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Speech to "Britain's People, Britain's Future" Rally, Edinburgh 1996

Paddy Ashdown (Liberal Democrat)

Location: Edinburgh

Ladies and gentlemen, it is great to see you all here tonight.

And for lots of reasons, it's great to be here - in this key Edinburgh West battleground.

In fact, I can think of 879 good reasons, straight away!

I am sure no-one here needs reminding what those 879 reasons are! - but I will remind you anyway!

At the last General Election, in Edinburgh West, you were just 879 votes away from defeating the Conservatives.

You were 879 votes away from adding another strong, sensible voice to the Liberal Democrat team in Parliament.

And you were 879 votes away from electing a first-class, hard-working local MP.

For everyone who worked so hard in that campaign, it is galling to know that if only 440 of the people who gave the Conservatives one last chance in 1992 had voted Liberal Democrat, then Donald Gorrie would now be the Member of Parliament for Edinburgh West - FIGHTING for what the Scottish people want, and FIGHTING against the incompetence and arrogant contempt of the Conservatives in Westminster and St Andrews House.

One thing is absolutely certain. Donald himself, everyone in the Edinburgh Liberal Democrats, and the Liberal Democrats NATIONALLY, are all ABSOLUTELY determined that next time we'll do it! And with your help, I know we will do it.

And, you know, there are a lot more than 879 reasons why it's so important that we do!

Look back at this document, and you'll find some of them!

It's the Conservative Party manifesto from 1992. It's called ... "The Best Future for Britain". A document of fine words, bold promises ... and a man on the front who last summer couldn't even get a third of his own MPs to support him as Prime Minister, and on Monday, won't even come to the House of Commons as Prime Minister to defend his Government against the withering criticisms of an inquiry he set up which criticises ministers for whom he is responsible and which covers elements of government for which he alone is accountable.

Let me give you a few reminders of what that 1992 manifesto said. I quote exactly.

Page 1 ... "The respect with which Britain is regarded in the world has rarely been higher".

"It is difficult to remember the Britain we were elected to transform in 1979 ... a depressed, divided country, accustomed to failure ..."

Well, thank goodness for seventeen years of the Conservatives!

The first chapter is called "Taking Responsibility for Britain". Responsibility?! When was the last time a government minister took responsibility for anything? This is a government which never apologises, and a Prime Minister who never gets rid of anyone - until he is forced to!

But "Taking Responsibility for Britain" is what it is called, and this is what it says:

"Britain needs firm leadership at this time ... "

"What is needed to trigger confidence and growth is a Conservative victory with a decisive majority".

"We will promote enterprise through low taxes, sound money and a stable currency".

Low taxes? They put taxes up by more than ever before.

Sound money? They clocked up fifty billion pounds of debt, which we're paying for now with savage cuts to education, police budgets and vital social services.

A stable currency? The day Norman Lamont said he would never devalue, the pound went through the floor while he sang in the bath!

The 1992 manifesto concluded: "The challenges of the 1990s demand a responsible and sure-footed government ... It is time to go forward with conviction and confidence!"

... Conviction and confidence! ... Well, I suppose it could have been worse ... they could have said "competence"!

I just wonder how many people who voted for the Conservatives, here in Edinburgh, across Scotland, and across Britain, now feel cheated? I bet you there are more than 440!

And who can blame them for feeling cheated?

The Conservatives won the last election on a false prospectus and fraudulent promises - promises they have been breaking ever since.

Do you remember what John Major said about tax in the election? "We do not see any need to increase the tax burden". "We have no need and no plans to extend the scope of VAT".

What a cheek! But tax is just the start of it.

What about the manifesto commitment to "put savings from greater efficiency" back into the NHS? Try telling that to people waiting for treatment, while more and more money is diverted into bureaucracies of managers and accountants.

What about the manifesto commitment to "strengthen Scotland's education system for the benefit of parents, pupils and teachers"?! Try telling that to parents, pupils and teachers at schools here in Edinburgh, where more than sixty teachers' jobs are threatened because of government cuts to school budgets.

Cuts of thirty to forty thousand pounds in primary schools like Cramond, Clermiston and Davidsons Mains; a cut of up to two hundred thousand pounds here in the Royal High School; cuts that are a disgrace, cuts that will undermine our children's education; cuts that Liberal Democrats will fight tooth and nail to stop.

I think that 1992 will come to be seen as the Conservatives' "one last chance" election. The election when, after thirteen Conservative years, the people of Britain wanted change, but clung on for fear of something worse.

Of course there are good things that have been done over the last seventeen years - like reducing trade union power.

But there have been so many wasted opportunities - like the one-off, golden opportunity of North Sea oil, squandered when we should have been investing in our future.

There have been so many dogma-driven mistakes - the billions wasted on the iniquitous Poll Tax; the billions wasted on rail privatisation; two recessions, boom-and-bust, and a collapse in house prices, all caused by the Government's own economic mismanagement.

There have been so many people let down, left out, left behind - waiting for the trickle-down that never came.

And now there is no direction, no honour, and no respect. It is time for the Government to go. It is time for change.

But that means going forwards, not turning back. Change that is good for Britain, not bad for Britain.

A Liberal Democrat vote is not a vote for a return to Trade Union power, irresponsible economics, government held to ransom by left-wing lunacy. A Liberal Democrat vote is a vote AGAINST all these things - and the strongest possible guarantee that they will not happen.

A Liberal Democrat vote is a vote for the change people want and the change Britain needs - not for the change Britain does NOT need.

A Liberal Democrat vote is a vote to clean up the system, to invest in education, to get the economy working for the new challenges of the next century.

It is a vote to open up politics, to take the political system in this country, the Establishment, our archaic institutions, to shake them by the scruff of the neck, and drag them kicking and screaming out of the nineteenth century - and into the twenty-first!

It is a vote to fulfil our Party's historic mission to deliver Home Rule in Scotland, to be a bulwark against backtracking and backsliding, and to guarantee that the Convention plan for a Parliament here in Edinburgh is implemented in full, in the first year of a new Government.

It is a vote to look long term, to protect our environment for our children and give Britain a clear, positive role in Europe.

It is a vote to tackle poverty and division, to build on the best of our public services, to breath new life into the proud spirit of community in Britain.

It is not just a vote to kick out this discredited Government. It is a vote for something fresh and clear and strong to put in its place.

There are difficult choices for this country. But people have to face up to them. And politicians have a duty to address the issues, instead of ducking them.

John Major, desperate to hang onto power, will spend the next year avoiding saying anything that exposes the divisions in the uncomfortable coalition of warring factions that is now the Conservative Party and the Major Government.

Tony Blair, desperate to hold of power, will spend the next year avoiding saying anything that exposes the divisions in HIS coalition party, so cruelly exposed in the Harriet Harman affair.

I am lucky. I am determined to change the way that power is USED in this country. And I don't have to fudge things to hold a divided party together.

So what you'll be hearing from ME over the next two years are some plain truths about what needs to be done so this country HAS a future.

And you know, we haven't got long to sort things out. We can carry on fudging for five years, maybe - but not much longer.

Britain now needs more than good intentions. We need ACTION - to sort out the system, invest in Britain's people, and secure our long-term future. And that requires some hard-headed decisions and clear commitments.

Take education.

Knowledge, skills, ideas - these are the raw materials for any successful economy in the next century. And well-educated people are the key to a tolerant, civilised, law-abiding society.

Everyone appears to understand this. But other countries, not just in Europe, but all round the world, are racing ahead and leaving us standing.

All politicians in Britain mouth the platitudes.

But when it comes to tackling hard questions like how to deal with student poverty and the crisis in higher education ... both other parties have joined together in a conspiracy to fudge - they have taken refuge in a review - a JOINT review, that won't report until after the next election!

When it comes to saying how you will pay for all the things that everyone agrees need to be done ... both other parties have nothing to say at all!

I don't believe in throwing money at any problem. But if you want to give pre-school education to all three and four year olds; if you want to tackle the underfunding in our schools; if you want to give adults in and out of work chances to retrain and learn new skills; then you need more money.

So where the Conservatives cut, and Labour fudge, Liberal Democrats pledge to invest. Our commitment is crystal clear. We will invest an extra 2 billion pounds in education - raised, if necessary, with an extra penny on income tax.

What I am saying is this. There is no point being timid. There is no point trying to con people. People in Britain are fed up with being conned. They are fed up with being treated with contempt.

Take the Scott Report.

Lift the cover, and you lift, for a moment, the veil of secrecy that shrouds our government.

Turn over the pages, and your eyes pass through the murky corridors of power and into the recesses of Whitehall.

Scott is about secrecy and the abuse of power. It is about the politicisation and corruption of an independent civil service. It is about Parliament and the representatives of the British people being deliberately misled by ministers.

The arms-to-Iraq affair is a scandal. No more, no less. And the Government's response to the Scott Report has been a scandal. No more, no less.

Two ministers have been found guilty by Scott. John Major refuses to act.

Stripped to its bare essentials, the Government's case is that these ministers are not dishonest, just incompetent. Yet even on this lesser charge, John Major's inaction is a disgrace.

In what other organisation that valued its reputation and expected the highest standards, would people be allowed to get away with incompetence of the sort exposed by Scott.

The plain truth is this. John Major and his Government preach the time-honoured principle of the dictator - "one rule for them, and another for everyone else".

The only difference is that we live in what Tory Lord Hailsham described as an "elective dictatorship", where minorities rule with parliamentary majorities, individual rights are unprotected, secrecy holds sway and government acts unchecked by effective accountability or scrutiny from Parliament.

What a rotten mess! What a dishevelled, disfigured old corpse of what was once called the Mother of Parliaments, the Mother of Democracy.

We have now to clean up the mess of our politics.

This can't just be done by changing the nameplate on Number 10 Downing Street. We have to change the whole way power is USED in this country.

It means opening up government, decentralising power, reviving local democracy.

It means reining back the power of the unelected, unaccountable quango state, entrenching our freedoms in a Bill of Rights, enacting root and branch reform of Parliament.

It means giving people fair votes in the ballot-box, freedom of information to find out what's going on, real say through referendums on issues like our future in Europe.

The Liberal Democrats' programme of reform and renewal amounts to the most radical overhaul of British political life for three hundred years.

That has never been more necessary. We HAVE to change the way Britain is run - and only the Liberal Democrats will make that change happen.

This is a historic moment in British politics, and, I believe, a historic time for our Party.

There is such a strong mood for change in our country - and the Liberal Democrats are in the vanguard of the movement for change, as we have always been.

Independent of vested interests and independent in our thinking, the Liberal Democrats are the guarantee that change happens, and the guarantee that we get the change that Britain needs.

Liberal Democrats now have more councillors than the Conservatives. Liberal Democrats now run four times as many councils as the Conservatives.

If, seven years ago, I had said we'd become the second party of local government in Britain, I'd have been called mad! Now it has happened.

I am confident that our successes will continue, that our party will continue to grow and grow - but I won't tell you where we could be in another seven years time, because people will just call me mad!

Whatever level of government you look at - local, national, European - the Liberal Democrats are now the strongest liberal force in Britain for sixty years.

In more and more communities across our country we are putting Liberal Democrat values and Liberal Democrat priorities into practice.

We now have a great opportunity to do the same nationally.

Here in Edinburgh West you have an excellent, hard-working team of local councillors, and an excellent prospective candidate in Donald Gorrie.

You have got the Conservatives firmly in your sights, and I know you can win.

Give the local campaign team all the support you can.

Then, when the Prime Minister finally gives the country the choice only his MPs had last summer to back him or sack him, hill not only receive a rather different result, but Parliament will receive a top-quality, hard-working Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West, speaking for you and standing up for your local community.

Keep working hard for local people, keep up the campaigning, and make sure that next time, there's no doubt about the outcome!

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