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Thursday, September 23, 1999 Published at 11:42 GMT 12:42 UK

UK Politics

Charles Kennedy's speech in full

This is the full text of Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy's speech to the party's conference in Harrogate:

Now, the leadership election was a unifying experience for our party. Thank you all for the part you played. Particularly as you all voted for me. Thanks particularly to Simon, Malcolm, Jackie and David. Good colleagues, good friends. And on a personal level - thank you, Paddy Ashdown.

1999 has been a year of elections. Next year there will be more. We have a London Assembly election to fight. And an excellent candidate for Mayor in Susan Kramer.

Each election this year was unique in its own way. Some showed us what is good with British politics - and some showed us what is not so good. There are different lessons to be learnt from them all.

We've certainly made an impact wherever we stood. Westminster, European, Scottish MPs and Welsh Assembly members. We can count the Speakers of the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly among our colleagues. We are now in government, with Jim as Deputy First Minister of Scotland.

In Scotland, the government we are part of has real power. It makes decisions that affect everyday life. So the voters are interested, engaged, connected.

But it's not quite the same elsewhere in Britain. Compared to Scotland, voters in Wales were less interested, less engaged, less connected. Why? It's because in Wales, there has not been the political leadership to win the argument for a full scale Parliament. Labour refused to build a partnership to win the argument well before the referendum. When we have that Parliament, Mike German and his team can help deliver still more. And inevitably, the voters will be more connected.

But the story was worse, far worse, in the European elections. Seventy days of a war in Europe. Night after night on our TV screens. And the turnout? Under 25% A turnout of less than one in four in Great Britain was a clear sign of what politicians can expect. When the government of the day refuses to discuss the issues at stake with the voters. When it is too timid to say how far Europe has brought benefits to people in Britain. When the European Commission is seen as sleazy and unaccountable. And under 25% is what happens when people are presented with Jack Straw's list of parties, rather than a system that allows them to pick people.

In local council elections, turnouts can be even worse That happens where local government isn't seen as sufficiently relevant. That happens where parties take voters for granted. Where people feel that so-called New Labour has nothing to offer them. We need radical change. To transform local government through the introduction of Fair Votes. Real powers to make a real difference. Scrap the unfair Council Tax. Let's go for a fairer Local Income Tax. That way local government will reconnect.

There is one key lesson from all these elections. Give people real power, so they can see the point in voting, then they'll soon get involved.

Politicians have got to reconnect with the voters. So the voters are as enthusiastic about parties as they are about pressure groups. The alternative is that derisory turnouts will be the norm. Party politics can make a difference - not just through voting, but through engaging in the process. We must, inspire a new generation of voters. And we, as Liberal Democrats, must connect our values and vision to everyday life. I will give everything I can for this task. And I expect nothing less of you.

If we want to reconnect with the British people, the first thing we have to do is reconnect with our party. Why do you think our leadership election was so successful and engaging? We saw serious debate at over twenty hustings meetings. Excellent candidates. But crucially, we involved thousands and thousands of party members. They chose who would lead their party, because it is their party. One member one vote.

Do you like one member one vote? I do, and I want to see more of it.

We've got to realise that we do not include enough of our members in party elections. Well over sixty thousand of our members campaigned in the last general election. But party committees are elected by a few thousand conference reps. To be a conference rep takes time and money. You all know that. It excludes many activists, even councillors, who work hard for the party all year round. So I shall be asking the party's Federal Executive to look into extending one member one vote to more party elections. If it's good enough to elect the President. If it's good enough to elect the Leader. If it's good enough to elect our candidates. It's good enough for us all.

But that's enough about internal party matters. The most important way to reconnect with the voters is to put forward a clear message. We must place Liberal Democrat values at the heart of the nation's political conversation. Through more dialogue we may actually achieve more idealism. Explaining to people why the causes that brought us into politics affect them. So that politics and the people reconnect.

Now, the government achieved a clear cut victory on the first of May '97. They may have a broad majority of seats. Yet they should remember it is also a shallow one. They didn't get an outright majority of votes.

And let me say this clearly to the country. The Liberal Democrats are nobody's poodles. But we are not Rottweilers either. We don't attack for the sake of it. We don't savage on command. That is the old politics.

It's a lesson the Tories haven't yet learned. What an irresponsible disgrace they have become on Northern Ireland. A word here, on current events. One of the most telling lines of poetry for me. W.H. Auden on the death of Yeats. "Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry. Now you are gone. But Ireland has her madness still." Let me make one thing absolutely clear on behalf of this party. Loose talk at Westminster can literally cost lives in Northern Ireland. We are not going to play Westminster party politics with the Northern Ireland peace process. William Hague, grow up.

Our approach is different. We want adult politics. We believe that for politics to make a difference, you need to talk to people in other parties. It's why I'm talking to pro-European Conservatives. It's why I want to maintain our current constitutional co-operation with the government. It's also why I won't rule out further co-operation with ministers. Remember what we've already agreed. If we get our policies implemented. If you, the party, consents. And if we remain independent.

This open-mindedness shows we are serious about helping the people of Britain. Where the government is doing things that are right, we shall support them. But when they are wrong, and they often are, we shall oppose them.

Take social justice. There are real deep inequalities in Britain today. Men and women, black and white, rich and poor. Dire problems in inner cities. And just ask farmers about the rural crisis. If you're old, or cold, or hungry, the government is less New Labour, more new conservatives.

The government has not done nearly enough to reach out to the poor and the powerless. It hasn't shown that politics and the actions of politicians can improve their lives. No surprise then, that many of Britain's poorest people choose not to vote in elections. They can't see any point to it. Politics hasn't connected with vast swathes of our country. We must reconnect.

And nowhere more so than with women. Through far more elected women Liberal Democrats at all levels.

And Liberal Democrats can reconnect on the core issues. For we are different on these issues. We believe that if you want decent public services such as health, education and transport, you have to pay for them. Money isn't always the solution. But so often, problems can't be tackled without it. Liberal Democrats will be honest with the public about that. We will not engage in a ridiculous competition about who can tax less. The Tories want to cut taxes for the very rich, and are now promising tax cuts on all savings. But they won't say which services they will cut to do so.

It's typical of the mess they're in. Peter Riddell in The Times recently described the Shadow Cabinet as "among the most second-rate in a generation". They're a rabble. But they're also a dangerous rabble. We certainly don't want them back in power. Remember the sense of liberation in May '97 after eighteen years? Tory after Tory going down to defeat. A sense of hope for what seemed possible. A modernised constitution, a fairer society, a leading role in Europe. All of this, could be wiped out in one blow by a Conservative recovery. Think of that. Cuts in health and education. Disengagement from Europe. Home Secretary - Ann Widdecombe. That's what a Tory government would mean We know from all the memoirs that this is a party with some past. What the police call 'form'. But increasingly it doesn't look like a party with a future.

But to get back to serious politics. What about Labour? My big fear is that Labour will be seduced down the path of short-term tax cuts BEFORE the next election, at the expense of schools, hospitals, and pensioners AFTER the election. After all, they've already done it once. In the last budget, when schools and hospitals desperately needed more cash, Gordon Brown gave us a tax cut, due next April. Nobody expected it, and nobody was calling for it. Any government that calls itself progressive, but refuses to fund health and education properly should be ashamed of itself.

They should be even more ashamed when they start using the rhetoric of the moral crusade. There's more to morality than curfews. There's more to morality than attacks on how people choose to bring up their children. And there's a lot more to morality than some of the most illiberal asylum and immigration laws this country has ever seen.

The real moral crusade would be to take a principled stand against injustice.

Abroad, on issues such as Third World debt. Supporting Jubilee 2000. And what about the so-called ethical foreign policy? Ethical foreign policy? Like selling military jets to Indonesia? Ethical foreign policy? Dodgy deals over Sierra Leone? Ethical foreign policy? That's not ethical foreign policy. That's a moral stench masquerading as a foreign policy.

And at home. Here and now, we have an opportunity to do something about the inequalities in Britain. Social justice isn't just about spending. It's about rights and changing attitudes. So that blacks and Asians have equal opportunities. So that the disabled have access to facilities the rest of us take for granted. And we cannot claim to be a decent society when in the workplace, in local government and in the armed forces, there exists unethical and arguably illegal discrimination against lesbians and gay men. It's absurd, isn't it, that we no longer prosecute spies. But patriotic men and women because of their sexuality can't serve their country in uniform.

There's more. The hospitals without beds. The schools without books. The children leaving school without qualifications.

To tackle these problems, we need to change the nature of political debate. The focus of our nation's political conversation must shift. Towards a concern about inequality and lack of opportunity. How about a genuine Social Justice Audit, to examine the effects of all government policies. To hold government to account for the way they treat the poorest and most needy in our society. We need fresh efforts on all-party agreement on pensions. It's too important an issue to leave to the vagaries of party politics. Governments come and go. Parties even come and go - tell me about it. But the reality of the ageing process is a constant. 40 this year. Too old to rock 'n' roll? Too young to die? Well perhaps. But old enough to know that Britain needs to do better. Above all, above all, I believe leadership means a serious debate on how you fund public services, so that people understand the costs and the options on offer.

So I challenge the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, here and now, to use the treasure chest they have now to invest in local schools, local hospitals, pensioners, rather than still more tax cuts for the better off. The nation wants it. They could do it. They should do it.

When we talk about social justice, we also need to recognise that the inequalities in society affect the life chances of people who don't think of themselves as especially disadvantaged. Women, bringing up children, whether alone or with a partner, face enormous difficulties. Parents sending their children to university. Sons and daughters trying to look after their elderly parents. They may receive a reasonable salary. But what's the use of that, if you can't get a hospital appointment. Or your child's class at school is 36 strong and the teachers can't cope any more. Or you live in fear of crime.

Make no mistake though, our response is not solely about spending. Our future is not as a left of Labour party. It's been tried before. It led to the longest suicide note in history. That would be the political cul-de-sac of all time.

Can we spend better should be the question we ask, before we see if we need to spend more. This means that our party must be even more intellectually agile on policy than we have been. We need to work with the voluntary sector to raise awareness of problems that face so many in Britain. We need to look at ways of giving incentives to people to help the poor. And look at ways of discouraging activities that worsen poverty.

There are other issues that we need to take to the people. The environment. Political parties aren't nearly bold or honest enough - ourselves included. We have a good set of environmental policies. But we need to ensure that they stay at the cutting-edge of thinking.

Take transport policy. So-called integrated transport. The biggest single contradiction in British politics. Presided over by Two Jags Prescott himself. Poor John. He's got as much chance of transport integration as he's got of verbal integration.

And now a word for our train spotters in the audience. I'm sure there's quite a few of you. One of my favourite campaigns as a local MP was the successful fight to save the Fort William Sleeper. Today it's more popular than ever. After what I've been through this week, I realise from now on, that's the only place I'm going to get an extra hour in bed.

There's no greater challenge to government than a joined-up environment policy. To do this, we will need to change the very nature of government. Change the way we tax. We should tax pollution. We shouldn't rax jobs. That won't just help the environment. It will help employment too.

And we need to make sure that government departments actually talk to each other. They all make policies that affect the environment. So when we campaign, we must get our message across on bread and butter issues. Our crumbling transport systems. Pollution in town and city centres. Asthma among children. Do we really want to ruin the countryside by building on green fields?

And what about GM foods? The vast majority of the country is unpersuaded. But the government isn't listening.

At the moment we have Brown's Budgets. I'd like to see Green Budgets. And a Green Budget would be a Liberal Democrat Budget.

The environment affects everyone. You can't be brought up in the Highlands of Scotland without realising that.

Politics lacks courage, when what's needed is a serious debate.

Just look at drugs. There's not a family, a home in the land, not touched directly or indirectly by this issue. It's talked about everywhere. Except - with a few honourable exceptions - in Parliament. Too much silence in politics, it was once said, is much more ominous than too much noise. But on drugs, there's an ominous silence in Westminster. Not the silence of the lambs, but the silence of the sheep, and the herd instinct that goes with it. This serious debate can be part of a much wider process to prevent drug-taking in the first place. We spend far too much on treatment and policing, and much less on prevention. We need to start listening to what people are saying to us.

You know, what really amazes me about this government is its timidity. For so long under the Conservatives, politics was dominated by fear. Under Labour it has been dominated by frustration.

The government has a huge majority. It continues to bask in good opinion polls. Yet it doesn't use its advantages. It doesn't lead. Too often it just follows the latest focus group.

Nowhere is that more true than on the issue of Europe.

I am unashamed on this issue. I know you are too. Europe is good for Britain. It's good for British business. That's good for British jobs. And all that's good for the British people. It's patriotic to be pro-European.

People need to know that thanks to Europe, we've got progress on paternity leave Thanks to Europe we've got progress on equal pay for men and women, It was thanks to Europe that the invalid care allowance was eventually given to married women.

But the government won't say so. They shouldn't be so afraid. I am proud to be a Highlander and a Scot. I know who I support when the teams run out at Murrayfield. But I am equally proud to be British - proud of the journey that the peoples of our islands have made together. Yet there is no contradiction with any of these in feeling proud to be European as well. And I do.

We can play a full part in the EU without losing our national distinctiveness. We have nothing to fear. It is now time to be up-front about the big decision facing Britain. You won't manoeuvre the British people into the euro by stealth. It won't wash.

Some time, there will be a referendum. When it comes, there will be a perverse rainbow coalition of yesterdays men and women arguing against the euro. In reality, they will be arguing for Britain to pull out of the EU altogether. Norman Tebbit, Tony Benn, Ian Paisley, Margaret Thatcher. Just William no doubt will play his part. If Portillo lets him. William Hague - out of touch with the 21st century. Yesterday's man before his time. And by the way William. Your biggest threat isn't Michael Portillo. Your biggest threat is here.

In contrast, the case for our future in Europe will come from mainstream and respected figures from all parties. The best of the Labour government. And the best of the Conservatives. People like Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine. Yes, I'll be there too. We all have to be there. As part of the Britain in Europe campaign.

What is there to be afraid of? Lead now. Lead now and there can be a decisive majority for British entry to the euro. Put it off, and the result is far from clear. But the country needs and wants a lead.

More vigour is needed too on the constitution. There has been a long overdue revolution. But it is an unfinished revolution. The government won't get the modernisation it seeks if the revolution stops. The country won't get the modernisation it needs if the revolution stalls.

We have to keep the momentum going. More decentralisation of power from Westminster to the regions of England. A democratic House of Lords. Freedom of Information, not freedom from information.

And of course, voting reform. After the fair votes elections in Scotland and Wales, and for Europe, many Labour MPs said: 'There you are. That proves it. PR doesn't work'. It didn't work for them because they didn't get huge majorities based on a minority of the vote. But it worked for the voters.

They got a government in Scotland far more representative of the people's wishes than ever before. In Wales the government can only survive by taking account of other views. The systems weren't perfect. They weren't the systems we Liberal Democrats would have chosen. But that's not an argument against PR itself.

There must be more change. There's been a coalition agreement in Scotland on fair votes for local government. We already have it in Northern Ireland. So you can't deny the logic of fair votes for local government in England and Wales.

Fair votes in local government won't necessarily mean more Liberal Democrats everywhere. But it means less sleaze and corruption. Fewer Labour Doncasters, fewer Hulls.

And there is no way that you can hermetically seal Westminster from this process.

So these are my core beliefs. They offer a popular message for the country. A popular message about Liberal Democracy. A popular message about politics. It is a message we must now carry to every citizen in Britain.

We can show that politics matters. A clear voice when we disagree with the government - as we often do. Speaking for the people who aren't heard, and the issues that aren't discussed. That's how we reconnect with Britain on the basis of our principles. And it's the way we show that politics can make a difference.

Showing we are a serious party of government. Making a difference. To change lives for the better. Making sure that politics and the people reconnect. Inspiring a new generation of voters. That is our case. That is our cause.

These are momentous times. Today, it is one hundred days until the new millennium. We can look forward. I look back to the days long before I was born. Back to Mill, Keynes, and Beveridge. Liberal Democrats all, even before there was a party of that name.

And in modern times to David Steel and Roy Jenkins who dreamed the dream of the Alliance and brought it alive. People like Bob Maclennan who made our new party a reality. Paddy Ashdown, who made it powerfully relevant.

We have a principled past to be proud of. We have a future of power to do good to look forward to.

Time is now our ally. The opportunity our's to grasp. The twentieth century was too much a Conservative century. The twenty-first can be the century of liberal democracy.

Sixteen years ago, it seemed a long way from the Highland croft to the House of Commons. It was then a long leap to the leadership. Sixteen years on, the gap between leadership and government doesn't seem so great any more. I'm ready for it. I know you are. I'm eager. This represents for me the chance of a lifetime. Three people at any given time - out of 55 million. Get the opportunity to lead a British political party. You have entrusted that chance and that responsibility to me. And politically, for all us, it's the chance of a generation. Let's go for it. Let's go for it. Let's go for it together.

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