Charles Kennedy – 1983 Maiden Speech


Below is the text of the maiden speech made by Charles Kennedy to the House of Commons on 15th July 1983.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for recognising me on this the occasion of my maiden speech. I think that the House, and especially the hon. Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Leighton), will agree that it is appropriate that I should deliver my maiden speech during a debate on the future of the younger generation. As fate would have it, I find myself the youngest Member of this distinguished House. I hope that the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) will find it interesting to witness a live specimen of today’s subject matter.

Although the younger generation is a concern of the present and even more so of the future, as the new Member for the new constituency of Ross, Cromarty and Skye I find myself deeply aware and conscious of the past and of those who have preceded me in representing the old constituency of Ross and Cromarty. As many Liberal Members will be aware, it was represented from 1964 to 1970 by the late Alasdair Mackenzie, who was a distinguished and highly thought of Member of this place during his time in it.

From 1970 until this election it was represented by the Conservative Member, Mr. Hamish Gray. I congratulate him on his peerage and movement to another place. I congratulate him equally on his appointment as Minister of State at the Scottish Office. As many know, there was considerable interest and, indeed, controversy not just in the Highlands but in Scotland generally about his appointment. I am optimistic and encouraged by what happened to Lord Gray, and I hope that it sets a trend by the Government. I hope that 3 million people, many of whom lost their jobs largely as a result of Government policies, will shortly be placed, as a result of Prime Ministerial decision, in much better jobs.

One figure who is certainly not a name or force of the past but very much of the present, to the extent that he is sitting behind me, is my hon. Friend who was the hon. Member for Inverness—with the boundary changes parts of his constituency have been moved into Ross, Cromarty and Skye — and who is now the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Mr. Johnston). I pay tribute to him and promise that I will try to follow in his footsteps with the diligence that he has shown to the parts of his former constituency that I have inherited.

William Lyon Mackenzie King, who was Prime Minister of Canada, once said that the problem with that country was that it had too much geography and not enough history. The problem with my constituency is that it has more than its fair share of both. My constituency and the Highlands generally have had more than their fair share of a bad deal in recent years in their chances and opportunities, especially for the younger generation.

A perennial problem that has faced the Scottish Highlands is that, time and again, too many of the more talented young people have had to move elsewhere—even abroad — through a lack of opportunities that should have been available. In the 1960s we believed that there was a golden opportunity for that part of the country. However, under the previous Conservative Government’s policies that golden opportunity has turned to dross, largely as a result of the Government’s economic approach and social disregard. The pulp mill in Fort William has been closed. In my constituency, the Invergordon smelter closed and, more recently, there have been lost opportunities with the abandonment of the gas-gathering project, although there are still strong signs that that project should go ahead.

Despite their vast majority and the convincing lead, which they will have for the next four or five years, in the Division Lobbies, the Government must display greater sensitivity to the problems of the Highlands, and especially of its young people. I make that sincere plea on behalf of my constituents. The alliance will work constructively during this Parliament to assist and support, with any help that the Government can give, the Highlands and this group of its people. One example of a scheme that will provide job opportunities is the Ben Wyvis development. I hope that the Secretary of State for Scotland’s comments on financial commitment will be supported and that we shall see a more pragmatic and less doctrinaire approach from the Government to the traditional concerns of the Highlands, such as farming, fishing and forestry.

In the few short weeks since I was elected the Forestry Commission has proposed to sell Ratagan forest in Glenelg. That is a product of the constraints that have been placed on the commission by the Government. There is considerable local opposition to the proposed sale, and I hope that the Government will rethink their attitude and take stock generally of the problems faced by the forestry, fishing and farming interests in the Highlands. Young people, hoping to enter those industries, have been discouraged. The hon. Member for Newham, North-East will agree that our subject for debate is extremely relevant to my constituency. It is fair to demand more pragmatism and constructive thinking of the Government.

I have two basic observations, which I formulated during my election campaign, on the attitudes of young people. I know that other right hon. and hon. Members reached the same conclusions during the constituency campaigns. First, there is a yawning gap in outlook between those who have a job and those who have not. Some Ministers are fond of talking about a return to Victorian values. We must realise that those Victorian values are being expressed by some of the younger people in this society in shameful and disturbing disregard for other members of their generation who are not as fortunate as they are in having a job. That is disturbing for a Government of any political complexion. The yawning gulf is becoming wider as, each month, the unemployment total increases. I hope that the Government will take cognisance of that during this Parliament.

My second observation is relevant to my party and the Liberal party. We have heard much from the Liberal and Social Democratic parties, and I do not doubt that we shall hear even more in future, about the iniquities of our electoral system. Under the present system many people are effectively disfranchised—the Whip will be pleased to know that I will not comment on that today. However, voluntary disfranchisement is also taking place. During my campaign people of my age and younger said consistently that they would not vote because their votes simply no longer matter and because no Government or Member of Parliament cared a whit about their problems and their striving for employment. That is disturbing for all of the parties and all hon. Members. Those who will contribute most to British democracy in the future are extricating themselves from the system already because they believe that it is no longer relevant. Part of the solution to that is electoral reform, but even more urgent is the need for a more tolerant, caring and compassionate Government. Sadly, we do not have that at the moment. I hope— I say this to the Minister in a constructive fashion—that we shall have it in due course.

To involve young people and make sure that the system is more relevant to them in Scotland, we have a clear obligation to implement a policy of home rule. Lord Home said not so many years ago that there was a genuine grass roots desire in Scotland for more decisions to be taken by the Scots. If that were implemented and the Government made a compromise or concession on that issue, young people in Scotland, and in the Highlands as much as anywhere else, would feel more affected by and therefore more involved in our political institutions. Home rule was supported by voters across a broad spectrum of parties in Scotland, which received significantly more support than the Conservative party. It is a legitimate demand, which is backed up in the ballot box. I hope that if the Government care about the younger generation they will see it as a way forward and a means to improve young people’s involvement in our political institutions.

The hon. Member for Eltham alluded to this. Throughout Britain over the past few years there has been a considerable decline in our fortunes. There has been a considerable decline in manufacturing, matched by a lost generation of younger people who are now unemployed and who, in terms of training and skill, might be fated to be classed as unemployable. The great sadness about the economic policy of the past four years is that when the recession bottoms out and when the world economy begins to pick up, we shall not have a skilled work force of the right age group to take advantage of it. That, coupled with the manufacturing decline and the rundown and closing down of industry, will mean that we shall lack the right blend of manpower and machinery to capitalise, as we should, on the improvements in our economic fortunes.

Equally important is that there is surely a moral responsibility for any Government and any Parliament to try to represent legitimate interests. What interests could be more legitimate than the interests of the younger generation who represent the country’s future? Yet, despite the best-laid plans of mice and even Ministers on youth training and youth opportunities, there is not enough for young people. That undermines the moral basis of government. It undermines respect for and participation in the democratic process. As a result of both those present tendencies, there is a disturbing implication for the country’s social, political and economic future. I feel most strongly about that and I urge the Government sincerely to address their priorities to the matter during this Parliament.

I hope that the Government will take heed because, if they do not, many Opposition Members will continue to remind them of it. I hope that, as the leader of my party said in his recent speech in the House, the Government will succeed in their objectives because that is in all our interests. It is from that constructive position that we approach the whole issue and from which I give my wholehearted support to the motion of the hon. Member for Newham, North-East.