Leader's speech, Brighton 1996
Paddy Ashdown (Liberal Democrat)
Commentary:A key theme of this speech was the forthcoming general election. With this in mind, Ashdown attacked the record of the Major government and identified a need for modern leadership in Britain. He then outlined his Party’s key commitments, which were: increased investment and higher standards in education; welfare reform to remove the poverty trap and promote self-reliance; the improvement of people’s quality of life through measures to improve the NHS, protect the environment and tackle crime; a referendum on Britain’s future in Europe; and constitutional reform.
There you are - there is life beyond Westminster.
You’ve seen the film - now, buy the book. Good value at £9.99! And still available at all good bookshops.
But actually, that experience travelling the country, meeting people where they live and work, was one of the most valuable of my life. It has changed the way I see politics and what now needs to be done for our country.
That’s why this year, in rather a different sort of way, I’ve done the same again. I’ve travelled another six thousand miles, campaigning with you - and talking and looking and listening in every region of our country.
Today, I want this speech to be another sort of tour. I want to tell you the kind of country I’ve seen - and how it differs from what we see at Westminster.
I want to take a long hard look at some unfashionable subjects; such as courage and leadership and patriotism.
I want to spell out for you the kind of future this country could have - how Britain can succeed again, and how people can feel secure again - but only if we have the courage to invest in that future and to return to the decent values of our country.
I want no one to be in any doubt that this party - your party - has a unique role to play in shaping those changes and making them happen.
I may also, of course, mention the General Election.
My first big discovery was actually a rediscovery. How easy it is - and how dangerous it can be - to judge a country by its leaders.
Many today look at Britain and see a weak and faltering government - and they assume a weak and faltering country.
But that is not the Britain that I found.
I found bewilderment, yes. I found impatience and anger and real hardship. But I found no sense of national despair.
I found diversity and tolerance and humour. I found people and communities quietly solving problems Westminster doesn’t know how to solve.
This is not new for our country.
In the First World War, a German general was describing the British army - the ordinary Tommy. ‘They are lions,’ he said. ‘But they are lions led by donkeys.’
In 1939, Hitler was less perceptive. He saw a weak and faltering British government - and was foolish enough to assume a weak and faltering nation. He was fatally wrong. We were a strong and resolute nation - but with no voice, no leadership. No one to tell us the truth, no one to present us with the challenge, no one to release the untapped energies of the British people. Until Churchill.
Looking back, Winston Churchill said this: ‘It was the nation that had the lion’s heart. I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar.’
Today, we have no one to give the roar.
For fifteen years - perhaps for fifty years - we have been poorly led. We have been weakly led - or sometimes strongly led in wrong directions. Only the innate enterprise, resilience and bloody-mindedness of our people has kept us in the race with that growing list of impatient world competitors.
In one way, of course, this analysis is a hopeful one. The strength of our nation is already there. We only have to decide where we as a nation want to be.
It’s time now to take that decision.
We are within a few months of the most important choice for this country since the war. We could, of course, go on ducking the issues for a little longer.
We could decide that more money in our pockets is more important than more knowledge in our children’s heads.
We could stagger on with our discredited system of government.
We could carry on polluting our environment, and postpone living more lightly on our planet. We could carry on fooling ourselves about our place in Europe and the wider world.
But deep down, everyone knows that the longer we duck these decisions, the higher the price we pay in the next century.
My fear is this.
That we shall see an election, and maybe a change of government - but we shall not see a change of direction. We shall still be starved of clear vision, a commitment to change, the courage to face up to what must be done.
It is the first crucial role of this Party - to see that that does not happen.
With the Liberal Democrats strong in the next parliament, Britain will face the challenges that confront us. Without, they’ll continue to be ducked.
What this country desperately needs now is leadership - modern leadership.
If you’ve worked in a company, if you’ve served in the forces, if you’ve played in a team, you will know what modern leadership is and what it is not.
Leadership today is not about putting your trust in giants. Because those who believe in giants, must also believe in dwarfs.
Leadership today is not about saying I know best. It’s about bringing out the best in others.
And it’s not about sitting on high, issuing instructions. It’s about getting out and listening and learning and motivating.
Modern leadership means identifying fears and hopes and aspirations and giving them vivid expression: because when privately held, hidden away in the hearts of a million individuals, those hopes can never be realised.
But brought out into the light of day and given a common voice and a public force, they can inspire a whole nation.
When people know they’re not alone... when they hear their inner hopes expressed in words they recognise... then they know they’re part of something bigger - then the remote and hopeless becomes attainable.
The country that Churchill led was not miraculously converted from indifference to valour. The qualities were already there.
I believe the same to be true of Britain today.
I know it is - because I’ve seen it.
There is purpose, determination, talent, principle, and an impatience to get things done - hidden, untapped, in our country.
And there is decency, too.
I now know one thing with absolute certainty
This country is not the mean, selfish, uncompassionate nation the Tories have tried to make us these last seventeen years.
But that true spirit of our country will remain hidden, if the only choice we are offered is the choice between fear and timidity.
Fear is the Tories’ trademark. It is what makes them tick.
It runs out at every corner and it bubbles out of every crack.
They fear change. They fear experiment.
They fear diversity. They fear dissent.
They fear foreigners. They fear the press.
They fear the truth. They fear the future.
They fear us. They fear each other.
But most of all, they fear for their jobs, they fear for their power, they fear for their skins. Fear is their only weapon.
Now there is only one antidote to fear - and that is hope.
But Labour seem to have chosen timidity.
They are wrong.
Imagine Henry V before Agincourt:
When the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood...
And wait until your private opinion polls appear somewhat more propitious.
The result is a campaign, not about policies and ideas, but about sound-bites and spin doctors, insulting posters, negative attacks.
The Tories have chosen to start this election in the gutter.
But listen to this wise advice.
‘Being negative can be an addictive drug. It’s easy ... But like any drug it corrodes and destroys the body in which it exists. And one body it runs the risk of corrupting is the body politic of the nation itself.’
Not my words. The words of John Major two years ago, when John Smith died. Pity he’s forgotten them.
We saw this negative campaigning in Littleborough and Saddleworth. We know where it’s come from. It’s come from America. And it should be sent straight back again.
And if John Major still believes negative campaigning is an addictive drug, then he should send Dr Brian Mawhinney, Lord Maurice Saatchi and the whole of Tory Central Office back to America with it - not for another fix on the campaign trail, but to clean up their act at the Betty Ford Clinic.
This sort of nonsense has no place in Britain. And there are only two people who can stop it – Mr. Major and Mr. Blair - and today I urge them to do just that.
And for my part, I make this commitment.
Whatever they do, we Liberal Democrats will fight this election with a positive campaign, on the issues, and on what we stand for.
We will fight to stamp this debilitating drug of negative campaigning out of British politics for good.
With the Liberal Democrats strong in British politics we can start to rebuild the politics of hope in Britain. Without, we will stay stuck with the politics of fear.
But you know, there is another sad by-product of all this.
As the Tories desperately seek to cling to power, they will scaremonger about the break-up of the UK, they will bluster about the threat of Europe, they will wrap themselves shamelessly in the flag, and they will claim for themselves a monopoly on patriotism.
But theirs is a false patriotism.
A true patriot would not have applauded Michael Portillo’s grubby attempt to conscript our armed forces into a Tory Party Conference.
A true patriot would not tolerate the poverty and division which now infects so many of our communities.
A true patriot would be ashamed of the broken promises, the cash-for-questions, the arms-to-Iraq scandal.
A true patriot would not pander to the Tory press by pretending that love of this country depends on hating others.
A true patriot would condemn out of hand the Asylum and Immigration Act as a betrayal of our centuries-old tradition of tolerant welcome for the persecuted.
A true patriot would know that the abuse of patriotism behind which the Tory Party now cowers is deeply insulting to all the true things this country stands for.
And that is why a true patriot would know that, for the sake of all that is decent in our country: They must go!
I count myself to be a patriot. I have served this country as a soldier. I have represented it abroad as a diplomat. I love it and I am proud of it.
But the battles we must fight for our country in the next century are different to the battles we have fought in this one - and as a country, we have just got to stop wallowing in the past - in past glories, past conflicts, and past illusions.
We have to look ahead.
And some important aspects of our future are already, it seems to me, in sharp focus.
The next century will witness a revolution as overwhelming in its implications as the industrial revolution.
Look at this machine.
With this little machine I can read the Wall Street Journal from cover-to-cover.
I can plan a journey through France or book an airline ticket to anywhere in the world.
I can talk with you all on email. And I do.
I can get instant information from a friend in Sarajevo or a businessman in Hong Kong.
I can even listen to President Clinton’s cat - though however hard I try, I don’t seem to be able to get a squeak out of Downing Street!
This machine, and millions like it - they are the nuts and bolts of the information revolution. Charles Handy described that revolution as: ‘A modern alchemy, the ability to create wealth out of nothing... Modern economies will not be constrained by lack of resources, but only by lack of imagination, of creativity and ideas.’
Fellow Liberal Democrats: you and I have always known that this country’s greatest resource - infinitely adaptable, infinitely renewable - is the talent of our people.
But talent cannot thrive on barren land. Like any harvest, it needs preparation, nurturing, tending and encouragement.
Call it education if you will. But I’m talking about something much, much bigger than going to school.
I’m talking about a new Renaissance - the wealth of this nation flowering once again through the liberation of minds and energies, skills and aspirations.
I’m talking about a culture of learning, questioning, creativity - pumping through the arteries of our nation - for our nation to become the world’s number one learning society - to which others come to look and learn, just as they came to marvel at the technologies of Lancashire in the last century.
That is the opportunity ahead. For us, a nation with an astonishing record of inventiveness and creativity, whose language is the language of the information revolution, this is an opportunity of breathtaking, limitless potential.
That’s why every single Liberal Democrat policy is part of one central policy - with one central aim: to help the fifty-six million people of this country to fulfil themselves; to find the hero inside themselves; to become self-reliant and self confident; to make, together, such a contribution to society that the nation as a whole becomes more self-reliant and more self-confident.
A more prosperous nation with a more generous heart.
So that is our vision: to make Britain the number one learning society in the world. Now, how do we turn that vision into reality?
Let me remind you of some of our key commitments, and you will see that they are consistent, and coherent, and together they are immensely powerful.
Do not judge them by the jargon of Westminster or by those massive tables of dehumanising statistics. Judge them instead by their impact on the every day lives of individual people that you know – that’s what I have tried to do.
When I wrote that book Beyond Westminster, I wrote it for and about the people I worked and lived with.
Here are my wishes for them, and for our country.
My first wish is for an eleven year old girl called Shaheena. I stayed with her family in Manchester.
My wish for her and her generation is that they will never be trapped in the ignorance, poverty and hopelessness that imprisons too many young people in Britain today - and that they will hold the key to their own freedom in their own hands - though their own skills, their own confidence and their own ability.
And it is education, above all else, that gives them that precious key - the key that no one can ever take away.
And yet today, Britain is 35th out of 48 in the World Education League, and falling every year. Do you know that one in seven of Britain’s 21-year olds is illiterate and one in five is innumerate?
That is a national scandal.
And it will be made worse because of the Conservative cuts in education funding.
But under-funding education is not a saving. It is a sentence which condemns the whole nation to second-class, low-income status for years and years to come.
That is the truth that neither of the other parties will face up to.
Britain’s education system needs higher standards - of course it does. But it also needs more money.
And only we Liberal Democrats will provide this.
An extra two billion pounds, every year.
Hard cash. Hard commitments. Reversing the Tory cuts that have done so much damage.
And if there is no other way to pay for that, then we will ask people for an extra penny on their income tax. It’s just that important.
And in return, here’s what Britain gets.
Smaller primary classes.
More money for books and equipment.
Guaranteed education or training for everyone between sixteen and nineteen.
A chance for every person in Britain to learn again, at some point in their adult lives.
And for every child in Britain a flying start in life - two years of high quality, free, pre-school education.
You know, Mrs Thatcher first promised that in 1972 - a quarter of a century ago. We cannot wait another quarter of a century until someone delivers it.
With the Liberal Democrats strong in the next Parliament, that investment in education is guaranteed. Without, it’s back again to the never-never land of empty promises.
My next wish is for Sally, who I met on the Hartcliffe estate in Bristol.
She is a young mother stuck, like thousands of others, in the poverty trap between benefits and work. She was desperate for a job. Eventually she found one, earning £45 a week.
But after they’d taken away her benefits and she’d paid for travel and childcare, her family was worse off with her working than with her on the dole.
She took the job - she told me she wanted the self-respect.
But why should she and her children be worse off as a result?
There are thousands and thousands of women in Sally’s position. I want her, and everybody like her, to be free to work, to use their talents, supported by a welfare system that helps them, not holds them back.
William Beveridge’s great scheme of welfare was designed to do that. But it no longer does. Because the world has changed since 1945. Ours is an age of fractured families, insecure jobs, chronic unemployment.
We must now do for our time, what that great Liberal did for his: fashion a new system of welfare to meet the needs of our new age.
Here are the principles that should guide us.
First, provide a safety net for those who truly cannot help themselves.
Second, free people from dependency and encourage self-reliance.
Third, focus less on redistributing wealth, and more on widening opportunities.
And fourth, increase the role of the community and reduce that of the central State.
If ever there was a case for partnership politics in Britain, it is here. Beveridge’s great scheme was only possible because politicians worked together to build it. Reforming our welfare state for the next century will only be successful if it, too, is taken out of the day-to-day battle of party politics.
So I make this commitment today.
In our manifesto, we will call for a comprehensive review of our welfare system - and we will commit ourselves to building a new national consensus, between the parties and beyond the parties, for welfare reform.
With the Liberal Democrats strong in the next Parliament, there will be a force to lead the reshaping of our welfare system. Without, the welfare state will remain just a bone of contention in the old two-party dog-fight.
But meanwhile people like Sally need our help now - and this is what we will do.
Instead of paying money to keep people like her out of work, we will turn their welfare benefits into working benefits - giving businesses a new incentive to employ and train the long-term unemployed.
We will increase childcare, and reform the benefits system to remove the poverty traps, so that people like Sally are not worse off in a job than they are on welfare.
And we will take low-paid jobs like Sally’s out of tax altogether, making them more attractive than the dole queue, and cutting Britain’s huge benefit bill.
How will we pay for this? By raising the upper rate of tax on earnings over 100,000 pounds to 50%.
750,000 people will be freed from income tax altogether.
99.5% of all tax payers will benefit directly.
And just 120,000 - the real winners of the Thatcher years - will be asked to do their bit to help those who lost out. And they’ll still be taxed at a lower rate than their equivalents in Japan, Germany or France.
Clear, specific, costed. The tough message on tax as well as the easy one.
Now some people tell me all this is dangerous. Most people know it’s just common sense. We must get this issue of tax away from the auction of fantasy promises into which it has been dragged by the other two parties.
The Tories tell lies on tax, hoping to win again.
Labour dodge the truth on tax, hoping not to lose again.
And there is a reason for this. There is a secret both Parties are desperate to keep from us. The British Government is now up to its neck in debt.
The Tory Party has become the Party of Debt and Devaluation.
Remember Mrs Thatcher and Grantham Grocery Economics?
Despite record tax increases.
Despite 130 billion pounds from North Sea Oil.
Despite 80 billion pounds from privatisation.
Britain has continued to sink deeper and deeper into debt under the Tories.
And now the cupboard is bare - well, almost!
Admiralty Arch. Greenwich Naval College. The stationery office. Even the homes of our service men and women.
There is nothing the Tories won’t flog off to their friends, to pay for pre-election tax bribes, to save their skins.
And still Britain sinks deeper and deeper into debt under the Tories.
The national debt - going for almost 300 years - has trebled under the Tories since 1979. And it has doubled in the six brief years since John Major became Prime Minister.
That’s right. In just six years, Mr. Major has added more than 160 billion pounds to the national debt - and he was trained as a bank manager!
I tell you, I wish mine was like that!
But the serious point is this.
Paying the interest on that John Major Debt now costs us 14 billion pounds a year.
That’s 650 pounds a year for every household in Britain - just to pay the interest on the John Major Debt.
That’s the equivalent of 7 pence on income tax - just to pay the interest on the John Major Debt.
That amounts to more than we spend on our police, our prisons and our universities put together - just to pay the interest on the John Major Debt.
That’s the real legacy of the Tory Party - the Party of Debt and Devaluation.
This country now faces a real problem - perhaps even a crisis - with public borrowing after the next election.
That is the real tax bombshell in Britain - the one that both of them are trying to hide.
And that is the reason why no responsible party can truthfully say they would never increase taxes as a way of getting Britain back to responsible public finances. And no one should believe them if they did.
So we Liberal Democrats will not engage in that auction of fantasy promises.
But we can guarantee this.
We will never let Britain return to the punitive tax rates of the last Labour government. We will wage war on government waste.
We will see that every taxpayer knows how and why their taxes are spent.
We will not make promises unless the bill is attached.
Our manifesto will be a menu with prices. Clear, specific, costed.
With the Liberal Democrats strong in the next Parliament, we can begin to put the trust back into British politics. Without, it will be politics as usual - tax lies, phoney figures and painless promises.
And here is my next wish. It is for Judy and for her family. I stayed with them in one of Britain’s crime-hit, demoralised inner city estates.
My wish for her and her family is that they should have a healthy and secure life. That they should have the freedom to walk the streets in safety day or night.
That they should have a Health Service they can rely on.
That they should have the confidence in the quality of the water they drink, in the purity of the air they breathe, in the safety of the food they eat.
Crime, health, the environment - they might all seem like different issues. But they are not. They are actually about the same thing - the quality of our lives.
Schumacher’s great book, Small is Beautiful, had a subtitle: ‘A study of economics as if people mattered.’
Well, what the Liberal Democrats are about is ‘politics as if people mattered.’
And that means putting people first in the fight against crime.
And we will.
We will establish a crime-busting plan for every community - bringing schools and businesses, parents and police, probation services and youth workers together to form a united front against crime.
We will give victims of crime a new deal, putting their interests at the heart of justice, and making their protection a priority.
We’ll back the police - with 3,000 more officers - and we’ll free them from paperwork so that they can get out of the station and onto the streets, policing as if people mattered.
And we’ll get our National Health Service back to working as if people mattered, too.
That means waging war on bureaucracy in the Health Service.
In the last six years, the number of managers in the NHS has increased by 40,000. The number of nurses has fallen by 45,000.
It seems now that the Government has finally decided that they must do something about this. So what have they done?
Have they given more money? No.
Have they recruited more nurses? No.
What they’ve done is taken 4,000 of those managers, and decided that from now on they’ll call them nurses instead.
Well that’s alright, then! Problem solved!
And here’s another Conservative solution to the problems of the Health Service. The Private Finance Initiative - PFI. Fine. But what the NHS really needs is a different kind of PFI. Patients First Instead.
Putting patients first. Supporting the doctors and nurses.
Less bureaucracy. Better care.
And to match that, a whole new approach to healthcare.
Teaching people to look after their own health. Concentrating on preventing illness, instead of just treating it.
It’s common sense. And it’s cost-effective.
Why should anyone in 1990s Britain be forced to choose between balancing the family budget and looking after their health?
As the first step towards a Health Service that treats prevention as seriously as cure, the Liberal Democrats will restore free eye and dental check-ups to every single person in Britain.
Simple. Practical. Cost-effective.
And incidentally, while we’re on the subject of dentistry, imagine what it must be like to be a dentist in the Labour Party these days.
It must be so frustrating.
All those thousands of mouths. No one willing to open them!
But a healthy Britain requires more than an effective Health Service. It requires a Government determined to tackle the root causes of ill health - poor housing and homelessness; poverty, unemployment and deprivation.
It means cleaning up our poisoned air and polluted water, and getting serious about the damage we do to our environment.
Go and ask a commuter, stuck, stressed, day after day, in queues of fuming traffic, what price a safe, reliable public transport system?
Go and ask the parents of an asthmatic child, living on that same congested road, what price action to clean up our air?
Asthma has become a national scourge.
It cost us a billion pounds last year.
It lost us 17 million days from work.
And more than 8 million days from school.
And that doesn’t count the millions of days and nights of individual suffering and misery. We cannot go on like this - we cannot go on ignoring these problems.
I want everyone in Britain to know that the Liberal Democrats will, at last, put the green into the grey of government.
Tough targets for pollution.
Pricing the congestion on our city roads, and putting the money into public transport.
Shifting taxes off jobs and wealth, and onto pollution and energy use.
A new Quality of Life index - a new way of measuring national success, as if people mattered.
With the Liberal Democrats strong in the next Parliament, the last government of this century will be its greenest. Without, nothing will change - and our children will be left to pay the price.
My next wish is for the employees of a silk mill in Suffolk with whom I worked. They make beautiful ties there and - like other British companies with good products - they sell them around the world, and the world loves them.
I want them to have the benefits of a stable economy, grounded on low inflation, built on longterm investment.
And I want them to enjoy all the benefits that flow from a successful Europe and a stable world - larger markets, freer trade, a powerful voice in the world; peace, security, wider opportunities, a safe environment - working with others to solve the problems no nation can any longer solve alone.
The true greatness of this country has never come from looking inwards; from retreating behind our island walls and shouting insults at foreigners.
Our forebears knew that.
They went out to make things happen in the world - to trade, to explore, to settle, to build bridges, to make fortunes, to shape the world’s laws, and to build its institutions.
Britain’s role as the bulwark against tyranny in two wars this century was not a product of isolationism. It was the natural response of a nation used to engaging in the world and certain about its role as a European power.
There have been moments in our history, like now, when we have lost confidence and retreated into a narrow, crabbed and unproductive nationalism. But they have been few - and they have always been moments of national weakness and uncertainty.
The price that Britain has paid for the divisions on Europe of both Labour and the Tories is high and will be higher still in the future.
I want people to know that when it comes to Britain playing a full and constructive part in building a democratic, decentralised Citizen’s Europe, the Liberal Democrats will be a rock upon which they can rely.
But I also want them to know that with the Liberal Democrats, people will have their say - because we understand that we cannot continue with progress in Europe unless we carry our people with us.
That is why the Liberal Democrats are the only Party in Parliament firmly committed to a referendum on Britain’s European future.
With the Liberal Democrats strong in the next parliament, Britain will have a clear path to follow in Europe and people will have their say. Without, we will continue to pay the price for the muddle and confusion of two divided parties.
Within weeks of the next election, our new government will have to make the most important decision of this decade - whether to be in or out of a European single currency.
The Tories and Labour both know that. They know the arguments for, and they know the arguments against. And they know what the decision ought to be. But neither will say. They dare not. For fear of breaking up their parties.
So Britain will be asked to vote without knowing what it is voting for.
This is a conspiracy perpetrated on the British people, by their politicians.
What should guide us in this crucial decision is not short-term party management but long-term national interest.
If Britain is able to join a single currency, and chooses not to, we will pay the price in higher interest rates, higher inflation, lower investment and lost influence.
Every British family will lose around ten pounds a week. And the City of London could lose out completely as Europe’s first financial centre.
So the Liberal Democrats are in no doubt. A single currency would be good for Europe. And if it comes, and Britain can be a part of it, then Britain should be a part of it.
And this brings me to my last wish.
This is for those I worked a shift with in Britain’s deepest mine at Monkton Hall Colliery, near Edinburgh. They used their personal savings to buy their own pit, and made it work when British Coal couldn’t. And they had to fight Government and bureaucracy at every level, every inch of the way.
So my wish for them is good government - government that listens, that is open, that is in touch, that they can trust.
We do not have good government in this country - we have had government.
Parliament behaves in ways most people find unacceptable. It is unrepresentative - of women, the disabled, young people and our ethnic communities. And it completely fails to hold the Government in check.
In Scotland and Wales, big majorities have voted for non-Conservative parties - but every major decision is taken by English Tories.
Power has been remorselessly sucked away from our local communities and given to clumsy busy-bodies in Westminster and Whitehall.
Now the Tories say we can’t change this. Britain’s political system must stay precisely as it is. That is one of the few things our Prime Minister feels really strongly about.
But Britain’s constitution has always changed with the times. That has been its strength and that has been its reason for survival.
To argue that tampering with our Constitution would mean the end of the United Kingdom as we know it, flies in the face of our history and far from protecting our Constitution, denies its very strength.
But then scaremongering is what the opponents of reform have always done.
Who said this? ‘Touch one atom of our glorious constitution and the whole is lost.’
John Major on yet another Scottish re-launch?
No, Tory grandee Lord Eldon, defending the rotten boroughs in 1832.
Who said this: ‘Constitutional change... would endanger the very fabric of Britain... it would destroy in years what has been built up in centuries.’
Some die-hard Tory opponent of votes for women, fighting the Suffragettes to the last? No, this time it is John Major - though I have to say, you can’t tell by the language! And do you know the irony?
The very Government which tells us that the country will fall apart if we lay so much as a finger on our failing political institutions, is the very Government that has cut down our system of local government.
Has set up a forest of quangos.
And established such a tangle of arms length agencies that nowadays no Minister is responsible for anything!
How dare the Tories tell us that we can’t put more democracy back into our government, when they’ve taken so much of the democracy out of it?
So here is our promise:
We will clean up Parliament.
We will bring in a Great Reform Act.
A Bill of Rights. A Freedom of Information Act. Revitalised local government. A Parliament for Scotland and a Senedd for Wales.
We will hack our way into the jungle of the quango state, and expose it to the same laws of openness and accountability that our councillors must obey in the Council Chamber.
We will give people a greater say in the way they are governed.
And we will deliver, at last, a fair voting system for our country.
Which means that with the Liberal Democrats strong, the next Parliament will be a Parliament of reform and modernisation. Without, at worst we will stay stuck in sleaze, and at best, good intentions will once again founder on muddle and weak commitments.
Let what has happened there be a warning - the great cause of reform is not safe in Labour’s hands.
Our task is to make sure that this election is one in which the great issues are faced, not fudged. You have a vital role to play in that.
Without you - without us - this will be an election in which the truth will be asked to be a bystander.
In which the poor will be requested not to take part in case they get in the way of the hunt for middle class votes.
In which the realities of Europe will be invited to stay on the other side of the channel, because no one wants to talk about them.
In which the true state of Britain’s finances will remain locked in the Chancellor’s cupboard because they’re too uncomfortable to face.
In which all will be promised, but nothing paid for.
In which tax won’t be seriously discussed and the environment not even mentioned.
In which the election will be about fear and not about the future.
Our job is to make sure that, at this vital moment of decision for our country, we are faced with the facts, and confronted with the real issues.
Now, I have chosen in this speech to measure our policies against the lives of real individuals. This is quite deliberate.
Some say that it’s good enough for us to be the best free think tank in British politics.
Not for me it isn’t.
And not for you either.
There is only one standard for success that I can accept. And that is whether what we say and what we do makes Britain better and improves the lives of those we serve.
Putting that first, and taking risks to achieve it, is how we have won our great success in local government.
And in the short time ahead we will have to show the single-mindedness and courage to do that at national level, too.
I told you at the beginning that this speech was a kind of tour - and like a great many tours, it will end where it started.
Let me remind you of some of the things that I said.
I said that this country must change or die. I said that this party is the only party ready to put clear plans for change in front of the electorate.
I talked about leadership - and I said this: ‘When people hear their inner hopes expressed in words they recognise... then they know that they’re part of something bigger - and that which seemed remote and hopeless suddenly becomes an attainable goal.’
Believe me: there are millions of people - who believe, privately, in all that you and I believe in. Who want to help build that more prosperous nation with a more generous heart.
They may not say it in political phrases, but you know as I do, because you’ve met them too. That there is a majority of people in this country who believe in fairness, in generosity, in self-sufficiency.
Who love this country and its people and who long for a greater sense of pride and purpose. Who look for wise guidance for themselves and their children.
And who desperately hope that someone, somewhere, will see where the sun is shining on the fields ahead - and show them the path to get there.
These are people full of doubt about all political parties. They do not yet see themselves as Liberal Democrats.
In your communities and your own constituencies it is you who, one by painstaking one, can explain and inspire, and allow those millions of individuals to see that they are not alone... that they are part of something of such size and momentum that if only they will act as they already believe, they will see the changes this country needs before the next year is out.
We have within our sights, the achievement of all we stand for.
A victory for principle, a victory for persistence.
A victory that will give a new shape to hope and new opportunity to every single person in this country.
A victory that will make all our long years of commitment, persistence and endeavour all the sweeter.
It can be won.
I know it can be won.
And I know that you can win it.