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Speech Archive

Leader's speech, Torquay 1993

Paddy Ashdown (Liberal Democrat)

Location: Torquay


At the time of this conference, civil war was still raging in the Balkans. Ashdown claimed that this tragedy had been exacerbated by weak leadership and missed opportunities, and he identified a key role for Britain in establishing an effective UN framework for the control of conflict. In the light of the forthcoming European Elections, Ashdown expressed his support for the EU and argued that it was in Britain’s interests to play a central part in Europe. The Party’s other priorities included the reform of taxation; a new approach to the economy, which focused on the micro – as opposed to macro – level; and to tackle crime, particularly racially-motivated violence.

The State of Britain – and the Future for Britain

I want to start by telling you about a little girl I met this year.

Her name is Shahina Khan.  She is four and a half years old.  She is British.

I spent the first night of the feast of Ramadan with her and her family in their flat above their shop in one of those inner city areas of our country so poor, so neglected, and so overwhelmed by crime that it made me feel deeply ashamed.

The police say there are two shooting incidents a week there – the residents say you can hear gunfire almost every day.  There is a local industry, and it provides lots of jobs – it is drugs.

The pay is very good.  You can earn forty or fifty pounds a day as a lookout… at ten years old.

And there is a career structure, too.  You can progress from lookout, to dealer in a fast car, to supplier living respectably in the leafy suburbs.  On the other hand, you may not live that long – they’d gunned down a fourteen year old in a takeaway queue not long before I arrived.  

I can state the purpose of our Party quite simply.  It is to provide for the children of our country, and especially for children like Shahina Khan, a future of which we can all be proud. 

I have spent much of this year out of Westminster, living and working with people around the country.  And these past months have left me with some powerful impressions.

The first impression is this.  That our country today is depressed and bewildered.  There is a sense of a hope that has died and a leadership that has failed.

The second is that people are now looking for a new lead – and they are not getting it from their politicians.

One man in Suffolk said to me, ‘Why don’t you ever get your act together?  You are all as bad as each other.  You are only in it for what you can get.’ 

My third impression is of a whole political class grown distant from those we are supposed to serve.  A dangerous gulf is opening up between government and governed in Britain, sapping people’s faith in their politicians and confidence in the political process.

Westminster has become, not one of our country’s solutions – but part of our country’s problems.

But my final impression is in many ways the most important.  It is this.  That there is still hope to be found in Britain – and new ideas – and energy – and individual potential – and solutions to problems that Westminster has so far failed to find. 

But where there is hope, it does not lie in our national politics, or in our public life – it lives in our towns and villages, in our enterprises and communities, and in the personal commitment and endeavours of individual citizens.

The Liberal Democrat Challenge

From these impressions I identify two tasks for our Party in the run-up to the next election.

First.  We must become the breath of fresh air blowing through our democracy, reviving it, opening it up, putting it back in touch with the people we serve. 

And second.  Where we win power we must use it to give opportunity to people and power to communities.

Over the last five years we Liberal Democrats have, I believe, laid strong foundations.

And this year we have built on those foundations.  This year, people have given us something which is more valuable than gold and rarer than diamonds in our politics today – they have given us their hope.

They gave it to us in Newbury; they gave it to us in Christchurch; and they gave it to us in the county elections, when hundreds and thousands of people – many for the first time – invested their hope in the Liberal Democrats. 

But here is a warning.  Hope is a fragile thing.  It will be as easy for us to lose as it was hard for us to win.

So our job in the next year is to turn that hope into trust; to turn support into confidence; to turn protest into power.

I want people to understand that Liberal Democrat is not just something you vote, it is something you are.

That is why it is imperative that none of us should ever betray our principles in the battle for votes.  We have to understand in this Party that there is a difference between populism and winning popular support for our ideas.

As a result of the last year we have, I believe, put ourselves in the big time.  But as we know, the big time is a brightly lit place.  We will now be subject to scrutiny, and we will be subject to attack.  If you make a mistake in your Council Chamber, it will hurt wherever we seek trust and power.  If we, in our campaigns, do not adhere to the highest standards for which our Party stands, we will suffer everywhere.

The stakes now are very, very high.  That is why the Tories and Labour are attacking us so hard.

If we now fail to live up to this opportunity, then this year’s success will be no more than just another third Party surge which rises and dies again, as our country goes on declining under the two old parties.  But if we can rise to the challenge, if we can seize our opportunity, then I promise you there is no ‘glass ceiling’ for the Liberal Democrats.

Mr. Major knows that we are the threat – that’s why his first act of the new political season was to go to Taunton, to visit the West Country, to rally the troops. 

The Financial Times reported it in full.  This is the headline: ‘Major rallies party against threat of Liberal Democrats.’

It was clearly effective.  A week later we took control of Dorset! 

But then sending John Major and Norman Fowler to rally the troops is a bit like asking the body-snatchers Burke and Hare to take charge of the local hospital.

All I can say is – we hope you’ll come again soon – the sooner the better!

In fact, given the state of the Tory Party’s finances, I have taken the liberty of buying a couple of tickets for you – on British Rail.

One first class – and one ordinary class – for the Chairman of the Conservative Party.

Yes, the Tories know that they are fast becoming the past in large areas of our country, and we are fast becoming the future.

The Global Challenge – and Liberal Democrat Internationalism 

Which is why we have been right this week to look ahead.

To look first at how we can create peace in an increasingly unstable world.

We have shown this week that we have come a long, long way in how we address these matters.  You know, it is almost exactly forty years ago that David Steel’s predecessor, Foreign Affairs Spokesman Sir Arthur Comyns-Carr QC, complete in wing collar and side-boots, opened his speech at the Liberal Assembly here in Torquay with the immortal words…

‘I do not wish to say anything which might endanger the security of Quemoy and Matsu off the coast of China.’

Well I hope that the large number of foreign diplomats and visitors we have at our Conference today is an indication that what we say today is perhaps taken rather more seriously.

What we see emerging today is not a New World Order, but a New World Chaos of regional conflict, ethnic tension, re-emergent nationalism. 

The Collapse of Communism was not the End of History.  The latest events in Russia are a timely reminder of how fragile democracy still is in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

Now there are those who say that, despite these threats, the United Nations needs to be no more than a glorified aid distribution agency and a facilitator for occasional lake-side talks between warring parties. 

Well we in this Party do not think that is enough.  In a world in which even petty dictators will soon own weapons of mass destruction; in which tides of refugees can destabilise whole regions; in which every small nation will be able to hold the world to ransom over the global environment; in which the scramble for resources and food will itself become a growing cause for conflict – in this kind of world, if we do not have a strong United Nations, then we will not have peace.

And if a just peace is our aim, then Bosnia has been a disaster – not only for the innocents who have suffered and died there, but for the future of us all.

This Balkan tragedy has been a tale of timidity, weak leadership and bungled opportunities.

What will history have to say about the fact that ordinary people were prepared to do so much in Bosnia, when their governments were prepared to do so little?

What will history have to say about our Prime Minister, who as President of the European Community last autumn seemed more interested in fiddling with the meaning of federalism than stopping the burning of the great European city of Sarajevo?

What will history say of a Conservative Party that once felt humiliated by withdrawing from East of Suez, but which now seems uninterested in anything East of Margate?

The truth is, the danger to Western Europe in the 1990s that comes from the disintegration of Eastern and Central Europe is quite as great, in its different way, as the danger posed to the western democracies by the rise of fascism in the 1930s.

What we increasingly hear in Tory foreign policy is a sound from sixty years ago – Halifax, echoing in Hurd.  It is cynical.  It is short-term.  It is lacking in honour.  And it is called appeasement.

Britain needs to face the facts about our national interest in the modern world.  Britain’s interest is to see international law upheld, if necessary by force, because it is only through international order that Britain’s peace can be secured.

War – when it has to come to war – is a serious business, and the UN had better start taking it seriously.  If the UN is to be an effective force for peace-keeping, let alone peace-making, there will have to be some changes. 

First, we will need to redefine the criteria for UN intervention.

Second, we should establish an effective structure for the payment of peace-keeping operations.

Third, we must reconstitute the UN military staff committee to plan and command UN operations.

Fourth, we must establish a standing force of well-trained, high-quality troops for international peace-keeping.

Fifth, we should establish a UN staff college to develop the techniques of international peace-keeping and peace-making.

And sixth, we should set up a UN international information agency to provide unbiased intelligence on military conflict, potential threats and the state of the world’s environment.

Now, here is a real opportunity for Britain.  Remember what Dean Acheson said, a generation ago: Britain had lost an empire, but had yet to find a role.

Well here is a role.  Britain should take the lead in setting up an effective UN framework for the control of conflict.  We have the experience of half a century of peace-keeping in the brush-fire wars of post-colonial conflict.  And as I saw in Bosnia, we have the most professional army in the world, setting the standards in this kind of operation.

Britain should be the first country to earmark troops for a UN standing force.  We should open a course at the army Staff College to provide training for the UN in international peace-keeping.  And we should propose that a new UN Peace-keeping Agency be established, with its headquarters here in Britain.

This is a new proud role for Britain and for our armed services in the future. 

Britain’s European Future

And this is the moment when Britain must begin to play its proper role in Europe, too.

Before we meet again at our next Autumn Conference, we will have had the European Elections.

Make no mistake, the Liberal Democrats will fight those elections as the only party in Britain which has been consistently committed to Britain’s future in Europe. 

We shall be attacked for this.  But we will not give way.  For this is one of our enduring principles.  And it is the only practical future for our country.

Let us respond to attacks positively by asking three simple questions.

First.  What will most help Britain’s frail economy and Britain’s jobs?  Being left out, or being an integral part of a single market powerful enough to win trade and jobs in a fiercely competitive global economy?

Second.  What will best protect Britain’s security and interest?  To loiter palely on the periphery, divided, impotent, voiceless in an increasingly uncertain world, or to speak with a powerful united voice in concert with our friends?

Third.  What will most effectively protect Britain’s environment?  Becoming an offshore dump, unable to stop pollution from abroad, unwilling to prevent it at home, or setting high European-wide environmental standards for us and our neighbours?

So let us be robust about our European future; and let us ensure that our opponents are not able to fool people with their fantasy of a right little, tight little Ruritania-on-Sea.

But at the same time, let us be prepared to admit the truth – that Brussels is not always right; and that a great deal of hard nitty-gritty work has to be done before the Liberal Democrat dream of a democratic, decentralised, diverse but united Europe is created.

Let us acknowledge that we need power-sharing at every level; that monetary union can only emerge from economic convergence; and that we need, not just a Europe of government, big business and the Commission – but a Europe of citizens, consumers and regions.

Britain has so much to give Europe, and so much to gain from Europe – if only we could lift our heads from the poverty of our ‘little England’ vision and narrow sense of national self-interest.

Instead, it is Britain’s misfortune to be saddled at this moment of opportunity with a Party of Government that neither wants to be in Europe, nor out of Europe… but, to coin a phrase made famous by Spitting Image, ‘somewhere in-between’! 

Time and again the interests of the nation are subordinated to the interests of the Conservative Party.  You cannot get lower than a government that, to save its own skin in the Maastricht debate, was prepared to do discreditable deals with sectarian politicians in Ulster, in order to deny British people their rights at work.

Conservative Britain

But that is the way of the modern Conservative Party – no dishonour too great, no deal too shady, no price too high to pay, provided they can stay in office and their Party can stay in power.

As the Tories cluster around the honey-pot of public contracts and appointments, buzzing with greed, I can’t help being reminded of the Prudential ‘wannabe’ advert.  You know the one?

What does every budding Young Conservative say to himself?  Not, I fear, ‘I wannabe a Minister and govern wisely.’ 

More like:

‘I wannabe Chairman of the Planning Committee, and help the developers.’ 

‘I wannabe Chairman of the Area Health Authority and hand out computer contracts.’ 

‘I wannabe Secretary of State, privatise an industry, and then join the board.’ 

‘I wannabe Chancellor of the Exchequer, wreck the economy, humiliate the government – and join a bank in the City.’ 

‘I wannabe a Tory, because it’s the quickest way to get rich.’

The Conservatives have steadily eroded the boundaries between public service and private interest – and it could not have happened if there had been some leadership at the top.

It is as if we now have an empty room in Number Ten Downing Street, as though we have a phantom Prime Minister. 

How strange it must feel in Downing Street today.  Three years ago, when She was there, the House rocked and buzzed with manic energy – lights on, rooms full, doors slamming, Ministers cowering, furniture jumping, as She rushed from one room to another like some demented poltergeist.

But now – empty.

As I was going up the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today,
I wish, I wish, he’d go away!

Policy-making in this Government has now degenerated into a mess of crisis management and free market fixes to appease the Right.

I give you just one example – the privatisation of the railways – probably the craziest piece of legislation to come from the Tories since… well, since the Poll Tax! 

Now, of course, there are sensible ways of getting more private finance into our public railways – even John Prescott has recognised that. 

But all we will get from Mr. MacGregor’s muddle will be higher fares, a greater burden on the taxpayer, more closed lines, more vehicles on our roads, and miles and miles more motorways.

This dogma of privatisation has now become an ideological millstone that stands in the way of any rational decision-making about the future of our public services.

Privatisation has become the Conservative Party’s Clause 4.

Privatisation is the dogma that ties the Conservative Party to the 1980s, when we should be looking forward to the next century.

The Challenge for Labour

What Britain needs is modernisers. 

And Labour do not yet seem up to that test either.  They still do not understand what a modern Britain needs.

Labour will never be taken seriously on democratic reform, until they have reformed their own internal democracy.

Labour will never be taken seriously as managers of the economy, until they understand the importance of the market. 

Labour will never be taken seriously on Europe, while they remain unclear and divided. 

Labour will never be taken seriously on the environment, while they duck the issue of environmental taxation 

Labour will never be taken seriously on constitutional change, while they refuse to change our rotten voting system. 

Labour has now wasted a year and shows every sign of wasting another.  I warn them that the great movement for reform in our country cannot wait for them much longer.

The Crisis of Politics and Democratic Renewal 

It is no wonder that people have lost faith in our political system and our political class. 

Britain now faces some very, very tough decisions.  We cannot, for instance, ignore the challenge of the impending resource collision in our welfare services.  We cannot ignore the challenge of building a competitive economy that can win in a total global market.  We cannot ignore the need to alter our lifestyles in order to save our environment. 

And there are no easy solutions to these problems. 

Unless we can find the ways to involve people in confronting the tough decisions ahead; unless we can enable them to feel a shared responsibility in the choices that have to be made; unless we can bind them more firmly into the actions that have to be taken, then we risk blowing apart the whole democratic system. 

So rebuilding that confidence, reinvigorating our democracy, reviving our political system is the essential first step to putting Britain back on track. 

That is why we need a truly representative voting system, so that our democratic institutions reflect the will of the people.

That is why we need a decentralised political system with power dispersed, and decisions made as near as possible to the people. 

That is why we should be looking, as we have done this week, at other ways of opening up government.

And that is why we need to foster a new style of politics in our country.  The new politics of pluralism and partnership that Liberal Democrats are now building in councils across the country where we are in power.   

A politics that is open instead of closed; a politics that values co-operation as much as we are now dominated by confrontation; and a politics that replaces dishonesty with candour

Tackling Tax: ‘No Taxation without Explanation’

Nowhere is this more desperately needed than in the debate about taxation.  For the question of tax lies at the heart of the new economics of progress, and at the heart of the dilemma for progressive politicians. 

Politicians who stand for progress seem to have lost the ability to win the positive arguments for tax.

People are angry about cuts in the NHS, angry about the state of our schools, angry about the condition of our public transport – and rightly so – but so far they have seemed unwilling to pay the tax needed to improve these services.

Why?  I believe one reason is because they no longer trust politicians with their money. 

If progressive politicians are to win the case for the investment that is essential for our future, we are going to have to find a new language which expresses taxation not as a burden, but as an opportunity.

That means being honest about our tax plans; fair in our tax policies; and guaranteeing value for the taxes we collect.

And it means tackling waste.  I would like the Liberal Democrats to be known throughout the country as the scourge of waste – attacking over-manning in Whitehall, the overblown schemes of municipal socialism in town halls, and the scandalous overspending on government ministers’ pet projects.

Here is a motto for the 1990s - ‘no taxation without explanation.’ 

That means making clearer the connection between what we pay in tax, and the services we receive in return.

That means telling people on their tax demands what their money will be spent on – just as local government is now required to do.

That means finding new ways of involving people more directly in determining the levels of local tax, consulting people and using local referenda as some Liberal Democrat councils already do.

And it means investigating what further scope there is for earmarked – or hypothecated – taxes, as we proposed with our penny for education at the last election.

One hundred years ago, in the 1890s, our forebears the New Liberals began the historic shift towards progressive taxation. 

I believe that what we have embarked upon this week is just as revolutionary and just as fundamental.  We have begun to make the shift towards environmental taxes.  We have begun to establish how we ensure value-for-taxation.  And we have begun to develop the new language that is needed if we are to win the argument for the investment our country so desperately needs.

Britain’s Economic Future

This new fiscal programme is a central part of the distinctive economic policy our Party is now developing. 

One of the mistakes we consistently make in Britain is to pretend that we have all the levers of our own economic destiny in our own hands.  This is simply untrue.

The power of governments over their own macro-economies is being progressively diminished by the pressures of an open, global economy and global currency flows.  As we saw on Black Wednesday.

So the role of government is not to pretend that it can shape any and every aspect of the macro-economy – it is rather to create the conditions for success in the micro-economy.

This means that economic policy in the future should concentrate more and more on the supply-side and on micro-economic matters – internal competition, encouragement for enterprise and small business, creating flexible labour markets.

Success and prosperity for Britain in the future will come from a high-skill, high-value-added economy, producing high-quality tradable goods – an economy in which Britain’s greatest single asset will be the skills and ideas of our people.

That is why we must begin now, investing in people and knowledge – in the education and training to give us the foundation of flexible, broad-based skills upon which our future prosperity will depend.

That is why we should be acting now, to build a partnership between the public and the private sector to invest in research and development and in infrastructure.  And incidentally, not just in transportation, but in modern telecommunications that will allow Britain to make the most of the opportunities that new global markets will present.

You see, in the end, it is the initiative and effort of individuals that creates wealth, encourages improvement, fosters innovation, drives progress.

Look where Britain has succeeded.  Did governments do it?  Did governments invent the spinning jenny, or build our manufacturing base, or invent the computer, or discover DNA?  No, the people did.

So what is the role of the State?

The Labour Party, I am afraid, still seems to think that the State can do everything.

Well I do not believe governments can do everything – and I do not believe they should.  That is the great flaw in socialism.

Government’s prime function should be to help individuals and communities make the most of their potential – not big government, not small government, but active government.

And that means government based on partnership.

Partners against Crime

And nowhere is this more important than on the issue that is blighting so many lives in Britain today – rising crime and fear of crime.

Let me give you a sense of the scale of the problem.  For every 100 crimes now committed in Britain – only 41 are reported, only 26 are recorded, only 7 are cleared up, and only 3 result in convictions.

A third of all offenders are under 17, and two-thirds are under 21.  The average age of a housebreaker in our country is 16 and a half years old.

And the Government’s response?  More tough talk from Michael Howard – and the Sheehy Report.  Proposals that will cut police numbers, damage recruitment and sap morale.  These are proposals that we will fight at every single opportunity.

But statistics do not tell everything.  Behind every single statistic is an individual tale of misery. 

One lady on a South London estate told me recently that her flat was her prison after dark.  ‘In the evening,’ she said, ‘we close the door and try to forget about what is outside.’  I just do not believe that people should have to live like that in Britain in the last decade of the twentieth century.

And nowhere now is the fear of crime greater than among the ethnic minority communities of our country – communities that are an integral part of our social fabric and a source of strength in every part of our national life.

It is intolerable that individual citizens in our country are taunted, and beaten, and stabbed for no other reason than the colour of their skin.

What is needed now is for all democratic parties in our country to come together to show the leadership to fight this obscenity.

And here is one proposal.  A new Racial Attack Squad capable of fighting the menace of racial violence wherever it occurs, in whatever corner of our land.

And that is what is needed if we are to fight rising crime – practical action.

That is what is at the heart of the Liberal Democrat Campaign for Safer Neighbourhoods, launched this week – policies that get to the root of the problem and stop crime taking place. These are not airy fairy ideas – they are extremely practical measures, many of them already working, on a small scale in different parts of the country – and working successfully, as I saw in Solihull earlier in the year.

There they understand that crime is not just a problem for the police – it is a problem for all of us.  They have mobilised the whole community and started to tackle crime at its very roots, in the school and in the family.

They have concentrated – as we do – not on theory, but on what works.  And it is working – crime is slowly beginning to come down in the area.

This is the kind of initiative the Government should be promoting and supporting, not just here and there, but in every single local community across the country. 

It is in building successful partnerships like that one that the future role of Government lies, and on which the future of our country depends.

Self-reliant Individuals, Strong Communities, Active Government

Fellow Liberal Democrats, we have come a long way together in the last five years.  But there is a long way still to go.  At the end of this Conference, as we continue on our journey, we might remember the words of Winston Churchill – this is not the end, it is not even the beginning of the end, but it is, for us, the end of the beginning.

What we can say, today, is that we are now a force in British politics that cannot be ignored.

We have the vision; we have the principles; and we are building the policies.

Self-reliant individuals.  Strong communities.

Active government.  Dynamic markets.

Public investment.  Private enterprise.

A society of higher quality and greater opportunity for all.

Of enterprise and initiative.

Of active, responsible citizens.

A government that is honest, just, and trusted by people, because it is ready to put its trust in people.

Our task now is to turn hope into trust; trust into confidence; and confidence into power.

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