Nick Clegg’s Blog

150th Anniversary of the First Parliamentary Liberal Party Caucus Speech In Full
17 July, 2009, 4:00 pm
Filed under: News, Statements

150th Anniversary of the First Parliamentary Liberal Party Caucus

17th July 2009
Nick Clegg, Leader of the Liberal Democrats has delivered the 150th Anniversary speech of the First Parliamentary Liberal Party Caucus at the National Liberal Club in London.

It’s a pleasure to be here to celebrate our 150th birthday. In the summer of 1859 the Liberal Party was born. Whigs, Peelites and Radicals met over at St James Street and agreed to overthrow the then Conservative Government. It’s been a rich and rocky 150 years since then. But I’m not going to give a history lecture tonight. What I want to talk about is our future.

After twelve long years in Government Labour has forfeited its position as the dominant progressive force in British politics. Despite the hopes that were raised in 1997 Labour’s legacy will be a Britain that is less fair and less free. The reason is fundamental: Labour’s attitude towards power.
For Labour, power is to be hoarded and administered from the centre to force through social change.

Yet the great contemporary challenges now facing us demand a wholly different approach. Salvaging our democracy… Encouraging the innovation needed to pull the country out of recession… Diversifying public services so they can meet the needs of the communities they serve… Empowering the most disadvantaged so they can get ahead in life… That all requires taking power away from central Government and dispersing it downwards to communities and individuals. Global financial regulation, tackling climate change, stopping international crime and terrorism… That all requires taking power away from central Government and dispersing it upwards.

But Labour’s refusal to relinquish even an iota of central control has rendered them an anachronism; rudderless in this modern world. As a result they haven’t just failed; they’ve lost the argument. And once the argument is lost, political decline must follow.

The Liberal Democrats believe power should be dispersed and shared; that basic conviction is encrypted in our DNA. So we can offer progressive solutions to these challenges. And our chance of taking over from Labour as the dominant progressive force in British politics is now greater than it has been in generations. Labour has abandoned its values; we hold ours more strongly than ever. That’s why we are now winning the battle of ideas; success we must build on in order to win the battle for seats.

I know the people in this room already know this process is underway; I know we instinctively understand the reasons why. But – if it seems slightly odd to stand here and preach to the converted – it’s because it’s not enough for us to understand it. It’s not enough that there are people in the Labour party who secretly fear it too. This is a story that needs to be told, by us, over and over again from now until the election.
We need to remind people that political parties aren’t cast in stone forever. We need to spell out why only we carry the torch of progress now. And we need to explain what that means in practice – in our politics, in our economy, in our communities.

Let’s take political parties first. They change. It doesn’t always happen overnight. It took Labour 23 years from its formation in 1906 to become the biggest party in Parliament. But parties do wax and wane with the times.

And when people feel let down by politicians, parties can fall very fast and very hard. It happened in Canada in the early 1990s: In the depths of recession, with unemployment at its highest since the Depression, the then Conservative government went from 169 seats to 2 seats. They never recovered.

And in the Euro elections just last month we saw anger with mainstream politicians translate into unprecedented gains for extremists across the continent. The trajectories of political parties aren’t fixed. I’ll admit in Britain it doesn’t always feel like that, with the never ending cycle of red-blue, blue-red Government. But the revolving door at Number 10 isn’t a real reflection of what people in this country want. In the last two general elections more people stayed at home than voted for the winning party.

The duopoly that dominated British politics in the twentieth century is dying on its feet. In the 1951 General Election only 2 percent of voters chose a party other than Labour or the Conservatives. At the local elections last month that figure had risen to nearly 40%. The glue that held the duopoly together has disintegrated:

Class divides have shifted. Geography no longer maps allegiance. Ideological differences once so important feel immaterial in the post-Cold War world. And because of globalisation and technology – not least the internet – identity has become more fluid and more complex. People now define themselves in different ways; It’s possible for individuals to find multiple homes in an ever-growing number of communities – real and cyber; where people are bound by their interests, their principles, their experiences, not just by geographical location. At the same time, in our increasingly atomised society, the traditional mass-membership parties no longer speak to people.

So you can’t bank on someone’s support because of where they were born, or how their parents voted. You have to earn their support; you have to prove yourself. That breakdown has created opportunities for real change in British politics; moments in which the establishment has been extremely vulnerable. The first was in the early 80s, when the Alliance came tantalizingly close to breaking the mould in British politics. The second was in 1997, when the whole country turned its back on eighteen years of Conservative rule. The third is now.

And in the battle of ideas the Liberal Democrats are winning: The first party to identify the dangers of an overleveraged banking system. The first to advocate radical political reform. Consistent in our defence of civil liberties. Principled in our defence of the international rule of law. Outspoken in correcting our woefully imbalanced tax system. Radical on the need to make Britain environmentally sustainable. Brave in standing up to failed populism on law and order. Determined to use childcare and education policies to break cycles of deprivation handed down from one generation to the next.

The battle for numbers takes longer, that’s true. But 28% in the local elections compared to Labour’s 23% was not an insignificant victory. Neither was the 6 million votes we won at the last General Election; more than any other liberal party in Europe. Under Paddy, Charles, and Ming we have gone from strength to strength. We are now the dominant political party of urban Britain. Running the majority of big cities outside London, while the Conservatives remain invisible in northern city politics. Present throughout the South and South West just as Labour disappears from these regions altogether. This is a great platform from which the Liberal Democrats will grow rapidly in the future.

Labour has let the country down. Perhaps it was Iraq. Perhaps it was the tortuous compromise at the heart of new Labour: sticking to hard-nosed Thatcherite economics while promising a gentler Britain… Promising progress while out-toughing the Conservatives on crime and civil liberties. Perhaps it is simply the grinding struggle of day-to-day government after 12 exhausting years. Whatever the reason, what we can be certain of is that Labour now lacks any unifying vision at all; let alone one that is progressive. Anyone who wasn’t convinced of that before had it proved beyond doubt by their paltry pre-manifesto, launched a few weeks ago: Barren of any new ideas; devoid of commitment to real reform; the best you’ll get from a Government that’s dead from the neck up.

There are many issues that divide political players – Europe, immigration, public spending. But fundamental to all of that is a split between two basic attitudes towards life. On one side are those who largely want to preserve things as they are. Who will tweak and tinker, but who are primarily governed by caution. On the other are those who are restless, optimistic, impatient. Who are driven by the instinct that things can and must be better. That’s where we stand.

The Conservatives are of course on the other side of that line. From marriage to political reform; from Europe and international affairs, to making tax radically fairer – they will always err on the side of caution rather than real change. And as a result of those impulses they remain obedient sentinels for the vested interests that brought down our economy and for the elites that hoard political power.

Silent on radical regulatory changes needed to put our overleveraged bank system on a sustainable footing. Determined to give tax breaks to the very wealthy, yet mute on how to help the worst off. Incapable of understanding the link between MPs’ expenses and the need to renew British politics more broadly. At ease standing shoulder to shoulder in the European Parliament with bigots, climate change deniers and homophobes.

In my view David Cameron has done a relatively good job at re-branding the toxic legacy he inherited. But no amount of airbrushing can make conservatism progressive. It’s just not in their bones.

But what about Labour? What side of the line do they fall on? In 1997 we all thought we knew. Here was a party that seemed genuinely bold, ready to embrace the enormous potential for change. I can remember Peter Mandelson saying “judge us after ten years of success in office. For one of the fruits of that success will be that Britain has become a more equal society.”

It’s been twelve years. The gap between rich and poor has widened. We have more children in prison than anywhere else in Europe. If you’re poor you’re still far less likely to go to university than if you’re better off. If you’re a woman you’ll still probably be paid less for doing the same work as a man. If you’re a child born in the poorest neighbourhood in my City, Sheffield, you will probably die 14 years before a wealthier child born down the road.

Senior people I talk to in the Labour party tell me they don’t understand why I’m so scathing about their record. But mass child incarceration, an illegal invasion into Iraq, the staggering erosion of our civil liberties… These are not small blemishes. They are a fundamental betrayal of Labour’s promise that things would only get better.

It’s easy to talk with the benefit of hindsight. But we do now see that because of their ideological shortcomings the Labour government was destined to fail. Their collectivism belongs to a specific set of historical circumstances. Labour was born to take power in the centre and batter down old forms of privilege and inequality and so give hope to millions of newly emancipated Britons. In its time, this was an honourable vocation. It was a product of the profound social and political changes that took place as our modern economy took shape, and as the great settlement of the post-war welfare state was launched.

But it had a fatal flaw: excessive centralisation, inept statism. Because ultimately Labour believes that society can only be improved through relentless central state activism. Like the Conservatives, they are pessimistic about the ability of people to improve their own lives. Gordon Brown says his is the party of the many and not the few. What he really thinks is that the only way to deliver for the many is to keep control in the hands of the few.

That’s why Labour can shamelessly diminish freedom, and then with a straight face legitimise it by reference to an alleged common good. Massive Government databases, Orwellian surveillance, draconian terror laws – all in the name of our safety. Frenzied Whitehall target-setting to dictate how local services are run – all in the name of raising standards.

The collectivist doctrine is the antithesis of individual empowerment. That is the fundamental difference between us and them. Liberals believe in the raucous, unpredictable capacity of people to take decisions about their own lives.
Whereas for us power should be shared, for Labour it is to be hoarded. And as night follows day, monopolies over power in both the economy and in politics end badly; this government ticks all the boxes: Captured by vested interests; hence their continuing failure to clamp down on greed in financial services… And driven solely by an obsession to cling on to power.

The jaded, miserable faces you now see across the Commons on the Labour benches are a far cry from the fresh, buoyant Government of ‘97. Some of them are more honest about their failure. My feeling is they do now see that they were condemned to disappoint. And, no doubt, to be disappointed themselves.

It wasn’t wrong to have hope in them twelve years ago. It was a moment when the realignment of the progressive forces in British politics was a perfectly understandable, even laudable, objective. But that moment is long gone. Labour has betrayed those hopes and shown it cannot deliver fairness or freedom.

And while liberalism – with its long antecedents, its grounding in universal principles – is coming full circle, more relevant now than ever… Labour is on the wrong side of history.

Only a liberal conception of power can now ensure a progressive Britain. John Stuart Mill – also 150 years ago – said: ‘The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.’ Maximum freedom for the individual, bounded only by the indivisible rights of others.

Imagine that. A liberal political system in which power is dispersed. So no opaque, secretive decision-making; no untrammelled executive authority; no arrogant, out-of-touch political class, But transparent, accountable, democratic politics. Where votes are fair and money can’t buy influence.

And where people have as great a say as possible over the decisions that affect them. Over their children’s education; over the way their healthcare is run; over making sure their communities get the things they need.

It is a conception of power that recognises the inefficiency of the long screwdriver of Whitehall. But, more than that, it is a conception of power that celebrates human creativity and is optimistic about people.

A progressive, liberal Britain wouldn’t contain 20% of the world’s CCTV cameras. It wouldn’t wilfully criminalise innocent people and children. We understand it is the job of Government to remove the barriers to freedom, not to construct them. With childcare policies that give children the best start in life and help parents who want to work. With targeted funding to disadvantaged pupils so that their life chances are not simply decided for them. With a system of community justice that gives young offenders a real chance to break out of squalid cycles of crime and deprivation.

And, of course, with a rebalanced tax system that reduces the burden on low and middle earners paid for by closing loopholes enjoyed by the wealthy. The lodestar of economic policy should be challenging concentrations of power: installing checks and balances; creating a level playing field.

In these difficult times, we must marry our social conscience with credibility and discipline in the way we manage the economy and spend public money. We must push Labour and the Conservatives to be honest about the long-term savings now needed to bring down our ballooning structural deficit. But we must not allow the Conservatives to bounce the country into making immediate cuts when the economy is so frail.

Instead we must bear down aggressively on unnecessary Government expenditure and target the money instead on children, on jobs and the green infrastructure needed to build a more sustainable economy. Many of today’s challenges – in the economy, in terms of our security and protecting the environment – escape the clutches of the nation state.

We can only successfully govern ourselves if we are prepared to govern together with others. That means pooling sovereignty at the supranational level, and coming good on Labour’s promise to put Britain at the heart of the EU. If you follow the logic of liberal empowerment you arrive at the vision I have outlined.

Our understanding of power equips us to address the modern challenges – local, national and global – that require its dispersal. We understand that, ultimately, you cannot reach progressive ends through authoritarian means; the means themselves must also be progressive.

The voters who once believed Labour could deliver those ends have perhaps been more profoundly betrayed than anyone else. If they still yearn for a party that has practical plans to increase opportunity, to improve social mobility, and to defend freedom, I hope they will now turn to us.

And for our part, this is a moment we must not now waste. Restive and tenacious, we are the only progressive force in British politics today. Thank you.

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