Paddy Ashdown – 1999 Liberal Democrat Conference Speech


Below is the text of the speech made by the then Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Paddy Ashdown, at the 1999 Liberal Democrat Conference.


The easy thing for me to do today would be to give you one of those sort of end of jumble sale speeches, where you say thank you to everyone, and say what a success it all was.

Well, there are a great many people who deserve to be thanked.

But I have always tried to avoid making comfortable speeches to you. And I see no reason to make this an exception.

My first ever speech to you – 11 years and 22 conference speeches ago – was about signposts for the way ahead.

I’d like you to treat this one, not as a signpost, but as a message left behind for you to consider as you plan the future under our new leader, Charles Kennedy.

And incidentally, a word about Charles.

In choosing him you have, I believe, chosen a leader of exceptional ability, who will, I have absolute confidence, lead us to greater and greater success in the future.

I look forward to being able to support him in that task. And I know that you will give him and the Party the same unfailing commitment which has made our successes possible over the last eleven years.

And now, a brief look back before looking forward.

Eleven years ago, the first thing we did in the Liberal Democrats was take our liberal agenda and update it.

That new thinking gave us the distinctive messages, which won us the votes, that made us strong, that gave us a role to play on the field of politics as we do today.

That’s the order. First the ideas; then the votes; then the influence; and then the power.

Recently, we have talked a lot about strategy. And rightly so.

But no strategy will work, unless we have something fresh to say and offer something distinctive to vote for.

As a Party, we now have some of the most long-established policies in British politics.

And that can be good.

We have been a party ahead of our time.

Many of our most long-standing policies are actually being implemented. Many more have stood the test of time.

But in some areas we are, I fear, running the risk of becoming rather lazy and complacent in our thinking.

If we Liberal Democrats will not think afresh, then we risk falling into the easy trap of leftist, oppositional politics. And that would mean making ourselves irrelevant again for a generation.

Political parties are always prone to bouts of introspection. We love discussing ourselves with ourselves. We too often believe that all the important questions are internal ones.

They are not.

We live at a time when the questions before us are, quite literally, of global proportions.

Before I say my goodbyes, I want to talk to you about two of these.

I make no apologies that I have spoken to you of them before. Because I believe they are at the centre of the new politics, which we should be at the centre of.

The first is the globalisation of power.

And the second our growing interdependence on each other.

They are the two big facts of our times.

You know, whenever, in history, power breaks free from the structures created to control it, change becomes inevitable – often violent change.

So it was with the barons and Magna Carta. So with Cromwell’s Parliament and the King. So with the growth of industrial power and the Great Reform Act.

And so it is today.

Power is accumulating, often with frightening speed, in the hands of the global players – the commodity brokers, the internet operators, the satellite broadcasters, the multinational traders. All operating unfettered and unlimited by the structures of any government or the constraints of any ideology, or the limits of any creed or culture.

We have begun to talk about this at this Conference.

But do we yet realise the scale of what is involved ?

Here is a thought for you.

A nations currency, perhaps more than anything else today, is seen as a symbol of its national identity – look at the destructive emotions so easily stirred up by the anti-Europeans in this year’s elections. And look out for more of it – much more of it – at the next General Election.

Yet the Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, speaking at a conference of central bankers three weeks ago, said that the growth of internet trading risks making central banks completely irrelevant. And with them, incidentally, the capacity for Exchequers to collect taxes for public expenditure – and so for governments to govern in the traditional modern sense. Indeed there is no reason why private firms like Microsoft or News International, should not set up their own currency for internet trading and investment. The Gates Groat. Or the Murdoch Shilling. Rupert’s Rupee!

And that is only one example of the changes that globalisation will bring

Here is the inescapable fact.

Power is now moving, increasingly, beyond the confines of the nation state and is rapidly making many of its institutions irrelevant.

We must start taking global governance seriously.

The nation states, their governments and their politicians are going to hate it. But the longer they leave it the more powerless they will become; the more chaos will be caused and the more painful the transition.

If we as the Party of internationalism will not lead this new thinking, who will?

We will need new doctrines for international intervention in places like Kosovo and, more recently and tragically, East Timor. New structures to enforce control of global pollution; new ways to harness the power of the global market place whilst placing limits on its capacity to destabilise and disrupt.

The new world order needs institutions and rules to match.

But if globalisation is the most important change in the exercise of power in our age, then our increasing interdependence on each other is the key condition that governs our existence as individuals.

The question that has plagued me is this. If nation states cannot any longer protect their citizens from the effects of global power, who can ?

That question took me all the way back to that great revolutionary and thinker, Tom Paine.

The times may have changed, but the question hasn’t. We may be talking about global power, not the power of kings. But the central issue remains: How do we give people dignity and control over their own lives?

And the answer remains, by giving them power and encouraging them to work together.

We used to look on society as a machine. Well ordered, neatly constructed. If only the right person pulled the right levers in the right order – hey presto! All would be well. Marxists believed this. Socialists believed it. Some Social Democrats – forgive me – believed it. Some Liberal Democrats still seem to believe it. And Conservatives, above all, believed it.

And they were all wrong.

Society is not a machine. It is a living, breathing organism, like the people who make it up. It needs to be understood as an entity. Each portion is dependent on the other. Damage one and you damage the whole.

Now we need a name for this idea. And the one I am going to use is mutualism – or, at the risk of offending – new mutualism.

I have tried to persuade you of this idea before. I first wrote about it 10 years ago in ‘Citizen’s Britain’. And I have become increasingly convinced that this idea of mutualism lies at the centre of the new politics.

One commentator, Peter Kellner, says this about it:

Mutualism understands that: we have both rights and responsibilities…. It seeks to rescue the virtues of co-operation and the principles that gave birth to the co-operative movement, from the strangling embrace of socialism. “What matters is not where power comes from, but how it is used, how it is checked and how far it is dispersed”.


Mutualism recognises that our own capacities and self reliance, together with the strength of the communities we live in, matters, probably, more than the governments who govern us, or the nations we belong to.

Here is a theme for liberals, in the widest sense, in the years ahead.

How do we create mutual economic structures, that recognise the common shared interest and interdependence of shareholders and customers and workers?

Do we understand that Governments have a duty to regulate market behaviour, but ought to avoid becoming a market player?

Do we accept the revelation that markets too, are social institutions, whose players, too, have responsibilities as well as rights?

Do we recognise that the key equality that we seek, is not equality of outcome – or even, as I used to think, equality of opportunity – but equality of access?

And do we understand that, because of this, the free market and strong competition are the best means by which ordinary people can get access to what is otherwise always going to be dominated by the bandit capitalists and the economically powerful ?

Perhaps most difficult of all for us as self confessed radicals; are we prepared, to liberate the great institutions that deliver our public services – education, health, justice, welfare – from the clammy embrace of corporatism, whether national or local, in order to make them human in scale and responsive to the interests of the consumer, not the producer?

We have become far too staid, far too conservative – yes, conservative – in our thinking about public services in the Liberal Democrats.

As liberals, our place is to be on the side of the citizen, not the state. Of the consumer, not the producer. What matters is not who provides the service, but how good the service is.

You know, in Jo Grimond’s time we used to have a slogan. “We hate the Tories. But we distrust the state”. It’s not a bad one for the years ahead!


Now to the bit I’ve dreaded.

I hate good-byes. So I will use the words of one of my heroes, William Wilberforce.

A few days before his death he wrote his last letter to a friend who had asked him, how he had done this extraordinary thing, the conquest of slavery. He wrote this:

We did not march as a marshalled army towards a distant obelisk. We travelled the highways and byways, gathering friends and flowers as we went.

Over the last 11 years we have travelled many highways and by-ways together.

And Jane and I have gathered so many friends and so many flowers.

You have given me, quite simply, the pride and the purpose of my life. To have had the privilege to lead you has been the greatest thing I have ever done _ or ever will do.

And you have been a great Party to lead.

Which is not the same thing, incidentally, as an easy Party to lead. You have been uncompromising at times, when I wanted you to bend a little.

Uncomfortable at others, when I could have done with an easier ride.

You have been unbelievably stubborn when I tried to take you in a direction you didn’t want to go.

And unbelievably curmudgeonly at times when I thought I was delivering you a success.

But you have been recklessly generous in forgiving my faults.

Indomitable, especially when we had to face defeat.

And through it all, you have done all I have asked of you and more.

So often I left Westminster tired and dejected, to go out to meet you and campaign with you, in the knowledge that it was my job to inspire you. But ending up with you inspiring me by your trust and your hope and your unshakeable will to win.

And we have achieved great things together.

Things which they said could not be done – but which we have done. We have given millions of our fellow citizens the benefit of government informed by the things we stand for.

We have helped to bring a tidal wave of change which will, for ever, alter the nature of the country that we serve.

We have laid the foundation stone, at last, for a modern Britain, in which the liberal ideal will be stronger and more relevant than it has been since the very earliest years of this century.

It has been a privilege to have been a member of this Party these last 11 years, let alone its leader.

And I have been able to hand over that leadership to Charles Kennedy, with pride and love and confidence.

I can think of no good way to end this.

So I will do so with what my grandmother used to tell me was the Irishman’s blessing.

May the road rise with you. May the wind always be at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face. And the rain fall soft upon your fields. And until we meet again, May God hold you in the hollow of his hand.

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