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Speech Archive

Leader's speech, Harrogate 1992

Paddy Ashdown (Liberal Democrat)

Location: Harrogate


This conference took place six months after the Conservatives’ fourth consecutive general election victory, and Ashdown delivered his speech on the day after ‘Black Wednesday,’ when the UK was forced out of the ERM. Unsurprisingly, the focus of Ashdown’s address was the economy, and he criticised the Major Government for its lack of leadership in dealing with the crisis. The government also needed, Ashdown argued, to take the initiative on such matters as the protection of refugees in the Balkans, the famine in Somalia, and Europe, where the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty was approaching.

Fellow Liberal Democrats.

Our party conference today ends in the middle of one of the most serious crises in our modern history: a crisis not just of currencies and the economy; not just for Britain and Europe; but a crisis of confidence in our entire system of government itself.

When people find that they can no longer trust the most solemn words of our national leaders, that the pledges of our Prime Minister are worthless, that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is a man of straw, small wonder that they feel betrayed.

The Conservatives promised us that if we re-elected them, they would put things right.

The Conservatives promised recovery was around the corner. The Conservatives promised they’d never devalue.

Empty words.

Words, words, words. We’re so sick of Tory words.

And in every town and city and corner of our land today, people are paying for those words with their jobs, their businesses and their homes.

We warned them this would happen. We told them that unless they took the action to stimulate Britain’s economy; unless they reassured the markets with an Independent Central Bank; unless they lifted the uncertainty about our long-term intentions in Europe, then the markets would not have confidence in the pound, industry would have to pay more in interest rates and the pressure on sterling would rise and rise.

But instead of action, we have had a long summer of complacency.

Instead of firm government, we have had a Tory party wracked by division and conflict.

And instead of leadership, we have had inertia.

One thing is now abundantly clear. From this moment onwards, this Government is on borrowed time.

They have lost the confidence of the markets. They have lost the confidence of our partners. And above all, they have lost the confidence of this country.

I shall weep no tears for them, and neither will those who have paid such a high price for what they have done.

For now we know them for what they are. The Tory Party - the party of devaluation.

They will be held to account for what they have done. But, for the moment, our first concern must be for those who are the victims of their failures.

The next hours and days will decide the fate of tens of thousands of jobs, thousands of home owners and thousands of businesses.

The markets are in turmoil and the Government seems to have lost control.

Here are three things the Prime Minister should do now.

First, he must make a full statement about how the Government views the current situation, and what action they intend to take. It is drift and inertia that got us into this crisis; it is clarity and action that will get us out.

Second, he should make it clear that, even if it takes some time, it is the Government’s firm intention to re-join the ERM. He must scotch the growing opinion in his own party that there is any refuge for Britain outside a strong currency system used by our main trading partners. This would condemn our country to a permanent position on the periphery of Europe - a cork bobbing in the wake of an ocean liner.

And third, he should take steps today to enable the Bank of England to act as an independent Central Bank and thus give powerful reassurance to the markets.

I give the Government this undertaking.

If he does these three things, then he can be assured of the support of this party until this crisis is over. 

But the problems which now face us are greater than this immediate crisis - bad though it is.

We seem suddenly beset by long-term problems which confront our country, our continent and our world. Even today’s crisis is not just the result of a cyclical event, compounded by a government’s bungling. It is the consequence of a deep, deep malaise which now threatens both our economic success and our social cohesion.

Unless Britain can recover from the present crisis and then quickly rediscover the will to invest and build for the long-term, then we are in grave danger of slipping into permanent economic decline.

And in Europe, what we observe - the return of racism to our cities and the reappearance of Nazi slogans on walls from Rostock to Marseilles - these are not just a passing problem springing from the technical deficiencies of the Maastricht Treaty. They are a challenge to the very concept of a civilised and united Europe.

Unless we can now rescue Europe from the clutches of its bureaucrats and the failure of its politicians, and make the European concept live in the hearts of ordinary European citizens, then the cause of Europe will falter and we shall enter the next millennium once again wracked by the old division and conflict which has infected our continent for the past two thousand years.

And what Russell Johnston and I saw in the eyes of the people of Bosnia - and what we all see in the emaciated bodies in Somalia - these are not just another routine call upon our compassion. They are a direct challenge to every Government and every nation to find the instruments of peace and succour which will halt the contagion of famine and war which otherwise threatens us all.

These are difficult times for optimists.

And yet, despite the problems, despite even today’s crisis, I still remain, at heart, an optimist.

I know that there is in this country the strength and ability to rise to our challenges; that there is, amongst our fellow citizens of Europe, an understanding of the importance of the moment we face; that there is, in the world, both the means and the opportunity to create the new institutions that we need.

What we lack is not the means to solve these problems. What we lack is only the will.

What we miss is not skill, or understanding or compassion. These the world has in abundance.

What we miss is leadership.

I do not pretend that the long-term solutions will be easy. And I do not believe that we Liberal Democrats will have them all. I do not even think that all the people who will be needed to meet these challenges here in Britain will belong to our Party. 

But I am certain of this: that the new ideas and the new energies we need are all there, waiting to be uncovered, waiting to be unleashed.

And I believe that it is the role of this Party to unleash them.

That is why, yesterday, we were right not to get lost in the atmosphere of this hall, but to respond to the realities outside it.

That is why, yesterday, we were right to decide that our ideas, so desperately needed by our time, are nevertheless worthless unless we seek and use the opportunities to put them into practice.

I want them to say of us that we were practical people at a time when a world, in crisis, had too many dogmas and too few solutions. 

In this speech I want to tell you how we can achieve that.

But first, I want to tell you where I think we are, and what I believe we should learn from the last year.

It has been, for me personally and for our Party, a tough year.

But it has been a year when we showed our strength and proved our cause.

Not a year to replay. But a year to build on.

So, as we knew before we fought it, the April General Election was not a destination, but a port of call. A chance to check our bearings and prepare ourselves for the next part of our journey.

Thanks to you and your campaigning, our team in Parliament is strong.

And our party in the country is strong too - a record number of Councillors, our largest ever share of the youth vote, a growing membership, sound finances.

Yes - we are now strong.

And, as yesterday showed, we now stand ready to make that strength count where it matters.

One thing will distinguish us now as it distinguished us during the election - we will not duck the issues. Nor will we pretend that there is no price to be paid in facing them.

We were right in the election campaign.

We were right to put at the very heart of our message the need - the overwhelming need - to invest in education. And we were right to say that we’d do it, even if it meant paying more from our own pockets.

We were right - so right - to point to the dangers to our environment - to the air we breathe and the water we drink - and to the complacency of so many when our planet itself is in deep distress.

And we were right, daily we are proved to have been right, to say what needed to be said about Britain’s economy. We didn’t pretend that there was a recovery around the corner. We didn’t promise we could get it right overnight. We said it would be tough to pull Britain round after forty years of relative decline.

We said what the country is now discovering - that there are no quick economic fixes. That a strong economy can only be built, slowly and patiently, by a government with the will to invest in skills, with the strength to plan for the long term and with the determination to encourage enterprise and competition.

In all these things we were right - and people knew that we were right.

And yet, in the end, despite our success in that campaign, a crucial number still didn’t put their vote where their heart was.

But if this April was not yet a vote for change, neither was it the vote of a contented Britain - as some have claimed.

It was, rather, the vote of a nation which has been persuaded to cling to nurse because they had been warned to fear for something worse.

This was no victory for Conservatism. It was a victory for fear.

Fear – that’s the Tories’ only weapon. It always was. And it always will be.

So we, who want to build a new future for this country, must now find the means to banish fear and teach the British people how to hope again. As Roger Roberts said, we must persuade people to vote, not against their nightmares, but for their dreams.

That was the real tragedy of 1992. Change was - is - so much needed. And yet we end up, again, trapped in the ice-pack of inertia, indifference and indolence which is the hallmark of the Conservatives after thirteen years in power.

This is the first Government in history which, at the start of a new Parliament, hit the ground ambling.

The opponents of electoral reform say that it would produce governments which were indecisive, unable to act, unwilling to innovate, incapable of clear leadership.

But we now have a Government which has shown itself so paralysed by inactivity that they make Sir Geoffrey Howe look like Linford Christie.

Back in 1979, the Conservatives said that all Britain needed to break out of the spiral of economic decline was an extended period of Conservative Government. Well, that’s what we’ve had - for 13 long years.

And the result? Two recessions, then a slump, and now a sterling crisis. 

Do you remember what John Major said? His exact words: ‘Vote Conservative on Thursday, and the recovery will continue on Friday.’

.... Be fair! He never said which Friday!

And so there he stood, our Ancient Mariner Prime Minister, on the deck of his ship, becalmed, alone, save for the loyal Lamont, the albatross of Thatcherism around his neck, his Government paralysed by inaction. 

Day after day, Day after day,
We stuck, nor breath, nor motion. As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.
But where is the crew?

Hands up the last person to see Michael Heseltine!

Remember him! When he wasn’t in the Government he was always making speeches; always on the TV; never a week without an article in a newspaper with some bright idea for getting the economy going again.

Then he became Minister for Trade and Industry. Since when - silence!

Come out Michael, we know you’re in there somewhere! Yes, I'll bet you’re in there somewhere.

Was there ever a Government that cost the people so much in jobs, houses and businesses, then so confidently claimed they would put it right and then so swiftly admitted that they couldn’t?

Was there ever a set of promises so blithely made - and so cynically betrayed?

So here we are again, in 1992, with manufacturing output lower than it was in 1974.

Here we are again, with unemployment, today, climbing inexorably towards three million - the millions who pay with their jobs, their homes, their futures for the Government’s mistakes.

Here we are again, with a Prime Minister who responded to a crisis by pretending it wasn’t there.

Who took no action, when action was available.

And who left the country to pay the price.

Yet again, a Prime Minister who said: ‘Crisis, what crisis?’ Well, today, we say: ‘Leader, what leader?’

The Prime Minister claimed that there was no alternative. Well, he was wrong. There was an alternative!

It is the alternative first proposed by Alan Beith - supported by the CBI and put into practice by Japan.

You see, our membership of the ERM was not an excuse for doing nothing.

It made action all the more necessary.

If monetary policy could not be employed as an economic stimulus, then the Government should have acted through fiscal means to improve the real economy.

It isn’t as though we lacked the means.

There is now in Britain a sum of around eight billion pounds from the sale of Council Houses locked up, unused, in Council bank accounts. 

Liberal Democrats say, unlock that money and use it!

Use it to stimulate the construction industry, to create jobs and to provide homes for the thousands upon thousands in Britain who so desperately need them.

What a scandal. So many homeless; so many out of work; so much money lies idle and unused.

And instead of cutting capital expenditure, we could have brought forward capital spending and invested it in what Britain needs - in railways, in telecommunications, in energy efficiency.

And, if the Government could have found the courage to spend just 1% of what they wasted on the Poll Tax, they could have funded the mortgage to rent schemes Liberal Democrats have been proposing for a year, saving thousands from the misery of repossession and giving the housing market the boost it needs.

And, instead of having had to rely on the Chancellor to interrupt his breakfast whenever sterling faltered, we could have given the markets permanent confidence in our money by giving Britain an Independent Central Bank.

No! We did not lack the means to get Britain moving again. We just lacked the leadership.

And one of the reasons for that, was that Britain lacked an effective opposition.

They simply joined the Government in their summer slumber.

It was not John Cunningham who led the opposition on the tragedy in Bosnia - it was Russell Johnston and David Steel. It was not Labour who challenged the Government on Europe – they’re too divided themselves - it was the Liberal Democrats. And, while Gordon Brown was complaining about the economy, it was Alan Beith who proposed the alternatives.

Labour now stands at a crossroads.

Can Labour become part of the force for change in Britain, or will they continue to be the obstacle to change in Britain?

Can Labour join those who fight for new ideas in Britain, or will they remain the defenders of the old causes in our country?

Can Labour join us in the fight against vested interest, or will they remain, like now, the puppets of the vested interest of the Trades Unions?

That is the challenge for Labour. Having shown that they cannot beat the Conservatives, will they continue as the road-block which guards the Tories from defeat, or are they ready to play their part in the new politics of Britain?

Look at this simple contrast from the last election.

The more that people believed Liberal Democrats could win, the more they said they would vote for us. 

But the more that people thought that Labour might win, the more they ran straight back to the Conservatives.

Britain lost its chance to have Fair Votes at the last election, not because of Liberal Democrat campaigns, but because Mr. Kinnock couldn’t drag himself off the fence. On this vital issue, Labour couldn’t say yes and they wouldn’t say no.

Thank goodness the modern Labour Party weren’t around in the last century, or we should still be waiting for next year's Labour Conference to report on the advisability of universal suffrage!

And so, for four General Elections in a row, the Conservatives have gained an absolute monopoly of power on only 43% of the vote.

A minority with all the privileges of the majority.

That is why, at this conference, I repeat this simple pledge.

Our enemies may misrepresent the cause. Opinion polls may vary. Other parties may shift. But until Britain has a system of election which faithfully reflects the will of its people, we Liberal Democrats will never, never give up our fight for fair votes!

And here is a small piece of advice for John Smith.

Do not treat Fair Votes as an issue on which you move only grudgingly and reluctantly after the last iota of Party gain has been measured. The Great Reform Acts were not carried by narrow Party advantage; but by justice, democracy and the national interest.

So the question for John Smith is this: Where will you be when it comes to the final battle for fair votes?

Sitting on the fence with Neil, or standing in the front line with the Liberal Democrats?

And let me tell you why this issue of fair votes is so important.

It is because democracy itself is now facing a challenge. We saw it in the phenomenon of Ross Perot; in the rise of Le Pen; in the rebellion against all parties in the Danish referendum; we will see it again on Sunday, when France votes on Maastricht.

And the reason is simple. It’s because, today, when politicians speak, they are seen to speak, not for those they serve, but for themselves. They speak, not for those who need, but for those who already have; not for those who are shut out, but for those who are in the system and know how to use it for their own ends.

Well, I want to find a new sort of politics. 

Westminster has become cut off, separated, its eyes closed to the conditions of ordinary people and its mind shut to the solutions that exist.

It’s time we bridged the gap between those people who claim to speak for Britain - and those people who are Britain.

And that’s why, starting next month, I shall be spending less time in Westminster listening to the politicians of the old parties, and more time out in our communities listening to the real voice of the new Britain. 

But we must do more than that.

Already, around the world, new thinkers are experimenting with referendums and other instruments of direct democracy. Liberal Democrat councils have been doing the same, consulting people directly about the services they use and the taxes they pay. 

Now some tell us this is folly. They say you cannot trust the people to take the right decisions about their future. They tell us that the people are too dim, and the problems are too complex.

Well, I’ve never believed that and neither has this Party.

So I want us, the Liberal Democrats, to find new ways to involve people in the decisions which affect their lives so that our democracy can be reinvigorated.

Britain needs change.

Britain, who led the world in political and scientific change in the last century, must now find the confidence to change again in order to prepare ourselves for the next century.

We need change to turn back the rising tide of unemployment, which is hitting homes, and blighting futures.

We need change to provide effective economic management.

We need change to face up to the challenges of global pollution.

We need change to raise the standards in our schools and colleges and training institutions.

We need change to enable Britain’s industry to compete in the world, to win in the single market and to liberate the skills, talent and natural resources of our people.

We need change to guarantee equal chances and new opportunities for women.

We need change to end the centralisation of power, the division of our communities and discrimination against individuals on the basis of their colour, gender or sexual orientation.

We need change to offer hope and achievement to those who see no hope on the run-down estates of our cities and no achievement for the jobless young who live there.

So here is the cause that I want for our party. It is the cause that will dominate our politics in this decade. It is the cause that will mark us out as a party for the future.

I want us to be the Opportunity Party in an Opportunity Britain.

Now, there may be some who think that opportunity is a Tory word.

Well, if that is so, then our first task is to reclaim it for the truth.

For opportunity is not a Tory idea.

They talk of opportunity. Yet for millions in Conservative Britain opportunity is stifled from the very day they are born - by bad housing, poor health care, under-funded education, lack of training.

In Conservative Britain, too many are locked out from success.

In Conservative Britain, too many miss out in education and training, too many trapped by welfare, too many imprisoned by poverty.

Too many talents wasted. Too many good ideas lost. Too many opportunities blighted.

So, I don’t favour the Conservative sort of opportunity, which increases the power of the already powerful, and the riches of the already rich.

Conservative opportunity means giving occasional opportunities to the few.

Liberal Democrat opportunity means giving continuing opportunities to all.

That means giving every employee in Britain the right to own a part of their job and to share in the profits they help to create.

It means giving every person in Britain the chance to choose when and how they will retire at a time to suit them in a flexible decade of retirement.

It means creating a welfare system which doesn’t trap people, but frees them. Which provides dignity for those who would otherwise not have it and second chances for those who would otherwise never get them. 

It means giving everyone the right to second chances and third chances and fourth chances to education and training at any time in their life.

It means giving people who want to own their own house the chance to have a home to live in, not a millstone round their neck.

It means giving those who wish to rent the chance to do so.

And above all, it means giving our citizens the power to be the master of their Government, not its slave.

In the last decade of the last century, our forbears, the New Liberals, people like Hobhouse, Haldane, Churchill, laid down the new ideas of citizenship and opportunity which gave this country the Old Age Pension and laid the foundation for power for the great reforming Government of 1906.

Let them say of us, in this last decade of our century, that it was the Liberal Democrats who found the means to strike the shackles of poverty, of ignorance and of blight from those left out millions who have paid the price for the last thirteen years of Tory Government.

But if we must create opportunity at home, then it is our task to help Britain rise to the challenge abroad.

Our case for internationalism is not just a moral one; it is a deeply practical one, too.

All around us, people strive for justice, for liberty and for their identity.

We cannot be neutral in that struggle.

We cannot stand by while the people of the Balkans suffer under the tyranny of the war-lord and the slaughter of the heavy guns.

We cannot stand by while Somalia starves, or while the authority of the United Nations is flouted by the arrogance of Saddam Hussein.

We cannot stand by while the poor of the world suffer the pain of famine and the lash of injustice.

Their interest is our interest too.

And we do not lack the means to help them.

While every day, more in Somalia starve, we in Europe are paying to store a grain mountain large enough to feed Somalia for twenty-seven years! 

Will somebody, in the name of humanity, please explain to me why?

Every day, 200 aircraft patrols are flown over Iraq to keep Saddam Hussein down and George Bush’s poll ratings up. But, for months, we could not find the will to put even a single plane over Sarajevo to protect its defenceless people from slaughter.

Will somebody, in the name of justice, please explain to me why?

We provided safe havens for the Kurds. But we cannot, I am told, give UN protection to the miserable human victims of the Bosnian war, who we saw huddled in indescribable conditions in the refugee camp at Trnopolje.

They will start to die by the score and by the thousand when winter comes in a few weeks’ time - and the old and the women and the babies will be the first to die.

Will somebody please explain to me why?

We do not lack the means to save these people. We only lack the leadership.

Britain should be leading the way in creating the new institutions which the world needs in the post-Cold War era. Instead we seem to celebrate our sour-faced scepticism in the face of almost every international initiative.

In the 1940s, this country helped to create the United Nations. Fifty years later, we should be giving it the power to act, not just as peace keeper, but as a peace maker, to protect human rights, assure humanitarian aid and preserve peace. 

But peace will not just come through the United Nations. Peace will also come through a united Europe. 

And it is that Europe which is currently at risk, as we approach the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty.

As Uffe Ellemann-Jensen told us on Monday, Maastricht has its faults. 

Too much power for Brussels, too little for the European Parliament. Too centralist. Too interventionist. Too much for the politicians, too little for the people.

But Maastricht was never intended to be the final destination. It is a staging post.

The faults of Maastricht can be put right.

But if Maastricht falls, there is a real risk that the journey ends. And, then, the momentum of Europe will be lost, and the cause of European unity may even go into reverse. And then, for us, what shows every sign of being the nasty nineties, will be much, much, nastier still.

The problem, once again, lies, not with the cause, but the leadership.

Look at the debate in Britain. A cautious Prime Minister. A silent leader of the opposition. A General Election that never even discussed the issue.

Is it any wonder that the people are sometimes reluctant to follow, when leaders in Parliament are so reluctant to lead?

So now it is up to the French to decide our destiny. And not, it appears, just ours. Bryan Gould’s as well.

John Smith tells us that, if the French vote yes, Bryan Gould will have to go.

You know, it’s one thing for the people of France to decide the future of Europe. But it’s pretty extraordinary to let them decide the composition of the Shadow Cabinet!

I know that we have been urging on the Labour Party one person one vote. But it was the Labour Party we had in mind, not the French.

But to be serious. 

If the French vote ‘no,’ then we face a moment of profound danger for Europe.

And we will need clear leadership and iron will to ensure that progress towards unity is maintained.

There is a real danger that the force of nationalism and the Right - not least in this country - will use this moment to reassert themselves and throw Europe into retreat. 

A French no vote on Sunday must be swiftly followed by a reaffirmation of our will to continue progress towards unity in Europe. 

If the French say no, then the Prime Minister as President should call a summit of European leaders and, through them, issue a clear declaration that the fall of Maastricht will not stop the progress towards unity, that another vehicle will be found, and that, in building it, the faults of Maastricht will be corrected.

If this is what the Prime Minister does, then he can be certain of our backing. 

And if the French vote yes, then we will require the same determination and the same leadership from the Prime Minister - in the House of Commons and with his own party. 

Again, I give him this assurance - that if he shows the leadership that is necessary to get Maastricht ratified, then he can count on our support.

You see, on this crucial issue, as on the current crisis, it is the role of our Party to lead the process of working with others to assure our country’s future. 

And the stronger we are, the greater will be our effect. So we must now work to make our party stronger still.

Build up our membership. Win more council seats. Plan for the campaigns to come.

And we must continue our pursuit of new ideas, radical solutions, fresh thinking. 

And we must mark out with ever greater clarity our message the message of opportunity which separates us from every other Party. 

But we should also strive for something more.

We know how to compete; we must also show that we know how to co-operate.

We Liberal Democrats decided yesterday to be at the heart of a great new movement for change in our country. We will be the focus of this new majority, its cutting edge. We will show the self confidence in our own ideas to test them against those of others. 

We will reach out, to some in other parties, and to many in none, in order to create an agenda for reform, a coalition for change, a wider community of conscience.

Our task will be, as John Maynard Keynes put it in a previous age, to change our times: ‘by setting in motion those forces of instruction and imagination which change opinion. The assertion of truth, the unveiling of illusion, the dissipation of hate...’

For that’s what matters in politics - not just party, though party is important. 

What matters are principles and progress: principles that we stand by - and progress that, together, we can achieve.

And I say to those who will be watching us today from outside:

If you want to see a different sort of politics, help us in that fight;

If you want to see a positive sort of politics, join in our campaigns; 

And if you want to see a politics that faces up to the future, act with us to change the way that Britain works. 

No political leader can ever guarantee success, particularly at a time as storm-tossed as those we live through. 

But what I can promise is that as we started, so shall we go on, challenging ourselves and the British people to face up to the real issues and, by so doing, offering hope and opportunity to our country.

We have decided what we must do. It is time to embark on the second stage of our journey.

We cannot know yet where all the shoals and reefs will lie, nor what storms may cross our path.

But this is now a strong vessel, with a tough and tested crew.

And our sails are set to the winds which will blow through this decade and into the next century.

There is a new political world to be discovered for those with the courage to seek it.

It is the Liberal Democrats who have that courage.

It is the Liberal Democrats who will make that discovery.

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