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Speech Archive

Leader's speech, Brighton 1994

Paddy Ashdown (Liberal Democrat)

Location: Brighton


In this speech, Ashdown identified his Party’s key priorities, which were: increased investment in education; a more flexible and efficient economy; a fair tax policy and a reduction in government waste; the devolution of power to Wales, Scotland and the regions of England and the reform of the House of Commons; and a central role for Britain in Europe.

Before I start, there is one thing I want to say to the Conference.

The papers tell me that the Party leadership has been embarrassed once or twice this week by the antics of the activists. 

Well thank goodness we’re not the Tory Party, where the activists are constantly embarrassed by the antics of the leadership!

You know, Jeremy Hanley says you’re the ‘loony left’... Oh, it could have been much, much worse. He could have accused you of youthful exuberance! 

I want this speech to go down really well. So I have asked all my Parliamentary colleagues to read it first. And I want to make it absolutely clear to the Conference that they disagree with every single word of it! 

But seriously, thinking back over the last six years since this Party was formed - and we’ve come a long, long way together in those six years - I cannot think of a better year of electoral success... though I have to say I can think of one or two Conferences that have gone better. 

OK, so I may not have got my way once or twice. And as you all know, I like to get my way. But I am certain of this. The quality of our democracy in this Party is more important than the occasional discomfort of the Party leadership. 

But this Conference has TWO responsibilities. One IS to send messages to the leadership. And you do THAT very well. The other is to send messages to the voters. 

And I believe that we all need to think very hard about how we could do THAT better. 

What concerns me is that every time we are seen to take our mind off the big picture, we risk missing a great - perhaps unique - opportunity which we have created for ourselves.

This is the time when our ideas are becoming the currency of debate. We must not allow ourselves to risk becoming distracted. 

A Peaceful Revolution

In this speech I want to tell you why this moment must not be wasted. Why we must create a new kind of politics. And what I believe are the issues which the politics of progress must address. 

Note. I am not going to waste much time telling you how awful this Government is. Everyone in Britain knows that. 

Their view could be summed up quite simply in the words of a man I met when I was campaigning in Eastleigh.

He said: ‘Paddy, what’s the difference between this government and a Lada?’ 

And I said, ‘I don’t know, what is the difference between this government and a Lada?’ 

‘Well,’ he said: ‘One’s a clapped-out embarrassment from the 1980s, and the other’s a car from Russia!’ 

Well that says it all. 

So instead, I want to concentrate not on how bad the Conservatives have made things in the past, but on how much better we can make them in the future. 

People don’t always realise how deep is the change which we Liberal Democrats seek. What we are fighting for is nothing less than a peaceful revolution - the most fundamental turn-round in our politics since the Great Reform Act of 1832. 

Our aim is nothing less than to overthrow the paternalism which has ruled the destinies of the British people, under BOTH Conservative and Labour.

To shatter a system which presumes that governments know best - and replace it with the dangerous and dynamic doctrine that it is PEOPLE who know best. 

It is time for Britain’s democratic revolution. It is time to dismantle much of the central state. It is time to put power back where it belongs, in the towns, in the cities, in the regions and in the nations of our United Kingdom. 

It is TIME to overturn the barriers that still stand in the way of 52% of our population - to liberate the potential of the women of this country.

It is time to release the energy of the tens of millions who are shut out from the decisions which affect their lives. To root out the cosy corruption and bureaucratic waste of these last days of Conservatism.

Let me say why. 

I believe there can be no regeneration of Britain - neither economic, nor social, nor political - unless people take back from the system the power that is rightfully theirs.

The historic role of this Party - of we Liberal Democrats - is to make that possible. To rediscover the latent energy in Britain. To give everybody a chance to be a somebody.

To see our people flourish with a government that is their servant, not their master.

To let us - each of us - become a responsible citizen, not a resentful subject.


That is why Liberal Democrats put education first. Of course, putting education first is easy to say, but it’s tough to do. 

And the way you prove you put education first is by making education the FIRST call on the nation’s investment resources. 

Putting education first means having the courage to give people the tools to think for themselves, to do things for themselves. 

Putting education first means fostering self-reliance, responsibility, tolerance and respect.

And it’s about giving people the skills for Britain’s future economic success. 

Because Liberal Democrats understand that the only source of future prosperity for Britain lies in the minds and brains of our people - each and every one of them. Unleashing those skills is what the Japanese call ‘mining the gold in people’s heads’ -and that’s what we have to do. 

THAT is why every single British child must have the best possible start with guaranteed pre-school education. And I say to the Conservative and Labour parties, when it comes to nursery education, ‘this year, next year, sometime, never’ will not do.

We need that investment now. WE prove it by saying how much it will cost, where the money will come from. And we challenge you to do the same.

Second, putting education first means raising standards in schools. 

Yes, we need education strategies set by the LEAs. But individual schools should have the freedom to develop in their own distinctive ways.

Yes, we need to improve the way we assess pupil achievement. But parents do have a right to meaningful information about their child’s performance and this Party should see that that happens.

Yes, teachers must be valued. Fifty, a hundred years ago, this country was a lot poorer than today. But one group that was respected was teachers. We want teachers to have that respect again.

That’s why the Liberal Democrats say YES to a General Teaching Council. YES to sabbaticals. YES to extra back-up for teachers and decent, well-equipped classrooms in which to work. But NO to poor teaching standards. That is the deal we offer teachers.

And putting education first means more choice and opportunities for everyone after fourteen.

It means two days a week quality learning and training for everyone between sixteen and nineteen.

And it means an education ‘entitlement’ for every adult, which they can claim when they choose, at any time of their life. 

The Economy 

You see, what we should be preparing for is the sort of Britain we want in twenty, thirty, forty years’ time. 

Look at successful modern economies. They all have one thing in common. They invest for the long-term.

But Britain is locked into a short-term culture. Held back by a government that sells off our national assets to pay today’s bills. Why? Because what interests this Conservative Government is not Britain’s long-term future, but the Conservatives’ short-term survival.

And so the price we pay in Conservative taxes today is not the price of investment for the next century, it’s the price of Conservative incompetence in the last decade.

The taxes we pay are not to create better jobs in the next few years. They are to pay for the jobs which have been destroyed by the Tories over the last few years.

You know, if unemployment had been reduced by just half between 1984 and 1993, we’d have had enough money to build the Channel Tunnel rail link, to modernise London Underground, and to set up an information superhighway, all at the same time.

And here is a WARNING. They’re at it again. The sole aim of government policy now is not to fund investment in Britain for the next century, but to fund tax cuts, to save Conservative jobs at the next election. 

Well, Liberal Democrats say that money should be used, not to bribe the voters, but to build the future.

And as the Conservatives once again prepare to dangle pre-election tax bribes before us, Britain might remember the old Russian proverb – ‘free cheese only comes in mousetraps’!

We Liberal Democrats want to see a strong, highly competitive, flexible, enterprise economy.

An economy founded on skills and innovation, sustained by long-term investment. An economy driven forward by vibrant small businesses.

An economy supported by a government which acts to create stability - not just through the independence for the Bank of England, but also through savings and investment targets for steady long-term growth.

An economy which is sustainable and clean, because that means efficiency and a better quality of life - and that means shifting tax away from the things we want, like jobs and wealth, and onto the things we don’t want, like dirty air, congested roads, pollution.

Tax and Benefits

Now tax has been a big issue this week. And in a moment, I want to say a word or two about it. 

But first I want to talk about promises.

The country’s become very wary about politicians’ promises. After this Government’s betrayal, that’s hardly surprising.

I don’t believe people will be ready to believe promises unless we are prepared to be honest about the costs. 

THAT is why the Liberal Democrats will go into the next General Election with a clear, costed, ‘menu with prices.’

And that is why we are going to have to decide what are priorities and what are long term goals. And it isn’t going to be easy. But only if we can make those decisions can we become the fulcrum of trust that can make this Party the turning point of change. 

And only if we are clear about what we will spend will the voters accept what we will tax. 

This week we have established some of the principles of our tax policies.

The Liberal Democrats will not be a high tax party, but we are determined to be a FAIR tax party. 

We will not penalise enterprise or self-reliance - we will encourage it. And we understand the special role in our economy of those on middle incomes. But we are determined to start making the investments all our children need for tomorrow, and creating the opportunities to get people into work.

Opportunities cost. Of course they do. But so does ill-health, crime and poverty. 

And the Liberal Democrats will not take your money without telling you where it is going. We’ll give tax payers more control over how their money is spent. 

So, here are Ashdown’s four laws of taxation: 

One. Not high tax, but fair tax.

Two. No taxation without explanation.

Three. No promises, unless the bill is attached.

And four. No way will the government ask YOU to do with less, until the government has first shown that IT can do with less. 

There are millions of pounds thrown away on ministers’ pet schemes and the feather bedding which surrounds our bloated system of government. 

Last year I said our Party should become the public’s watchdog against government waste. 

Since then, at Westminster we Liberal Democrats have exposed the scandalous waste of government advertising; the 60 million pounds wasted on unoccupied government offices; the severance payments to failed Tory ministers. What a scam! When people like Norman Lamont and John Patten get eight thousand pounds just for being sacked.

I guess that’s what the Tory party would call Performance Related Pay-Offs! 

And on the subject of scams, I want to turn to the Tory Party’s very own soap opera - an everyday story of country folk - the Archers. 

Yesterday the world’s most respected financial paper devoted a whole page to the unanswered questions of the Archer affair. Those questions require an answer. 

Doesn’t the Conservative Party understand that simply asking Lord Archer to stay away from their Conference isn’t a sufficient response?

This matter will not go away until Michael Heseltine publishes the full facts. And he must do so now. 

The System

But we’re talking about something much bigger than the failure of the Conservative Government. We’re talking about the wider failure of our political system itself.

That is why we have to turn the whole system on its head, to say to people - this is your country, your future, you take responsibility for it.

Politicians must stop encouraging people to believe that government can do everything - or even should do everything.

Let’s just for a moment consider the Health Service.

The most difficult question in the Health Service today is the question of health care priorities. ‘Rationing’ has always gone on, and it probably always will

But the people who are doing it are bureaucrats meeting in secret. And the people who are suffering are the patients who pay for the Health Service through their taxes.

So why not let those who pay for the Health Service, and who depend on the Health Service, have a say on the priorities for the Health Service?

These are serious issues and they need to be considered seriously.

Why not set up a cross-Party Commission, involving health service professionals and outside experts, to lead this debate, and see if we can build a new cross-party consensus on the Health Service? - So that it really can become again the National Health Service, and NOT the National Political Football. 

You see, the Liberal Democrat task is to open up the system, help people to take and use power for themselves, empower people with information, access, involvement.

That’s why we need a new Great Reform Act in Britain.

Why we need Freedom of Information.

Why it’s right to experiment with direct democracy.

Why we need to break up the power of central government, give local communities more control over their own affairs, so the English regions have more power, so the people of Wales have their own Senedd, and so the people of Scotland can have their own Parliament. 

What we have been watching in Britain is the long slow death of pluralism under one-party rule.

I am delighted that the Labour Party seems at last to be recognising the IMPORTANCE of pluralism. I just wish they practised it in some of their rotten inner city boroughs.

TALKING about pluralism is fine. But there is only one GUARANTEE of pluralism.

Fine words are meaningless unless they are backed by fair votes.

But no programme of reform could possibly be complete without the reform of the most antiquated institution of them all - the House of Commons itself.

Isn’t it extraordinary that the House of Commons has imposed reform on almost every other institution in Britain while resisting any possible reform of itself? 

Isn’t it extraordinary that the House of Commons is STILL dominated by white men in grey suits, when everyone agrees it should be properly representative? 

Isn’t it extraordinary that, to conduct the nation’s business, we have to behave in a way which would not be tolerated in any classroom in this country? 

Success in a modern society is based on partnership and teamwork - look at successful businesses. But the House of Commons is based on institutionalised confrontation and would rather die than share a decision with someone else. 

The long string of catastrophes, from the Poll Tax, to the arms-to-Iraq scandal, to the Criminal Justice Bill, proves only too clearly that the House of Commons comprehensively fails to hold the government to account.

The House of Commons is out of date, out of tune with the country and out of touch with the people it is supposed to serve. 

But watch Labour in the House of Commons and you will see that they love it just as much as the Conservatives. The Labour Party want to inherit the House of Commons, not change it.

So, let it be the Liberal Democrats who make it clear in our next manifesto that we are determined to drag the House of Commons, kicking and screaming if necessary, out of the last century and into the next. 


And if you want an example of just how the House of Commons has failed, just look at how the Maastricht Treaty was handled. One of the most important issues of our day - reduced down to arcane arguments, shambolic procedures and silly hats.

We have to treat Europe more seriously in this country.

The European Union is one of the success stories of this century. But as we approach the NEXT century, the challenge is to revitalise Europe by making the idea of Europe live for people.

We must never forget the importance of Europe to us in Britain. Europe offers British people and British businesses great new opportunities, and great long-term benefits -prosperity, peace and progress. 

That’s why this Government’s behaviour over Europe is so incredible. 

I mean, what is Mr Major on about - a ‘multi-speed Europe.’ This is a community of nations we’re talking about, not a Kenwood mixer. 

Instead of talking about ‘variable geometry’ - whatever that is - we should be putting down concrete proposals that reconnect Europe with its people - opening Europe up to public scrutiny; strengthening the European Parliament; and yes, responding to peoples’ concerns about the power of Brussels by making sure that the Commission keeps out of areas where it has no business.

But there is still more work to be done. What is being created in Europe is a unique federal structure. That does not mean a monstrous super-state - Liberal Democrats are not interested in that. But the essence of any federal structure is a clear definition of who does what at which level. 

Vague notions of ‘subsidiarity’ will no longer do. The central task of the Inter-Governmental Conference of 1996 must be to define the settlement and scope of powers which should be exercised by local councils, regional assemblies, national governments and the European Union institutions.

I want the Liberal Democrats to prepare and publish our own proposals for the IGC - spelling out what powers should be exercised at which level; setting out reforms to the structure and functions of the Union. 

And when we have published our proposals, we shall discuss them with the voters of this country. Our future in Europe is far too important to be treated as a private quarrel within the Conservative party. 

So I ask John Major to do the same. Will he publish his own ideas for the IGC well in advance of 1996, and will he consult the British people on them? 

Foreign Affairs

And nowhere is leadership in Europe more important than in striving for a safe, secure future in the world.

We all hoped that the collapse of communism would usher in a new era of peace, stability and declining military budgets. 

I fear we could not have been further from the truth. 

In fact, I think there are now all the signs that the next decade in Europe could be as turbulent and dangerous as any we have seen in this most turbulent of centuries. 

The last three centuries of conflict in Europe have been between nations and about borders. Future ones will be between ethnic, tribal and religious groups and across borders. Bosnia writ large in the chaos of the collapsed Soviet Empire. Only the difference will be that this time, the war lords will have access to nuclear weapons. 

I am glad that, at this Conference, we faced up to that possibility and the impact it could have on military spending and European integration. That was not an easy thing for a Party like ours to do - but it was the right thing. 

And incidentally, if the events I fear come in the East, then all the petty fears of Maastricht will vanish overnight. Western Europe will lock itself together to create a tight island of security and stability at the Western end of a sea of chaos and war.

And even if this does not happen, it still remains the case that every penny we spend on defence will be better spent in co-ordination with our European allies and to support a strong framework of international law.

The only way to tackle these great issues is through a new style of politics. I want to see more consensus and co-operation on some of these great issues which cut across party barriers. 

That will continue to be our approach to Northern Ireland for just so long as the Prime Minister sticks to the national interest. This is one of those moments, like the Maastricht Treaty, when both government and opposition parties must rise above party politics.

The Shape of the New Politics

You see, working together lies at the heart of the new style of politics we must create in Britain.

And there are other issues that must also be faced by those who claim to stand for progress and a modem Britain. 

In the economy - to recognise that a market-based economy, built on enterprise, investment and skill, is the only way to meet the global challenge.

In public services - not to reverse, but to build on reforms where they have devolved power, and concentrate on increasing accountability.

In politics - to open up our democracy, to put people in control and to give people fair votes so that everyone has a say.

On the environment - to put the green imperative at the very centre of all our policies, especially the economy. 

On Europe - to recognise that we can only safeguard Britain’s future by working with our European partners - and be clear on the opportunity of a single currency.

And underpinning all of this - to put education first.

After the Next Election

So, the key question is, what sort of Britain, and what sort of government, should we be striving for after the next election?

What a moment of new hope, of new opportunity that could be. And yet, if we Liberal Democrats are not strong and resolute, what a let-down it could become.

Just think how damaging it would be for democracy if the disaster of this long period of one-party rule was followed by disillusionment with what follows.

How damaging it would be if, instead of hard analysis, concrete solutions and honest costs, one-party rule was overthrown by candy-floss visions and candy-stick promises that turn sour in the tough reality of office. 

How damaging it would be if, instead of a sure step forward, our country continued to slither down in the long decline from world-class status to marginalised failure.

Let me tell you first what I fear after the next election. 

I fear a government empty of ideas and devoid of reforming radicalism.

I fear a government which does favours for its friends, because they pay the Party’s bills - rather than being responsive to the voters who pay the country’s bills.

I fear a government which continues to avoid whole-hearted commitment to our European future.

I fear a government which still tries to do things FOR people, rather than helping them to do things for themselves. 

What I hope for is a confident, reforming government - capable of creating a thriving Britain, a proud Britain.

Where government works with people for their individual achievement and the common good. 

Where excellent education makes everyone employable. 

Where the environment is cared for like the nation’s garden.

Where at last we become citizens in our own land, not subjects of the State. Where we have strong communities - thriving on ethnic and cultural diversity. 

And do you know what will make the difference between these two contrasting futures for Britain? 

Of course you do. It is the Liberal Democrats. We will make the difference. 

Liberal Democrats have a proud heritage. Deep roots. A powerful vision. 

The Liberal Democrats’ APPROACH is different from Socialists and Conservatives.

And we DO things differently from Socialists and Conservatives. 

But we also have enough confidence in our own strength to make common cause with others to achieve the best for the future. 

So our task in the next two years is to build on our record of success. 

Our mission is to show people, when and where we have power, what the Liberal Democrats can do. 

And our purpose is to take our message of hope - our hard-headed plans for action - to every town, to every street and to every home in Britain.

That is the only way we can build a better future for all of us. That is the task ahead.

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