Government fit for Britain in the 21st century

Ming Campbell addresses conference in Harrogate 2007

Conference, this is the third time I’ve spoken at this rostrum in 36 hours.

You really get your money’s worth out of me.

So, let me be clear.

This is the last time that I will be addressing you as Leader of the Liberal Democrats;

While Tony Blair is Prime Minister.

And after him, the whole game changes.

As I pledged to you in that debate yesterday.

That great debate.

A debate that no other party could have held.

A debate which showed the Liberal Democrats at their best.

As I pledged to you, I will not sit on the fence.

I will not sit on my hands.

I will continue to lead from the front.

I know no other way.

You know, a day never passes now without Tony Blair offering us some new gift wrapped solution.

A global energy crisis – don’t worry, just before I go there’s time to buy a new set of nuclear power stations.

The crisis in the Middle East – don’t worry, just before I go I alone will bring peace to Israel and the Palestinians.

Domestic gun crime – don’t worry, just before I go I’ll have a summit at No 10 and give you yet another criminal justice act.

The Prime Minister is hunting for his place in history.

He’s like a man in a supermarket with two minutes to go to closing time.

He’s doing it with such energy that it would make Victoria Beckham look restrained.

This frenzy of activity is designed to obscure a record of failure.

Because the true story is depressing.

The nuclear energy consultation?

Ruled illegal.

Britain’s influence abroad?

Sullied and diminished.

Our National Health Service?

Beds closing, operations delayed, nurses pay being cut.

And just this week doctors on the dole.

After ten long years, the cabinet has moved on.

The British people have moved on.

And so too should the Prime Minister.

The Blair premiership is finished.

And while Tony has been concentrating on his legacy, Dave’s been ducking and weaving.

He wants to keep his past private.

Well, I can understand that.

If I had his past I’d want to keep it private too.

Come on Dave – it’s time to come clean.

Admit your guilty secret.

In your youth, you were a Tory Boy and your heroes were Michael Howard, Norman Lamont and John Selwyn Gummer.

You know, with pin ups like that, frankly, I’d want to keep my past private too.

But seriously, it’s not your youthful indiscretions that worry me – it’s your adult misjudgements.

Teenage kicks are one thing, but you’ve got to grow up some time.

It’s time you admitted your mistakes.

Particularly your support for the Iraq war.

A moment when you gave the Prime Minister license to fight a war without legitimacy.

A conflict which has left Iraq on the verge of civil war,

The terrorists emboldened.

And the region destabilised.

Britain needs a new direction.

In 1997, Britain needed a new direction too.

Eighteen years of Conservative government had left Britain’s public health and education in a mess.

Mismanagement of the economy had led to boom and bust.

And the Tory approach to international affairs had left our seat at the European table empty.

Our influence dissipated.

And our national interest prejudiced.

Was it any wonder that the British people wanted change?

Now 10 years later Tony Blair is working out the last few weeks of his notice.

So let’s take a look at the true state of Blair’s Britain.

To be fair, first, on the plus side.

Much-needed economic stability brought by independence for the Bank of England – a Liberal Democrat proposal.

At last, the necessary investment in our public services – a Liberal Democrat priority.

A Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly – a Liberal Democrat principle.

But whatever achievements have been made, there remain so many disappointments.

So many missed opportunities.

So much failure.

Let’s just look at what’s gone wrong on Tony Blair’s watch.

On the economy, personal debt is spiralling out of control.

The tax system is over-complicated.

And the housing boom is penalising first time buyers.

The gap between the rich and the poor is wider now than it was under the Conservatives.

Let me say that again, the gap between the rich and the poor is wider now than it was under the Conservatives.

Tony Blair’s failure – yes.

But Labour’s failure too.

In the Health Service, hospitals are in deficit.

Wards are closing.

Jobs are being lost.

In education, children from poorer backgrounds are falling behind.

Truancy is at record levels.

Students are saddled with debt.

We are now ranked bottom – yes, bottom – of the UNICEF league table for child well-being.

You know what that is?

That is a disgrace.

That is a national disgrace.

And on the international stage, our Prime Minister and the American President have created an axis of conflict from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean.

The Middle East peace process is in deep freeze.

Iraq is close to civil war.

The Taliban are regrouping in Afghanistan.

And now there is the threat of military action against Iran.

Britain’s foreign policy under Blair is neither independent nor effective – and it no longer serves the national interest.

On Crime, there has been abject failure at the Home Office.

The prison population is at record levels, and re-offending rates are the highest in Europe.

This Labour government has given us twenty three new bills relating to criminal law since 1997.

It has imposed on us some of the most authoritarian peacetime legislation this country has ever seen.

More than 3000 new crimes have been put on the statute book.

And yet the fear of crime and anti-social behaviour has not diminished one bit.

On the Environment, we need action and tough choices on energy, transport and aviation emissions.

We need Britain to lead by example and live up to its responsibilities to future generations.

And yet even last week David Miliband downgraded the climate change bill to draft status.

Instead of action, yet another year of delay and indecision.

Is it any wonder that trust in this Labour Government has evaporated?

You know, I’m not surprised about that.

When I travel around this country my anger rises as I see the daily problems faced by decent British people.

Parents who can’t get their children into the local school.

Young couples who can’t afford decent housing.

Older people struggling on the basic state pension.

This is the frustrated majority of Britain.

The frustrated majority being let down by this Labour government.

The frustrated majority who have been let down by Tony Blair.

He was the prime minister who promised so much, but who has delivered so little.

Well, Labour may have given up on the big challenges facing our country, but I tell you this: this party never will.

And now we are faced with the prospect of Gordon Brown as prime minister.

This Chancellor of the Exchequer has had more control over the direction of government policy than any Chancellor in living memory.

This man, who has written the cheques since 1997, has had unparalleled influence within Whitehall.

Why on earth should we believe that Britain will be better governed if he moves from No 11 Downing Street to No. 10?

Why should we believe that more of the same is what Britain needs?

I’ll tell you what this country needs.

This country needs a fresh direction.

A liberal and democratic direction.

Britain needs a government that is prepared to reduce inequality.

Britain needs a government that will uphold the rule of law.

Britain needs a government that will preserve our traditional freedoms.

Britain needs a government that will take on the challenge of climate change.

And Britain needs a government that will restore our international reputation.

The question is – can Gordon Brown meet that challenge?

Does he have the courage to take Britain in a new direction?

Is he the man to create the liberal and democratic Britain that we need?

I’ve got five tests for Gordon Brown.

First, end Labour’s authoritarian attack on civil liberties.

Identity cards will not stop terrorism.

They won’t stop illegal immigration.

They won’t stop fraud.

And they won’t stop crime.

Don’t spend billions of pounds on an expensive, ineffective, and unworkable identity card scheme.

Spend the money on our police and security services instead.

Second, grasp the challenge posed by climate change.

The environmental efforts in the Chancellor’s budgets have been risible.

Make the green tax switch so that we tax pollution more and earnings less.

Third, break open the poverty trap.

How can it be fair that over two and a half million pensioners live in poverty?

How can it be fair that over one and a half million families are on waiting lists for social housing?

And I want to ask Gordon Brown how can it be fair that in 21st century Britain six out ten children in Glasgow – the city where I was born – live in poverty?

Give pensioners a proper income without the humiliation of the means test.

Give families the opportunity for decent housing.

Give our children a proper chance in life.

End the dependency culture.

Give people a hand up, not a hand out.

And my fourth test, trust the people.

Since 1997 Labour has accumulated power, when it ought to have dispersed it.

Take localism seriously and free local communities from the shackles of Whitehall.

Scrap the unfair Council Tax which penalises pensioners and poorer families and hamstrings local communities.

And fifth, Britain’s foreign policy should not be set in Washington.

What do we know about Iraq?

I’ll tell you what we know.

The President made the decisions, the Prime Minister argued the case, the Chancellor signed the cheques and the Tories voted it through.

The British-American relationship needs to be rebalanced.

And sooner rather than later.

There are ominous signs that some in the United States might consider military action against Iran.

But strikes against Iran would buttress the regime,

Destabilise the region,

And put British forces in Iraq at risk.

So, Mr Brown, announce now that Britain will not support and will not play any part in an attack on Iran.

And while you are at it, repudiate the Prime Minister’s desperate efforts to lock us into the United States plan for a ‘son of star wars’ missile defence system.

So, these are the five tests for Mr Brown if he is going to make the change of direction that Britain needs.

And if he meets these five tests he will have changed direction.

He will have changed direction, and embraced liberal democracy.

Are the Conservatives up to this same challenge?

Of course not.

You can’t bring about a change of direction for Britain when you’re determined to emulate Tony Blair.

And you are no liberal when you plan to abolish Britain’s human rights laws.

You know what disappoints me about Mr Cameron?

Just when the rest of the country is turning its back on Blairism –

The spin, the photo-opportunities, the sound-bites, and the gimmicks –

The Tory leader wants to be the same.

We know real politics is about providing solutions.

As the Conservative leader shrinks from that challenge the Liberal Democrats are here to meet it.

Think about where we were a year ago.

People were writing us off.

They said three party politics was dead.

But you cannot write off liberalism.

You cannot write off the Liberal Democrats.

And what about the nonsense that we had to choose between social liberalism and economic liberalism.

All of that has stopped.

Because we have shown our determination to harness the market to deliver social justice.

Other parties may need to reposition or reinvent themselves.

But we are consistent in our views and our values.

And we are consistent in our beliefs.

We believe in liberalism.

We believe in democracy.

And on my watch our party is clear where we stand.

Clear on crime.

Clear on tax.

Clear on the environment.

We are not a pressure group.

We are a party of influence and power.

Everything we do from now to the next election should be to make us ready for the challenge that election will bring.

That means credible policy – action we could implement in Government.

Action that will make a practical difference to people’s lives.

Action that encourages social mobility and opportunity.

Action that’s based on the enduring values of liberal democracy.

And we have set the agenda.

Robust green, environmental solutions that would help Britain live up to its responsibilities to the next generation.

Robust, credible economic policies that aren’t about high taxes but about fair taxes.

Robust practical responses to crime – honesty in sentencing, making prison work, and community justice too.

Because together, we can cut crime.

But this is the challenge I want to set for us all over the next year.

On health, welfare and education we will be debating new ideas.

At the heart of these proposals will be our unswerving commitment to reduce poverty and inequality.

You can’t call yourself a Liberal Democrat unless you share that commitment.

The country cries out for sustainable, high quality local services in health, education and welfare.

We must establish a society in which the chances of an individual are not determined by their background or who their parents were.

A society in which everyone who has the potential, and is prepared to work hard can achieve success.

A society that looks after those who are less fortunate.

A society that is compassionate and generous.

That provides opportunity and encourages ambition.

But I tell you this.

Our approach to the public services will not be to throw money about.

The Liberal Democrats are not a tax and spend party.

We are a save and spend party.

We were right – in the 1990s – to argue for higher taxation for public services because the Tories had stripped our public services to the bone.

We were right – in 2001 – to argue for higher taxation for public services because Gordon Brown had stuck to Tory spending limits and little had changed.

And now taxes have gone up and some investment has been made.

And yes, there have been some improvements.

But so much of that investment has been wasted.

Taxpayers’ money wasted on initiatives that get headlines, but have no practical effect.

Taxpayers’ money wasted on a merry-go-round of reorganisation that leaves doctors, nurses and teachers tied up in red-tape, filling out forms and waiting for the next ministerial gimmick.

Taxpayers money wasted on this government’s Whitehall directed, target driven, wrong-headed, dogmatic obsession with command and control of the public services – yes, and control of peoples lives too.

So I say the tax burden doesn’t need to rise.

I say that we need to spend the public’s money better.

Our green tax switch is the first detailed plan by any major political party to shift the burden of tax away from people to pollution.

By increasing green taxes we can change the behaviour of polluters at a time when action to combat climate change has never been more needed.

And by increasing green taxes and abolishing generous tax subsidies that benefit the rich, we can afford to cut taxes for lower and middle income families.

And remember what that means.

By abolishing the 10 pence starting rate.

By cutting the basic rate from 22 pence to 20.

And by raising the top rate threshold from £38,000 to £50,000, we will cut the national income tax bill of 28 million people.

More than two million of the poorest tax payers will come out of national income tax altogether.

Don’t whisper it softly – shout it out loudly – Liberal Democrats would cut national income tax for those who need it most.

People keep asking me what my objectives for the next elections are.

So let me tell you now.

More votes, more seats, more influence.

And at these next elections – on May 3rd – that is what this party must aim for.

More votes across the country.

More seats in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly.

And more influence in more councils across Britain.

But this is setting a tough target for ourselves – for we start from a high base.

So be under no illusions.

If we don’t work as hard as we can between now and May, we will not succeed.

There can be no room for complacency.

May is a crucial test for us, and we will only pass it if every Liberal Democrat joins with me to take our message out across the country.

And when we’re out there we’re going to be telling people exactly where we stand.

That our party is the party of freedom, fairness and the environment.

That we’re the only party campaigning to scrap the unfair council tax.

That our five steps to a safer Britain can cut crime and free people from fear.

That we’re the only party serious about the environment.

And tell them too about our record.

That across Britain – in government – we have delivered.

That across Britain – in government – we have kept our promises.

In Watford – graffiti being cleaned up by those who made the mess in the first place.

In Cardiff – faster response to out of hours calls to GPs.

And in Newcastle and Liverpool – crime falling.

We can be particularly proud of our record for fairness in national government in Scotland.

Fairness for young people – by abolishing tuition fees.

Fairness for the elderly – by giving free personal care.

And fairness for all voters beset by decades of inefficient Labour local government, with proportional representation in local elections for the first time this May – when every vote will count.

So whether you’re fighting elections in Scotland or Wales or fighting elections in England, make sure you tell the Liberal Democrat message.

Governing is an honour.

And it’s an honour that we should never take for granted.

When we leave Harrogate let us campaign as we have never campaigned before.

Let us work hard to win every extra vote and every extra seat.

For every extra vote and every extra seat will make our country and our communities freer, fairer and greener.

I tell you this now.

I’m not content to lead a party whose sole purpose is opposition.

Our clear direction must be government.

We want to govern, not because we think we were born to it like the Conservatives.

We want to govern, not because we want to control people’s lives like Labour.

We want to govern to give power back to the people.

And our ambition is to create a different kind of government.

A government elected by a system where every vote counts.

Government that frees people to make their own choices.

Government that’s compassionate and dedicated to the people it serves.

Government that safeguards the environment for the next generation.

Government fit for Britain in the 21st century.

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7 Responses to Government fit for Britain in the 21st century

  1. Elaine Critchlow says:

    Thank you for your leadership. Of course you are right, and I hope it influences the direction of politics in Britain. You might even win a majority, and the timing looks right to me, too. At the very least it should influence the other parties, even if the voters find the “third party” too risky.

    It happened in Canada when the voters gave Chretien a massive majority. And it seemed hopeless then…

    Canadian Liberal

  2. Chris Squire says:

    ‘For a politician whose experience was supposed to be his greatest asset, Sir Menzies Campbell displayed an extremely poor grasp of recent political history in allowing his party’s spring conference to be overshadowed by speculation about who the Lib Dems would back in a hung Parliament and the suggestion that they would sustain a minority Labour government in power.’ Read all about it at:

  3. Pingback: Official website of Ming Campbell MP (Rt. Hon. Sir Menzies Campbell CBE QC MP) » Blog Archive » Spring conference video

  4. Pingback: Official website of Ming Campbell MP (Rt. Hon. Sir Menzies Campbell CBE QC MP) » Blog Archive » Reaction to Campbell’s conference speech

  5. Mike says:

    7 out of 10, Ming but the real issue is Iraq and you really need to be more brutal in your assertion of the obvious in that respect. I remember when you were on Newsnight every second night a couple of years ago forging the debate before you were a party leader. The country needs more of that. You are the man for it and it needs doing now before Cameron succeeds in his pretensions (false, false, false as they are) to attain some illusory high ground.

  6. Alan Holland-Avery says:

    I agree with Ming on most (but not all) of his speech. Surely he would be the best PM for this country, if only the Lib Dems accross the country believed in themselves and got off their hands. Lib Dems could change the face of British politics in two years time, if only they believed in Ming and got mobile without delay!
    Unfortunately Ming has slipped into the cheap trick of getting into the green/environmental scene with minimal, poor but selective science. I have written to his office in more detail.
    Meanwhile the absence of accurate science reminds me of just why we declaired war on Iraq.
    Mankind is a minor species on this planet. All animal, vegetable and bacteria life have us beaten. Even the humble cow produces 80 litres of methane every day. Shall we ban cows then?
    Photosynthesis feeds on the ‘greenhouse’ gasses of water vapour and carbon dioxide. Green trees absorb the sun’s radiation whilst snow reflects it. Mankind cannot change the laws of physics or the laws of chemistry.
    Have we forgotton that the Thames froze up about 450 years ago? That was the sun’s radiation (or lack of it) then, just as it is the sun’s radiation which brings us global warming today. We must learn to live with it for we shall not change it. The sun and the earth have never been stable and never will!
    Best wishes,

  7. Pingback: Liberal Democrat Voice » Opinion: Ming must go

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