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Speech Archive

Leader's speech, Brighton 1977b

David Steel (Liberal)

Location: Brighton


In his second speech to the Joint Liberal Assembly at Brighton, Steel outlined his party’s main commitments, which included respect for the individual citizen, public participation, freedom of information and individual liberty. He also presented a ten-year strategy that would enable Britain to make the best possible use of the revenue from North Sea oil in four key areas. First, the Liberals would mend the fabric of the welfare society. Second, they would modernise industry, expand employment opportunities by making Britain more self-sufficient through food production and creating a national volun¬teer service scheme for young people. Third, the Liberals would reform the tax system to reduce the burden on earnings, and fourth, they would reduce Britain’s dependence on fossil fuels and invest in renewable energy sources. Steel also expressed his concern about the rise of extremism in politics and the breakdown of responsibility in British society.

It was I suppose inevitable that this Assembly should have been dominated by the running debate on the Lib/Lab agreement. You will be relieved to hear that I don’t propose to add more than two brief thoughts to it this morning. First, I believe that the press are in general correct in their judgement that this debate has added new stature and credibility to the Liberal Party. I believe that in the public mind it is going to prove much more convincing at the next election to argue our case for electoral reform through an even stronger hold on the balance of power in the next Parliament than we have now; and that by the next election we shall have been able to demonstrate not just Liberal policies in theory, but a first taste of the effectiveness of Liberal policies in practice.

Second, the argument between us as Liberals in the crucial debate this week has, as Cyril Smith rightly put it, been not about the ends which we all want but about the best way of reaching those ends. We’ve had a perfectly clear difference of opinion on the means. The vast majority of this Assembly has supported my view, but the minority who opposed it remain loyally united with us in our common aim of securing the return of a Liberal government in Britain.

I am delighted that the Assembly has backed the judgement of the Parliam­entary Party, and I want to assure you that we in turn take serious note of your demands for more effective public presentation of Liberal successes under the agreement.

Thank you for your confidence in us. Now let’s get out and tell the voters of Britain what this agreement really means. It is a step towards negotiated politics and away from confrontation. It is a way of saving Britain from polarised extremes of Right and Left. It sets the modern Liberal Party on the road towards the power and responsibility it has never known. We have nothing to be apolo­getic about and we have much to be proud of. We have helped to pull Britain back from the precipice of economic disaster. But I also recognise the limitations of the agreement. We Liberals have larger ambitions and hopes for our country than merely surviving the current economic crisis. We want to see fundamental changes in our society - and for those it is no use looking to the Labour or Conservative parties. We have to look instead to our own conviction and effect­iveness.

If we really want a Liberal society in Britain based on the development of each person’s full potential in a co-operative community, we won't get it from the Tory or Labour parties. You know that and I know that.

It depends on whether we can mobilise public opinion behind our radical humane alternative, and whether we can inspire confidence in our fitness to govern. Make no mistake, although we can achieve individual policy advances as a junior partner, the Liberal society we are striving for will only be brought about by Liberal-led Governments.

It should be clear to anyone who has followed our debates this week that the agreement is simply one between the Parliamentary Liberal Party and the Labour Government. There is no agreement, and there can be no identity of purpose, between the Liberal conference meeting in Brighton this week, and the Labour conference meeting here next week. In this town next week will be heard the clamorous voices of class antagonism and crude Marxism. The heavy squad masquerading as the once great party of liberty and brotherhood.

We will watch weak-kneed capitulation to the more intolerant demands of Trade Unionism - imposed closed shops and the extension of trade disputes by mass picketing.

The individual citizen is not respected in Britain today. Whether it be the way council housing is administered, or welfare regulations that confuse and restrict those they are supposed to assist or the determination to make life difficult for the self-employed, we see more evidence daily that the humble citizen is required to bow the knee for the benefit of over-mighty officialdom. It should be the other way around.

We believe in self-management and public participation. They, the State Socialists, believe in more bureaucracy. Their appetite is inexhaustible. If the proposals set out in the Labour National Executive’s recent Programme for Action were to be carried out by the next Labour Government, we would be carried clearly over the thin red line which separates social democracy from state socialism.

And on libertarian issues too we are in a very different camp from the authoritarian left. We believe the Official Secrets Act should be reformed, and I understand that the White Paper the Government plans to publish shortly will reflect the wholesome influence of Emlyn Hooson and the Liberal Lawyers, who want to let the fresh air of knowledge and information circulate around the stuffy corridors of Whitehall.

Or take the question of an NUJ post-entry closed shop through the proposed Charter. It would, as Basil Wigoder said in his speech, be totally unacceptable for one union in this country to secure control over who may write for a newspaper and whether they continue to do so. The imposition of a monopoly union power throughout newspapers would carry with it a fundamental and serious threat to one of our most precious liberties - that of free speech - and I am astonished that far from taking a critical look at the NUJ’s attempts to secure this, the Labour Party actually highlights the very danger of which I speak by threatening a ban on journalists caught up in the Westminster Press dispute from reporting their own conference.

But what else can you expect from an organisation whose creaking semi-derelict apparatus at grass-roots level has just this week sought to remove an MP from her constituency as a decision of only some forty persons? Compare that figure with the turnout of grass-roots Liberals last year at the leadership election when in the constituencies we hold, hundreds, and in some cases thousands, took part in each constituency in the decision making process.

And finally on the dismal subject of the Labour left, let me say how deeply I deplore the so-called wage policies of the people who are most vocal for free collective bargaining.

In a period of national sacrifice and falling living standards there will always be those ready to argue that ‘our particular case is different’ - I could move you to tears on the comparative financial plight of Members of Parliament - but those eager to foment industrial action in pursuit of hefty wage claims rarely stop to think of the potential damage to the fabric of the national economy or the inconvenience to the public.

I find it difficult, when I see Clive Jenkins’ snout jostling at the wage trough, to distinguish him from free-market Tories like Mrs Thatcher and Keith Joseph. They all share the same acquisitive values, the same greed, whether it is disguised as free-market ideology or socialism - the same lack of concern with the wider interest. The comrades call each other ‘brother,’ but there is precious little brotherhood in their idea of society as a whole. On the left of British politics there is no conscious attempt to reunite what should be the family of Britain.

Some socialists are at least frank enough to recognise the validity of our constraints on the present Government even though they do not like it. One constituency Labour Party Chairman put a perfectly fair democratic argument to me in a letter: ‘We clearly stand for certain things (such as nationalisation of banks, insurance and building societies) leaving it clear from the nature of the Lib/Lab arrangement that these will remain merely policy until we can persuade more voters that they want it.’

It is up to us to dissuade voters on the merits of the case from allowing the return of a Labour majority to Parliament which would naturally be free to pursue such a course.

It is not the right wing of the Labour Party hawking their expensive con­sciences around, who have restrained the left. It is we Liberals. We have done more from outside in a few short months to reduce the influence of the left than the right wing of the Labour Party has done in a decade. Give us more seats and we can do even more.

But I say to the voters of Britain: if you recoil from the threat of the total­itarianism of the left, don’t leap from the frying pan into the fire.

Freedom should be one of the great issues of the next election. British Governments, both Conservative and Labour, have been too little concerned with the implications for individual liberty of the continuing growth of Govern­ment control over more and more aspects of our lives; and of the undue weight carried by the great corporate interests of ownership and labour in determining the priorities of our society. Our commitment to a free society has always been the moving spirit of the Liberal Party: it is Clause One of our Party constitution.

But our understanding of liberty differs sharply from that of the Tories. It is time for Liberals to expose the poverty of their vision of freedom.

The new Conservatism deliberately rejects much of the mainstream Conser­vative tradition of the last thirty years. The central emphasis of this new Conser­vative ideology is not on freedom itself but on the free market. Individual freedom is defined primarily in economic terms - the freedom of the entre­preneur, unhampered by Government interference. Its patron philosopher is Adam Smith, who wrote of a society in which the selfish instincts of materialistic men amounted in total to the common good. It looks to the Victorian age for its image of capitalism, which it equates with freedom. It repudiates the legacy of Macmillan, Butler, McLeod and Heath, the modernising Conservatives who insisted that the Party must have a social conscience.

In the strictest sense of the term, this ideology - Mrs Thatcher’s recipe for Britain - is reactionary. Behind its intellectual posturing, it rests upon nostalgia for the simple values of an age which we have lost - and we cannot regain.

Adam Smith’s prescriptions and those of his twentieth century followers cannot fit the complexities of our highly industrialised, urban society, in which government is inescapably caught up with industry and the economy, and in which co-operation among Governments is an essential factor in international economic stability.

I am not only concerned here with the illusions and contradictions of the New Right’s approach to economics, but with the materialistic values which underpin them. Freedom does not begin and end with the free market. There is more to individual liberty than the freedom to pursue wealth without hindrance. The values of a civilised society - a Liberal society - must be based on justice, equality, community. I can find almost no reference to these values in the approach of such Conservative associated bodies as the Society for Individual Liberty and the National Association for Freedom. In their scheme of things, the good of the community, in so far as it is taken into account at all, is seen as somehow emerging out of the clash of private interests, without any positive effort on the Government’s part.

This eighteenth century image of society as a mechanism, its parts moving in a simple relationship with each other under the motion of the free market, may have seductive appeal to narrow logicians like Enoch Powell, or conservative economists like Milton Friedman. But it is entirely inappropriate to the problems we are facing in the last quarter of the twentieth century; and if under its new leadership the Conservative Party is so beguiled by it as to pursue their own rhetoric into a massive attack on those functions of government which operate to police the market, to protect the individual from the abuses of power, to create the conditions of liberty themselves for the vast majority of our popul­ation, they will re-open the wounds inflicted by the injustices of nineteenth century capitalism, and divide still further our already sadly divided society.

Nor is it just within the United Kingdom that the blast of the new right’s contempt for brotherhood and community will be felt. One of its most pern­icious and dangerous attributes is the indifference to the threat which the growth of racialism poses for us in a world which has drawn closer together in communication while drifting apart both in understanding and in wealth.

What are we to make of a Party seeking to be the next Government which allows its candidate at a by-election so to misrepresent its own official policy that he adopts the very slogans of the National Front without a word of rebuke from the leadership. 

What are we to make of a Party which allows a couple of its MPs to wander round Rhodesia sabotaging the Anglo-American attempts to secure a peaceful transition to majority rule by suggesting to anyone who will listen that if Smithy ‘hangs on till the Tories get in, we’ll see him all right’ - again without a word of repudiation.

Indeed on her recent visit to Washington Mrs. Thatcher noticeably failed to endorse the Carter administration’s objective of universal suffrage in Zimbabwe. I am reminded of the prayer:

From the deliberate cruelty of evil men
From the plausible evasions of ambitious men
And from the silent apathy of good men
Good Lord, deliver us,

for all three in the context of events in Southern Africa today have precisely the same effect.

Tyranny, wherever it is found, from the Soviet Union to Uganda, and whether it be of the left or of the right, is the first enemy of Liberalism. But tyranny which is based not on warped ideology or the crazed thirst for individual power, but on erecting an entire fabric of society to suppress the mass of the people purely on the grounds of the colour of their skin is especially odious and degrading, for it denies the most simple and fundamental equality of the rights and dignity of each man with his neighbour.

I spoke on Tuesday of my visit to Sweden. One of the most impressive achievements of the Swedish Liberals in using their influence as a minority in the new coalition government was, at a time of inflation, rising unemployment and public expenditure cuts to increase their overseas aid budget to over 1% of the GNP. Compare that with our miserable 0.37% here in Britain. Theirs is liberalism in action. Yet here we are scratching around to save even what we contribute through the work of the British Council and the BBC overseas service to any sense of international brotherhood. We should be working positively with our partners in the common market to open wider the doors of trade with the third world and to stabilise commodity prices.

Over these next few years Britain will have an unprecedented opportunity to take stock of its position in the world and re-order its own priorities. Thanks to the security and benefits of North Sea oil, we will have a chance to change direction for the better. We must use the oil revenue not only in the obvious directions of improving the standards of our health service, our education, the needs of the elderly and the public squalor of our inner cities, but to gear Britain for a post-imperial era not of grandeur but of civilisation, efficiency and harmony.

It is becoming a set political cliché to say that oil brings us unprecedented opportunities. The Prime Minister has called for a national debate. I welcome the idea, because the all-too-real prospect is that the auction-room approach of adversary politics, with bidding-up, with exaggerated promises, will take over - and we shall be left in ten years time like a foolish pools winner, with nothing to show but a mass of debts and a hangover.

In our view, Britain should devise a ten-year national strategy plan to make use of the opportunities.

What should this strategy be? Apart from modernising the decaying fabric of our welfare society, as I have mentioned, there are three other potential components.

First, it should provide us with an opportunity to end the ceaseless alter­ations to industrial investment incentives, and allocate substantial long-term resources to the updating of industry. We should not resist the replacement of men by machines in repetitive tasks in mass-production industry. These jobs have often been soulless in their requirements of the human beings who operate them, putting little premium on any skill other than patience and a simple dexterity. Their products often compete on world markets, which they should not have to do with unnecessary labour costs added to their unit price.

But we should seize other opportunities to expand employment. We should look to build greater self-sufficiency through food production in Britain, with farming acreage jealously conserved and even expanded. We should recognise that the petroleum base of agriculture, whether through fuel for machines or as the base for chemical treatments, is an insecure one. Long-term, the countryside should be revitalised, with more people working in what has always been one of the most natural of human activities - growing food.

We should look for an ambitious plan for youth employment. Instead of the present hotch-potch of emergency schemes, we should create a national volun­teer service scheme, concentrating young people’s efforts on our physical and social environment, and a greatly stepped-up training programme.

Second, against the background of new national income, the wholesale and radical reform of our tax structure as recommended by this Assembly can be realistically and speedily introduced. The Liberal Party has been in the fore on many policies in the past. We are first again with coherent proposals to lift the burden of tax on earnings.

Third, we should be prepared to spend some of the benefits of oil on capital expenditure to reduce our dependence for our future energy requirements on the narrow choice between further exhaustion of limited stocks of oil, gas and coal on the one hand, and our over-dependence on nuclear resources on the other.

Now is the moment to plan for the necessarily heavy outlay on such possible schemes as the barrages on the Severn and Solway, which would use the limitless resource of tidal power, as well as the development of solar and wind sources of energy. I very much hope that Mrs Thatcher and the Conservative Party might join with the Government and ourselves in the development of a national strategy for oil along these lines.

For there is a major threat to all this vision of a new prosperity and national assurance. It is the alarming lurch into more and more extreme confrontation politics.

A rational society depends upon civilised people arguing and reasoning together until they find a common way forward. The application of this idea to politics has been one of Britain’s great gifts to the world.

It is all the more tragic to see in our country the drift towards polarisation, the gradual triumph of sectarianism. It is such a short progression from denying any merit in your opponent’s argument, to denying his right to voice it, to questioning his right to exist.

It is hard self-righteousness and narrow intolerance that are the first enemies of civilisation. The bully-boys of the National Front and the fanatics of the Socialist Workers Party share this quality. So, regrettably, do far too many of the ideologues on the right of the Tory Party and on the left of the Labour Party. If politicians offer nothing but confrontation, how can we blame those outside the system for imitating their example? If children grow up seeing their leaders engaged in an endless Punch and Judy show, are they to be blamed for thinking that there are only two sides to every question, and that one has to win at the expense of the other? ‘LAW OF THE JUNGLE RULES, OK’ ought to be chalked on the walls of the Palace of Westminster.

Great Liberals have always recognised that liberty does not exist in a vacuum. Each man's liberty depends on respect for every man’s rights and obligations. People talk of ‘rights’ easily; they talk of ‘freedom’ almost glibly. Yet how often do you hear of ‘responsibility’? I fear for a liberal society when it is not also a responsible society.

Responsibility is breaking down around us. How can it be responsible for some Conservatives to treat one and half million unemployed either as second-rate malingerers, or far-away people of whom the well-heeled know nothing? How can it be responsible for the unemployment rate among black school-leavers to be two or three times the average? Are the screaming savages of soccer matches or violent demonstrations the product of a mutually responsible society? A great fuss was made recently about school-leavers not knowing the names of politicians. What is infinitely more serious is the school-leaver going into the world with no concept of duties as well as of rights, obligations as well as freedoms.

Free societies are based on mutual respect. Once that respect weakens, freedom is threatened.

We have seen in the past few months a dangerous and dispiriting escalation of language in political debate in this country. Suggestions that Mr Callaghan as a socialist is indistinguishable from the so-called socialists of Eastern Europe, comparisons of those who would favour compromise between APEX and Grunwick with those who would appease Hitler, attest to an atmosphere of hysteria within certain sections of the Conservative Party and the press. Mrs. Thatcher has been fond of attacking ‘the wreckers in society.’ I ask her to reflect on whether those who seek always to polarise issues, who look for confrontation and reject conciliation, are not themselves undermining the fabric of our democ­racy by creating an atmosphere in which extremism thrives and moderation is considered weakness.

I am particularly concerned at those who would use the law as a battering ram in pursuit of their own sectarian interpretations of freedom. Respect for the law, as well as respect for our institutions, rests fundamentally upon consent. If that consent is weakened, if divisions are exaggerated and conflicts pursued, then Britain will slide further towards becoming ungovernable.

The rule of law is under threat directly from those on the left and right, who abandon reasoned argument and take to the streets in pursuit of their aims. This imposes an intolerable and unfair strain on our undermanned police force, who are expected to act as referees in the midst of chaos. Remember that 1977 has been a year when the unacceptable level of political violence of Northern Ireland has spilled over on to the mainland at Grunwick and Lewisham. Riot shields have been seen on our streets for the first time. But isn’t it likely that those who resort to physical assault on the police derive encouragement from the verbal antagonisms of the more legitimate left and right within respectable politics.

There are those in the Tory and Labour Parties who would rather be locked together in mortal combat, dust and dirt flying, until one falls to the ground and the other is declared victor, regardless of whether they drag the country down in the process. The politics of the warring extremes is deeply destructive. It fore­shadows the creation of the truly illiberal society.

Many of the right and the left would agree with each other that there can be no reconciliation between liberty and equality. But as John Stuart Mill in his classic essay ‘On Liberty’ argued there is an unavoidable tension between indiv­idual liberty and social justice which only an active and educated democracy can resolve. Or as Schumacher (whose death earlier this month was such a loss to modern liberal thought) summed up our distinctive response in his book A Guide for the Perplexed, it takes fraternity to reconcile liberty and equality.

May I for one moment be very personal? To be a Liberal in recent times can’t have been easy. For each of you it has taken the sort of courage that can only be sustained by a great ideal. The struggle for that ideal involves many sacrifices, great commitment and a lot of patience.

I want to tell you what sustains me on what Andrew Phillips called the long march of Liberal politics. It is our concern for fraternity, for the creation of a self-governing society in which active consent is more important than the en­forcement of law, in which participation is more widespread than bureaucratic control. It is a concern which runs through the whole range of Liberal policy. It underlies our commitment to devolution and the decentralisation of power. It is behind our attack on the obsessive secrecy of central government, and our demands for far-reaching reforms at Westminster. It motivates our enthusiasm for the co-operative principle in industry, and for the introduction of a genuine industrial partnership.

Of course it is not easy to re-awaken the spirit of community in Britain. We have to build a Liberal society out of the embittered divisions on which the other two parties have thrived.

But if we can harness the latent energy of the British people, if we can set free the imagination and determination of a people depressed and exhausted by governments which have offered them stone when they cried out for bread, then our achievements can match our hopes.

Forgive me if for a moment I speak to those millions who have been follow­ing our conference on radio and television.

This nation once set an example to the world. It can do so again. But it will not happen without new leadership and a new generation. We are that generation. We demand to be heard. From now on we will not be ignored.

There is no power on earth that can resist an idea whose time has come. We are that idea.

To you in this great Assembly I say that in the last six months of struggle together we may have sustained some losses but we have forced a bridgehead. Now I urge you to go back to your constituencies and intensify the campaign.

This is not the battle of Britain. It is the battle for Britain; and it’s the battle we’re going to win.

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