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Leader's speech, Southport 1978

David Steel (Liberal)

Location: Southport


In his address, Steel blamed bad government for Britain’s continuing social and economic decline, and identified electoral and parliamentary reform as his first priority for Britain. These reforms consisted of devolution for Wales, Scotland and the regions; the decentralisation of power; and a commitment to a federal Europe, and would, Steel believed, increase government accountability and openness. The main issues facing Britain in the 1980s were the environment, the strengthening of local communities, unemployment, and institutionalised racism.

When I spoke to you for the first time as leader two years ago at Llandudno I warned that the road we intended to travel would be a bumpy one, but I must confess that I never foresaw how rough it would be. Yet we lost remarkably few members and even gained others, and I want at the outset of this speech to say a very warm thank you not only to my colleagues in both Houses of Parliament and the party officers and all those who have been closely involved during this period of political innovation, but of appreciation and admiration to you all both in this hall and throughout the country for holding so firm and being prepared to travel together through these difficulties. Of course all parties must expect, from time to time, to run into political difficulties and we are no exception. But as we all know we’ve had other distressing problems as well. 

If adversity is good for the soul, I think all our prospects of redemption must really have improved. At the end of a particularly long day I some­times think of those lines of W.E. Henley:

Under the bludgeoning of chance
My head is bloody but unbowed.

I am sure that all of us at times recently have felt bloody, but looking around I don’t see too many bowed heads.

Indeed as I look at this splendid Assembly and feel the warmth of your enthusiasm, I think there are two questions which all the critics and Liberal obituarists ought to ask themselves. ‘What is it that gives the Liberal Party its stamina and resilience? What is it that will see the Liberal Party going into the election with high morale and even higher hopes?’

It certainly isn’t what sustains the Conservative Party! They believe they have a divine right to rule. Nor is it that uneasy brew of class hatred and lust for office which fuels the Labour Party.

No - for Liberals it’s something quite different. It’s a burning conviction that what we believe in and what we stand for is right. Politics may have become a dirty word. It’s prostituted and debauched by the way poli­ticians bid each other up in an electoral auction. But it can still be a noble vocation for those with conviction and determination. And we have plenty of both.

Britain is badly governed. It is badly governed because its political in­stitutions are antiquated and undemocratic. This crucial weakness is at the very root of Britain’s continuing economic and social decline. There’s no longer much dispute about this in the serious press, among observers of politics outside the ranks of the two establishment parties, or in the mind of the public at large.

One of the messages that has gone out clearly from this Assembly is that Liberals will not tolerate a slide back down the slippery slope of inflation. That’s why we are insisting on a fair statutory prices and in­comes policy. That’s why we got involved with the government.

Remember when we formed the pact the rate of inflation had doubled in the previous two years of Labour government. The country was on the brink of disaster.

Of course there has to be an alternative. But does anyone seriously think it should be a Conservative Government when their main achieve­ment was to increase the rate of inflation two-and-a-half times when last in office. We on the other hand strengthened the economy.

Yet we still hear the argument trotted out by Conservative and Labour spokesmen that the preservation of our undemocratic voting system and our impotent Parliament are necessary to ensure what they call ‘strong government,’ and that any fundamental changes would lay Britain open to the sort of ‘weak’ governments from which our continental partners are said to suffer.

Let’s just look at that so-called ‘weak’ government. Do they mean the performance of the German economy, or the cohesion of Scandinavian societies or the broad mutual tolerance which characterises the Dutch parties? Or perhaps they mean the way that new policies are introduced in other democracies with representative voting systems - the open debate, the careful all-party scrutiny, the search for a consensus to back new measures.

If that's what they mean by ‘weak’ government - I can only say that Britain could do with some of it. We need a totally new parliament.

I'm sure it’s satisfying to Mrs Thatcher or Tony Benn to contemplate the prospect of having the unfettered power in Government to bulldoze through their pet schemes. Satisfying for them - but disastrous for any prospect of good government in Britain. We need to spell this out to the voters in the clearest terms. Single party government, as we have seen it from Labour and Conservative, is bad government. To get good government - of the quality which most of our European partners have - we must throw out our indefensible electoral system. We must give Parliament the power and the information to criticise and control the Government.

No one in the Conservative or Labour front benches has found a con­sistent or logical case against a more democratic voting system. The argu­ments we have heard in the House of Commons in the past two years have been awash with contradictions. I remember Michael Foot saying about Spain after General Franco’s death that he would not regard it as having regained democracy until it had a government which clearly reflected the wishes of a majority of its people.

I agreed with him but it didn’t seem to worry him that he and his col­leagues were totally hostile to government based on majority support until they were forced to come to an agreement with the Liberals. Tony Benn talks with conviction about the need to build a participatory democracy. But he shies away from the obvious conclusion that wider participation starts with a broader-based Parliament accurately reflecting the choice of the voters.

We’ve just had an excellent report on Parliamentary reforms from the Select Committee on Procedure. Lots of sensible suggestions which most people would agree with. Like most MPs I’ve had dozens of letters from members of the public since the broadcasting of Parliament started. They’re simply stupefied by the radio rhubarb of Parliamentary debate, by what the Committee called ‘the totally adversary character of present proceedings.’ The Economist commented ‘that adversary character is largely of course the product of Britain's undemocratic electoral method,’ and it was right.

I was astonished and saddened to discover during the Agreement with the Labour Government how firmly ministers resisted the idea that they should carry through their own manifesto commitment to repeal the Official Secrets Act. And I noted the strange silence on this issue from an Opposition which rarely misses other opportunities to attack the Government. True, Conservatives make brave speeches about the wickedness of the bureaucratic and secretive regimes of Eastern Europe; nevertheless they seem quite happy with bureaucracy and secrecy here, just so long as they can be in charge of it.

We have now in front of us a most scandalous example of secrecy. The record of the Wilson and Heath governments over sanctions for Rhodesia is deplorable in itself. British oil companies, backed by British Civil Ser­vants, with the connivance of British Ministers and with the knowledge of the British Prime Minister broke the sanctions on Rhodesia. As a result Smith is still there, majority rule has still not been established, and Rhode­sia is sliding into tragic carnage.

Since I spoke earlier in the week we have heard that the Bingham Report on Rhodesia sanctions is to be published next Tuesday.

I want to reiterate our demand for a Tribunal of Enquiry held in public to carry on where Bingham left off. I’m glad to see this morning that one member of the last Tory cabinet - Geoffrey Rippon - is supporting that call. Who are these Ministers of both parties and who are these Civil Ser­vants who’ve set themselves above the law, who formed alternative poli­cies in secret, who lied to Parliament and the British people? I urge the Government to move swiftly to set up the Enquiry. Secrecy corrupts - and this Petrolgate scandal is striking at the very integrity of our government.

Secrecy, arrogance, resistance to change in the way Britain is run – we’ve had to put up with them for too long. And on all these issues the Labour and Tory front benches huddle together.

I’ve been talking about Westminster so far, but a genuine democracy cannot rest on a properly elected Parliament alone. We have to put the main assumption of British political life briskly into reverse. Tories and Socialists alike assume that people are not to be trusted, not to be informed and that they should be allowed as little real choice as possible.

By contrast the sort of democracy that Liberals want must be built on a structure of trust, information and choice.

That’s why we want a Federal Europe; that’s why we want devolution to the countries and regions within Britain; above all that’s why we want decentralisation of decision to the villages, towns and neighbourhoods of this country. Power is like muck; it’s better spread than concentrated in one place. The basic building block of a liberal democracy is a vital local community, with the power and resources to provide a satisfying shared life for its members. Unless the roots are healthy the democratic grass will not grow.

One of the other enemies of true democracy is the power that big money has in politics. A revealing table was published in the Investor’s Chronicle a few weeks ago. It detailed the Conservative Party’s support from large corporations and, the Labour Party’s from the big trade unions.

You don’t have to be over cynical to suspect that he who pays the piper calls the tune. So the billboards have been full of Conservative propa­ganda, by courtesy of brewers and insurance bosses. And a bankrupt Labour Party, devoid of members and funds, has been bailed out once again by its union paymasters.

If you are a company chairman or a union general secretary you can certainly buy yourself some pretty high-powered representation in demo­cratic Britain. With a bit of luck you might even pick up a whole Govern­ment at a bargain price.

Of course if you are just an ordinary private person going to work, doing your shopping, worrying how to make ends meet, it is a very dif­ferent matter.

Is it really surprising that people feel alienated from a system where money and power get together to squeeze them out?

The results are obvious. Let me remind you of the Labour Govern­ment’s craven acquiescence to union demands from 1974 to 1976, before we got our hands on the wheel.

The Dock Work Labour Bill and parts of the Trade Union & Labour Relations Act had nothing to do with good government. They didn’t even have anything to do with socialism. They were simply a pay-off by the Labour Government to the Trades Unions.

I want to emphasise that Liberals have always supported the principle of free trade unionism but that is not to say that we go along with the worst excesses of union protectionism and bloody-mindedness. If Trades Unions are given their head by a Government which is in hock to them, we shall see more not less of this ugly and negative side of a great movement. And that can threaten something every democrat holds dear, like the free­dom of the Press.

I have been reading two detailed reports which illustrate just what I mean. The first concerns the efforts by SLADE to recruit members through blatant coercion by blacking art and print work from firms or individuals who are not members of that union - a process which makes an absolute mockery of the very phrase ‘free trade unionism.’ The second is a catalogue of occasions over the last decade when sections or members of the NUJ or the NGA have attempted to censor material from appearing in the press. These include successful attempts to have political cartoons withdrawn and even one incident on a local paper where the blacking of all non­-union copy included a ban on the publication of readers’ letters.

These direct threats to freedom of the press have grown in the last four years, and the new parliament must be prepared to extend the bound­aries of freedom rather than retreat further in the face of such pressure.

Mind you some of the press editors and proprietors themselves are not exactly in the best position to pontificate about what constitutes a free and independent press. Liberals should not get too sore about any abuse we might get in the newspapers - sometimes I think we get the press we deserve, but I do think it can get a bit far fetched. For example, here is the News of the World editorial of June 18th. It is headed by two photographs - one of Sooty the puppet and other of me. It points out, for the benefit of its less perceptive readers, that I am the one on the right. It then goes on to say I’ve ‘become as independent of Mr Callaghan as Sooty is of Mr Corbett.’

Now I don’t mind that particularly; it is advancing a hostile political argument in a populist way. What I did object to was this when I turned the following Saturday to improve my political education by reading the editorial in the Sun.

Here was one of its fortnightly attacks on the Liberals ending: ‘The reality is - as the News of the World shrewdly pointed out last Sunday - that David Steel is as independent of Jim Callaghan as Sooty is of Harry Corbett.’ Now how many of their readers realise that the Sun and News of the World are owned by the same organisation? That the one is as independent of the other as Larry the Lamb is of Rupert Murdoch? I sometimes think that it would be in the interests of a really free press if like the government health warning on cigarette packets certain newspapers were required to carry a box on their front page saying: ‘WARNING: This newspaper is dedicated to the return of a Thatcher government at any price.’

We Liberals must pledge ourselves to represent the ordinary citizens of this country who cannot buy influence through their wealth. Who will defend their interests against the vested interests of the owner party and the union party if we do not?

So the first priority for the new Parliament is fundamental reform of our political and electoral system.

But that does no more than clear the deck for the urgent issues of the coming decade. We are in the dying throes of the ‘you’ve never had it so good’ society. The plastic cornucopia is drying up. If we are to get our whole civilisation back into a more healthy balanced relationship with the natural world, if we are to be frugal in our use of energy resources, if we are to find more fulfilment in our children than in our consumption pat­terns, then there will have to be profound changes in all our values and practices.

It cannot and will not be done by an all-powerful government holding meetings with the representatives of industry. Centralised big government, monopolistic big business, giant trades unions are like dinosaurs. Obsolete - still large and frightening, still crushing everything in their paths - but obsolete, incapable through their very size and inflexibility of meeting the problems of the new age.

Both Government and Parliament have totally failed to take the eco­logical and environmental case seriously. It is astonishing, for instance, that Britain is rushing towards a nuclear economy - which most thinking people seriously question - on the sole basis of a restricted government enquiry at Windscale.

It’s a commentary on the impotence of Parliament and the reluctance of the opposing front benches to grapple with awkward issues that this has not yet been examined or discussed at Westminster. Debates about economic recovery and future economic growth still largely assume that we can somehow get back to the easy days of the 1950s looking forward to doubling our standard of living every 25 or 30 years and thinking of economic growth in crude quantitative terms - as if the crucial problem was to get up from 2% to 4% and the long term aim to move from one car and TV set for every family to two. I believe that this is not only a false set of assumptions, but also pro­foundly dangerous. Neither we nor any of the other developed countries of Western Europe and North America can or should expect to get back to the sustained and high rates of economic growth which obtained for al­most 25 years after World War 2.

In industry, in government and in life generally people are best able to find themselves and express their potential when they are not reduced to units in a calculating machine. Don’t believe those who tell you that everything has to be big to be efficient, to get economies of scale. Cheap information-processing and high energy costs are making a nonsense of the monopolists’ arguments. It’s up to us Liberals to point the path away from the land of the giants and back to a more human landscape.

Small is not just beautiful, it works better.

The Tories’ changes in local government destroyed the one thing that really mattered - the link between local government and the local com­munity. The baby was thrown out with the bath water. Since then many councils have been losing touch with the people in their areas.

It’s the same with their new health boards and the vast hospitals that have replaced district hospitals; it’s the same with the village schools that have closed; it’s the same with the industrial mergers that may create new scope for highly-paid executives but destroy people’s satisfaction at work; it’s even the same in the trade unions where more energy seems to go into mergers and empire-building than into the protection of their members. It’s the same with the neglected housing of our inner cities and their replacement by tower blocks and anonymous estates.

I want the Britain in which my children and grandchildren grow up to be more than a run down slag-heap, dominated by a few giant organi­sations - an urban wasteland in which all sense of belonging, of continuity between generations, of happiness, and satisfaction in life has been sacrificed.

We have had some success in forcing Labour to face up to the demands of small business but that is no more than a beginning.

The New Parliament must face up to the priorities of the new age. A strong local community is the only place for the full development of the individual - and it’s up to us to build that community.

It is a tragic paradox that in our rush to modernise and rationalise, we have so often discarded the very basis of a civilized life. A lively com­munity, with its own local school and health centre, with good public transport facilities, with restored local buildings, with a local policeman on the local beat, with thriving local enterprises and a real sense of local ident­ity. That’s real civilisation - and it wouldn’t just be better in the country­side but in the run-down areas of our great cities too. Rebuilding the local communities of Britain is a massive task. It will need some very fundamental changes in the way we do things. It will take a lot of work and I mean that literally.

If we really want to put people to work we have the solution at hand, in the regeneration of Britain from the grass roots upwards. It will demand a total change in priorities in the New Parliament. But it could be done. We could conquer unemployment!

We have seen the very detailed and impressive plans of the Liberal un­employment commission and we all have confidence that with the right training and retraining, with extensive restructuring of work, with proper investment and above all with the right job creation strategy, we could take advantage of our opportunity to put people back to work. We could stop throwing away the precious resource of their talent and labour.

But it won’t happen overnight. There are no instant solutions to un­employment which has spread like a cancer through the whole Western world, and is not confined to Britain. Any party which suggests other­wise is dishonest. The Tories are cruelly misleading the men and women out of work when they suggest that their queues could disappear as quickly as the advertising posters peel off the hoardings.

I was relieved that Jim Prior at least had the integrity to disown the ad­men’s promises and admit that the Tories had no magic to make the dole queues vanish.

But I fear the taste for magic solutions which do not bear examination is deeply engrained in Margaret Thatcher’s mind. Consider her notorious statement on race.

Two years ago, I said - and you’ve endorsed it this week - that we should be prepared to join with other parties in the government of the country provided that certain basic conditions were met. I said then that we would never compromise with the obscenity of racialism.

Prospects of a share in government were remote at that time - they are certainly not so today. It is therefore even more important that I should make it abundantly clear that a fundamental condition for any co-operation with the Tories would have to be an end to the racialism that has so per­vaded the thinking of the Conservative Party. Any immigration policy must be humane and civilised, based on the legal rights of British citizens and on human need, but firmly rejecting the criterion of colour.

Mrs Thatcher’s views on the importance of family life seem to be strict­ly conditioned by the colour of that family’s skin. Their new immigration policy would trample on the rights of teenage children to live with their parents; and we have never heard any hint of criticism from her lips of the inhumanity and degradation caused to the family life of millions of black South Africans by the hideous practice of apartheid. Canon Trevor Beeson in his new book Britain Today and Tomorrow says that the growth and renewal of our national character depends on us recognising the other face of society ‘which is illiberal and degrading to the poor, the marginal and to the underprivileged alien.’ We must realise that a vital part of our continuing duty is to ensure that our liberalism - which must be a passionate liberalism - affords every protection and assistance to all these.

For while the National Front and other similar organisations are crudely evil and must be firmly resisted Liberals must resist even more strongly the more subtle, institutionalised racialism which is so insidious and which has become a curse in our land.

In concluding its submission to the Franks Committee the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants called for politicians to return to discussing immigration, not in terms of numbers, but in terms of principles of human rights and family life: ‘Only when politicians, in and out of Government, are prepared to take on this task of public education can the tide of racial­ism, swollen on years of debate about numbers and fresh restrictions, be turned.’

I have a feeling that the greatest of my predecessors, Mr. Gladstone, with his deep abiding concern for the rights of oppressed and under­privileged minorities everywhere would have thoroughly approved of these words.

It’s been saddening over the past 25 years to witness the gradual de­terioration of British society, the slow decline in a feeling of the common interest which transcends the immediate interests of class, profession or pressure group. Britain is becoming one of the least generous societies in Western Europe. There is a sense of sourness and an unwillingness to help others which is spreading its blight across the country.

Politicians and political parties must bear a great part of the blame for this deterioration. The style and tenor of political debate does much to set the tone for society as a whole; and the style and tenor of the British pol­itical debate in recent years has been destructive and petulant. Politicians have play-acted at class war, because they believed that such play-acting would win them votes.

Oppositions have refused to give governments any credit for their constructive acts. Above all, both the established front benches have sought at all points to emphasise the differences between them - even when these are illusory - rather than the common elements in their approach. The result has been a general decline in popular acceptance of government proposals, a weakening of that popular consent on which democratic government must ultimately rest. If all these problems I’ve been describing are to enjoy any hope of solution then after the next election the new parliament must be wholly different in character and composition from all the post-war parliaments we have known.

What will be the choices before our people? An overall Labour majority? The Labour Party is not just bankrupt of members and finance. It is politically exhausted too. It offers nothing new for the next election. Labour has progressed from being the know-nothing party to becoming the do-nothing party. The danger which a single-party majority for a Labour Government would present would not necessarily be that Britain would be pushed into an East European type of socialism; it is rather that Britain would continue to drift hopelessly in the direction we have followed in the last fifteen years, towards a centralised corporate state.

Another possibility is an overall Conservative majority. They present themselves as a party of doctrinaire change, with their version of the capi­talist society into which Britain would be transformed. It is a mean-spirited prospect in which all human values are decided in the market place with democracy as a secondary consideration and social justice a mere after­thought. What is more, it is false.

It does not fit the complicated problems facing an industrialised society in an interdependent world with finite resources. Indeed many of the best men in the Conservative Party know it to be false - and fear the consequenc­es of Thatcherism if it is given its head in a single party Tory government.

When I first joined the party, Jo Grimond had argued persuasively that Harold Macmillan’s government could not possibly carry through the re­forming changes which were necessary to stop the drift into decline until the chains of the two-party system were broken. Here we are, 20 wasted years of divisive government later, and Jo’s conclusion is more than ever persuasive. Thankfully the Liberal Party is now far stronger, the strangle­hold of the two adversary parties on British politics far weaker. Another push, another massive effort and we will break the chains, we will create that new majority.

The Assembly has helped to fill in the outlines of the Liberal society; our task now is to persuade the electorate that this is the vision which offers them hope. We have to create a new coalition among the voters, cutting across the lines of class, of industry, of regional prejudice and of race which now divide Britain.

Given the backing of such an electoral coalition, we can then use the authority they have given us to make sure that any new government works to promote the common good, instead of following the dictates of ideology or of vested interests. Instead of tearing Britain further apart we want to start pulling it together again.

But if I am full of hope for this country and what it might become I am also full of anger. I am angry with the phoney war between the Tory and Labour Parties.

In the next few months the electorate will be hoodwinked into think­ing that they are watching deadly enemies locked in combat. But Tory and Labour are actually the cosiest of competitors. As long as the Tory Party’s turn comes round, it doesn’t really mind the Labour Party. In fact it needs it! What else but the dangling spectres of Mr Benn and Mr Mikardo could get people to vote Conservative at all? And what a gift to Labour Mrs Thatcher and Sir Keith Joseph are. What would these parties do without each other?

Of course they don’t want to change the system which puts them into power turn and turn about on the backs of their opponents’ failures. They don’t have any investment in Britain’s success. Quite the reverse. They actually prefer a chronicle of disaster because it guarantees that they will get their turn at absolute power for four or five years.

That’s why Mrs Thatcher in her speech a few days ago in my constitu­ency declared that the choice of the British people ought to be confined to Toryism or Socialism.

This isn’t democracy. It’s rotating dictatorship. And the relationship between the parties is like an illicit market-sharing agreement. It’s a cartel!

Mr Ronald Butt - one of the constant scourges of the Lib/Lab pact writing in the Sunday Times this week said: ‘During the period of the Lib/Lab pact the Labour government was given something like security of tenure to do a crisis job. This it has largely done…’

Agreed - another one who’s seen the light - ‘…Something more radical is now needed’ - even more agreed - and then he adds lamely ‘whether it is to be done in the Conservative way or the Labour way.’

They don’t begin to understand that both their ways have failed and that we must turn to something new.

We are going to smash their cosy cartel. Why should we all have to put up with an arrogance which seems to assume the country belongs to the Tory and Labour parties. It doesn’t - and the Liberals are going to prove it.

It used to be said that a Liberal vote is a wasted vote. Events since 1974 should have disproved that. I say to you that a liberal vote at the next election will be the most effective vote that anyone can make.

We are not just another political party seeking power. We are the force that will allow people to break the pattern of national failure. We’re radi­cals out to change a corrupt system. May this force be with you.

We have a candidate of our own for leadership of the next govern­ment: the British people! It’s time they got a look in. It’s time they took charge in their own Parliament. And we are on their side. But don’t expect to be universally loved for what we are doing. There is a heavy investment in the status quo by Tory and Labour and their powerful friends. Be ready for sneers and misrepresentation. But, whatever you do, never, never give way! 

And if you ever quail at the prospect of still more hard work having so little reward to show for past endeavours, remember what it’s all for:

For the cause that lacks assistance
For the wrong that needs resistance
For the future in the distance
And the good that we can do

And then the next election will be an historic opportunity.

Each Liberal vote and every Liberal seat in the new Parliament could be crucial. We cracked the old order and the old way of doing things in the last Parliament. Now we must break it in pieces.

This is a time for nerve and resolution. Let’s go out from this hall and see that every voter knows and understands what a Liberal vote could mean for the new Parliament. An end to greed, intolerance and decline.

 The new Parliament must be a new beginning for Britain. The Liberals are the only way to get it. We’ve now got extra time to convince the people that is so. Go out and use it.

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