a product in the physical sense. Only a concept and a contract. The company, Formula One motor racing, doesn’t own the drivers; or the cars; or even the tracks they use. That’s how it can threaten to flit from one country to the next seemingly at whim.

Yet its value has been estimated at up to two billion pounds.

What is being marketed, and hugely successfully, is just a series of computer signals which transmit around the world pictures that people want to see and will pay for.

Formula One is a prime example of a new and growing phenomenon - the importance of intellectual capital as a tradable commodity. Rivalling, and perhaps eventually dwarfing the traditional resources of industry - land, labour and finance. Becoming the new source of the wealth of nations.

In the intellectual capital revolution, machines and complex processes will be less important than brains with the power to turn knowledge into ideas and ideas into wealth.

And, of course, we don’t need trains or ships or lorries, or sometimes even time to transport the products of intellectual capital. What you think one moment can be earning wealth on the other side of the world a milli-second later.

In the future the firms and nations best at managing and multiplying intellectual capital will be the ones who win in the market place.

So what will a firm or country need to do to succeed in this new revolution?

They’ll need to support research. They’ll need to encourage networks of businesses, and worker participation. They’ll need to increase access to knowledge.

And above all they’ll need to put education right at the top of the agenda.

Because education is not just the key to individual empowerment that we liberals have always known it was. It is the key to reaping the rewards of this new revolution for our countries as well.

Now, how we respond to the changes to win the best we can for our own countries is important. But we have a wider interest too.

We must work to ensure the global marketplace is fair and level, rather than somewhere where different countries are played off against one another, making a few people rich, but exploiting the rest, and leaving governments impotent against weightless companies that can float back and forward over national boundaries at will, reducing everything - from safety legislation, to tax, to morality - down to a lowest common denominator.

The task of liberals is to ensure that this new revolution is as inclusive as possible - that all of the world and all of its citizens are able to share in its fruits.

Because if we don’t, there is a real danger that these huge changes will lead to a backlash of protectionism and introversion from those countries who lose out.

We need to co-operate in laying down the rules of the global game. We need to ensure that first world multinationals don’t strangle potential third world competitors at birth. And we need too, to work collectively to tackle the self-made loopholes of the global marketplace - the tax havens, the flags of convenience, the countries who turn a blind eye to international law for a quick profit.

The role of liberals in the global marketplace should be threefold.

To continue to promote free trade and work against protectionism.

To create fair competition by developing our laws, both domestic and international, to prevent global monopolies building up, and to prevent them abusing their position when they do.

And to work, as far as we can, to regulate industry and trade where that regulation is necessary to introduce a factor the markets would not otherwise take account of.

Because, however good they are as economic mechanisms, unregulated markets do not take externalities into account.

Externalities like the need to take a long-term perspective - something shareholders or directors whose bonuses are dependent on the next quarter’s accounts, don’t always give full consider.

The most important long-term consideration of all is the environment.

And this is the third and final challenge I want to focus on today.

It is the challenge of how we reconcile the competing interests of economic growth and environmental sustainability in the modern world.

For years we have treated the natural environment, and the use of natural resources, as if they were ‘free’ services.

But they are not.

Climate change. Acid rain. Ozone depletion. Deforestation. Desertification. The poisoning of water supplies. All these have devastating effects.

The environmental impact of industrialisation now poses as great a threat to our security as conventional conflict between or within nation states.

Take climate change.

This year we could be subjected to the most powerful weather phenomenon of the last 150 years.

It is called ‘El Nino’, and it is caused by the warming of southern Pacific waters. It occurs with varying strength every two to seven years. It lasts up to 18 months and causes droughts and flooding across the world.

The last major El Nino, in 1982-83, was estimated to have caused more than $13 billion of damage and to have killed 2,000 people world-wide.

And climate change is making this phenomenon more severe and more frequent.

This is just one manifestation of the problem.

The costs of action may seem high. But they are much, much lower than the costs we will incur if we do nothing.

The World Resources Institute calculated recently that reductions in carbon emissions of 15% for developed countries, and 10% from the projections for developing countries, would prevent up to eight million deaths world-wide during the first 20 years of the next century.

No wonder next week’s talks in Kyoto are being described as the most important yet held for our environment.

At the conference all countries will seek to agree international targets to reduce CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions which are the main causes of global warming.

If Kyoto succeeds, climate change can begin to be slowed down. But it will take decades of hard work.

If Kyoto fails, climate change is likely to spin still further out of control.

So what must we do?

First, and most obviously, we need to establish effective and equitable mechanisms for international burden-sharing.

The developed world has to lead by example, both in the setting of targets and the honouring of their commitments.

Second, we need to look at ways of enforcing the climate change convention in the international community. The ozone protection treaty has shown how we can successfully combine sticks of trade sanctions and the carrots of financial support to get people to participate and to achieve meaningful goals.

Third, environmental objectives have to be incorporated into every area of policy - from energy to the economy, from taxation to transport to trade.

In May 1998, just a year after us, GATT will be 50 years old. What better time is there to respond to the new challenges of the global environment by putting pressure on the World Trade Organisation and GATT to work together towards establishing a “Green GATT”

What better opportunity is there than next week to put the issue of ‘green taxation’ firmly onto the global agenda.

And what better opportunity to make a start on building the framework within which an international regime of ‘polluter pays’ taxes can be created.

But what a shame that the new British Government - a Government ideally placed to lead from the front on this issue in Kyoto - has so far flunked its chances to take a lead at home.

I urge them now, as I urge all those here who will be in Kyoto next week, to work to create the momentum to break the stalemate that potentially looms ahead.

Finally, we need an environmental equivalent to the UN Declaration of Human Rights, to underpin a global system of environmental protection - setting out basic principles for governments’, companies’ and individuals’ conduct towards the environment and development, together with a definition of responsibilities for achieving environmental sustainability.

I welcomed the call in June by Chancellor Kohl for a new ‘Global Environment Organisation’ with the status and resources necessary to entrench sustainable development at the heart of the UN system. And we need to further develop this idea.

Fellow liberals, the last 50 years have seen, in my judgement, a slow drift of the tide of history in our direction.

I am proud to be a liberal. I am proud of my party, and I am proud of this movement of ours.

I am proud to have been part of what we have achieved. And I am proud to think of what we can help achieve in the future.

Our principles have stood the test of time. They have spread, undiluted, across the world, winning hearts and changing minds.

Respect for the individual.

Empowerment through education.

Enabling each and every individual to unlock the potential within them.

Ours are the enduring values.

Ours is the inclusive agenda.

Ours is the agenda for the next millennium.

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