Charles Kennedy – 2000 Speech to Liberal Democrat Spring Conference

The speech made by Charles Kennedy on 19 March 2000.

Just think.

What have been the key issues in the last few days?

Rover and GMs.

What links them? Europe.

The issue that the government consistently refuses to lead on. We all know that there must be European action on GMs. And if the government had acted to bring down the exchange rate, So that we could join the euro, Rover would not be in its current situation. No wonder that people say politicians are losing touch. No wonder that the people who vote are a dwindling band.

We know the reasons. People tell us. Daily. They say to us. You’re all the same. You don’t tell the truth. You break your promises. There’s no point to politics. It doesn’t change anything. We can’t trust any of you. Well we have to change all that. Reconnect. Or politics will have no future. And we start by restoring a sense of idealism to politics. Saying why we, Liberal Democrats, are different. Explaining that our principles are different. And that those principles matter. At the heart of our philosophy is liberty. A wholehearted commitment to freedom. These are my values. Your values too. Liberty, freedom of the individual. The rights of the private citizen Before, above and beyond the self-interests of the state. Community rather than class-based, self-centred values.

The other parties don’t really believe in that. Liberty is the word that’s missing from New Labour’s ‘Third Way’. Labour sees diversity and individuality as troublesome. Their instinct is to control. They tried it in Wales. Thanks to us, they failed. They got their priorities all wrong. Their Objective One wasn’t about matched funding. You know all about that here. Objective One for Labour, save Alun Michael. Objective Two, stop Rhodri Morgan. Objective Three, make the Assembly work for New Labour, not for Wales.

And William Hague’s Conservative Party? They talk about freedom a lot. But it’s a false freedom. Opting out of society. Opting out of social responsibility. Opting out of Europe. The Tory freedom led to Clause 28. Mind you, they are good street theatre. Did you see them on the back of that truck? I wonder if they’ll flog the lorry when they’ve finished with it? Would you buy a used lorry from either of them? William Hague and Michael Portillo. The Rodney and Del-Boy of the Privy Council.

What a contrast we are. We want genuine freedom. Not the Tory false freedom. Freedom of the individual is about equal rights for all. That means basic civil rights. It means more decentralisation. Regionally across England. And where better to start than right here – in the South West? Freedom means stopping government telling you how to live your life. But it also means social justice.

Nearly a hundred years ago, Hobhouse said ‘the struggle for liberty … is the struggle for equality’. He was right. He was right. If you live in a high rise flat, bringing up a child on your own, or struggling on a pension, freedom isn’t about government making you buy healthcare or education. If you live in those conditions, freedom is about social justice. Employment. Decent public services. Decent welfare support when times are hard. A first class education system. Whatever your income, whatever your background. And, whatever your income, whatever your background.

The one issue which should concern us all is the environment. That’s what I want to talk to you about today. Go back to that high rise flat, in a polluted city, Freedom is also about a decent environment. The greatest freedom we can hand on to future generations, is a planet with a future. The environment is not something that you inherit from your parents. It is something that you preserve for your children. John Stuart Mill talked about the “tyranny of the majority”. Today we should recognise that pollution is the most pernicious tyranny of all. And it affects the poor the most. Yet all too often, politicians shy away from that. Even we, Liberal Democrats, too many of us, certainly myself included, have ducked some tough questions. We haven’t talked about the environment nearly enough in the past few years. We’ve been criticised for that by people like Friends of the Earth. It’s a fair point. I accept it. Too often, environmental concerns have been seen as constraints. Stopping people doing things. But they are actually the reverse. The reverse.

Protecting the environment is the most fundamental liberation politics. Broadening choice at ALL levels of society. Creating jobs. Building a better, more sustainable, more cohesive society. The essence of Liberal Democracy. So it’s vital that we start persuading the British people. Persuading them that the environment is one of the biggest issues in politics. And that it has a massive impact on quality of life. Let’s look at the facts. The facts. Climate change. The major problem. Latest figures show that global warming is happening fast. Much faster than we have ever imagined. And if action isn’t taken to cut greenhouse gasses, temperatures will rise even more dramatically. Faster rises than at any time since the end of the last ice age. Britain will face particular problems It’s not just Plymouth that has palm trees. My own constituency does too. Yet, in fact it’s on a similar latitude to Moscow. But if the Gulf Stream changes, as it could, we will be in real trouble.

Yet the public policy response? What was once a Labour manifesto pledge is now only a goal. A vague aspiration. A familiar story, isn’t it? We’ve seen the evidence of global warming in Mozambique. You know, I couldn’t actually believe it. The politicians were talking about helicopters. How many. And when they should have been sent. How much more powerful it would be, if they spent as much time stopping it becoming an everyday event. That means each individual making changes to their lives. To make a difference to the environment. But it also means changes for government. It’s time now for the British government to make a real difference. To commit to getting 20% of our energy from renewables by 2010. It’s a real issue for all of us. Consider this. Nearly 10% of our best agricultural land is less than 5 metres above sea level. Around 40% of our manufacturing is on or near the coast. 26 million people in this country living near the coastline. As sea levels rise, so our economic fabric will sink.

So what does the government do? Number ten is pathetic. Absolutely pathetic. There is no joined-up thinking on the environment. We’ve seen that on GM foods. Ask the others what they think GM is. Labour will say “grant-maintained”. Tories will say “General Motors”. Liberal Democrats have constantly urged caution. We see science as a servant, never a master. But it took sustained public pressure to make the PM recognise that. The government must now go the whole hog. Back our policy of a five-year moratorium on commercial GM crops.. A fundamental part of the green cause in the future, will be pushing the case internationally. Taking the lead.

I am a pro-European. That’s partly because I know that Europe can help the environment. Many environmental problems can only be tackled at an international level. Events in Seattle told us that. So the environment should be part of a genuinely ethical foreign policy. And only by playing a constructive role in Europe can that happen. For the good of the environment, there’s one issue the government must take seriously. Transport. This is John Prescott’s job. Good old John. He tries hard. After the last election he said, “I will have failed if in five years time there are not far fewer journeys by car.” That’s coming back to haunt him. Soon, he’ll wish he hadn’t said it.

So for those people without two Jags, we must tackle failing public transport. An integrated transport system. Fuel rebates for community transport. Bus lanes. And we all know that Susan Kramer has the best tube policy for London. No surprise there that Frank Dobson’s going well and truly down the tube. And let me set you a challenge for the next election. I want our party to turn the phrase “on your bike” into a compliment, not an insult. And what about walking? John Prescott doesn’t really understand walking. Or talking for that matter. And as for walking and talking. The mind boggles. But we can manage it. We’re rather good at it – walking. ‘Safe Routes’ to schools. Home zones. Look at the school bus experience in the United States. Children need more freedom from parents. And parents need more freedom from fear.

Environmental politics adds up to more family-friendly politics. Getting that message across will change attitudes. That, ultimately, is the challenge. Without a ‘green culture’, government will legislate in vain. Nobody should think that changing a culture is impossible. Cast your minds back ten years ago. It was unconventional to recycle anything. But it’s now common practice throughout Britain. As a party, we can claim some credit. Our councils in particular. And the pressure groups. Even the government loves it. It recycles everything. Its policies. Our policies. But most of all, they love recycling their funding commitments. So I want us to lead a cultural change. People say that they want a better environment. We need to help people understand that our policies will give them that. Take one issue that links health, the environment, social policy.

Fuel poverty. Why is it that so many of the poorest people, often the oldest, can’t afford to heat their homes. It’s so costly because homes are not properly insulated. They pump heat into the skies, and their homes remain cold. Because they remain cold, they get ill. And even, sometimes, they die. Over 40,000 died last winter alone. An absolute scandal. So come on colleagues. Let’s think imaginatively. Why can’t GPs issue prescriptions for home insulation? It will promote better health. Save heating costs. And lead to a better environment. A green policy to end fuel poverty in 15 years.

But the environment is also good for the economy. Green growth, in other words. Jobs – insulating homes. Jobs – in conservation schemes. Jobs – investing in public transport. We’ve got to get that message across. We have to make that case. It’s a different agenda, a distinctive identity. More choice, not less. Positive gain, not pain. Modern, efficient and progressive. An agenda for a forward-looking party. And that’s the kind of party I want to lead. That’s why today I’m launching our Green Budget. The government has its very own Brown Budget. We’ve proposed a green programme to end fuel poverty in 15 years. Taxes on dumping waste, to fund more recycling. Changes in VAT to stop urban sprawl. 20% of British energy from renewable sources by 2010. Scrapping road tax for the most fuel efficient cars. There’s much more. And we will go on producing more and better green policy.

But Labour won’t do that in next week’s Brown Budget. I’ll tell you what else won’t be tackled properly in the Budget. Health and education. You know, the PM says that Nye Bevan was one of his heroes. Can you imagine Nye arguing for tax cuts when the NHS is crying out? Crying out for more doctors, more nurses, more beds? I can’t see it at all. So I challenge the Chancellor today. Gordon, listen to what people are saying. Gordon, unlock your war-chest. Right now, people don’t want a tax-cut. Right now they want the money put into schools, hospitals and pensions. Go on Gordon. Do it, just do it.

That’s what we’ll be putting to the people of Romsey. Sandra Gidley is an excellent PPC. Sandra, we’re all right behind you. At that election, and the next general election, our country will have some clear choices. The clearest choice will be over which party will promote freedom for all. Which party will fund schools and hospitals?