Leader's speech, Eastbourne 1986
David Steel (Liberal)
Commentary:Steel began his speech to the Liberal Assembly by listing the Liberals’ successes in recent by-elections and local government elections, which augured well for the forthcoming general election. He expressed his commitment to proportional representation, which Steel described as the prerequisite for good government, as well as to devolution for Scotland and Wales, a Freedom of Information Act, and increased funding for education and housing. For Steel, the recent Chernobyl nuclear disaster highlighted the need for the party to be realistic in its ambitions for nuclear disarmament, and he claimed greater co-operation with Europe would be vital to achieving this goal. He also condemned apartheid in South Africa and the Thatcher government’s restrictions on visitors to Britain from the New Commonwealth.
One of the traditional sports of party conferences is guessing the length of the Leader’s ovation. I don’t advise anyone to take a bet on that this afternoon.
I had planned to address my speech to a wider public on the serious social and industrial problems which confront Britain today. I shall do that anyway, but that part will now have to be shorter - because I want to address some very particular words to the Liberal Party and our allies in the SDP. People outside understand that applause is no substitute for getting the programme right.
There has been a special urgency to our deliberations this week. An election cannot be far away. The destructive years of Thatcherism are drawing to a close, and a very large slice of the electorate are undecided how to vote.
We will be ready for that election just as soon as the Prime Minister nerves herself to call it. For us campaigning is a way of life.
Our opponents are both aware and frightened of our strengths on the ground. Whatever the ups and downs of the national polls, we have been the election-winners of this Parliament. We have polled more votes in parliamentary by-elections than the Tory or Labour parties. This year we have achieved the great triumph of Ryedale, and we gave the Conservative and Labour parties the fright of their lives in West Derbyshire and Newcastle-under-Lyme. Yet again we have shown that there is no such thing as a safe Tory or Labour seat against the challenge of the Alliance. We are ready to join battle in Knowsley North.
In local government elections our performance has been even more impressive. I say ‘even more’ because the absolute consistency of progress and success in local government in every part of the country cannot be written off as a flash in the pan. In over 250 by-elections since the general election Liberals and Social Democrats have swept the board. Those are the polls that matter, the real polls. In every part of Britain we are advancing and the other parties are retreating. In many authorities, for the first time for many years, local people have been getting a sample of Liberal government, and they are coming back for more.
And note something about our 3,000 elected councillors. We have a higher proportion of women than the other parties and a very much higher proportion of councillors under the age of 45. Now that this Assembly has changed our selection procedures, I expect to see more women among the MPs who will join us at the general election.
Let us be clear what that election will be about. It will be about who will form the next government, of course, but it will also be about the sort of government the country needs. As well as the choice between Tory, Labour and Alliance, Britain will also be choosing between bad government and good government.
I hardly need to explain what bad government is. We have had bad government for decades, from Labour and Tory governments alike. Rather confusingly, they call it strong government.
What does this ‘strength’ consist of? It consists of a highly ideological minority party of one variety or another, using a corrupt electoral system to grab the whole power of the state. That isn’t strength, it’s fraud.
When I look at that vast Tory majority in the House of Commons, when I see those serried rows of smug faces, I like to remind myself how they got there. Not by their merits but thanks to the distortions of the electoral system, and I think of Tennyson’s line, ‘Their honour rooted in dishonour stood.’
Real strength in a parliamentary democracy doesn’t consist of imposing a minority view on the majority, it consists of finding the policies and giving the leadership which can unite the nation. Democratic government is about consent, not domination.
The essential prerequisite for good government is the introduction of a fair voting system. Proportional representation is the way to get the strength of the majority behind the government, and of ensuring that minorities are protected at the same time.
That is why we are committed to electoral reform. Not for short-term party advantage but for long-term fair representation and good government.
Our opponents must be under no illusion. Our commitment to a reformed electoral system is unqualified and absolute. We shall use all our weight and power at the earliest opportunity available to introduce PR. It is the key to the door to good government.
Let me define what I mean by ‘good government.’ First, it should be constructive. Governments should build on the achievements of their predecessors, however few and far between they may be. For instance, we should build on the trade union reforms of this government, which are one of their few positive achievements. It will be a tragedy if Labour are allowed to revert to a cosy carve-up with the union bosses, against the democratic interests of their members.
Good government should be far-sighted. It is a disgrace that the British economy is being manipulated to help the prospects of the Tories winning the next election. Assets are being sold, investment is depressed, money is being printed, consumption is being boosted and taxes are to be cut, not to help the long-term future of our economy, but to buy votes. And Nigel Lawson, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, is the ringmaster of this election circus. There is no government strategy in any of the policy areas that matter most: energy, industry, education, housing or welfare. The long term and the future of the next generation are being mortgaged by this moral myopia.
Good government should be decentralised. We are told by the Institute of Directors that ministers are overloaded, staggering under the burdens of office. So they may be, but the obvious reason doesn’t yet seem to have occurred to them. Central government is trying to do too much. A very great deal of what is being forced through the Whitehall machine should be done at local level, at regional level, and in Scotland and Wales by their own elected governments.
Good government should be open, not secretive. The point of a Freedom of Information Act and repeal of Section 2 of the Official Secrets Act is not to punish Civil Servants who make mistakes. If we want better government we have to learn from experience, see what works and what does not work, avoid making the same errors again and again. We would never have got so far down the path with the Trident missile, for instance, if full information had been available and if the Cabinet and Parliament had been able to review the double escalation, in both warheads and in expense, which it represented.
Good government should be in the general public interest, not in the vested interest of one section or class of the nation. As long as the Tory and Labour parties are bound hand and foot to the two sides of industry, Britain will be badly governed. As long as both the old parties continue to stir up class envy and suspicion because it suits their electoral interest, they cannot claim to speak for the public interest. As long as Mrs Thatcher and Mr Kinnock continue to refer patronisingly to ‘our’ people, they show what they think about everyone else.
And lastly good government should help people to help themselves. Our idea of government as enabling or empowering people to run their own lives successfully is miles away from what the other parties believe in. There used to be Tories who believed in helping people, in a rather superior paternalistic sort of way. But Mrs. Thatcher has made them an extinct species. She believes in sink or swim. Labour on the other hand like to keep people dependent rather than giving them the tools to become as independent as possible. That is the difference between Labour and Liberals in local government. They like to keep the power to themselves so that local residents have to come to them for everything. We are never happier than when they don’t need us any more, when a local housing association, or tenants association, has got off the ground with a bit of help from us, and we can move on to help others towards self-reliance.
Just ask yourself whether the sort of government I have described, far-sighted and constructive, open and decentralised, enabling people rather than controlling them and governing in the public interest, is possible in Britain today?
I will tell you this much. It is not possible as long as the power of the British state is bounced between the Tory and Labour parties. They like things just the way they are because it suits their party interest. The result for the country has been decade after decade of decline and degeneration. If you want good government only the Alliance can provide it.
But we aren’t going to get an Alliance government unless the Alliance is credible. That brings me to Tuesday’s debate.
Before I turn to the subject of defence and disarmament itself, I must tell you bluntly that two related characteristics of our debate on Tuesday disturbed me. One was the sight of the Liberal Party reverting to a habit which I thought we had kicked ten years ago, of being seen sitting in a corner polishing and burnishing our policy to get it nice and pure and shining in the context of the ideal world we would all desperately like to see, rather than dealing with the real harsh world in which we live. It is one thing to declare our goal of ridding our country, our continent, our world of nuclear weapons. That we must assert with all the passionate intensity at our command.
But if we are ever to be in a position to influence our destiny in that direction, we must also convince the electorate that we have carefully thought through the painful steps we must take to reach that non-nuclear goal. Declaring the objective is not enough. The objective is not a policy. The Chernobyl cloud drifting over Europe and over parts of Britain carrying its dread fall out in the wind should have taught us, if we didn’t know it before, that you cannot create nuclear-free zones by putting up signs on the lamp posts of Lambeth. Our Assembly resolution as amended is the equivalent of one of these signs and it will convince no-one that we are capable of advancing from where we are now to a genuinely nuclear-free world. So there is no point in trying to blame what happened on the press. As Jo Grimond wrote on Wednesday: ‘for Britain alone to abandon nuclear weapons would be to retreat from those doctrines of international collaboration and collective security which have been a main aim in Liberalism.’ I too want intellectual consistency and integrity in our policy.
One delegate said yesterday that the trouble with this Assembly was that it had too much heart and not enough head. Well by God after seven years of this benighted government the country needs a party with a lot of heart, and I am proud to lead it. But it needs its head as well.
The second point which troubled me was the no doubt well-intentioned but completely misguided belief that in some way it was this Assembly’s task to accentuate the few remaining points of difference with the SDP in order to ‘strengthen my hand’ in manifesto discussions with David Owen.
That is a breathtaking misjudgement. We are either in alliance or we are not. We must live and breathe the alliance. It is unthinkable that we enter the election with two defence and disarmament policies. But neither David Owen nor I are prepared to arrive at any election policy as a result of some botched up bargaining process. We wouldn’t convince the country. We wouldn’t convince you. We wouldn’t convince ourselves. We will arrive at our election policy by applying our common judgement to the problems which will face the next government on taking office. We will have our repeatedly stated goals firmly in view as we do so.
I am reported as being angry with this Assembly. My emotion is not that of anger but of profound frustration that what you hope for and what I hope for, namely electoral victory for Liberalism and the Alliance, may have been temporarily and unnecessarily put at risk.
Yesterday, two events took place which sent a clear signal to the electorate that we are on our way again. The first was your overwhelming endorsement of our joint Alliance document, ‘Partnership for Progress,’ and your massive vote of confidence in the democratic procedures by which we will determine our manifesto for the election - involving the policy committee, the parliamentary party and the candidates. Both David Owen and I are well able, to move forward on all policy issues including defence on the basis of that document - that is a clear message I give to you, the SDP and the electorate.
The other event of yesterday concerns David Owen. We had what the Sun would call secret talks in London - watched by about 7 million people. It was a good meeting, confirming my belief that the bonds of our Alliance will hold. Neither of us subscribes to the doctrine of infallibility of party leaders - at least I don’t, but nor does he. No one should be worried by differences in style, or even occasionally of opinion between David Owen and myself. The reality is that this relationship will work and will hold. The two leaders and the two parties are growing steadily closer.
Turning now to defence and disarmament policy itself, let me reiterate the fundamentals on which we are agreed.
We are firm in our support for the NATO Alliance - full support, not the lip-service the Labour party pays to it while undermining it with their actual policies of chucking the Americans out. That’s agreed.
We want a moratorium on any further deployment of cruise missiles in Britain, and indeed expect to see a negotiated reduction of those already here before we get to a general election. That’s agreed.
We’ve accepted that we want to put Britain’s Polaris system into the next round of the strategic missile reduction talks. That’s agreed.
We will strain every sinew to make these talks succeed, but it will take some time, and we would be in a hopeless negotiating position as an Alliance government if we went into them with the Russians believing that all they had to do was to drag out the negotiations over the years - as they could - until the Polaris submarines rusted away. If we are to get reductions in the missiles pointed at this country as well as those based in it, the Russians must know that we would be able to maintain, and if need be update our nuclear capability, until such time as these negotiations succeed.
If we are not so prepared, we might as well follow the Labour party’s logic and abandon the nuclear deterrent system unilaterally, hoping that out of the goodness of their hearts the rulers in the Kremlin will kindly destroy theirs. In the 70s there was a party leader in Denmark who achieved some limited success for a while by arguing that he would save costs and reduce taxes by withdrawing his country from NATO and installing a taped message in Russian at all his country’s airports saying ‘we surrender.’ Denis Healey’s tape is a good deal longer but its message is basically the same.
Liberals place a higher value on the defence of liberty than that.
We are agreed that we will oppose the replacement of Polaris by the Trident system because it represents an enormous escalation of nuclear firepower from 64 to 512 warheads. That escalation is unacceptable to both our parties. We are seeking to contribute to disarmament. I want the Tories to have to defend their commitment to Trident on every doorstep at the next election. The public are on our side.
But they won’t support us unless we are prepared to retain a minimum deterrent capacity no higher than the present Polaris force. I believe we can achieve this through collaboration with our European neighbours.
Nothing in that is designed to create a new European super-power, or a Eurobomb, or a committee of fingers on the button, as some have sought to suggest. Securing greater European co-operation to get better value for money in defence, to promote world disarmament, and to switch global resources to development, is wholly in tune with the European ideals of this party, which we have proclaimed consistently since the 1950s.
My two parliamentary colleagues who spoke against the policy resolution, both said that a non-nuclear Europe was a final aim and that their amendment was not intended to frustrate the efforts we are making to find an effective European policy. Very well, we shall go on doing so.
But I fervently wish that the texts approved by our assembly would more often match the speeches made in their support.
The international context in which we have to make defence policy does not stand still. There are some hopeful signs of lessening tension. I welcome the agreement in Stockholm last weekend. I hope that we will see further progress towards the control of armaments at a US-Soviet summit in the next few months.
But there are also less hopeful signs. Mr Gorbachev, for all the freshness of a new face in the Kremlin, has not yet abandoned the old militarism or the old police state. And we have to accept that the Americans, who have been Western Europe’s protector and ally for the past 40 years, may not remain as committed to European interests or to European defence. The American troops are not likely to be around in their present numbers in five or ten years’ time. That means that we Europeans must take much more responsibility for our own security.
We all know that defence will be an important issue in the next general election. With Labour having nothing credible to offer, the choice will therefore be between Conservative defence policy and the Alliance alternative. Let me spell out that choice.
The Conservatives will make an eightfold increase in Britain’s nuclear firepower. The Alliance will maintain a minimum deterrent and only until the success of arms control negotiations renders it unnecessary.
The Conservatives will starve conventional forces of the equipment they need in order to find the money for Trident. The Alliance will safeguard the real interests of our army, navy and air force by sharing costs and equipment with our European partners.
The Conservatives will lock Britain into US technology for another generation, through the purchase of Trident and through British participation in the star wars project. The Alliance will contribute to a stronger European effort in high technology, from which Britain as well as our partners will benefit.
The Conservatives will leave Britain over-dependent on the judgement of whoever occupies the White House. We haven’t forgotten the bombing of Libya. The Alliance will place defence within the wider European context, through which we will also pursue concerted economic and industrial recovery.
The Conservatives will continue to frustrate every initiative for disarmament as they have for the past seven years, particularly if British nuclear weapons are involved. The Alliance will use the whole weight of British government power and influence to bring about comprehensive arms reductions.
Some people seem to see the issues of defence and disarmament as purely a discussion of hardware - of missile technology. But a fixation with hardware also betrays a wholly distasteful, macho obsession with nuclear firepower. Such is Mrs Thatcher’s inexhaustible enthusiasm for it. This obsession, often serves to disguise the contraction of what should be the real power of Britain - the power of a nation at peace with itself, the power of a nation fully employed, the power of a country with civilised standards, caring for its old, investing in the education of its young people, providing for proper housing and medical care.
I do not doubt that when the Spaniards of the 16th century planned their Armada there were many who discussed in the minutest detail the galleons and guns that were to reduce England to servitude. These preoccupations hid from them the truth of Spain’s national weakness - the sterility of its social order, the bankruptcy of its economy.
We in Britain need a defence which is appropriate, which guarantees our safety. Our burning concern is to tackle - in power and in government - the real causes of our national vulnerability, and it is to these that I now turn.
You will have seen that education is given pride of place in our draft programme. A far-sighted government which wants to enhance opportunity for its citizens by giving them the skills for success could do nothing less. Economic recovery and our future prosperity depend upon education. We can’t go on wasting the human talent of Britain the way we do at present.
One in fourteen British youngsters goes on to university.
In Holland it is one in seven, in West Germany it is one in five, in Japan and France it is one in three. The chances for a young person to go to university in Britain are spectacularly lower than in any other major industrial country. It isn’t just the individual who loses out but our whole society which is impoverished. In education, too, the Thatcher years have been the destructive years.
At every level British education has been starved of resources, from pre-school and nursery right through to the training, retraining and continuing education which are essential. But the main debate concentrates inevitably on the schools.
What an indictment it is of past governments, Labour and Conservative, that at the very time the schools could be taking advantage of lower pupil numbers to improve the quality of education we have been plunged into a crisis: a crisis of low teacher morale, low standards of achievement and low investment of resources.
An Alliance government will initiate a new partnership in education. We need first of all a new partnership between the government, and local education authorities, to ensure that teachers are properly paid, that their professional status is enhanced, that their views are respected. Just like the repair and renovation of school buildings and the provision of adequate books and equipment, that will take more resources. It may take time, and it may create pressure on other spending priorities, but we shall not begrudge the extra resources because this is a long-term investment in Britain’s future. We cannot afford to continue to lose over 100 qualified teachers every day of the school year, particularly when so many of the losses are in maths and science.
Mrs. Thatcher has been ready to break cash limits for the police and armed services, arguing that the quality of the men and women was vital. The quality of the people who teach our children is vital too.
Only the Alliance is ready to introduce an incomes strategy. And only an incomes strategy can protect large and important groups of public employees like teachers from losing out. That is the way to keep morale high in the profession. There is no future in a pay free for all, where the only way to protect teachers’ incomes is by harming pupils’ prospects.
The Tories, in a panic at the mess they have made of public education, are talking of centralising the whole service and putting the man in Whitehall in charge of local schools. That would be a disaster. Certainly minimum national standards of excellence should be required, but the local accountability of education should be made stronger. That is why the second element of the new educational partnership must be much greater parental involvement in schools. As those schools who have taken the plunge can testify, far from being a problem for the teachers, partnership with parents in the education, not merely of their own children, but of all the children in the school can create entirely new resources of enthusiasm and commitment on all sides.
We have to invest in the future of education. And we also have to invest in housing.
I can think of nothing more demoralising than bleak sub-standard housing, nothing that makes people feel more degraded than to have to eke out their daily lives in conditions which deny any possibility of a good life.
The facts are deeply disturbing. In the seven years before the Thatcher government came to power, over two million houses were started. In the exactly comparable period of seven years since Mrs. Thatcher became Prime Minister, only 1.3 million houses have been started, a fall of nearly 40%. It is our policy to match the sale of council houses with replenishment and renovation of the stock of houses available to rent.
Over 1 in 4 homes in Britain are sub-standard and the Government’s own report last year showed that 18 billion pounds are needed to bring local authority housing up to an acceptable level.
And what do these figures mean in human terms. Over a million families and individuals on council waiting lists. A doubling in the number of homeless in the Thatcher years. Artificially inflated house prices which stop young people from purchasing their on homes. Half a million homes without a bath or an inside toilet.
I don’t know what effect statistics like this have on you, but, twenty years after Cathy Come Home and twenty years after I became more personally involved with the problem as Chairman of Shelter in Scotland, they fill me with fury. Fury at successive governments whose neglect has created this mess. Fury above all at this government whose policies have made the mess and misery so much worse.
But what we must do is to turn our fury into positive action. I promise you that an Alliance Government will deal with this growing problem as a matter of urgency. A nation that does not house its citizens properly is not entitled to be called civilised. All too often the people degraded by poor living conditions are also without jobs. This combination creates levels of human wretchedness which Mrs Thatcher in her tours of the Tory luncheon clubs of Britain never even bothers to see. That is why she simply does not understand how this lethal cocktail of unemployment and squalid housing has led to the explosion of vandalism, crime and drugs.
There are four immediate steps we will take to create both jobs and houses:
1. Councils will be allowed to spend the 6 billion pounds locked in their bank accounts. Those capital receipts came mainly from the sale of council houses and they should be spent mainly on housing.
2. More money must be made available for home improvement grants, which are enormously effective at attracting private investment into housing, encouraging people to tackle the problem of deterioration for themselves.
This government has actually cut home improvement grants since 1984 at the time when it should be increasing them.
3. We will introduce a Tenants Charter which would give tenants the right to run their own estates and manage their own affairs. This as I have seen can transform the quality of life for millions of people.
4. We will carry out a long-term plan to galvanise building activity, using partnership schemes like housing cooperatives, housing associations and neighbourhood trusts to encourage private investment in new homes.
When our economy is languishing, when 400,000 workers in the building industry have been rendered idle, when resources are under-utilised, it is not only unacceptable in human terms, but it is economic madness not to build and renovate houses.
Don’t let people tell you we can’t afford it. The most significant Commons vote this parliamentary session was in my view on the 24th of March when the Alliance MPs divided the House against the Chancellor’s giving away one billion pounds from his budget by taking 1p off the income tax.
Of course all of us paying income tax like such reductions. But we voted against it because we believed that available money should go where it’s really needed, to projects that would provide work. The Labour Party makes speeches about doing that, but when it came to the crunch sat on their benches and abstained during that division rather than face the possibly unpopular stance of denying the taxpayers their penny. Our words and our actions match each other squarely and honestly. Theirs don’t.
The Alliance is about to launch a great housing campaign. Let’s all support it. We must act to end this national disgrace.
I’ve been talking about the internal condition of Britain. Abroad this government has chosen isolation and impotence.
- isolation in the European Community, where brawl and bluster have been the substitute for getting on with the real task of building European political and economic union.
- isolation in the Commonwealth, where the Prime Minister, with apparent equanimity, has ceded Britain’s traditional leadership role to Canada, Australia and India, but only after causing grave offence to the wider Commonwealth,
- isolation in NATO, by choosing to place devotion to President Reagan above our own European defence interests . The Thatcher foreign policy has rightly been dubbed as poodle-ism. I agree with Gary Hart in criticising their ‘Credit Russia first’ mentality - seeing the hand of a Soviet puppeteer behind every local conflict, a view which has led them to support fascist dictatorship in Chile and reactionary terrorism in Nicaragua.
- isolation in the United Nations - in the General Assembly on the Falklands; in the Security Council, repeatedly and shamefully, on South Africa; and in joining in a crude and senseless vendetta against international agencies like UNESCO, a body which Britain itself helped to establish.
- isolation and narrow nationalism, in preference to rekindling the spirit of internationalism which Britain so actively fostered in the early post-war-years.
- isolation, above all, from the instincts and impulses of the people, who are moved - and have moved governments - on the great global challenges of poverty and famine. In the 40th anniversary year of UNICEF Britain ought to be leading the way in support for world development. But what chance is there of that?
Timothy Raison, in an open letter to his successor as overseas aid minister, wrote the day after his sacking:
'The Prime Minister has many qualities but I can’t say that over-enthusiasm for the aid programme is one of them. I couldn’t help thinking as we had our amiable farewell chat last Wednesday that it was about the first time that I had ever had a conversation with her about what I’d been up to as Overseas Development Minister.'
What a commentary on the real values of our Prime Minister.
Her values are seen at their worst in dealing with South Africa. Even through a shackled and muzzled press, the horrifying and violent realities of apartheid have come home to the British public. They understand the special duty to the majority - a duty to act - which arises out of our historic and commercial links with South Africa.
Mrs Thatcher, on the other hand, prefers to enjoy the remaining short term profits of that link. In response to the call for action, she talked gloatingly of accepting no more than ‘teeny weeny sanctions.’ When the Commonwealth Group of Eminent Persons reported no prospect of the South African Government being prepared to dismantle apartheid, she prevaricated.
Sanctions - the only peaceful form of pressure on Pretoria left - she describes as ‘immoral’; but that is not a phrase we ever hear from her about the apartheid system itself: - about the infant mortality and the malnutrition of the ‘homelands,’ or of the 60% of black Africans currently unemployed; or of a system which, by virtue of their colour, condemns the overwhelming majority of the people to scratch a living on 13% of the land area.
The Dallas-style affluence of white Cape Town or Johannesburg lies alongside that other sub-world of the black townships.
William Gladstone’s famous phrase, ‘the negation of God erected into a system of government,’ applies to South Africa - but the overwhelming impression left by our Prime Minister is sympathy, not for the oppressed, but for the oppressor.
But of course the Prime Minister’s attitude to South Africa is the mirror image of her profound racism at home. I am glad that our Assembly condemned the proposed visa system for visitors from Third World countries with the closest family connections here.
Successive governments, but especially this one, have imposed the most repressive and inhuman restrictions on all visitors from the New Commonwealth, treating them as potential law breakers, and not as genuine visitors - inevitably then long queues are the result when they arrive, imposing strain on immigration officers, but inflicting enormous hardship on thousands of innocent people. Instead of humanising the laws, making them even slightly more in harmony with those principles of family life which the Tories claim to uphold, they merely compound their inhumanities by removing the victims of it out of public view.
This is part of the growing racism of officialdom in Britain. The occasional racist taxi driver is a minor social irritant; any racist policeman is a major social menace. There is now an appalling, ever-increasing number of cases of police harassment of innocent coloured people. Even journalists of the right like John Junor, Bernard Levin and Peregrine Worsthorne have been scathing in their condemnation.
We know that there are thousands of dedicated policemen working to promote racial harmony and to protect our minorities from racial attack. Their task is made more difficult by the failure to discipline and eradicate the racists within their ranks. This country needs and values the quality of its police force. That quality has got to be maintained, unblemished.
But Mrs. Thatcher remains impervious to criticism and reality - cosseted in a cabinet from which she has removed all independent minds.
She is candidate for No. 10 again. Or is she? On November 14th last year she gave a much under-noticed interview to the Financial Times in which she said she needed another five years to complete her task. ‘After that,’ she said, ‘someone else will carry the torch.’ Even if the Tories won the next election she’s going by 1990. If she leaves the election till autumn ’87 that would give her only three years. If she delays till ’88 it would be only two years. At least when they vote for us the electors know they’re getting Steel and Owen for the full four or five years.
But who will they be getting if they vote Conservative - Thatcher and Howe? Thatcher and Tebbit? Thatcher and Gummer? Thatcher and Cecil? - or a truly well-matched duo, Thatcher and Currie? I’m not sure that’s quite what John Biffen had in mind when he called for a balanced ticket.
At the next election the Tories will have the handicap of promoting not only Mrs. Thatcher but a successor best kept unidentified, a joint leadership of a truly mysterious kind.
The country hungers for a change of government.
The Liberal Party has advanced from the fringes of politics to the very centre of the stage, to the heartlands of Britain, to the very edge of power, thanks to you, the people in this Hall, and to tens of thousands of people who are not here today.
In town, city and county halls Liberals are grappling with the realities and problems of power, bridging the gap between the ideal and the real, especially in the harsh reality of the government’s restrictions on local government finance.
Many Liberal ideas are no longer just in pamphlets. They are visible on the ground. Here in Eastbourne I opened a partnership housing scheme last year at the invitation of the Liberal Council. Last week in Rochdale I visited a tenants co-operative in a scheme of 300 houses started by the Liberal led council three years ago. They’ve reduced vandalism by 80% in that time. I’ve visited several industrial partnerships inspired by Liberals. There is living proof of Liberalism working all over Britain. But Britain as a whole is not a Liberal country, and we cannot convert it to one until we achieve power.
I am not interested in power without principles. But equally, I am only faintly attracted to principles without power. Without power all our resolutions, all our idealism, and all our passion will remain mere intention, mere hope, mere dream.
We have so much to do, so much to change, such great tasks to achieve. But we will do nothing, change nothing, achieve nothing unless we can first gain power and then use it wisely.
Ten years ago I became Leader of this party - the first leader of any party to be directly elected by its members throughout the country.
When I became leader there were a number of promises I did not make:
I did not promise to be a new John Stuart Mill and re-write the party’s philosophy.
I did not promise to be a new Lloyd George and raise the wealth and resources of our organisation.
I did not promise to be a new Gladstone running four administrations to the age of 85.
What I did promise was to lead the party to the achievement of power for Liberalism in our generation.
I made this commitment to you - and I will keep it.
But you made a commitment to me - and I require you to keep it.
Beyond this hall people are waiting and willing us to win.
You and I - together;
The parliamentary party and the party in the country - together;
Liberals and Social Democrats - together.
The British people - together.
My commitment is to turn hope into fact, intention into achievement, dream into reality and I will honour that commitment.
Together we have made a commitment to the people of our country and they require us to keep it.