David Steel – 1985 Speech on the Loyal Address

Below is the text of the speech made by David Steel, the then Leader of the Liberal Party, in the House of Commons on 6 November 1986.

I happily join the other party leaders in congratulating the mover and seconder of the Loyal Address.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Sir R. Eyre) is a respected senior colleague and a former Minister and we greatly enjoyed his references to his previous constituents. I noted with particular enjoyment his reference to Tony Hancock and the episode in the “Blood Donor”. The hon. Gentleman might have regaled the ​ House with the line that I remember best from that episode. Tony Hancock was explaining to the attendant at the blood donor centre why he had been motivated to go to the centre. He said that he felt that he had to do something for his country and it was either giving blood or joining the Young Conservatives. I believe that Tony Hancock made the right choice, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Hall Green agrees.

On a more serious note, the hon. Member for Hall Green was surely right to make a plea to the Government to invest more in our decaying cities and less in the green belt. His view finds an echo on the Opposition side.

I have a warm affection for the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Malone). The leader of the Labour party gave a less than complete biography of the hon. Gentleman whose contribution to the alliance began not with his defeat in a by-election by my right hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Jenkins), but in the 1979 election with his defeat by me at Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles. The hon. Gentleman is a unique embodiment of how much the Liberal party and the SDP have in common.

Again on a serious note, we not only enjoy the hon. Gentleman’s self-deprecating humour and appreciate his obviously genuine devotion to Aberdeen after sojourns in the Borders and Glasgow, but I strongly agree with him that the success of the Government will be judged by how they manage to reform our industrial base. On that proposition, we can rest content and we shall see what happens in the next year or two.

There is no doubt that the whole tone of the Queen’s Speech follows closely the tone of the Conservative party conference. The whole emphasis was on the presentation of policies rather than on the policies themselves. Any criticism was of the presentation, not the substance.

Great emphasis is placed on presentation, so much so that, during the Conservative party conference, The Guardian reported:

“It is a week in which presentation … is the name of the game.”

It reported a particular and, I believe, significant episode:

“Mr. John Patten, the new Minister for the Environment, may have gone too far presentationwise. An advance handout of his speech winding up a local government debate began: ‘This has been a marvellous debate.’ It was distributed some two hours before the debate began.”

That is the sort of presentation that we are becoming used to and we find echoes of it in various phrases throughout the Gracious Speech. For example, we are told that the

“Government will continue to work for progress in arms control and disarmament negotiations”.

Continue to work? What efforts have the Government made in arms control negotiations? Not only did they refuse to count in the Polaris missile system during previous East-West discussions, despite almost semi-public prodding by Vice-President Bush to do so, but they have made a lukewarm response—to put it mildly—to Mr. Gorbachev’s alternative suggestion that there could be direct discussions to see whether reductions on both sides could be achieved between Britain and the Soviet Union.

The House has debated many times the effect on the Budget in general and on conventional defence spending in particular of the Government’s commitment to the Trident missile programme. We do not concentrate often enough on the fact that that commitment represents a major escalation of nuclear fire power by this country at a time when we hope for greater optimism in East-West ​ relations. An increase from a targeting capability of 64 to 896 is not working towards arms control and reductions; that is working positively for a major escalation of nuclear fire power. There is a gap between the presentation and the reality.

In the next paragraph of the Gracious Speech we are told that within the European Community the Government

“will work for improved decision taking”.

They could have fooled me. Where have we found Britain in recent Community discussions? We have been in company with Denmark and Greece in resisting the political and constitutional reforms that are necessary to end stagnation within the Community. That will be an important issue as Spain and Portugal join the Community. I hope that it signals a major change in the Government’s attitude to the Community.

The Queen’s Speech states that the Government

“will continue to seek more normal relations with Argentina.”

I hope that that will be so. I was glad to see published for the first time in yesterday’s press a fact that I reported privately to the Foreign Office a couple of weeks ago following my discussions with President Alfonsin—that the Argentine Government are ready to join in a multilateral effort to secure agreements on fishing. It is a small step, but it is welcome, and I hope that the Government will build on it.

My basic quarrel is with the Government’s negative stance on the future of the Falklands. We tend to forget that, proud though we all were of our great victory in the Falklands, we not only brought liberty to the Falkland Islands but we were also instrumental in bringing liberty and democracy to Argentina. We have not built upon that, nor have we built upon the good will generated there.
If the Government were willing to negotiate the future constitution of the Falkland Islands with a military dictatorship, it is not unreasonable to ask two democracies to come to an agreement on this long-standing dispute. We should be looking forward in this Session to the lifting of the protection zone, the cessation of hostilities, and a return to normal diplomatic relations. If no other argument appeals to the Prime Minister, she should listen to the many British business men who are complaining bitterly about the loss of trade and export potential.

The Queen’s Speech continues:

“My Government will work for peaceful and fundamental change in South Africa with the European Community and the Commonwealth”.

I hope that the emphasis will be on work, not just hope, because “peaceful and fundamental change” is what we are after.

The Government’s record is not good. At the European Community meeting the unfortunate Minister of State took a negative stance and, even in the tiny sanctions agreed by the other Community countries, following the Prime Minister’s performance in the Bahamas, we held out to resist any international pressure on South Africa. That does not give us hope that the Government intend to work constructively to ensure a peaceful change.

I asked someone who was in the Bahamas at the time whether the atmosphere was as bad as it appeared to us at home, and I was told that it was worse. I was told, “You do not understand. Your Prime Minister treats other Heads of Government as if they were members of the Dorking Conservative association with the same narrow, blinkered view of the world perspective.” I appreciate that a growing ​ part of Conservative philosophy is to believe that everyone else is wrong and that the Tory Government are right, but I hope that the Government really intend to work for that change and that it is not mere presentation.

The Government promise to

“maintain a substantial aid programme.”

No one could honestly use the word “maintain” in relation to the Government’s aid programme. Our contribution has never reached 0·7 per cent. of gross domestic product—the United Nations target. When the Government took office our contribution was 0·52 per cent., and it is now only 0·33 per cent. Our contribution is in decline. When we came back after the summer recess we were treated to a warm demonstration from the World Development Movement. It was one of the most impressive demonstrations outside the House for many years. I remember asking the Leader of the House, who was standing in for the Prime Minister, why we gave only $25 a head to overseas aid when the Americans gave $37 per head and the French $47. He said that one had to consider the relative strength of resources. That is fair, but the Canadians gave $65 per head and the Danes and the Dutch $88. That has nothing to do with the strength of resources, but more to do with strength of will—or the lack of it. Maintaining “a substantial aid programme” must be more than presentation; it must become a reality.

Similar phraseology is used in relation to domestic matters. We are told:

“Legislation will be introduced to facilitate funding by the industry of agricultural research, advice and related services”.

That is a euphemism for cutting agricultural research along with medical, scientific and engineering research. The words “facilitate funding” seem to bestow a benefit upon agricultural research, but no one in the farming world will believe that for a second.

The Gracious Speech says:

“Measures will be brought forward to reform the operation of Wages Councils”.

If the Government intend to make it easier to bring young people into the labour market without plunging straight in at adult wage rates, they will get some sympathy, but we suspect that this proposal might open the door to a return to sweatshops for young people because the Government intend to abandon the International Labour Organisation code. Why do they intend to do that if reform is their genuine aim?

In Scotland legislation is planned

“to improve legal aid arrangements”.

The legal profession in Scotland knows what that means. It means cutting legal aid access; it has nothing to do with improving legal aid arrangements. That is another example of presentation which has nothing to do with reality.
The most brazen piece of presentation is contained in the paragraph which says:

“Legislation will be introduced … to promote the professional effectiveness of teachers.”

This Government have done more to undermine the professional effectiveness of teachers than any previous Government. I met union members yesterday, so I know what I am talking about. They reinforced my view that the issue is not just about the current pay dispute, but about the Government’s attitude to education. We must take note of the Audit Commission report on the universities published yesterday. We must take into account what has happened to school books and buildings.

Of course, a problem is caused by falling school rolls, but the Government have given the figures as expenditure per head, which conceals the decline in morale in the classrooms.

The Prime Minister referrred to the powers of the police in combating disorder. We shall give our constructive support to any legislation designed to combat public disorder. However, we must be careful that we do not turn our police into a buffer to deal with problems which politicians and society have failed to tackle. I say that retrospectively with reference to the miners’ dispute and to the inner city problems. It is no use piling all the responsibility on to the police if we have not tackled the root of the problem.

The crime record under the present Government is appalling. It reveals a glaring gap between presentation and image and reality. The Government claim to be the Government of law and order. The people believe it because Conservatives constantly make speeches about it, but their record reveals something different.

All reported crimes are up 40 per cent. Crimes of violence are up 20 per cent., robberies have doubled, and burglaries have nearly doubled since the Government came to power. Crimes against property have increased, and I believe unemployment to be the root cause. People who are not part of the criminal fraternity are turning to crime almost as a way of life. We must tackle that problem immediately.

We shall support any Government moves to tackle drug addiction. The increase in drug addiction is also related to some extent to the feeling of helplessness in our inner cities—[HON. MEMBERS: “Rubbish.”] Hon. Members may doubt that, but one of the most depressing conversations that I had during the summer was when I spent a week in Liverpool. I met members of the Merseyside drug council and talked to drug addicts. One addict commented to me, “What is the point of coming off drugs? What is it for?” When there is that feeling of frustration, helplessness and hopelessness among some of our young people, we have an obligation to be aware that it exists. We must tackle that as well as the problem of drug trafficking, although I welcome what the Prime Minister had to say about that. To ignore that atmosphere, to say that it is all a question of going after the pushers, is to ignore what life is really like in our inner cities.

I am sorry that the Prime Minister did not have time to see the Rev. Jesse Jackson when he was here, although I do not criticise her. He saw the other party leaders individually and voiced important opinions about the effect of black consciousness in the inner cities and the American experience. He gave one very good piece of advice to the black community in this country, which deserves wider attention, about recruitment to the police force. It is undoubtedly true that while only 300 of our 20,000 Metropolitan police are black, the tensions that Lord Scarman highlighted in his 1981 report will continue. The Rev. Jesse Jackson said that the attitude of blacks boycotting entrance into the police was wrong, and we must all endorse what he said. We must try to recruit more black people into the police and integrate them—[Interruption.] I wish that the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) would not interrupt from a sedentary position and make such ludicrous remarks. I object to those who, on political grounds, say that they are ​ not interested in entering the police force. I am not saying that there should be different qualifications for different people; only that we should recruit more black people.

Surely we want people to help themselves. I say to the leader of the Labour party that one of the problems of the Labour council in Liverpool is that it believes that it can find the people to do for Liverpool people what they should be doing for themselves. It appointed as a race relations officer a member of Militant Tendency—a surveyor in London. Yet there is a perfectly good black consciousness movement in the city capable of generating its own leadership, and it should be encouraged to do so.

This summer I also visited Handsworth, some time after the riots had occurred. Again, there is a lesson to be learned. The Prime Minister and the Home Secretary—

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby)

The right hon. Gentleman is telling the Labour party what it should be doing, yet the Liberal party was in control of the city of Liverpool for 10 years, during which time it stopped the building of council houses, slashed student grants, sacked 4,000 workers from the Liverpool corporation and refused a grant to Toxteth community council almost immediately after the riots so that the bill had to be met by the Labour-controlled Merseyside county council. The right hon. Gentleman’s remarks are rich indeed.

Mr. Steel

I shall happily send the hon. Gentleman the 66-page document that we have prepared showing how false are the statements being made by the hon. Gentleman, Mr. Hatton and others—[Interruption .] I am sorry that I have been diverted from my speech, but I wish to deal with this point. During the Liberal party’s period of control in Liverpool, there was a switch from council housing to co-operative and other forms of low-cost housing. In a city that has thousands of empty council houses, to talk about building more and giving people what the Labour party thinks is best for them is quite the wrong attitude. If the hon. Gentleman had dared to talk to the Eldon housing co-operative, which has many good Labour party members, he would have learned a great deal about what should be done for housing in the city, and at much less public expense than the Labour party’s proposals.

Birmingham gives us an important lesson in the way in which money has been spent in the cities. The Prime Minister was right to say that a great deal of money has been spent in those areas—

Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton) rose—

Mr. Steel

I shall not give way. Although I am usually willing to give way, I have now moved from Liverpool to Birmingham. This will not be the last time that we discuss the problems of Liverpool, and I look forward to returning to them in future.

There is an important lesson to be learned from Handsworth. I accept that money has been spent there, but one of the complaints of the people of Handsworth is that it has gone to outside national contractors which have brought in outside labour, carried out the work, and taken away the profits. We must look for better ways to spend the money.

A specific complaint is that projects put forward by the community following the 1981 experience have not yet been processed. I could not believe that and asked that the details be sent to me. The other day I forwarded to the ​ Home Secretary one specific example of this problem. A self-help project was proposed by the Afro-Caribbean group. It was dated 11 September 1981, but has still not been processed by the city council and the Manpower Services Commission. The project would involve young, unemployed blacks in restoring and repairing houses in the area. Surely that is the sort of project that we should be encouraging. Rather than throw money at the problem, we should use money to help people to help themselves.

What I have said about the inner cities is true of the general housing position. The Government’s house-building record is appalling. We hope that the Secretary of State for the Environment will succeed in persuading his Cabinet colleagues that the house repair problem is serious. It must be tackled more imaginatively. More could be done by turning local authority estates and new council housing into housing co-operatives. That is the way for the future, and it is one means of building communities rather than simply building houses. The Government should concentrate on that.

Finally, and most important of all, my quarrel with the tone of the Gracious Speech is that it offers nothing towards changing the Government’s economic direction. It refers to

“improving the efficiency of industries”

and to certain privatisation measures. Some of those measures may be acceptable, but we will have to wait to see the legislation. However, none of that is relevant to the central issues. The sale of assets, whatever the merit in spreading share ownership, is simply Treasury creative accounting. What will the Government do after the next election when there is nothing left to sell? What will they do in five years when there is no oil revenue? They have raised billions of pounds of capital from the sale of public assets, but pumped nothing back into the investment and infrastructure of our country.

It is significant that during the past few weeks other people—usually sympathetic to the Conservative party—have made that same criticism. Reference has already been made to the House of Lords Select Committee report. Not only was the report all-party, which is unusual; it was signed by people who are not theoretical economists, but have major experience of the industrial and commercial life of our country. In the report they said:

“Unless the climate is changed so that steps can be taken to enlarge the manufacturing base, combat import penetration and stimulate the export of manufactured goods, as oil revenues diminish the country will experience adverse effects which … constitute a grave threat to the standard of living and to the economic and political stability of the nation … Urgent action is required.”

The Association of British Chambers of Commerce said that there should be a much more positive Government approach to manufacturing industry and that the Government’s decision to reject the House of Lords report had been “rash and unwise”.

The Confederation of British Industry spoke about the Chancellor

“tying British industry’s shoelaces together”

with a combination of high interest rates and an overvalued pound.

The president of the Chartered Institute of Building said that the Government must act; they have got it wrong. He said that the Government seemed devoid of meaningful ideas, yet rejected serious initiatives from industry. He ​ said that the harsh, unpalatable fact was that Britain was spending a much lower proportion of GNP on superstructure and infrastructure.

This autumn the alliance published its detailed budget proposals, designed to stimulate the economy, to obtain some growth and to create jobs. They were tested on the Treasury model. The Government may disagree with them, but they cannot doubt their validity. We should concentrate hard on improving our manufacturing and economic base.

This is fundamentally a tinkering Gracious Speech; it does not go to the heart of the problem. It is all presentation. The Government, in rejecting all those other people’s views, remind me a little of a Victorian embroidery that I recall seeing on a wall in the home of an elderly couple in my constituency. I can imagine the Prime Minister saying to the Chancellor of the Exchequer,

“All the world’s a little wrong save thee and me, and even thee’s a little wrong.”

That sort of attitude will not carry the Government through. The editor of the Spectator was correct in his view of the Government’s presentation when he commented:

“it is a waste of time for anyone to try to alter the Prime Minister’s political persona. You may be able to persuade her to raise her voice or lower it, but it will still say the same things.”

That is true, and, because of it, the Government refuse to listen and to change and they are leading us to disaster in the long run. Because the Government will not change, we must change the Government.