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Speech Archive

Leader's speech, Harrogate 1987b

David Steel (Liberal)

Location: Harrogate


In the wake of disappointing results in the June 1987 general election, the Alliance agreed to begin negotiations on a merger between its constituent parties. Steel used this speech to the Joint Liberal Assembly to attack Labour and the Conservatives, and to argue that the Alliance provided the only viable alternative. He outlined the key aims of his party, among which were devolution, a new Bill of Rights, and the adoption of a new approach in both the public and the private sector that promoted competition while protecting the interests of the consumer. Other key issues at the time were nuclear disarmament, the government’s attempts to ban Peter Wright’s book Spycatcher, and its proposals for a new poll tax, which Steel pledged to fight in Parliament.

Something very remarkable has happened here this week. We came here concerned about merger. We shall leave to create a new party. We came here fearing a loss for Liberalism. We shall leave confident of a gain for Liberalism and for Social Democracy. We came here thinking about separate negotiation; we leave about to embark on joint deliberation. We came here in uncertainty. We leave here with confidence and determination.

All credit to this Assembly for the maturity and wisdom it has shown. Many thanks too to Robert Maclennan and the other members of the SDP who have joined us during the week. It has been good to welcome them, not as visitors from another party but as friends, participants and co-architects of one shared new party.

Mind you, you’ve got to watch these Social Democrats. They’ve got an eye to the main chance. When I eventually got here from Canada on Tuesday morning I found that Shirley Williams had been sleeping in my bed. I’m going to check my hotel bill because I think she ate my porridge as well....

On Tuesday I said that the electorate will want to know whether we are a credible alternative to the government and whether we are determined to win power. To capture the goodwill towards us which undoubtedly exists throughout the length and breadth of the country, and turn it into votes, we need a clearer strategy, bolder themes and a sharper identity. 

At the election the agenda was dominated by Thatcherism. Now we must move on from Thatcherism. We must set the new agenda. We must be the party of the future. 

Our approach must be positive. Where there are successes we must build on them. Where the debate has become stark and sterile we must come up with imaginative new ideas. Where the ills of society are manifest, we must remedy them. We are the natural alternative to Thatcherism, the only force which can replace it.

Nobody can truthfully say the same of the Labour Party. How could Labour build upon success when they are committed by ideology and by the very nature of the party, to turning back the clock? ‘Back to the Future’ should be Labour’s slogan, set to the music of Brahms perhaps, as Mr. Kinnock and Mr. Hattersley, shoulder to shoulder, stride fearlessly towards the Fifties, or is it the Thirties? 

Who can imagine Labour coming up with new ideas? Socialism exalts the rule, Liberalism exalts the individual. Their trade union financiers don’t pay them for new ideas, but for the same old platitudes and the same protection of their controlling interests. And I notice the amount of protection money goes up by millions of pounds at each election.    

And as for acting to remedy the ills of society - just remember that in many towns and cities of Britain, Labour extremists are still part of the problem, not its solution, promoting crisis and division.

No amount of slick advertising can change the reality of Labour: a party which the voters do not trust, on the defence of freedom, on the creation of wealth, or on anything else. 

Now there are Labour intellectuals who want to work with the Alliance. I have to say to them: if Labour could abandon class and collectivism, if they could cut free from union control, if they could eliminate extremism and if they could start putting their trust in people rather than the power of the state, they might be on to something.

But as it is, in the real world, pigs don’t fly. 

Neither is there any alternative available from within the Tory ranks. The Prime Minister has so debilitated the old Conservative Party that when she goes it will be convalescent for a very long time. 

Learning to walk again, after so many years spent on their knees, is going to take the Conservatives quite a while. 

So it will be for us to deal with the after-effects of Thatcherism.

The bright spots are there. Our government, any government, should learn from them and try to promote the spread of success. 

Yes, investment is at last moving up, but in construction and manufacturing new investment is still, incredibly, below the level of 10 years ago.

Productivity has improved, but we are still bottom of the industrialised league table.

Yes, the economy is growing but from the very low base of the early 1980s. This week it was announced that output has increased but it is still only just back to the level it was when the Tories came to power.

No one could possibly claim that the Thatcher years have been marked by good economic stewardship. The enormous once-and-for-all benefits of North Sea Oil and privatisation, together amounting to over 80 billion pounds have largely been consumed by current expenditure. They should have been used to rebuild our capital base of infrastructure, equipment and technology.

The commercial hero of Thatcher Britain is the money man in the Porsche shuffling assets on the car telephone, not the scientist or the engineer, the designer or the software programmer, the builder or the entrepreneur.

Under this government research and development have been starved, while the perspectives of the City have been foreshortened to weekly, daily, and even hourly fluctuations in prices. Indeed, the President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science was forced to warn last month that unless we grasp the opportunity for better products and processes that stem from scientific advances in the new technology, ‘we must accept the consequences of becoming a second- or third-class nation.’

Meanwhile Mr. Nigel Lawson has been discovered working the printing presses down in the basement of No. 11 Downing Street. Election year is always the time when Tory Chancellors are happy to get their hands dirty. A lot of printer’s ink under the fingernails. So this year the money supply has gone through the roof.

Consumer credit has quadrupled from 1979 giving the false impression, especially to the young and vulnerable, that taking unlimited credit is natural and costless. The price is paid in higher interest rates, higher house prices, more cases of personal credit problems than the Citizens’ Advice Bureaux can cope with. High mortgage repossessions are another indicator. In 1979 2,500 homes were repossessed. Would you care to guess at last year’s figure? A staggering 22,000.

I have to say that Mr. Lawson has been ideally equipped by character and ability in his role as the bridge between monetarism and cynicism.

When the froth of this consumer boom is finally blown away, it is the rocks beneath that will become obvious. Our industrial base has dwindled, our assets have been depleted and our skills have been run down. Profit sharing and participation are still the exception in British companies rather than the rule.

Without change our industrial base will continue to contract, our national options will narrow and more of Britain will eke out an existence of unskilled labour and idleness.

The national balance-sheet shows an equally grave deficit in social terms.

Yes, there has been a healthy swing away from collectivism, and a growth in opportunity for those fortunate enough to have the right skills or to live in the right part of the country.

But for too many of our people, the door of opportunity has slammed shut. Young people face a bleak future, older people have not been retrained, the cities have been neglected and the communities of Britain have been weakened.

In essence Tory individualism has turned out to be about personal selfishness. It hands the prizes to the fortunate few. It destroys the bonds of mutual care and concern. It assumes that one person's success can be founded only on the failure of ten others.

The great American Liberal J. K. Galbraith summed up current Tory attitudes as follows: ‘The rich, they say, need incentive to greater economic effort; the poor need release from the debilitating effect of welfare. The rich have not been working because they have too little money; the poor have not been working because they have too much.’ Liberal individualism means opening the doors of opportunity and success to everyone.

It is the unique task of liberalism and social democracy to draw the connection between the individual and the community. In the words of T.H. Green, ‘the self of which a man forecasts the fulfilment is not an abstract or empty self. He seeks a well-being in which the well-being of others is included.’

It is that wider well-being which has been so much diminished. We are all paying the cost, in the crime, the violence, the drug-taking and the callousness which disfigure our society.

At last the Government has discovered the inner cities. ‘Praise Be,’ as the authors of Faith in the City might say. But they have never shown the slightest interest before. Why this conversion on the road to Teesside? The Prime Minister in her forthright way explained, contemplating her new majority over a glass of champagne at three o'clock in the morning on June 12th. ‘From Monday,’ she said ‘we have got a big job to do in those inner cities.... because we want them too next time.’

Not a thought for the people who live there, who have suffered from decades of decay, poor housing and government indifference. It’s not the people that count, only their votes.

It is accepted that these conditions breed unrest and violence. But there is more than one form of violence in Britain today. There is cool violence - that subtle and all-pervasive aggression built into the fabric of a society or of a world which is concerned merely with economic prosperity and security. 

It is a form of violence because, on the one hand, it maintains two thirds of our world in subservience and hunger, while on the other hand it deadens the consciences of those who benefit from it. Take, for example, our so-called ‘firm and fair’ immigration policy. 

Last year a Nigerian woman living here with her three children, twins of eight and a boy of five, all born in Britain, was killed in a car accident. Their father, who was in Nigeria, and separated from the mother, came here to look after them. Because his status in the view of the immigration authorities was flawed - something which can easily happen - they refused to allow him to stay and look after his children in their flat in Hackney. He was told he must be deported, and his children put into care.

The Prime Minister is always talking about the sanctity of family life, but even sanctity is now selective. What an appropriate guest Monsieur Le Pen will be at the Conservative conference. 

Our concern for the individual is universal; not only in the social but also in the economic sphere. Choice for the consumer and opportunity for the individual are the mainsprings of a healthy economy. We need more competition and fewer cosy cartels.

The effect of present policies is too often anti-competition. Since 1979 over 4,000 companies have been taken over - seven hundred of them disappeared last year alone.

Of course, a minority of takeovers are in the public interest, but very many are not. They are simply the product of financial manipulation. And it is worth noting that the City’s initial reaction to the election result was to mark up the value of shares, in anticipation of a new round of takeovers and new piles of paper profits. They have not been disappointed.

At the end of the money-go-round, investment is no higher, jobs have not been created, competition has been reduced and the customer is no better served.

Liberals and Social Democrats know what the market is for. The real purpose of a vigorous market is to create wealth by serving the customer better. That means our united party must stand for a new combination of competition and consumerism.

Thatcher economics is for me best illustrated by the medieval tale of two water-carriers in a besieged town bearing buckets through a crowd, crying ‘water six sous a bucket, water six sous a bucket,’ when a cannonball suddenly flattened one of them. Unperturbed the other continued along the street shouting ‘water, twelve sous a bucket.’

Never mind the customer; the profit is made, the monopolist is happy.

We must not tolerate the sort of privatisation which merely replaces a public monopoly by a private monopoly. British Telecom is a warning. The City got the .pay-off, not the telephone user. The other day at home I complained to Judy about our telephone. I was always getting wrong numbers or incomplete calls. She pointed out somewhat acidly that the trouble with party leaders, government ministers, and other self-important people was that they only rarely dialled calls themselves. There is nothing wrong with our telephone, she said; it happens to everyone nowadays.

Our approach is clear. We will oppose the creation of a monopolistic private airline or a private electricity monolith. We shall not tolerate mega-mergers which are against the public interest. That calls for much stronger monopoly and merger rules in a strengthened Office of Fair Trading.

In the public sector also, we shall not tolerate the complacent lack of internal competition. That benefits bureaucratic management, not the citizen who uses the services. We should be developing more ideas like our proposal for an internal market in the Health Service. Nor must we tolerate restrictive practices at work, whether by trade unions or the professions. Take the lawyers. The delays and high cost of justice are too often injustices themselves.

If we really put the interest of the customer first and take consumer protection seriously, that means refusing to accept second-best. We shall not tolerate shoddy goods which do not last or second-rate services, whether they be provided by the public or the private sector. We cannot condone public service unions repeatedly putting the interests of their members ahead of the interests of the public. 

If we are to have a genuinely competitive market going flat out to serve the customer, then the government has certain unavoidable responsibilities. Its role is not to act as broker to the plutocracy but as the guarantor of higher quality goods and services for everybody; fighting monopoly; insisting on better consumer information; pursuing no strike agreements in the public services; and setting high standards which benefit everybody.

What is needed is a government commitment to the quality of life by setting those standards. High standards in education, so our children can grow to their full potential. High standards for the environment by insisting on non-polluting policies and technologies.

In all spheres, our united alliance will take its stand on excellence. It is by creating high added value for the customer at home that we shall create new success for our exports abroad. That is the best way to get Britain back to work, and back to more satisfying and worthwhile work as well.

We British are a very patient people. Why else would we put up with a system of government which could have been designed expressly to be used and abused by an authoritarian administration? 

We put up with an electoral system which gives a different value to votes depending on where they are cast and for which party. The result on June 11th with its disgraceful misrepresentation of the wishes of the electorate was another in a long series of denials of basic democratic rights. 

We put up with the archaic working practices and untelevised inaccessibility of the House of Commons. Why should backbenchers be so shackled by the cynical manipulation of the two party whips, who are both, incidentally - government and opposition - paid extra salaries by the taxpayer?

Why is the third force, already cheated of fair parliamentary representation, further denied its proper procedural in the House of Commons itself? The contrast with the rights accepted as normal in other democratic chambers from the Canadian House of Commons to most local councils in this country and even that non-elected chamber, the House of Lords, shames our mother of parliaments.

We put up with the growing centralisation of power in Whitehall. Does anyone really believe that Mr Nicholas Ridley knows what is best for people rather than their own local councillors? 

We put up with the encroachment of state power on the life of the private citizen. The Spycatcher episode would be laughable if it were not so serious. It has cost a million pounds of public money to make Peter Wright as wealthy an author as Jeffrey Archer.

But behind the charade is the shadow of something more ominous: unaccountable intelligence services; British judges who are over-respectful of the Executive and too little respectful of the freedom of expression; concealment and cover-up of murky misdeeds by those who are supposed to be our servants. Our fragile liberties are too often unprotected. We demand a Bill of Rights. 

We put up with Conservative place-men being pushed into our public institutions, putting party loyalty above independence of judgement and even basic competence. The Prime Minister has created a web of power. It is what that great radical William Cobbett attacked in an earlier age: patronage and promotion for those who toe the line. Profit and preferment for those who put up the money. Secrecy and silence around the decisions which properly belong to us all.

Why do we put up with all this?

We need a new constitutional revolution. It’s time we opened up democracy in Britain, and that means self-government for Scotland and Wales. It’s time we stopped Parliament being the creature of the Executive. It’s time we protected the civil rights and liberties of each and every citizen.  It’s time we allowed information to circulate freely, and it’s time that local government started to fight back against the dictates of the centre. 

The poll tax saga demonstrates just about everything which is wrong with British government.

The poll tax is being pushed by the Prime Minister against the wishes of most of the Cabinet. 

It is on her orders that the poll tax, dreamed up in London, has been imposed in Scotland without consultation. Those who have been consulted in England, including all those bodies concerned with local government, have been overwhelmingly hostile. 

Local income tax, which was recommended by the Layfield Committee and was our preference in the Alliance, has been dismissed out of hand.

The poll tax will be regressive: the rich man in his castle will pay the same as the poor man at his gate.

It is a tax which is being introduced because the Prime Minister doesn’t trust local government. She could reform local government by PR to make it more representative and responsive but instead she is doing everything in her power to weaken vigorous local democracy.

Finally, and it is all too typical of this government, it is a tax which will take a veritable army of snoopers to enforce; no doubt a private army.

Our councillors are already campaigning against the poll tax and we shall fight it in Parliament.

On these economic and constitutional issues Liberals and the SDP go into the new party totally at one.

On defence and disarmament, there is still some common deliberation required. Let me try and help that process.

We must never forget that NATO has a. political as well as a military purpose. Collective security, so long as it is necessary; but common security - the removal of the sense of threat on both sides - as the long-term political aim. 

And now, this very day, at, last we see a chance to move: to reduce nuclear weapons and missiles on both sides, to lessen the sense of threat, to move some more steps away from armed hostility to real detente. That’s an exciting prospect, but it is also in some ways an unsettling one. There are bound to be some who prefer the old certainties of cold war confrontation to the new uncharted territory of arms reduction and political dialogue.

But if the Conservative German Chancellor Helmut Kohl can be brought round to the view that reducing the level of weapons is more important than the military pessimism which clings to every weapons system, then I have hopes that Conservatives in other allied countries will also come round. We must not allow the pessimists and the ideological hardliners to destroy the opportunity which we now face. The East-West relationship is dynamic, not static. And we should all put our weight behind the pressures for change. 

An INF agreement is a great prize, but it must not be the end of a process, a moment for self-congratulation and resumed inactivity. It must instead be made the beginning of a larger process of global arms control and strategic reduction. We must press on to diminish tension and develop confidence in the overarching idea of common security which potentially links the real interests of East and West.

We in Western Europe need to resist erecting unnecessary national obstacles to international arms reduction.

A nuclear element in NATO defence for as long as it is needed to deter a perceived Soviet threat - that we must guarantee. Equally, we accept that we must continue to make our contribution to NATO’s nuclear strategy, for so long as it is needed.

What we cannot, and will not, accept is the Gaullist doctrine that in all circumstances any self-respecting nation needs its own nuclear weapons - and that such a commitment is absolute, regardless.

On the contrary, we must be ready to use positively the leverage of Britain’s independent nuclear capability, by putting it on the table to promote the next and more comprehensive stage of the disarmament process.

The British Liberal Party has always made this careful distinction, as did the Liberal/SDP Alliance at the last election. We should continue to support a British contribution to NATO deterrence but we cannot and will not tolerate any attempt by this Conservative government to make its commitment to an independent strategic deterrent a barrier against further reductions in the level of armaments on both sides.

One imperative which drives us on is the need to transfer some of the resources of the developed world - East and West - away from the wasteful folly of the arms race and into the more clamorous task of assisting world development. 

One distinctive contribution Britain has made - but which it has been throwing away over the last seven years - is its capacity to provide students from developing countries with further and higher education. Instead, we have been putting up the shutters, stripping away that opportunity and, through penal and discriminatory overseas students’ fees, driving even Commonwealth Government-funded students into the welcoming arms of the French, the Japanese and the Russians. That is immensely damaging to our unique point of influence in the Commonwealth - and to the third world.

It was said of Montesquieu that humanity had lost its title deeds and he had recovered them. That is the new internationalism which will inspire our united party.

At the last election the Prime Minister and her friends in the Press tried to blight the middle ground, and attempted to represent the heartland of this nation as a no-man’s-land where only the weak and indecisive would wander - the droolers and drivellers.

This was the strategy of those who sought to replace compassion and consensus with dictation and dogma, so-called conviction politics.

But I tell you that compassion for and understanding of the needs of others is conviction! I tell you that civilised values are held instinctively and valued strongly by millions of the British people. The middle ground is there; the middle ground is a heartland already settled by our seven million homesteaders. This gentle yet sturdy landscape is the centre of our nation. It will be re-tilled and re-sown. It will welcome back with generosity those prodigals who left to seek the fool’s gold which the lady offered. 

In this middle ground, wealth will be created freely through the initiative and energy of the many, and will be distributed in fair measure to the deprived, the dispossessed and the despairing.

But this heartland must have a constitution and governance which ensures that those at its gates are convinced that what we are offering is real and attainable, not a mirage.

Our country at present offers the good life to some. Conservative individualism is always selective. Liberal individualism is about the prospect of a fuller life for all. 

My message today is that this fuller life must be founded on wider opportunities and more choice; competition and consumer satisfaction; better education for our young people; breaking down class barriers and restrictive practices wherever they stifle people’s chances; making a reality of our democracy. That is our vision. That is our agenda. The agenda derives from the intellectual heritage of both our parties. It found inspiration at that first great meeting in Llandudno, with those two to whom we all owe so much, Jo Grimond and Roy Jenkins.

It is the hope of that fuller life for all which places an obligation on us to work together over these next few months so carefully and with such judgement and dedication that we are able next year to launch a new and yet stronger vessel to carry forward the values of Liberalism and Social Democracy. Comradeship will be as invaluable as will-power.

I have been pressed to make clear my personal position on the leadership of the new party. But this is not the time for us to decide that. I am in no doubt about my task over the next few months. To complete the formation of the new party is itself a profound responsibility. When the spring comes it will be for those of us in parliament to discuss the leadership frankly and openly and for the membership to make its choice. What I do assure you is that my future active commitment in the new party is total.

I have always been driven by the conviction that we will be able in our time to practise in power the values which we have evolved and evidenced in the long years of opposition. This has been - almost certainly - our last annual Liberal Assembly. It has been - almost certainly - the first assembly of the movement that will take Liberalism to power.

These months of turbulence will have been a price well worth paying if we are able to offer at the next election a government of vision and capability.

During this turbulent summer I came across these lines:

So what, though a great wind shake the might
Of the tree of heaven...
There’s not a tremor in the root,
No loss, and after blossom, fruit.
The tree of Liberalism has its roots secure and it will bear fruit.

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