Leader's speech, Bournemouth 2000
Charles Kennedy (Liberal Democrat)
Commentary:In this speech, Kennedy criticised the Labour government’s record during its first term in office and argued that the Conservatives would be no better. The Liberal Democrats, in contrast, would put freedom at the centre of politics and reduce the role of government. Kennedy then pledged that his party would increase pensions, abolish university tuition fees and put an extra penny on income tax to pay for better schools. He also expressed his commitment to Europe and the single currency, and to the environment.
Potentially, politics is at a crossroads. We saw that last week. The opinion polls have recorded that this week. That has been the backdrop for this, I think, one of our most successful conferences ever.
Politics is about leading. You might expect me to say that. But politics is also about listening. The events of the past ten days, have demonstrated, graphically, that the current government, neither leads nor listens enough.
So it’s not just that people are estranged from politics. It’s that politicians are estranged from people.
I know that. You know that. The country knows that. We’re different. That’s what our conference this week has been all about. Next time we meet like this, in twelve months, politics may have changed even more out of all recognition. We have to be part of that process of change, central to it. Before, during and after the coming general election.
That’s why, in our pre-election manifesto, Freedom in a Liberal Society, we’ve been exploring themes, reiterating values and principles, setting out policy directions. All of which will take us a long way forward.
Now today, I don’t just want to talk to Liberal Democrats, pleasant though that may be. I want to talk to potential Liberal Democrat voters. I want to talk to the country. And I want to be explicit about why Britain needs the Liberal Democrats.
I’ve done a huge amount of travelling across the country this year. You know my principal impression? Put quite simply it’s this. There are too many, far, far too many anxious people out there, anxious - for themselves and their families, too anxious ever to have time to feel ambitious about our country.
Well we are ambitious. Very ambitious for our country. That’s why Britain needs the Liberal Democrats.
People also want a better level of political dialogue. They deserve it. They’re not getting it. Just look at the crime debate. Ann Widdecombe and Jack Straw. You know the only difference between the two? Ann got done for speeding. Jack’s got a driver to speed for him.
They’re competing in a dismal Dutch auction. Going for lowest common denominator politics.
Undermine the entire point of the political process along the way.
It’s got to stop. You can’t change human nature. But poverty. Unemployment. Drugs. These are major causes of crime too. Someone needs to be saying that. That’s why Britain needs the Liberal Democrats.
Let me be quite clear. I’m not one of those who believe that all Britain’s problems began on the first of May 1997. But Labour’s poverty of ambition is quite remarkable. With a parliamentary majority of one hundred and seventy nine, they behave like John Major did - with a majority of three. It’s all about what will play well in the opinion polls.
Britain was promised an ethical foreign policy. Britain demands legislation on the arms trade. But instead we get arms sales to Indonesia.
And all too often, they seem scared of their own shadows.
Remember that leaked Prime Ministerial memo? What was it he said? ‘A sense that the government are somehow out of touch with gut British instincts.’ The PM. His verdict on his own administration.
So I ask you, Labour voter last time, maybe for the first time was it? Did you believe that things could only get better?
And have they?
Your local school?
Your local hospital?
Your sense of job security?
Your sense of reassurance that your elderly parents would be looked after?
Your belief that your students wouldn’t be up to their ears in debt.
Millions of people believed it.
Millions of people are disappointed and disillusioned as a result.
The Conservatives won’t improve these things for you. But the Liberal Democrats can. We can improve a lot on Labour. They are continually terrified to be called the party of boom and bust. That old Labour habit of splashing out in their first years in power, and then having to cut back at the end. Gordon Brown certainly hasn’t done that. He’s cut back and now he’s splashing out.
Bust followed by pre-election boom.
We said that wasn’t good enough.
I’d like to think he saw the light. But the truth is, he felt the heat.
Now prepare yourselves: what of the Conservative Party?
Today, I want to address the millions of previous Conservative voters, who feel that William Hague’s Party offers them nothing. I share many of the values, the beliefs, the concerns, of the people who used to be called One Nation Conservatives. Tolerance, decency, fair play. If you believe in those things, and you look at your party, and it’s not got room any more, at the top table, for the likes of Ken Clarke, Michael Heseltine, Chris Patten. Then your party’s got no room for you.
To you, I say this.
You have friends in the Liberal Democrats.
You have a home.
Come and talk to us.
You will be very, very welcome.
What’s gone wrong with the Conservative Party - oh, so wrong, is not even so much the individuals. It’s the issues and the instincts which today drive William Hague’s Conservative Party.
William jumps in with both feet, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and for the wrong reasons. Desperate for a headline, desperate for a quote. Desperate to get attention. He’s the world’s first unpopular populist. So how come the Tories have come up in the polls?
I know the answer.
It’s not William’s popularity.
It’s the people round about him that the country’s warming to.
It must be John Redwood, Michael Portillo and Ann Widdecombe the country loves.
Just look at what William’s been up to this year.
January - a Patient’s Guarantee.
February - tax guarantee.
March - the moral case for low taxation.
Ditched with the tax guarantee.
April - bogus asylum seekers.
May - Romsey.
He was quiet in June.
Perhaps he had a 14-pint hangover.
Or perhaps it was that Romsey hangover.
I ask you.
Is that opposition?
Is that a positive view of Britain?
Is that anything, of any use, to anybody?
Why does Britain need the Liberal Democrats? That’s why Britain needs the Liberal Democrats.
And remember their record?
Larger class sizes.
Interest rates - through the roof.
Arms to Iraq.
Cash for questions.
It must never, ever, be allowed to happen again.
That’s why Britain needs the Liberal Democrats.
William Hague is not the serious leader of a serious political party. That’s the serious point.
We are serious. Our purpose is here in this document. It’s the F word. Freedom. That’s why we’re in politics. We want politicians to promote freedom for all. So people can make the most of their lives.
That means excellent local hospitals and schools.
Fair and decent pensions.
A clean environment.
Stopping government interfering in people’s private lives.
That’s why Britain needs the Liberal Democrats.
I am determined we will get our message across. But as part of that, it is vital, absolutely vital, that we persuade people, that for every area where government can do more, there’s an area where government should be doing less, or doing different. That’s why I want to make an early announcement today, about the contents of our manifesto for the next election.
In our pre-manifesto, we have policies for green action in every chapter. The manifesto will do that too. But it will also show, in every chapter, where government must do less, to give people more freedom.
We would scrap a range of regulations that burden small businesses.
We will cut bureaucracy in schools.
And we will let people, not politicians, decide how some of their tax revenues are spent.
Tax and spend? Every party taxes and spends.
But our priorities, are the people’s priorities.
That’s what freedom means.
It’s not left of Labour.
It’s not right of Labour.
It’s ahead of Labour.
It’s also honest.
Where there is a cost, we say how we will pay for it. Saying that if necessary, we will pay for better schools, by asking everybody to pay just one pence more on the basic rate of income tax. And to fund decent pensions, we will ask those fortunate enough to earn over one hundred thousand pounds per year, to pay a little more. That’s the way to be honest with people.
And remember, when you’re talking to people, remind them, that’s still less than the self same people were paying under Margaret Thatcher.
That makes us clear on what we will then do.
Nurses and doctors - more of them.
Prescription charges - abolish them.
Eye and dental check-ups - free once again.
That’s why patients need the Liberal Democrats.
Schools and colleges, cut class sizes for all 5 to 11 year olds.
Abolish tuition fees for higher education. Jim Wallace and our colleagues have done it in Scotland. Let’s do it for the rest of Britain as well.
The mountains of bureaucracy that burden teachers.
So that teachers can actually teach more, and stop being bureaucrats.
That’s why parents and children need the Liberal Democrats.
And what about the pensioners? Forgotten and insulted by Gordon Brown. Pensions were introduced by a Liberal government. By a man called Lloyd George. And today, we retain that commitment to a decent pension for all. So we will give pensioners more, above inflation.
£5 extra every week for every pensioner.
If you’re over 75, it’s going to be £10 extra.
If you’re over 80, it’s going to be £15 extra.
Now that will make a real difference.
That’s why pensioners need the Liberal Democrats.
The great challenge facing our generation.
We say that a clean environment relates to health.
To civil liberties.
We understand that, instinctively so. And again, we’re honest. We’re clear, fuel taxes should be used to improve the environment. In the months and years to come, we have got to get that message across. To show that good environmental policies are about more choice, not less. Positive gain, not pain. And that we can all make a difference.
That’s why the environment needs the Liberal Democrats.
And let me say something about the single currency. If there is an election next year, then a referendum on the Euro can’t be long delayed. Labour will no longer have anywhere to hide. It shouldn’t be a party political issue. But let me make our position crystal clear. As pro-Europeans we are not in favour of rushing into the euro head first. We don’t believe Europe is perfect. And we will work to see that reform takes place. But we do believe that Britain can and must lead in Europe. Lead reform in Europe. Lead on the euro’s benefits for Britain.
That’s why, earlier this year, I asked a panel of experts to report on what the government should be doing. They’ve done so. And if the government chooses to ignore the experts, British businesses will lose, British workers will lose, British consumers will lose. Britain will lose. So those of us in favour of the euro must go out there and argue the case. We have a duty to do so. We cannot sit on our hands.
That’s why Britain and Europe need the Liberal Democrats.
This has been an outstanding year for the Liberal Democrats. The local elections - our biggest ever share of the national vote. Sandra’s triumph in Romsey. Real votes, cast in real elections.
And we are making a difference on real issues throughout the country. I can look round this hall and see the faces of people who are making a serious difference across Britain today. Mike German and his colleagues have made a significant impact on the Welsh Assembly. Our colleagues in the London Assembly. The singular contribution of Susan Kramer. And the enormous contribution that the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland has made to the peace process. We wish it and them well.
And I am particularly proud of our record in Scotland, where Jim Wallace has been running the government. Liberal Democrats have helped deliver.
In Scotland, we are delivering better hospitals.
More money for education.
More police officers.
Freedom of Information.
A new approach to farming and rural affairs.
And, the abolition of tuition fees.
In Scotland we’ve shown that the SNP are an irrelevance.
In Wales we’ve shown that Plaid Cymru are an irrelevance.
And both will be an even greater irrelevance at the next Westminster election.
They really are the wasted vote in British politics.
The Liberal Democrats are the party for the whole of Britain.
And that’s why the whole of Britain needs the Liberal Democrats.
We’ve shown that the others are now the old parties of the 20th century. We are the party of the 21st. Our policies, our principles, our practical approach, our philosophy of freedom, can lead us to even greater triumphs. Let us connect with the people and the people will connect with us.
At the next election, I believe we will win more votes, and more seats. 1997 was a staging post. It wasn’t a high-water mark. In the months and years to come, our message of freedom is one that we have to get across to the British people.
For me, and for my family, that’s a very personal message. For my grandfather, freedom meant putting on a uniform, and going to fight in the Dardanelles in the First World War.
For my mother and father, freedom has meant the chance to give their children - youngest son included - better life opportunities than they could ever have aspired to for themselves.
For me, freedom is about being grateful for the opportunities I’ve had, and my friends at school had, and doing something for our country to help make that freedom commonplace.
I have great pride in our party, in what we stand for. Pride in our principles. And I have a pride in Britain. In what it can be.
So we must go into the next election, and tell people about our message of freedom. The difference between the Liberal Democrats and the disaster of William Hague’s Party. The difference between the Liberal Democrats and the disappointment that Labour has become.
Go out there and tell it to people as it is. What you see is what you get. This is what we will deliver. A truly modern, truly free, 21st century Britain. A Liberal Democrat Britain.