More than ever, Britain needs a strong liberal voice

Ming Campbell addressed the Liberal Democrat ‘Meeting the Challenge’ conference earlier today:

I want to begin today by paying tribute to Charles Kennedy. In his resignation speech Charles displayed the dignity and courage, which made him such a success as leader of our party. He led us to new heights in two general elections. Today we salute Charles, wish him well and look forward to him returning to the front-line.

I also want to say to my colleagues Mark, Chris and Simon let us have a vigorous contest for the leadership, let us debate issues and policies – but let us remember how much unites us and let us never forget for one second that the real battle for us Liberal Democrats is against Labour and the Conservatives.

I have come here today to affirm my belief in a great cause. It is a cause that has inspired and dominated my whole life. The cause of liberty, of freedom, of justice. The cause that empowers people and liberates communities. The cause that enlightens our world and inspires our politics.

It is the great cause of liberalism. I have always been proud to be a Liberal and a Liberal Democrat and to campaign for this party since I was a student.

I have always been a liberal in my heart and in my head – inspired originally by the idealism and the imagination of Jo Grimond. It was Grimond who saw the need for Britain to play a full part in Europe; it was Grimond who saw that government should be decentralised and it was Grimond who saw the need for an open minded, radical and campaigning party. These principles matter today more than ever.

Ever since I first stood for Parliament it has been clear to me that Britain cries out for a liberal alternative to the long record of failure of Labour and the Conservatives alike.

I have fought for that liberal alternative in every election since February 1974. I have won five of them – I have learned how to win. But I also know how tough it is to win and how you can only win if you have the experience to lead a united, campaigning team.

The leader must develop and use all the remarkable talent now in our party nationally and locally. I want to make sure we capitalise on all their talents to win for Britain.

The days of mere parliamentary survival are over. We have entered a new phase. That brings both opportunity and responsibility. We need dedication, passion and professionalism. More than ever, Britain needs a strong liberal voice.

The other parties promote conformity and authoritarianism. We cherish individuality and stand up for personal freedom. For years they have concentrated power in Whitehall. We want to give it back to local communities. They sometimes talk of the environment. We have consistently made the environment our priority. They pander to nationalism. We stand for internationalism. They supported the Iraq War. We opposed that war, confirming our support for international law. We stood by our belief in the United Nations and what it stands for. We showed then our unity and our strength of purpose. We stood by our liberal principles.

So let me pledge today that, entrusted with the leadership of this great party, I will never compromise on the rule of international law and I will never compromise on my opposition to illegal or ill-founded military action.

We live in a time of great political change. I suppose we should be flattered that David Cameron is trying to steal our clothes? But this is the man behind Black Wednesday, the man who was the author of the appalling Tory party manifesto – and the man who was Michael Howard?s conscience. Now he asks us to believe that he has experienced a conversion on the road from Notting Hill.

I know liberals. I have worked with liberals. Liberals are my friends. If I may, ‘Dave’, you’re no liberal. More than ever this country needs a strong liberal alternative – but it needs the real thing. The need to address the sense of powerlessness and alienation that so many feel. The need to tackle poverty and social deprivation. The need to stop the damage to our environment and promote sustainable development. The need to act together internationally to promote peace and justice. Liberalism at home and liberalism abroad.

Our liberalism is not a struggle between those who wish to modernise and those who do not. To be a Liberal Democrat is to be a moderniser. What were Lloyd George, Beveridge and Grimond but modernisers? And so we must be modernisers too ? never compromising on principle, but making our principles contemporary and relevant.

We have a great opportunity – to be the party that will empower people to make the decisions that affect their everyday lives and the services on which they depend.

We can learn from Liberal Democrat councils and pioneer new ways of making public services truly accountable and responsive. We must insist on community services, locally provided, democratically accountable. We must be more ambitious. Open minds are more important than open necked shirts.

I want new thinking to liberate thousands of families locked in poverty. I want new thinking to reward environmentally friendly technology. I want new thinking to ensure every child with the talent, regardless of colour or creed, gender or sexual orientation, can become a QC or an Olympic athlete. I want new thinking to embrace strong action to tackle social injustice. I want new thinking to underpin a modern constitution, a radical democratic revolution.

These are dangerous times. The coming competition for energy resources threatens international security. It is only six months ago that London was subjected to a devastating attack from terrorists. Foreign policy and domestic are not separate issues in this small world every action abroad affects our lives at home.

International co-operation is the only way to provide real security. International co-operation is the only way to combat the threats to our environment. International co-operation is only way we can sustain a strong economy. And international co-operation is the only way to make poverty history.

You’d expect me and others to say something about leadership. I believe in leading not following; setting goals and objectives; shaping events not being shaped by them; taking responsibility and discharging it; being both candid and confident; neither dictatorial nor prescriptive, but consultative and committed.

To be the leader of the Liberal Democrats is to be the trustee of a great party, with much to be proud of already, but with the best achievements still to come. My role, with faith and diligence, is to ensure that future.