Menzies Campbell – 2006 Speech to Liberal Democrat Spring Conference

Below is the text of the speech made by the then Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Menzies Campbell, at the 2006 Liberal Democrat Spring Conference on 5th March 2006.

Well I’m delighted to be here.

For those of you don’t expect me to be here too long, I have a worrying statistic for you.

The previous Ming dynasty lasted for 276 years.

I want to begin by acknowledging Chris Huhne and Simon Hughes, and particularly their generosity since the announcement of the result last Thursday.

Innovative thinkers, gifted communicators and tenacious campaigners – and that was just when they were having a go at me.

God help the opposition.

They are formidable opponents, tremendous allies and it’s great to have them on our team.

To the members of the party, I want to say thank you for giving me this chance to serve.

I want to celebrate the enormous contribution of my predecessor, Charles Kennedy.

Under his leadership the Liberal Democrats have become a much more powerful political force.

With more votes and more seats at Westminster.

Ever-greater influence in Brussels.

Running more major cities than ever before.

Charles has been the most successful leader in the liberal tradition since Lloyd George.

And why? Because this party is serious about politics and serious about government.

We’ve shown how well we can perform in local government, from parish councils to great cities.

We’ve shown how we influence legislation in Europe and in the House of Lords.

We’ve shown we are the driving force in Scottish Government and in Welsh politics too.

And now my task – our task – is clear.

It is to lead this party from protest, into power.

A few short weeks ago every London-based commentator wrote us off.

But the political obituary writers were rudely interrupted.

By the very people the political establishment often forgets – the voters.

Willie Rennie’s spectacular triumph in Dunfermline and West Fife has shown us the way.

All the big guns came to Dunfermline. Brown, Salmond, Cameron.

“Dave” came up for a day trip.

But in his first electoral test, he didn’t just lose his tie – he lost his shirt.

Gordon Brown masterminded the whole Labour campaign.

He smiled, and showed us his lighter side.

But for all the smiles, the voters said thanks, but no thanks.

It’s ironic.

David Cameron and Gordon Brown.

One desperate to be Tony Blair.

The other desperate not to be Tony Blair.

Me, I’m just happy to be myself.

We’ve had enough of Blairism.

The country is crying out for a principled liberal democratic alternative.

A principled liberal alternative has never been more needed than when there are people being abused and held without trial at Guantanamo Bay.

The Prime Minister calls it “an anomaly”.

Let me address him directly; Prime Minister, this is not an anomaly…

This is an outrage.

But under this government, the “anomalies” are becoming the norm.

Schemes to keep citizens under house arrest,

Identity cards.

A Labour party member – a Labour party member – Walter Wolfgang arrested as a terror suspect for daring to heckle at the Labour Party Conference, taken into custody for shouting ‘Rubbish’ at the Foreign Secretary.

I hope they don’t introduce that in the House of Commons – otherwise I will be joining him.

And members of the public like Maya Evans arrested outside Downing Street just for reading out the names of British soldiers killed in Iraq.

Who knows what this government would have done with Siegfried Sassoon, or Wilfred Owen, if it had been in office during the First World War.

Once Westminster was the cradle of democracy.

Under this government it is becoming the graveyard of democracy.

And I’m not just talking about terror.

Look at every department of state and I will show you bureaucracy and regulation, an ever-greater threat to enterprise, diversity and freedom.

Our alternative is clear:

– a greener, fairer, decentralised and democratic Britain

– a Britain at peace with itself at home and admired abroad.

So what of David Cameron and his Conservative alternative?

Well if you know your Scottish history, you’ll know that down the centuries the Campbells have always got the better of the Camerons.

And now Mr Cameron tells us he’s a liberal.

Some liberal.

This is the David Cameron who has told his Euro MPs to abandon the mainstream and join the extremists.

This is the David Cameron who was Michael Howard’s ideas man? The man in the shadows on Black Wednesday and the author of the Tory manifesto of 2005 – the most reactionary, unpleasant, right-wing manifesto of modern times.

And this is the David Cameron who supported the Iraq war and has just sent William Hague off to Washington to restore links with the hard right of George W Bush’s Republican Party.

Forget neo-cons. This is a real con.

During the leadership election, there were fewer differences between the three of us than there are between David Cameron on Tuesdays and David Cameron on Wednesdays.

But he’s right in one respect. He knows that this country is turning to liberalism. And that’s why he’s been trying to steal our clothes.

But the voters know better. Why go for an imitation when you can vote Liberal Democrat and get the real thing?

And what about the oldest double act in town? Tony and Gordon.

Remember 1997? So much promise and so many promises. Things can only get better.

Better? Who would have thought the heirs of John Smith’s devolution would have created the most over-centralised country in the Western world?

Who would have thought the guardians of Robin Cook’s ethical foreign policy would have become the standard-bearers for an illegal war in Iraq?

Who would have thought the opponents of apartheid would become the apologists for rendition?

After that, things can only get better.

As for Labour’s record on civil liberties, it’s quite simply a disgrace. This government never tires of invoking terrorism and security threats to justify illiberal laws. No-one denies the reality of the threats we face, at home or abroad.

But the legislation proposed by the Government would not have prevented the tragic loss of life we saw in London last year.

Identity cards would not have helped.

Nor would locking up British citizens for 90 days without trial.

The right to due process and freedom from summary arrest are part of this country’s  proud traditions.

Indeed they are revered throughout the world.

We support practical measures that can defeat the spectre of terrorism – not the erosion of this country’s values. We should be relentless in the pursuit of those who perpetrate terrorist acts and unswerving in our commitment to uphold justice. That’s why we’ve argued if this Government wants real justice it should allow telephone intercepts to be used as evidence in court, as in every other Western nation.

In the leadership campaign I talked of the need to wage war on poverty. Labour’s record on social justice is a sorry one. Where you are from, what your parents did, the school you went to: these determine your success in life more than ever today.

Shelter estimates that one in twelve children is likely to develop asthma, TB or bronchitis because of poor housing.

Yes, you heard that right – one in twelve children.

Over a million children live in slums in this country.

A Britain which tolerates this is not a liberal Britain.

One of the biggest scars on our society is child poverty. It is worse today than when I grew up in Glasgow.

A Britain which tolerates this is not a liberal Britain.

I want the Liberal Democrats to be the party of opportunity, aspiration and ambition.

Labour has promised welfare reform, but failed to deliver.

Our party has a proud record of reform – yes and delivery too.

People saw the difference when Lloyd George ushered in the state pension 100 years ago, and when Beveridge built the welfare state forty years later. Today it again falls to the Liberal Democrats to reshape our welfare system, to build a society secure against poverty, and create a system founded on opportunity and responsibility with incentives to work and to save.

Over last the eight weeks, people asked me what my leadership would mean.

Those commentators who said I would simply tread water for a while are in for a rude shock.

I joined the Liberals because I wanted to challenge the settled orthodoxies of British politics. I still do. I intend to lead a party willing to think anew. A party willing to develop fresh ideas. A party drawing on enduring Liberal Democrat principles but ready to apply them in a rapidly changing world.

That need for fresh thinking is even more acute today.

Look around you.

The pace of social, economic and environmental change is without precedent. Consolidation and caution will not be an adequate response, either for our country or for our party. Liberal Democracy cannot be a struggle between those who wish to modernise and those who do not. To be a Liberal Democrat is to be a moderniser.

You showed courage and willingness to think anew yesterday, when you backed Norman Lamb’s proposals to give our Post Offices a future. Take that policy and sell it on the doorstep to the British people in these critical May local government elections.

I am determined that under my leadership the Liberal Democrats will be at the cutting edge of debate and new thinking. Our policies must address the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. Over the next 6 months, and before we meet again in Brighton, I intend to set out in more detail key challenges and policy directions on the major issues of British politics: the economy, the environment, welfare reform, better government, education and skills, crime and social policy.

Our policies need to be thoroughly tested. They will be subject to new levels of aggressive scrutiny.  Labour and the Conservatives realise we are their principal opponent in all parts of the country. They will turn their guns on us. And we must be ready.

As Richard Kemp said yesterday, opposing is not enough; our policies have to be fit for government. And that means when we campaign for greater localism we must be clear what we mean.

All three main parties now speak the language of localism. We have New Labour’s double speak about “double devolution”. And we have David Cameron’s miraculous conversion to decentralisation. But in my experience the voters have long memories.

They remember the sustained attacks on local government by the Conservatives and Labour. They know that only Liberal Democrats are credible when we advocate the reduction of excessive Whitehall power. But there’s more work for us to do.

Our public services today are not accountable to the local people they serve. And I agree with the conclusions of the Power Inquiry. Last week it said that we need a shift away from the executive back to Parliament, and from central to local government.

It is absurd that if a hospital operation goes wrong the first democratically elected person in the chain of responsibility is the Secretary of State for Health. But we need to explain in clear terms how localised school and health systems would work. We need to explain how we would move from central targets to local accountability.

We need to explain how we would maintain national standards, while creating a climate that would allow local diversity to flourish.

Let us be clear – localism necessarily means that things will be done differently in different places. Policies that work for the people of Harrogate may not work for the people of Haringey. That is acceptable if in each area there is full democratic decision making, accountable to local people, and free from interference by Whitehall.

On taxation, too, we need to think afresh. The Tax Commission was established by Charles Kennedy to do precisely that. Too much attention has focused on our manifesto policy for a new higher rate of income tax on earnings over £100,000 a year.

We should avoid becoming fixated on one tax rate. You cannot create a valid tax policy based on a single tax rate any more than you can have a valid defence policy based on a single weapons system. Nor can you create a fairer society without a fairer tax system.

Here are my three principles for a new, fairer tax regime.

First, the tax burden must be lighter for those on lowest incomes.

Second, the tax system must provide incentives to companies and individuals to behave in a way that sustains our environment.

Third, the system must be simple – it must support enterprise and must not stifle it.

Fairer taxation will build an economy that’s more efficient and a society that is more just. We’re not going to spend more, when we can spend more wisely.

I see no case for an increase in the overall tax burden in the present economic cycle. And if we are looking for areas to save money let me suggest some – the Child Trust Fund, identity cards – even the Department of Trade and Industry.

And there is another area where we must embrace reform – and that is Europe. I am a passionate European, and always have been; Europe as the guarantor of our peace and prosperity.

But the old ways of the European Union are no longer working. The European Union is now become much larger and more diverse. It is intolerable that decisions that affect the lives of every one of us are taken by Ministers meeting in secret. The veil must be cast aside. True friends of the European Union are true friends of its reform.

When we see the return of old-fashioned protectionism at the heart of Europe, we must be the liberal voice for free, fair and open trade without which the EU will not survive. I want to see the nations of Europe open to each other, yes…  and open to the products of the poorest countries in the world too.

Our party has always fought economic nationalism – and must now do so again in Washington, Paris and Brussels.

To maintain our credibility, as the only truly liberal force in British politics, will also require changes in the way we organise ourselves.

We have just had the most successful general election for over eighty years. We must build on that success – as we become more successful, so too we must become more professional. We must now modernise our organisation to sustain our growing presence throughout the country.

I’m going to ask a team of our leading campaigners to draw on the latest techniques to make sure we maintain our lead as the most innovative campaigning party in British politics. Raising money, selecting and training candidates and agents, building and maintaining local parties, involving and including our members, communicating through a 24-hour media are all areas where we need new ideas.

I will reform the way we support women and ethnic minority candidates. I am going to set up a special trust fund to provide them with financial support. I am going to ask every single Parliamentarian to mentor a woman and ethnic minority candidates – to give them the support and skills they need to get and elected. How can we represent this country if we are not representative of this country?

We now have a wealth of youthful talent in our party. For the brightest and best of this generation are Liberal Democrats. Our new frontbench team will be more than a match for the Conservatives and Labour Party.

I will draw on the many strands of our liberal democracy – social, economic, personal and political – to mark out distinctive territory in British politics. There is no conflict between economic and social liberalism. You cannot deliver social justice without economic success – and discipline.

We can build a fairer Britain, not the means-tested, target driven, over-centralised country run by Labour today.

Our unity must not come at the price of clarity. We must be clear and consistent in all that we say and do. We are moving out of the comfort zone of opposition politics. We must make three-party politics a credible reality.

Under New Labour, politics has become managerial, not inspirational. The Conservatives have taken the same course, shunning conviction and desperate only to emulate a value-free Downing Street.

Britain does not need a third managerial party. It needs a distinctive liberal democratic party. I will lead this party with a clear vision of Liberal Democracy.

To empower people, and not the state; to promote social mobility; to nurture the aspirations of all individuals; to shape events in the wider world; to cherish our shared environment; to defend the cause of liberty, and to promote the radical reform of Britain’s tired political system – and that means fair votes for Westminster.

To be the leader of the Liberal Democrats is to be the trustee of a great party, with so much to be proud of – but with so many dazzling achievements still to come.

Let us pledge today that where we see unfairness we will challenge it; where we see injustice we will attack it; and where we see prejudice we will confront it.

Together we must campaign as never before. Together we must become the rallying point for a new liberal democratic Britain. Together we will win.