Below is the text of the speech made by Jo Swinson, the Liberal Democrat Spokesperson for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, at the party’s annual conference in Bournemouth on 17 September 2017.
Let me take you back to a rainy Saturday morning, 28 years ago. I’m doing what many 9-year-olds do on a Saturday morning, watching TV. It’s a children’s programme called Going Live, presented by Philip Schofield – some of you might even remember it, and depending on your age, nostalgically feel it was no match for Swap Shop or Saturday Superstore.
That particular morning’s show sticks in my mind because in amongst Gordon the Gopher, kids’ cartoons, and celebrities getting gunged, there was an amazing competition. The prize was to win a piece of the Berlin Wall, recently torn down in one of the most pivotal moments of 20th century history.
It was pretty obviously in an entirely different league to the usual phone-ins to win toys, or CDs, or tickets to concerts. I didn’t win the competition, but later on my dad visited Berlin and brought me back a little piece of that history.
I think it’s fair to say that as a child, apart from one Christmas watching the animated film “When the Wind Blows”, I hadn’t given much thought to nuclear war. But the cloud had hung threateningly over the world, at times perilously close to disaster on an unimaginable scale.
Thanks to the diplomacy, courage and political leadership which led to the end of the Cold War, we have enjoyed three decades with much reduced levels of nuclear threat, until now.
The provocative and aggressive actions of North Korea are stoking fear. This is a regime that is prepared to enslave, torture and starve its own people. The UN inquiry was harrowing.
One former prisoner told of being made to burn the bodies of fellow inmates who had starved to death, and then use their remains as fertiliser. Another spoke of seeing a mother forced by guards to drown her newborn baby. A dictatorship showing such unimaginable cruelty to own population, cannot be relied upon to act rationally and step back from nuclear confrontation to protect them.
Some of you are old enough to have survived the Blitz: the sirens, the air-raid shelters, hiding and huddling with family members until the danger passed. What do you tell your children as you run for cover? What were you told?
Now imagine being in Japan in recent weeks, as the news broke that North Korean missiles were on their way. A country where people can still remember the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A country that has endured decades of fallout from those deadly mushroom clouds. What did they tell their children as they prepared for the worst?
When calm heads and brave leaders are needed more than ever, global politics seems broken. A few years ago it would have seemed inconceivable that in such a crisis, China would be a voice of reason, and Russia more measured than America. The politics of the bully is back.
Human rights are trampled. Climate change is denied. Hate and division are spread like poison into society.
Just look at Turkey, until recently a democratic, reliable neighbour. A signed-up member of the European Convention on Human Rights, and in the process of becoming a member of the European Union. But now President Erdowan is cracking down on anyone who challenges him. More than 150 journalists have been imprisoned. The Chair and Director of Amnesty International have been rounded up and face trumped up charges.
In Venezuela, protestors against Maduro’s power-grabbing Executive have been attacked, imprisoned, and tortured. It reminds us that neither side of the political spectrum has a monopoly on undermining democracy and abusing human rights. And it beggars belief that Jeremy Corbyn would rather defend a tenuous link to socialism than condemn these atrocities.
In Myanmar, we are witnessing the appalling ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya by the military led by General Min Aung Hlaing. This religious and ethnic oppression serves as a recruiting sergeant for jihadi groups across the world.
And in Chechnya, back in 2010, I saw for myself the impact of Russia’s disregard for human rights, giving Kadyrov free rein to oppress the population. People told me about house burnings and how the state would make people disappear. I’ll never forget the distraught mother who pressed a photograph of her missing son into my palm. Missing, presumed executed by the state.
In recent weeks, we have seen the terrible power of nature.Hurricanes Harvey and Irma have left a trail of flattened communities and broken lives.20 years ago, Harvey would have been a 1 in a 2000 year event.Yet Irma followed immediately after, wreaking destruction with record-breaking winds.
In South Asia, 41 million people are battling floods and displacement, which destroy lives and livelihoods.
Climate scientists predict that global warming will have reached over 2 degrees by 2050 – far beyond the 1.5 degrees safe limit set in the global climate change deal, the Paris Agreement. 2 degrees of warming will ruin crop production in many parts of the world, leading to disease, malnutrition, and rising food prices.
It is hard to communicate the absolutely urgency of this situation. We must act now to prepare and adapt for the warming that is now inevitable.
And we must radically cut carbon emissions to have any hope of limiting the temperature rise to levels which humanity as we know it can survive.
Just two years ago, world leaders gathered in Paris and committed to an ambitious plan to tackle global warming. Now we face the withdrawal of the world’s largest economy from the agreement, while Brexit threatens to weaken action on climate change in the UK and across Europe.
Every time the world witnesses crimes against humanity, every time there is ethnic cleansing, or genocide, we solemnly say ‘Never Again’.
And we struggle to comprehend, how such horrors unfold. Not just how brutal megalomaniac dictators can order atrocities, but perhaps more how ordinary people in the population can comply. Violent threats are part of the reason, but planning such evil acts also requires another ingredient: hate.
The politics of the bully rely on hate and division.
And we should be very worried about the spread of hate in both our online and offline worlds.
We need to talk about racism and religious bigotry.
For people with brown skin, being abused in the street is a depressing reality.
Levels of anti-Semitic abuse are at a record high.
A tirade of bile is directed at migrants fleeing war-torn countries, the language of “swarms” and “cockroaches” dehumanising these desperate people with heart-breaking stories.
Some of this is fed by the elite cabal of media owners and their hate-filled newspapers. Online communities spreading lies and misinformation have flourished. Russia has a sinister army of social media bots spreading division, and it looks like they’ve even branched out into paying people to be internet trolls.
The footage of Charlottesville was incomprehensible to watch. Just seventy years after the Second World War, white supremacists marching through streets carrying Swastika flags. And the US President draws some kind of moral equivalence between Nazis who kill a woman and people taking to the streets saying there’s no place for that hate. Don’t be fooled if you think this is only in America. Just look at the murder of Jo Cox.
The thing is, all of these hate groups, these extremists – they feed off each other. They seek to pervert cultural, ethnic and religious identities and turn one against another. ISIS is no more representative of Islam than the KKK are of Christianity. They use each other as recruitment tools. We cannot end one without tackling them all.
I know you shared my despair on 24 June last year, as the news sank in that we had voted to leave the European Union. I was completely gutted. Dismayed to be leaving the EU institutions, yes, but distraught at what it said about our country, our values, our vision.
I was altogether more optimistic on the 8th November. The polls were looking good and, eagerly anticipating a momentous night, I popped into the shop to buy some prosecco on the way home. I settled down on the sofa to watch the US Presidential results with an excitement that will be familiar to fellow election geeks, and with a feminist hope that was shared right across the world. As the night wore on, no amount of prosecco could have helped.
President Trump is a product of the anti-liberal forces we face. He is also their poster child.
Faced with rising nuclear tensions, we have a President who picks up his phone not to talk, but to tweet inflammatory rhetoric in capital letters.
A man who has made clear his own support for torture, and wants to ban all Muslims from entering the US, is in no position to advance the cause of human rights.
He puts climate change deniers into powerful positions, defunds environmental programmes and even tells scientists to remove mention of our warming climate from their government websites.
His conflicts of interest are legion, treating the Presidency like a marketing campaign for the Trump brand. And still not a sign of that tax return.
The Trump regime unleashes daily despair, enough to keep liberal America into a state of constant shock.
Trump is a bully, a misogynist and a racist. He boasts about sexually assaulting women. He cruelly mocked a reporter for his disability. He has rolled back trans rights. And for someone who makes much of being straight-talking, he won’t call a Nazi a Nazi.
Yet the Conservative Government thinks it is right to offer Trump the honour of a state visit to the UK.
They are wrong.
It is also a sign of our weakness in a Brexit world. How easily will our values be cast aside in our desperation to sign trade deals to avoid economic catastrophe.
Barack Obama had a rug made for the Oval Office, with his favourite Martin Luther King quote woven into it. It says “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
I’m afraid I am less optimistic, or less patient
As far as I can see, there is nothing inevitable about the triumph of liberal values.
We need to understand what is going on, so we can work out what to do.
The most fascinating research I saw on the Brexit vote was by a Birkbeck Professor, Eric Kaufmann.
He analysed a simple question:
Do you think it’s more important that children are considerate, or well-behaved?
Considerate, or well-behaved?
I read it and my first thought was as the mother of a 3 year old, frankly I’d settle for either.
But amazingly, how people answer this question better predicts whether they voted for Brexit, than their income does.
Let’s try it out. Conference, let’s have a vote. Don’t worry stewards, I’m not going to make you count it, but I do want you to all to vote. Hands up if you think it is more important for children to be considerate?
Hands up for well-behaved?
It holds true for the Trump v Clinton voting patterns too.
The question is used as a fairly neutral way of assessing whether people tend towards respect for authority, or a more liberal approach, do they prefer things to be in order, controlled, or do they openly embrace change?
This is the culture clash that is playing out, in the UK, in other parts of Europe, in the US and beyond.
Politics feels broken. To me, to many in this room, and to many far beyond this conference hall.
We are absolutely right to fight for an exit from Brexit. Brexit will make it harder to follow our values, to protect human rights, to tackle climate change, to solve global problems.
An exit from Brexit is necessary, but not sufficient.
Because this culture clash continues.
And the populists stoke this tension. They do it deliberately. They talk in simple soundbites that scapegoat different groups. It’s all someone else’s fault.
As liberals we know this is nonsense. The Faragey Trumpy angry arsey shouty slogans aren’t a solution to anything.
But we do need to offer our own alternative solutions. And conference, I think we need to have the humility to admit that we haven’t found all the answers yet. And it’s blindingly obvious the other parties haven’t either. We need to be much more radical, both in what we propose and in how we craft it.
The basic deal – you work hard, you get on – feels broken for so many people. How are you supposed to support your family on the minimum wage? How do profitable companies get away with paying tiny amounts of tax? Why are so many people stuck in overcrowded housing, with no hope for change?
We need new, 21st century, liberal solutions to all of these problems and more. We need to get out of our own echo chamber and start bridging the divides in our communities. We need to bring people together to create the answers, leaving no room for the populists to sow their seeds of division.
We can do this.
In the Netherlands and in France this year the populists were defeated. In Canada we cheered Trudeau’s Liberal victory.
Creating the bold vision we need is bigger than any single political party. Indeed it’s bigger than party politics itself. We need to reach out and collaborate across society, with thinkers, activists, the young and the old, faith groups, trade unions, entrepreneurs – and with all of you who want to change the world.
A considerate one. A fairer one. A loving one.
A liberal one.
This is our challenge. And we must rise to it.