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Leader's speech, Blackpool 1980

David Steel (Liberal)

Location: Blackpool


The key issues at the time of this speech were the economy and unemployment, and Steel called on the Conservative government to take immediate action in the following areas. First, it should invest in a programme to improve Britain’s infrastructure, which in turn would create more jobs. Second, it needed to reduce the bank rate to bring down the level of the Pound. Third, it should expand training programmes to reduce youth unemployment. Fourth, it should set up a ‘Buy British’ campaign. Fifth, it needed to set up a framework for a policy on prices and income increases, and sixth, build recycling plants in every local authority area. In the longer term, Steel continued, the government should introduce widespread industrial partnerships and invest the proceeds from North Sea oil in training, education and industrial modernisation. He also promised to tackle racism in all areas of society.

The predominant mood of this Assembly has been confidence. This has been a good year for the Liberal Party. Nothing spectacular, but a year of solid advance. It has been the most successful post general election year we have had in modern times. After each of the previous half dozen general elections the Party has gone into decline for a year with dropping by-election votes and slipping opinion poll ratings. This post general election year saw our share of the poll rise substantially in all three Parliamentary by-elections, our poll ratings steady at around the 14% we polled last May, instead of dropping into low single figures. We had 76 net gains in the local elections in May, and in the four months since then we have won 15 seats in local government by-elections.

So the answer to Cross-bencher’s rhetorical question in this week’s Sunday Express ‘Is Mr. David Steel brim-full of bounce as he packs his bags for this week’s Liberal Assembly?’ is yes, certainly.

I’ve long since ceased to be amazed at our pre-assembly press coverage. One popular daily in its editorial said we had ‘become the invisible men.’ Now in the last six weeks of the Parliamentary session the Liberal MPs launched three debates on major issues in the Commons, on the Trident missile programme, on incomes policy and on the plight of small businesses. In the first two the official Opposition stayed away. And how much coverage did the popular press give to our debates? Precious little. One of the more insidious features of life under this Tory Government is the way in which the efforts of journalists to report our activities are frustrated. With a peerage to a proprietor here and a knighthood to an editor there the popular press is seduced into slavish obedience to the Tory line.

This year Jo Grimond and Donald Wade each celebrate 30 continuous years’ service to the Liberal Party in Parliament. What a transformation they have witnessed in the strength of the Liberal Party over that period and how greatly they have contributed to it; from being the remnant of the once great party of government (scoring only 2½% of the votes in a general election), to being the spearhead of a new and vital radical movement to change the shape of British politics.

Let me dwell on our internal affairs for just a moment longer. It has taken three years of hard work by the party officers and our greatly reduced and overworked staff at headquarters but we have now ended the long period of deficit financing and we now face the public as the only one of the three major parties financially in the black.

But there is no time for complacency. We will need to expand our organisation. So I want every constituency to take fund raising seriously but at least we can do so knowing that money raised is being put to good use and not for the demoralising objects of paying debts or reducing overdrafts.

In other words, Mr. President, the Liberal Party in 1980 is poised in better shape, politically, financially, organisationally, to make the breakthrough which we believe must come during this Parliament.

And never was the strong voice of Liberalism more required as we look at the state of Britain a year after the new Conservative Government took power. What I warned during the general election would happen, has happened. But the nation - or to be more accurate 32% of our people - decided to take the Tory gamble, and how bitterly many now repent it.

The central issue in British politics in the next twelve months must be how to rescue the economy.

Each of the three Parties has its own analysis of Britain’s underlying economic problems. The Conservatives see the problem as too much state intervention and seek to bring back a free market model of capitalism. The Labour Party sees it as the failure of the mixed economy and prescribes state socialism behind high tariff walls. The Liberals see it differently. Why when the world catches a cold do we get pneumonia? Our crisis is peculiar to Britain. It is caused by the failure of our political system and the inadequacies of our political and industrial leadership. That is why we assert, as we did in last year’s election manifesto, that ‘economic and industrial recovery can only follow from a radical programme of political and social reform.’

The Conservatives’ management of the economy in the last year has been ill-informed and incompetent. They’ve said that their entire economic policy depends on control of the money supply. Yet in two months they’ve used up their own target of a year’s growth in money supply and so their policy lies in ruins.

And Sir Keith Joseph was reported in the Financial Times as ‘amazed’ and ‘incredulous’ when he heard from his German opposite number that the German Government intervenes to support its own very successful industry. Here in Blackpool I met a deputation of workers from the apparently doomed Bowater newsprint plant at Ellesmere Port. It isn’t just a case of losing 1500 jobs directly and up to 5000 indirectly because of this closure. If it goes ahead it will mean that in future only 4% of our country’s newsprint will be made in Britain. Why? Partly because their competitors in Canada and Sweden have governments who believe in cheap energy prices for industry. Our own Government’s slavish attachment to non-intervention is directly and permanently destroying parts of our economy.

They have been selling off our public assets and closing down the private ones. A few years ago Ted Heath described asset stripping as ‘the unacceptable face of capitalism.’ I tell you where you’ll find the nation’s asset strippers now - round the Cabinet table in No. 10. How many Conservatives today faced with these grim economic theorists must sigh for the days when a Tory Prime Minister sat in a corner playing quietly, with his matchsticks. At least Sir Alec never threatened to burn down the house.

The Labour alternative, of more public ownership and increased state control, is only the reassertion of an old solution which has failed before. They put all our problems down to the failings of the Keynesian mixed economy. That’s astonishingly parochial. Has the mixed economy failed in Germany, or in France, or in Holland? Of course not.

I believe that in the long run, we will not reverse Britain’s economic and industrial decline without far-reaching political change. That’s why a more democratic Parliament and a more open political system are central planks in the Liberal platform.

But our immediate problems in Britain are so severe that their redress must start alongside political reform.

We need an urgent programme of the kind called for at this Assembly to tackle unemployment. It will need positive government measures, not lectures. The Prime Minister’s response to the unemployed in South Wales - let them move house - deserves to go down in history alongside ‘let them eat cake’ as one of the most callous failures by those in power to understand the problems of ordinary people.

Time and again when I look at Mrs. Thatcher’s personal direction of the policies of this government she reminds me of a First World War general. She has the determination to pursue her objectives at whatever human cost, and to go on pursuing them as the casualties mount and in defiance of all the evidence that the strategy has collapsed. It’s not her courage that I question. It’s simply her judgement.

All of us as politicians naturally draw heavily on our own personal experience of life, but we have an obligation to examine and try to understand and sympathise with those who endure difficulties we never had ourselves. Because Mrs. Thatcher had the good fortune and undoubted ability to transform herself from a prosperous grocer’s daughter in Grantham to an even more prosperous barrister in Chelsea does not mean that most of the nation can live the same way. How can she say to the unemployed school leavers on the street corners in Liverpool ‘you’ve priced yourselves out of a market’? How can she grasp the very different problems of the one-parent families, the racially persecuted, the disabled or the squalor of our overcrowded prisons? She cannot understand them because they fall outside her own narrow experience of life.

In a penetrating analysis a few months ago, the Scotsman journalist Julie Davidson wrote: ‘When I asked her if she would feel any sense of historical responsibility towards women as the first woman Prime Minister she pondered politely then said: “I think it will do a great deal for women at the top.” Not women at the bottom, or in the middle, take note, but women like Mrs. Thatcher, dedicated meritocrats, who feel that there is no special disadvantage in being poor, black or female.’

Liberals reject such an attitude. While of course encouraging the strong, we believe it to be the duty of the Government to intervene to protect the life of all its citizens as skilfully as possible. In the short run the Government must adopt a programme to cut unemployment and revive our sick economy without feeding inflation. We demand action immediately in six areas:

First, increase public investment where jobs will result and at the same time our basic infrastructure could be improved, for example, in the track and rolling stock of British Rail, in selective road by-pass building, in insulating houses and offices, in the coal board, and in a trial tidal barrage scheme such as the Severn to produce pollution-free power.

Second, cut the level of the pound by reducing the bank rate and help business by introducing a two tier interest rate. If she won’t listen to small businesses, at least let her listen to the CBI today.

Third to encourage more youth employment, cut the employers’ national insurance contribution for all those employed under the age of 21 and greatly expand both the public and private industry training programmes.

Fourth, start a ‘Buy British’ campaign and give the lead by legislating this session for the clear marking of the country of origin of all imported goods.

Fifth create without delay the machinery for a sustained policy on prices and income increases, including a rapid expansion of profit sharing schemes throughout industry.

Sixth construct in every local authority area new plants to recycle and re-use waste materials such as metal, paper and glass.

All of this is short term and immediate and it will require some government expenditure. But it will be much less wasteful than the 8 billion pounds which our present 2 million unemployed are costing the exchequer. It is a far better and more constructive alternative to the do nothing policies of the present government.

But there are two basic longer term changes which Britain requires. The first is the introduction of widespread industrial partnership and the breaking down of the class divisions which bedevil not just industry, but housing, education, and the health service. I need not dwell on this at length in a Liberal Assembly but it is of crucial importance because these class barriers are reinforced by the other two Parties.

The second is the structural modernisation of our economy using the one priceless and fortunate asset we have - North Sea Oil. Used properly this discovery will provide the transition from the old decaying economy to the new.

We need not as Liberals be afraid of the new technology. Given the right provision of telecommunications an increasing amount of work done in both the manufacturing and service section of the economy could be performed in local shops or even at home. The scope for decentralisation becomes enormous. Even the obstacles to financial devolution for Scotland and Wales encountered by the last Government could be overcome. But this Government is timid in its investment in the micro-processor.

It also sees North Sea Oil revenues in terms of tax cuts to win the next election. Liberals used to sing ‘God gave the land to the people.’ Why not ‘God gave the oil to the people’?

The oil proceeds should be taken out of the Chancellor’s annual piggy bank budget and used as a national development fund to invest in industrial modernisation, in education and in training.

Such a major shift in public economic policy cannot be achieved without a major change in the political philosophy ruling our fortunes. But it is a real and better alternative to our present drift.

We’ve heard a lot of loose and dangerous talk from both left and right in the past year about ‘conviction politics,’ the need for confrontation and the end of consensus. Both sides insist, in extreme language, that there is no alternative to their policies - monetarist or Marxist.

I want to remind you and them of the underlying principles upon which democratic politics must be founded. Democratic government must rest upon consent. Governments should persuade, not bully. This Government did not gain the consent of a majority at the ballot box. All the more reason to try and find policies which command public support.

Yet like the last Labour Government, the Conservatives have hastily tried to bulldoze their manifesto proposals through within their first year - refusing consultation or compromise.

What every democrat should really object to is the Government’s explicit rejection of persuasion and compromise as a way of carrying the electors along with its policies. In Venice the Prime Minister said ‘dialogue is not a word I like very much.’ That’s the problem. We have a Government which hectors - and an electorate which has decided not to listen. Every PM dictates the style of his or her administration. In this respect, I noted with interest the comments of the interviewer at ICI at Runcorn in 1948, who rejected the lady in her application for a job. ‘This woman is headstrong, obstinate, and dangerously self-opinionated.’ I must confess to a sneaking admiration for anyone who can remain utterly consistent over 30 years.

This passion for confrontation in politics and industry is destructive and dangerous. It threatens to tear apart our social and economic fabric. The logic is inescapable. Violent language eventually provokes violent action. If government by consent is deliberately ruled out all that remains is government by coercion. The fine rhetoric of Tory spokesmen on law and order could turn bitter in their mouths if their political intolerance and economic callousness end up provoking direct action and protest on the streets.

It is one of the worst evils of our political structure that it has encouraged such intolerance, to a point where in both the established Parties ‘moderation’ is considered weakness, ‘reform’ useless - where ministers and opposition spokesman now talk loosely of revolution and counter-revolution.

Democratic government depends upon a careful balance between the three fundamental principles of liberty, equality and fraternity. This has been the core of the Liberal tradition, the basis for the consensus of liberal democracy which the ideologues of the Conservative and Labour Parties would now like Britain to reject.

The Conservative Party claims to be committed to liberty above all. But theirs is a narrow and crabbed view of liberty, confined to economic freedom and the removal of the government’s protective role in helping the poor and underprivileged. This new Conservatism explicitly rejects any concern for social justice and equality, any element of compassion for those not tough enough or lucky enough to survive in their Darwinian world.

This ludicrous pre-occupation with the economic theories of last century completely ignores the positive role of the modern civilised state in providing what the Liberal Party Constitution calls the ‘conditions of liberty’ the freedom from want and from fear which Conservative policies are doing their best to recreate.

Therein lies the basic fallacy of the new Conservative economics. It is a Victorian philosophy fitted only for a Victorian age. The free market philosophers did not have to cope with a world so dependent on oil that it is dislocated when OPEC bumps up oil prices; in which there are huge industrial corporations, many of them multi-national; in which trade unions have monopoly bargaining power; in which most governments subsidize food production; in which many government produce deliberate cheap energy policies for their industries against whom we have to compete. That is the real world of the 1980s. Britain requires a government whose policies face today’s realities, not one which pretends they don’t exist because the facts are inconsistent with their theories.

Of course, there is an acceptable alternative to present Government philosophy - but it is not found in the official Opposition. The Labour Party emphasises its commitment to equality. A narrow view of equality, by and large, imposed and administered by central government. Labour politicians generally show less and less concern for liberty as a principle which must temper the pursuit of equality. Theirs was the Government which included a freedom of ­information bill in their manifesto; then in office they entirely concealed from Parliament and people their expensive decision to upgrade Polaris. The Tories have merely followed with the monstrous extravagance of the Trident missile proposals. The Labour Party’s approach to public housing, to education, to trade unions and industrial relations, all place a high value on collective uniformity and bureaucratic control and pay little attention to individual wishes or the right of minorities to dissent.

Their attitude to representative democracy itself is ambivalent and restrictive, both within their own Party, and in their resistance to all constitutional reforms except abolishing the second chamber. Their national executive’s mid­term manifesto actually proposes a general nationalisation enabling act which would allow any future Labour minister to nationalise any industry by parliamentary order in an hour and a half.

Many in the Labour Party are waiting to see what will happen at their conference. If the left further entrench their takeover some will find it no longer possible to stay. But I predict that that is not what will happen. Rather I believe that there will be a fudged compromise allowing the left to continue its attempts to control the Labour Party while those of publicly proclaimed tender conscience will be enabled to remain within it in the hope of picking up places in the next Labour Cabinet. All of this will be achieved by the undemocratic device of the Trade Union block vote at the conference. This will increase still further the financial and political hold which a handful of trade union leaders would have over any future Labour government.

As Mr. Terry Duffy put it succinctly a few weeks ago, speaking of the divide among politicians in the Labour Party: ‘At the end of the day the politicians have to remember that the unions are the paymasters - we pay the bill.’

How appropriate that the Labour Party’s national executive should propose that the Trades Unions should have 50% of the votes in a new electoral college to elect the party leader. Why not give them 100% and recognise the reality that the Labour Party is becoming their wholly owned subsidiary?

At the TUC Conference Mr. Callaghan called for the co-operation of the trade union movement in a prices and incomes policy for five years. Now I share his view of the need for such a policy, and of course any sensible government will seek the co-operation of the trade unions in it. But what is not tolerable in a free democratic society is that the contents of such a policy should be dictated by, or vetoed by, any one organisation in the state, however powerful. A Government representing a majority of the people and responsible to a freely elected parliament must be the final authority on any such policy.

But the Labour Party is now in hock and that is why I believe that whatever happens at the forthcoming Labour conference the result will be profoundly illiberal and unacceptable.

Neither of the two adversary parties cares much at all for fraternity. The Sunday Telegraph comparing Mrs. Thatcher to Ronald Reagan, rhapsodised on how each derived their strength and support from the expanding South, rejecting the urban and industrial areas of the North in their respective countries. What a way to divide Britain; to recreate two nations. As for Labour - the pursuit of the class war, with brotherhood for some and hostility for the rest, is becoming a more and more central part of the Socialist orthodoxy. And for both parties, brotherhood stops at the water’s edge. Labour’s deep veins of chauvinism and xenophobia come to the surface in their suspicions of everything European; while the Conservatives embrace Europe only at the expense of the Third World and the problem of world poverty.

The inhuman and niggardly reaction of this government to the far reaching proposals of the Brandt report is not just a national but a global scandal. Our performance at the current UN special assembly on world development has been shameful and alone among EEC countries we are reducing our aid at a time the plight of the Third World is growing worse. But how can we expect a party which fails to practise brotherhood in this country to extend it elsewhere?

We have incorporated into our legislative system discrimination which is blatantly and solely based on the colour of a person’s skin; legislation which divides families, separates elderly parents from their children, discriminates against coloured British women as opposed to white British women, and then the Home Secretary talks about everyone lawfully here being treated equally and the Conservatives prate about the sanctity of family life. This is hypocritical and they know it.

Obnoxious legislation is enacted and people like the wretched Filipino women workers soon find themselves in some technical breach of it. The government is making things worse by publishing a nationality white paper extending institutionalised racialism still further.

This institutionalised racialism now pervades the whole field of race relations. Thanks to the infamous 1971 Immigration Act, the police have power to question and arrest anyone whom they suspect of being an illegal immigrant - this has led to the notorious fishing expeditions where British citizens, lawfully settled here for many years, find themselves in police cells until, and sometimes even after, they have produced their passports or other documents.

Mr. Whitelaw may say that there is no need for any coloured person to carry his passport, but faced with the humiliating possibility of questioning, many now feel obliged to do so. A West London magistrate last month made adverse comment on the fact that a 22 year old student was arrested at 3 o’clock in the morning and wrongly held in custody for three days because of a mistake on a Home Office computer. This is a disgrace in a civilised community.

Now in spite of an all-Party recommendation to do so the Government is trying to wriggle out of abolishing the SUS laws. These are harmful both to community relations and to the image of the police, for whom it is utterly wrong to have such power.

We have heard a great deal in recent weeks about the right of free speech in connection with National Front Marches. The right of free speech is one which is very dear and rightly so to all Liberals, but there is a right that must be dearer, and that is the right of minorities, already under severe pressure, to live peacefully in their homes without having Neo-Fascist bully boys escorted by the police marching past their homes shouting their hate-filled slogans and terrifying their wives and children.

That is not free speech - that is Nazism and must be resisted by applying all the legislation that exists to ban such provocative activities, so that the terrible experience of Southall is never repeated. And to those who would say that this is not being liberal I would say that we have to avoid the danger of being tolerant in principle when other people are paying the price in terms of human suffering.

But what can we expect of a Government led by someone who draws from the parable of the Good Samaritan the somewhat novel interpretation - and I quote her exact words: ‘No one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions - he had money as well.’

The parable of the Good Samaritan is nothing to do with money - it is about a despised outsider showing love and compassion when supposedly respectable pillars of the community pass by on the other side.

Let her try to understand the real lesson of the parable instead of trying to adapt it to her crudely materialistic political philosophy.

There is a better and more wholesome alternative, and to all members of the ethnic minorities so cruelly intimidated and harassed I pledge my total and utter support, and that of every Liberal. We shall fight the obscenity of racialism wherever it presents itself inside Parliament or outside it.

For Liberals, liberty can only be achieved within the context of a free and open society, in which there are no extremes of wealth or poverty, nor deep divisions of class, or religion, or race or creed.

Constructive political leadership would work to generate popular consent, to bring people together; to change people’s attitudes so that we can transform society. The Conservative and Labour leaderships are both turning their backs on these democratic truths. So it falls to the Liberal Party to reassert them, to bring them home to the electorate, and to persuade the men and women of Britain that this is the only basis which offers our impoverished and embittered society hope for the future.

That’s why I welcome the time and attention the Liberal Party has spent debating the foundation of our beliefs. It’s right for a democratic party to step back, in the aftermath of a general election, to examine its values and their relevance to current problems, as a preparation for the next campaign. I’m happy that we’re able to do so constructively, rather than indulging in destructive infighting like the Labour Party.

So there is an alternative, not just to the present Government but to a discredited system of politics.

The question is ‘How do we achieve it?’ Or rather how do the people of Britain succeed in getting the alternative they so desperately need to the bankrupt policies of the past?

I have no doubt that there is a substantial majority of our people in favour of the principles and policies I have outlined. We have to release that majority from the traps of the two doctrinaire parties in which they have been ensnared. We have to turn the commonsense majority into a new electoral majority.

It will not be easy, but I believe our fate as a nation depends on it. It is our Party, the Liberal Party, which holds the key. It is we who have to call into being a whole new world of politics to redress the balance of the old. To all those of whatever persuasion who share our analysis we should wish success in their courageous efforts to break up the monoliths of the old parties. But they should also know that without Liberal leadership, a Liberal agenda and Liberal commitment their efforts are doomed. The trail of British politics is littered with the skeletons of well-intentioned breakaway groups who tried to go it alone. With us they could make a formidable contribution. Without us they will fail.

We Liberals must develop our policies and put them forward vigorously as an alternative to the folly of this Government. The Tories say they will not change course but when they are heading straight for the rocks we say they must change course - even if it means dropping the pilot. Every parliamentary and council by-election must give them the same message. In particular the county council elections next year are the opportunity for people to demand a better future by electing more Liberals than ever before. Tory policies can and must be changed.

But that in itself will be no more than another last-minute escape from disaster. Any long-term success for Britain depends on a far more fundamental change to our politics. It depends on stopping the ever more frantic swing between the two ever more desperate extremes. As John Stuart Mill wrote: ‘When society requires to be rebuilt, there is no use in attempting to rebuild it on the old plan.’

That is why this Party must be more ambitious and self-confident than ever before. We must be able to offer the country at the next general election not just a Liberal minority influence but the prospect of a new government which will break this unrepresentative and divisive two party dictatorship once and for all.

We intend to change the system of elections and government so that power is taken away from these two arrogant cliques and put back where it belongs in a democracy, in the hands of the people. We intend to reform industry too so that what is now a bitter battlefield becomes a prosperous partnership.

Prime Minister, here is the alternative to what you are doing to our country.

These are ambitious aims. It will need an effective, well-organised and adequately financed Party to realise them.

To members of other Parties I want to say this. Break free from the past. It’s time to think of the future. We need your help. Come and join us in this great task. We need many more thousands of enthusiastic workers and many more million voters. You could be one of them - and you could help find a new start for Britain working with us.

To Liberals I say: go out and find new members and supporters and welcome them in. We must have an open door policy. I want to be quite candid with you. People are fed up with political parties. They hate the exaggerated promises and the easy way they are broken. They think the parties are narrow, smug and self-satisfied. They don’t believe in parties who say ‘we alone, have all the answers,’ parties who are suspicious of newcomers. We must never be like that. We’ve got to be different.

While I want the Liberal Party now to be more ambitious, let us not be so arrogant and purist towards others who have come to share our vision of what could and should be that we behave like an exclusive club rather than give the lead to a broad radical movement. We must recognise that most of those who will join with us will have supported other parties in the past. Like many people in this hall they will have trod the hard path of disillusionment. It is up to us to give them hope - and the welcome to go with it. 

Let us say boldly to the people of our country at the next election:

Ah the past is dark behind us
Strewn with wrecks and stained with blood;
But before us gleams the vision
Of the coming brotherhood.

If we can grasp the political initiative I believe the next general election could see the end of the old politics and the beginning of the new. I foresee a Liberal vote so massive and the number of Liberal MPs so great that we shall hold the initiative in the new Parliament. No government will be formed without us. I know that many unhappy MPs in the other parties will be ready to ally themselves with us once that moment comes.

Liberals and their progressive allies would come together to form what the country has needed for so long. A Liberal-led government, a government of partnership and reconciliation, one which will judge greatness not in the outmoded terms of imperial grandeur, the pursuit of selfish and superficial wealth, but in terms of the excellence of our education, the quality of our compassion, the health of our country, the harmony of our industrial life, and above all the humanity of our society.

By the next election we must give our people the chance they dearly want, the chance to elect a great government of national reform.

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