Jump to content
 

Speech Archive

Leader's speech, Bournemouth 1984

David Steel (Liberal)

Location: Bournemouth

Commentary:

In this speech to the Liberal Assembly, Steel outlined some of the main difficulties that were facing Britain at the time. These included rising unemployment and crime, the destruction of large swathes of countryside, decaying inner cities, worsening industrial relations - as exemplified by the miners’ strike - and a growing problem of drug abuse among young people. Steel then outlined his party’s programme, at the core of which were constitutional reforms to increase transparency in government, introduce proportional representation and a Bill of Rights, and to repeal the Nationality Act of 1981. He also pledged to rebuild the economy by embracing the new technology, changing the tax system, investing in education and training, and encouraging partnerships between the public and private sectors.

Well we’ve had an interesting week. No one can say it has been dull.

Even meetings of the parliamentary party have been enlivened by the babble of the bookies and the shouting of the odds. It’s felt more like Newmarket on race day.

I don’t want to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm but we won’t be putting the runners under starters’ orders yet. We have other important races to win first, the most important being that against Mrs Thatcher.

I had a phone call last night from David Owen. He’d been watching television all afternoon.

He said we didn’t seem to be a one man band, though whether he thought that was an improvement I’m not sure.

I tackled him bluntly on one thing he mentioned at his conference last week. He instructed his members to tell him when he is talking nonsense. I said I thought that was my job, and anyway I thought the SDP was supposed to be different from the Liberal Party.

Yesterday we had a debate of high quality on defence and disarmament. 

We have one area of disagreement among us on the best strategy for getting rid of Cruise missiles and I do not seek to minimise it but, with that exception, we have agreed what I believe is the only party policy in Britain today which genuinely seeks to combine the needs of defence and disarmament. That is a policy for real security.

And I was delighted that we so overwhelmingly rejected the call to come out of NATO and remove bases from the UK. Unlike the Labour Party, we have fully committed ourselves to NATO as our defence shield. But this week we have also shown how NATO should take the way forward on disarmament and become an Alliance for Peace. We will make our full contribution to that process by putting Polaris into the arms negotiations.

Unlike Labour and unlike the Conservatives we are internationalists committed to working with other countries and I welcome the strong emphasis in the resolution on strengthening the European pillar of NATO.

We have agreed that by 1986 we will draw up our priorities for government. Meanwhile the military and political scene will have moved on but I am confident that, looking at the principles of common security and positive progress to peace agreed here this week, we shall be successful, and that we shall go on to convince the electorate that it is possible to combine hope and realism in defence policy.

It is that combination of hope and realism which we should have in all our policies, but it is not my intention to speak this afternoon about detailed policies. Instead I want to concentrate on the sort of leadership Britain needs to take us out of the long spiral of decline.

Let us look at our country in 1984. We are rich in natural resources of coal, oil and gas. Our Government has had at its disposal a unique cash bonanza from North Sea Oil, yet it has not been used to fund major changes in our industrial prospects, but instead to finance a dole queue of persistent and growing length and to disguise our real balance of trade figures.

For the first time since the industrial revolution, Britain last year imported more manufactured goods than she exported - this for a country proud of and dependent on our trading abilities. A great nation is judged on its ability to create wealth not on its ability to consume it.

We are a nation careless of our environment. Only a handful of the 300 recommendations over the years of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution have been implemented. Acid rain pollutes lakes and forests; highly mechanised agriculture has, in Eastern parts of England, destroyed much of our natural wildlife and countryside.

Protection of green belts has been relaxed in favour of new speculative development while many of our inner cities present a picture of destitution and decay.

Above all there is the continuing and worsening bloody battleground which is laughably referred to as British industrial relations.

Our national crisis is not just an economic crisis, it is a social crisis.

It is not just miner against police. We live in a country where miner is set against miner, miner against steelworker, steelworker against docker, docker against lorry driver.

There is a general breakdown in law and order, confirmed by the Government’s own crime figures. This is in part a consequence of high unemployment and enforced idleness among a growing section of our population. Another side effect of the same social stress is the increased use of sedative drugs in the NHS. Yet another is the 50% increase in juvenile illegal drug abuse in one year and the doubling in the number of registered drug addicts in Britain since this Government came to power.

The welfare state itself is cracking as it tries to cope with demands and numbers its founders never foresaw.

It may be argued that since this Government has altered the balance of advantage between rich and poor in favour of the rich, then at least there should be one section of society which is content. But have even the rich really benefited? Can their quality of life be said to have improved when during the period of this Government, the chances of their houses being broken into have increased by 48%, the likelihood of their cars being broken into increased by 52%, the risk of their teenagers getting hooked on heroin has doubled? But what can you expect when there seems no place in this harsh society for so many of our young people.

Britain is a country which has lost its way. We’re a country where each interest group or family has been encouraged to concentrate on painting the walls of its own cabin as the ship of state founders.

That is the Britain of 1984.

It is appalling but not yet beyond hope - if we have a sufficient commitment to changing it.

The Prime Minister repeatedly declares her commitment to change - of a sort. But one of the fundamental failures of this Government is that it does not see the real extent of the problems we face, or of the obstacles to change. There’s a horrifying reek of complacency and self-satisfaction in the face of despair and decay. How else could you describe Nigel Lawson’s claim in the last major Commons debate before the summer recess that Britain has benefited from ‘four years of non-inflationary recovery’? If that’s how they define recovery I’d like to know what they imagine decline is like.

But it’s more than complacency which affects this Government; it’s ignorance as well: ignorance about whole sections of British society. The most revealing sentence uttered by any minister this year was by Patrick Jenkin on visiting slums in Liverpool: ‘I had no idea people in Britain were living like this.’ Why not? What a disgraceful statement from the cabinet minister in charge of housing.

We shouldn’t really be surprised. Mrs. Thatcher has told us all along that she believed in a kind of social Darwinism. Survival of the fittest. Government can’t do everything, we are constantly told, so it should settle for taking care of the strong and hope that financial ambition and charity will do the rest. Make the rich richer and what falls from their table will be enough for the rest of us.

We too believe in encouraging the talented. But that is not the same as the survival of the fittest - the law of the jungle. Civilised government has a higher purpose to fill the gaps left by chance or misfortune.

We believe as Liberals that a society like ours must find work for all who can do it, shelter for the homeless, care for the elderly and infirm, and hope for the despairing.

There is despair in the eyes of millions whom Mrs. Thatcher and her ministers never see. Not just the people in damp and overcrowded homes. The young couples who struggle to pay their higher mortgages, the students turned away from college or university; the elderly afraid to turn on the heating; above all despair is in the eyes of the one and a quarter million long-term unemployed.

Of the plight of all these people Tory ministers seem determinedly ignorant.

The attitude of Mrs. Thatcher and her colleagues towards large sections of the British people can best be described in a phrase historians used of the regard in which the citizens of ancient Rome were held by some of their less desirable emperors: ‘oderint dum metuant,’ ‘let them hate me, so long as they fear me.’

There are plenty who have good reason to hate and fear her in a Britain whose enviable record of tolerance she has so successfully destroyed.

It is not just the competence of this Government which I question. It is their whole sense of values, the direction in which they want to take Britain.

Mrs. Thatcher gave an interview a few weeks ago when she said of our desperate situation in Britain ‘I do not know any other way.’

What a confession. And what a contrast with that great statesman Franklin Roosevelt, who, faced by the Depression of fifty years ago and adopting Lloyd George’s ideas said ‘We will try something, and if it works we will keep it. If it doesn’t, let’s try something else.’

Mrs. Thatcher’s version of that would be ‘If it doesn’t work, let’s keep it and whatever happens let’s never try anything else.’ Unhappily I believe the Prime Minister. She doesn’t know any other way. Had she been a pharaoh in Egypt the slaves would not only have been ordered to make bricks without straw but to pay for the mud as well.

Yes, Prime Minister. We know your way all too well. It is away of division, of bitterness, and, in the end, of defeat for Britain.

During the mining dispute we have seen the Thatcher way at its very worst. She appointed as Chairman of the National Coal Board an elderly American company doctor whose reputation at British Steel had been made by cutting back rather, than building up.

She has effectively torn up the Plan for Coal and replaced it with nothing except a general sense of hostility to what is one of this country’s major assets. She has set up a confrontation which suits her Marxist opponent Arthur Scargill very well. She has allowed attitudes to harden on both sides.

Then this week she has the nerve to talk about the strike going on for a year and demands ‘victory’ over the ‘enemy.’ It may be the Thatcher way but it is not the way to conduct industrial relations - and it is deeply damaging to the national economy.

There is a better way. I want to use this occasion to make a .firm proposal to break the deadlock. It has three elements and it will require the recall of Parliament next week, which is perfectly possible since there are no party conferences.

The first element is that Mr. McGregor should step down immediately. He is now an impediment to a settlement. His replacement should be someone like Eric Varley who has the personal skills and the knowledge of the coal industry. The fact that he is not ‘one of hers’ is a positive advantage. A new Chairman of the NCB is the first pre-requisite to break the log-jam.

The second element is the establishment of a new Community Rehabilitation Programme, funded by the Government. It should undertake the environmental restoration of run down mining communities to create worthwhile jobs for former miners and to get the local neighbourhood thriving again. This Programme would be loosely modelled on the excellent Villiers scheme in British Steel but will concentrate particularly on the physical environment.

This scheme should be jointly managed by the NCB and the NUM but there is one big IF. There must be a ballot on the coal strike. The Alliance will put a short Bill to the House of Commons allowing 10% of miners, to trigger a national ballot. This trigger will be pointed at the head of Mr. Scargill and his dictatorial ways. As the Yorkshire working miners’ letter said ‘he is only a servant of the union.’ We must enable them to tell him what to do rather than the other way round.

I call on the Government and the TUC to put all their weight behind this scheme to set the coal industry on a new course. It is their duty to save the adversaries from themselves.

The obstacles to change in Britain are considerable. We will not carry through the changes the country needs unless we can carry the country with us.

You cannot bludgeon Britain into accepting change. That way provokes embittered resistance or nervous protectionism. The democratic way, is to win change through consent. That requires a different sort of political leadership, open to ideas, quick to learn and sensitive always to the human dimensions of decisions. That is not what we have had in Britain. Successive governments have failed in the most basic political skill of all, persuasion. They bully, and sometimes they bribe, but they do not take the whole country into their confidence, do not provide a long-term sense of direction.

Unless there is a general sense of fairness, of social justice, a sense that we are all in it together, the delicate process of managing change will come unstuck. That means reconciling the necessities of industrial modernisation and technological innovation with the human needs of understanding and security. That requires democratic leadership, not authoritarian hectoring.

What leadership is the country offered?

We all know what divides Mrs. Thatcher and Mr. Kinnock, Tory and Labour. They tell us often enough. But since Britain’s steady decline has continued under Tory and Labour governments perhaps we should also look at what unites them. That could be an important clue to what has gone wrong.

Both their parties have come to represent the triumph of ideology over humanity and commonsense. Of course we need leadership with a strong sense of values and a clear sense of direction, but that is different from rigid ideological politics. I believe we have had it up to our necks with ideology in Britain, whether it is the half-baked Marxism of the left or the fanatical market-ism of the right. It is the enemy of change by consent – and unfortunately it has now taken over both the old Parties.

They both also stand for a class struggle which most sensible people hoped had been finally put to sleep in Britain after the second world war. But no, the class war is alive and prospering in the Tory and Labour Parties. It is no coincidence. Their electoral prospects depend on keeping it alive. They are united in wanting to keep the nation divided.

A third point of resemblance. They are both the loyal agents of special interests, big business for the Tories and the unions for Labour. Ask yourself why the City has done so well out of the Tories; with Lloyds protected from scandal; the Stock Exchange profitably re-shuffled at the expense of the private investor; and a rich stream of privatisation deals, crowding out more worthwhile investment in new industry.

I suggest unequivocally that it is for the same shameful reason that the Labour Government of 1974 bent over backwards in its first two years to make life easier for the unions. It is because they both have to keep their paymasters happy. For both of them the old adage is true: ‘whose bread I eat, whose song I sing.’

But the country as a whole pays for these insider deals - and the price Britain has paid for this ideological class‑based sectional leadership is immense. The special interests get looked after - but too often it has been at the expense of the public interest.

There is another way of describing the public interest which I have always liked: ‘the common weal,’ the common good. That is what has been allowed to languish and decay while the sectional interests have grown fat.

Yet we desperately need to recreate the sense of the public interest. We shall need new leadership which instead of acting for its clients, like the Tory and Labour Parties, speaks for the country as a whole - a partnership between all our citizens working together for the common weal.

You know, Mrs. Thatcher and Mr. Kinnock like to talk about ‘our people.’ We all know who they mean. ‘Our supporters, our friends, our class, our backers.’ I can promise you that if you ever hear me or David Owen talking about ‘our people’ we shall mean something very different. We will mean the British people: poor and prosperous, North and South, worker and manager, black and white, men and women, young and old; all of the people.

For only the public interest is strong enough to restrain the vested interests. Mr. Gladstone said it one hundred years ago: ‘All the world over I will back the masses against the classes.’

The rock on which the public interest stands is our constitution, the only protection of our ancient liberties against the arbitrary power of the State.

Alone among democratic countries Britain has an unwritten constitution. It rests upon a number of assumptions, the first of which is that those who hold power will not abuse their authority.

The second is that Parliament is sovereign and government, accountable to it.

The third is that the civil service owe their ultimate loyalty to the Crown, not simply to the government of the day.

The fourth is that civil liberties are sufficiently safeguarded by Parliament and by an independent judiciary.

The fifth is that public education to inform the citizen is adequately provided by a free press.

The sixth is that government itself will remain limited: that the balance between the state and the individual, between the public and private sector, between central and local government, will not be overthrown.

All these assumptions are now in jeopardy. The government’s contempt for the principle of Parliamentary sovereignty is becoming more and more clear in its refusal to give adequate or accurate information on crucial questions either to the House of Commons or to its committees. Indeed, as we have seen over the Belgrano incident, ministers are prepared to engage in active misinformation to Parliament.

As I hear each new twist of government justification on that matter, I cannot improve on the words Mr. Asquith used of the War Office during the First World War: ‘They kept three sets of figures: one to mislead the public, one to mislead the Cabinet, and one to mislead themselves.’

The civil service over the past five years has been bruised and battered by a government which puts loyalty above objectivity and competence. The cry ‘Is he one of us’ shows the same attitude which led to the disastrous blunder of GCHQ.

Whether it is bans on Trade Union membership or the abuse of the Official Secrets Act - there is a systematic and despicable attempt to intimidate public servants which, when it is coupled with repeated instances of misleading Parliament, is pushing us towards an authoritarian state.

Liberals have never been satisfied that Britain’s existing law and judicial system provides sufficient protection for the individual against the state. The accumulation of information in the hands of the state’s agencies, as computer networks and files are centralised, provides a new threat against which the Government has so far offered only the weakest of safeguards.

What of our free press? Well, it’s not all that free.  Millions are being offered in circulation-boosting competitions; tens of millions pass hands as newspapers are bought and sold, without any reference to the balance of opinion or of free expression in an increasingly Conservative national press; it is money that counts, not freedom or democracy.

On the face of it, television should be able to present a more balanced view. But in a sombre lecture given to the Edinburgh Television Festival earlier this year, Sir Denis Forman, Chairman of Granada TV, warned of ‘the pressures that come filtering down from most employers in ITV - and even more within the BBC - to reflect the government view.’

He added that ‘The protection of government information has become indiscriminating and obsessional, the motive not so much to protect the security of the state as the political comfort of ministers.’

Democratic institutions do not exist to make ministers comfortable. That is why in this session I reintroduced the Freedom of Information Bill.

On a slightly less serious note, I sometimes wonder if the Prime Minister is a secret supporter of freedom of information. You used to have to squeeze information out of civil servants. Now the leaks are more like a burst water main under Whitehall gushing all the way to Fleet Street. I merely wish to make her disorderly process legal and open.

But it is what the government is doing to local government which is perhaps the most worrying of all. Here is a Tory party which used to be firmly committed to the principle of limited government now pushing into effect the most massive centralisation of power in the hands of the executive.

If a Labour government was introducing rate-capping and replacing the metropolitan councils with a new collection of nominated bodies under ministerial control, Conservative rhetoric would flow; it would be correctly, attacked as state socialism, imposing on every town and village in Britain the rule that the men in Whitehall know best.

Here is a government which set out to redeem Mrs. Thatcher’s pledge to abolish rates, which is instead stumbling blindly towards the virtual abolition of local democracy.

And now if the documents leaked to us at the start of the week are correct they are turning their guns in precisely the same way on the administration of the nationalised industries.

The virtue of an unwritten constitution, it used to be said, is that it is flexible. But if the flexible conventions on which our democracy rests are bent too far, they will break.

There is one further constitutional safeguard we will introduce - repeal of the 1981 Nationality Act. Some of the strongest opposition to the Act came from the leaders of the Churches who unequivocally condemned it. In February the General Synod of the Church of England passed a motion pressing for substantial changes in the Act which members described as ‘racist, unfair, divisive and repugnant to the Christian conscience.’ That well known pillar of the Synod Mr. John Gummer prudently decided to stay away - so much for the Christian principles which he so ostentatiously parades at the slightest provocation - or even without it.

The Act gives enormous discretion and huge powers to the Home Secretary. Fine if you are a prosperous and Christian family living in a Tory village in a county where a by-election is pending; the Home Secretary will then be graciously pleased to listen to all the representations which have been made and allow you to stay. I was delighted for Mr. a Mrs. Pereira, but equally I am appalled to consider what happened to an unemployed Bangladeshi woman, Afia Begum, who with her child born here, was ruthlessly deported, only because her husband died before she could be registered. And there are far, far too many similar cases of hardship inflicted on innocent people because of a vicious circle of oppression. We enact unjust racist laws, the poor and the powerless are trapped by them, and then when they appeal against them, we wash our hands, and piously declaim that the law must be obeyed.

Those individual cases, and they are countless, which the Home Secretary so callously dismisses, are suffering human beings, victims of the inhuman laws which he so ruthlessly administers. And now, in a new departure from former practice, even MPs are not to be allowed to raise questions of immigration appeals, except in their own constituencies, and the whole tenor of Home Office attitudes is that all representations will now be considered counter-productive.

This is doubly shameful for the Home Secretary; for he comes from a community which has known horrendous persecution and racial discrimination down the centuries - on this issue, at least, one might have hoped that a sense of humanity would triumph over conservative prejudice.

So constitutional reform must be a central issue in the Alliance campaign. We aim to open up British government, to force ministers to justify themselves and their proposals before the public. We aim to give Parliament effective control over the executive. We aim to free the civil service from the covert pressures of executive secrecy, and to redraw the boundary between political advice and administrative discretion.

We will introduce a Bill of Rights, to protect the citizen against the state; and we may need to reform the structure of the legal profession and judiciary. We will revitalise local democracy, cutting away at the spreading tentacles of nominated bodies and return local and regional decisions to democratic control. And we will, of course, give Britain what every other democratic country in Europe already has: a representative electoral system.

The Thatcher economic experiment has failed. Look at the evidence: investment down, the economic indicators pointing down, manufactured trade in deficit, and unemployment inexorably creeping up. No wonder the pound is sliding to an all-time low, unable to resist the challenge of a strong dollar, No wonder that the flow of private capital out of Britain has become a flood.

You remember the economic recovery we were promised, the recovery that would make all the hardship worthwhile. Well, we just had it - and most people didn’t even notice.

A change is of course essential. North Sea Oil production is at its peak. As it runs down, our economy will be exposed in all its weakness.

Of course competition has its place. But the blind gods of the marketplace alone are not going to show us the way out of this industrial crisis.

The only possible way forward is the Liberal way. It is actually to treat the talented people of this country as the precious resource they are, and to liberate their energy and enthusiasm to work together to rebuild a derelict economy.

How do you do that? You do it by changing the tax system, tackling the poverty trap, reducing national insurance charges to encourage employers to take people on, especially the young and the long-term unemployed.

You do it by educating and training people, developing and renewing each person’s skills, as the Germans already do and the new French Prime Minister plans to do.

You do it by a total government commitment to the new technology, with special education centres and training, tax incentives and credit-free loans for companies switching over to British technology,

You do it by an incomes strategy which ends the Conservative policy of taking money from the wage-earner and handing it to the rich, and substitute a sense of fairness in which everyone shares in success rather than scrambling for paper wage increases. You relate that strategy to the greatest possible extension of shared profit and shared ownership, and the smaller units of the new industries are the ideal spawning ground for shared control and ownership.

You build a partnership of private and public capital through regional development agencies and local enterprise initiatives. That will fertilise the economy at the grass roots, creating new companies and new jobs.

You ensure that the government, on its own account and through nationalised industries, buys and invests in Britain - and you persuade large British companies to do the same, encouraging and developing a multitude of smaller companies who supply them. Like Marks & Spencer, each large company should recognise its responsibility for developing British supplies and raising their standards.

Basically what you do - and what an Alliance Government will do - is to make people partners in a common enterprise. Partners in changing their lives, their neighbourhoods, their workplaces, and in the end their country. We need a new industrial revolution in Britain, but it won’t happen without a profound change in attitudes. That means putting people first. Then we shall have a successful revolution by consent.

For it is our aim to form an Alliance Government. And that is a realistic aim. We should not underestimate the strength of the foundations we have already built.

The tide is more than ever running our way. In the six by-elections of this year, we have won one, and come within a whisker of two more. In these contests, almost 37% supported the Alliance - only 32% the Conservative Government and even less - 29% - the official Labour opposition.

The Gallup Poll ratings have averaged 22% throughout that period - again, an unusually good indicator of our underlying strength, and broadly reflecting our performance in the European elections. Last week’s Gallup Poll put our rating at 25.5% - back to our strength in the General Election.

And of course our force in local government grows daily. At the beginning of the last decade, Liberals had only begun to break into the municipal strongholds of Tory and Labour.

But it is in this decade that we have moved on - holding and sharing power in an increasing number of Town Halls. The two-party system may hang on in Westminster - but locally, it’s being knocked to pieces. And only this last Thursday, Liberals won an astonishing 12 seats in local council by-elections. No wonder we look with confidence to the County council elections next year.

Our electoral base is therefore strong - and growing. We are vastly more experienced and hard-headed - in our campaigning and in our determination to achieve victory.

What this Assembly signals is nothing less than the start of a three year election campaign, not a three week one, to offer our people an alternative government. In a real sense the Labour Party has become an obstacle in the way of defeating the Conservative government. They may still be the official opposition. But we are the effective opposition. Because no one can take seriously a party so deeply divided on every major issue. I do not blame Mr. Kinnock personally. He, like Michael Foot before him, is trying to do a hopeless job. They cannot reconcile the irreconcilable.

The loony left are taking over in the constituencies, in the council chambers, in some of the unions and already among the back benchers of the Commons.

They are already stuck with a new programme less acceptable than the last. Nationalisation without compensation and an economic policy described by Roy Hattersley during his quest for leadership as ‘literally incredible.’

Our task in the Alliance is to finish the job we began at the last election of elbowing Labour out of the way and going for Government in 1987 or 1988.

Of course if we don’t achieve that we may have to use our second or substantial third place to secure both electoral reform and stable reforming government. We must in that event declare our readiness to work with others for these objectives.

But make no mistake, our purpose must be to offer the British people at the next election a choice of government which will take us in a major reforming direction. That was a primary objective in forming our alliance with the SDP. We must have no lesser aim.

When I say that, the Tories sometimes say, ‘that’s all very well, but who have you got?’

Who have we got? What a nerve! What is it they think we cannot match?

The judgement of Patrick Jenkin?

The humanity and charm of Norman Tebbit?

The modesty of Michael Heseltine?

The charisma of Geoffrey Howe?

The down to earth common sense of Keith Joseph?

Or is it the sheer weight of John Selwyn Gummer?

Perhaps it is just the sharp shooting of Willie Whitelaw?

I tell you this, the Iron Lady’s team is in fact no match at all for that of the Steel Man.

I lead a team of highly talented young MPS and of experienced peers. Together with the formidable ministerial record of many in the SDP and the wealth of talent among the candidates of both parties I have absolute confidence that we would provide as fresh and able a government as took power in 1906 after nine years of Conservative rule.

Who would have thought five years ago that we would have taking part in our Assembly a former Chairman of the National Coal Board, a former Chancellor of the Exchequer and a former Chief of the Defence Staff. Who would have thought that we would have grown from 1000 to 2000 councillors.

We have developed a maturity that allows us to face the challenge of entering government - and the difficult negotiations that go with it - with great confidence.

We now have less than three years to prepare for that decisive test. The dramatic victory at Portsmouth South illustrated the potency of a united and integrated Alliance.

The Alliance has continued to grow together since last year’s general election. And campaigning together, we will grow yet closer.

Our first priority in the year ahead is to build up our membership and strengthen our local and national organisation. Next week you will be out on the doorstep, seeking out new members in a determined drive. Work at it. We know the potential is there. It is vital to our challenge.

Our second priority is to get a complete slate of first-class parliamentary candidates into the field, Candidate selection must be settled amicably and quickly, Every month that passes shortens the time which we have to prepare for the coming fight.

Our third priority lies in refining our policy, Abiding by the unchanging principles of Liberalism - yet developing new ideas to meet the challenge of the 1990s.

I have a message for every Liberal and Social Democrat throughout the country. You represent the only hope of saving Britain from the disaster of a third-term Thatcher Government.

If we are to succeed over the next three years we will have to surrender small parts of our individual interests, to build a platform we can all stand on, comfortably, proudly, singing out the truth for the nation to hear, its message so clear and commanding, that no slick advertising campaign, no amount of press bias, no amount of unfair broadcasting coverage, will be able to muffle it.

I want to make a special appeal to the young to come in and join us now in this three year crusade.

The policies of this Government and their political allies the Reaganites have not made this world a safer or a better place.

They have done nothing to solve the problems of the Middle East which as I saw for myself again last week remains a highly dangerous flashpoint of world tension. With their money and political support they have in many parts of the, world backed the wrong people. It is not Communism that is the enemy in Latin America it is injustice and poverty.

We have totally lacked in Britain in these last years any real commitment to our friends or to our ideals, or any consistent priority for basic human rights. We Liberals champion equally the Refuseniks and the Sakharovs, the Bishop Tutus and Nelson Mandelas struggling for freedom in South Africa.

And how long can we go on turning our backs as this Government has done on the international responsibilities imposed on us by our own history, our own wealth and the crying needs of others.

I spoke at the outset of the sort of country we want Britain to be. 

A country is not strong because of the size of its armies and it is not powerful because of its world wide investments. A country today can be influential in the world by the size of its heart and the breadth of its mind, and that is the role I want for Britain. We must give the lead in ending the condition described in Housman’s lines where:

Envious of heart, blind-eyed, with tongues confounded
Nation by nation still goes unforgiven
In wrath and fear by jealousies surrounded,
Building proud towers which shall not reach to heaven.

This country itself is not like a grey blanket, a piece unbroken cloth, the same colour and texture throughout. I see it more as a quilt, many patches, many pieces, many shapes, all woven and held together by a common thread. The white, the black, the industrialist, the trade unionist, the small businessman, the farmer, the unemployed, the peace campaigner, the environmentalist, the disabled, the mentally handicapped.

Even in our fractured state all of us count and all of us fit in somewhere.

When I was at university there was a particularly odious but short-lived student society called P.L.U. - People Like Us - which existed to wear certain old school ties and scarves. In their very different ways the Conservative and Labour parties exist only for people like themselves.

A society which as they do emphasises uniformity is one which creates intolerance and hate. They want others to conform to their view of how we should live. Our standard in all activities should be one of excellence, but our routes to its achievement may be as numerous as there are Britons who pursue it.

In a true sense, neither the Conservative nor Labour Parties can any longer claim to be national parties. There are admittedly still some places where our Alliance parties are not thick on the ground. But look at the Tory party: in the great industrial cities of Glasgow and Liverpool they have no longer a single MP.

You will search the entire country south of the line from London to Bristol and not find a single Labour MP. Yet we are building everywhere.

One of the great figures of my constituency, John Buchan, wrote of early seventeenth century Britain that: ‘the old world was crumbling and there was no unanimity about the new.’ Britain today needs to decide whether to stand still with the past or move forward. And at the moment we simply lack the national leadership capable of creating a coherent framework of ‘unanimity about the new.’

How can they, when the very raison d’être of the Tory and Labour parties is against the search for consensus or unanimity?

Unlike these parties, we genuinely embrace men and women of every condition, of every economic class, or every creed, of every orientation, in every part of the country. In our family are gathered everyone from the abject poor in the slums of our great cities to the enlightened well-to-do in the suburbs. White collar and blue collar, young professional, the teenaged unemployed. They’re all there.

We are proud of this diversity which you won't find next month in the Labour and Tory conferences. The different people we represent have many points of view. We have debates, even arguments. Some criticise us for it, but it is part of our strength.

At the end we are stronger for having listened to each other. If we need any inspiration to set aside our small differences all we need do is reflect on the Tory policy of divide and rule to see how grievously it has injured our land.

I spoke earlier of our commitment to the public interest against special interest. We have an obligation to each other to build a finer democracy, one in which our fellow citizens have the chance to work, to make the world better for their children and to be protected in these moments when they would not be able to protect themselves.

The young of this generation must exercise the right to dream. You must face the reality that is, but then dream of the reality that ought to be, that must be. Live beyond the pain of reality with that dream of a bright tomorrow.

Use hope and imagination as tools for survival and progress.

I see a Britain in our time where greed, self-interest and division are vanquished by the common good, and the national interest.

We believe that government should be a positive force to solve problems, and that public service is a worthwhile vocation.

We believe in only the government we need but we insist on all the government we need.

Our bold strategies are rooted in our basic Liberal values and we have the courage to carry them out. What is called for is an exercise in government at its best.

We believe in government of fairness and reason, a government that doesn’t promise to do what it cannot do.

A government strong enough to use the words ‘love’ and ‘compassion’ and capable of converting our hopes and dreams into practical reality.

If you share our vision of what Britain could be, come with us on this three year haul.

It will happen if we make it happen, and we are determined to make it happen.

Back to top

Home | About | Resources | Contact Copyright © British Political Speech 2017 | Terms and Conditions | Privacy Policy