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8 October 2014updated 07 Sep 2021 10:57am

Full text: Tim Farron’s 2014 Lib Dem conference speech

Time for active, ambitious liberalism.

By Tim Farron

As I was walking in my local park, looking for inspiration for my speech, I kept meeting people who, amazingly, reinforced exactly the things I already think. 

Which was enormously convenient.  

You know, there’s a reason why politicians – with increasing desperation and to increasing ridicule – want to seem in touch with what real people think.  

They are panicked by the rise of the populists: with beer or a whisky in one hand, a simplistic solution in the other – and always wrapped in a flag.  

I understand that panic. I mean, last month we came closer than any of us would like to admit to seeing the breakup of the UK. 

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And mostly not because people bought into narrow nationalism, but because of a justified anger at establishment politics.  

It’s not principally that those in politics are out of touch or don’t get it.

It’s that politics doesn’t deliver. It disappoints.  

Maybe it always did, but not like this, nowhere near.  

You see, I think politics today disappoints because globalisation has made many people feel powerless, insecure, uncertain. 

And as the world changes, they don’t see their politicians doing enough to protect them, provide for them, or liberate them.

Don’t get me wrong: the rewards of globalisation are real. 

The free movement of people, of capital, of ideas, have all made our society better.  

And Liberals should always defend that freedom.  

But if you lose your job, through cheaper labour costs in another continent… 

If you lose your home, through currency changes and interest rate hikes…

If you lose your pension, through decisions made by far away bankers …

…well, you could be forgiven for thinking that globalisation hasn’t really worked for you. 

And so it’s no wonder that many feel it’s time for a change. Any change.

It’s no wonder that people feel attracted to a pitch that says:

We can pull up the drawbridge. We can close ourselves off to the world. 

Our problems come from immigration. 

Poverty around the world isn’t our concern.

Climate change?  It’s a myth.

Maybe somehow there’s a path to a better Britain by pretending we are alone in the world?

Maybe somehow we can insulate ourselves from the impact of global change?

Maybe?  Only if you are living in a state of delirious fantasy.  

In fact, Britain’s future relies not on turning away the best and the brightest from our shores. 

Relies not on attacking migrants.  Migrants who make a net contribution to our economy.   Migrants who are less likely to claim benefits than our own citizens. 

Instead we should be grateful and proud that migrants have chosen to relocate their lives here and are working to build our economy. 

These people make Britain great, we should celebrate them not demonise them.

Britain’s future relies not on decrying foreign aid. 

But, instead, recognising that we have a responsibility to the very poorest people in the world. 

Because when we invest today to train a doctor, build a school or vaccinate a child, we make a difference to others, and we proudly reinforce Britain’s own dignity and decency.

Britain’s future – literally – relies not on pretending that climate change is a vast global conspiracy concocted by 97 per cent of the world’s scientists. 

But, instead, recognising that it is an existential threat that we should be doing everything in our power to halt.

And I passionately believe that we can win these arguments. 

Because I believe that people know that Britain’s future is as an open, inclusive society. 

And we have to win these arguments. Because the nationalism, isolationism and misanthropy of UKIP and the Tories is a serious threat and it needs to be treated as such. 

Liberal Democrats alone in the European elections recognised that, and we took nationalism on. While Cameron pandered and Miliband panicked. 

You can’t win an argument if you aren’t willing to have it. And the other parties had ducked it for far too long.

You see patriots love their country, nationalists hate their neighbours.  

Nationalists dodge the real political issues and they displace all blame for our predicament on others.  

People who are different because of their race, their passport, their class, their accent, their faith, their sexuality.  

So here’s the challenge to us. 

The challenge to liberals.

The challenge to liberalism.

We will not win those arguments if we allow ourselves to be part of the Labour/Tory consensus:

Because its a consensus that says that governments are powerless. 

That the state must get out of the way.

That people are on their own. 

You see, the problem isn’t globalisation, it is Britain’s response to it. 

And our attitude to the role of government.

Globalisation does not need to create the vulnerability that people are feeling. 

The problem is that globalisation has happened in this era of British politics when the consensus has been for passive, can’t do government.

Government that backs away. 

That keeps its hands off the economy. 

That leaves its citizens to the ravages of the unfair, unfree and unregulated market.  

That post ‘79 consensus: set by Mrs Thatcher, turbo charged by New Labour and clung to by too many, has neutered British government.

 The unfair market, the unfree market – the Tory laissez faire market – it is a clunking dead hand that damages business and growth just as much as state socialism.

And it leaves everyone except the wealthiest in our society at the mercies of a globalised economy.  

That is why people feel vulnerable, angry and disillusioned.  

That is why people are repelled by dull, managerialist parties.

Why they are attracted to silver tonged separatists.

That is why I am bored with ‘small c’ conservatives in more than one political party banging the drum for small government.  

Because I say that small government means weak citizens.

And it is the reason why, in the eyes of too many people, governments just don’t even seem to govern. 

They just spectate.

I’ll tell you what, I didn’t get into politics to spectate. 

I got into politics to do something. 

And so did you.

So I want active, ambitious, liberal government that identifies problems and seeks to fix them.  Taking Keynes and Beveridge into the 21stcentury. 

And believe me, if we don’t do this, no one else will.  

Have you ever seen a more miserable, uninspiring, tired, backward-looking sight than those two old parties meeting over the last two weeks?

 All the passion, conviction and vision of a convention of Brevville sandwich-maker salespersons.  

 Ed Miliband got a load of stick for only remembering half of his speech, but that’s still 50 per cent more than the rest of us remembered.

While the tories major announcement was to scrap the human rights act, because and I quote ‘people get very frustrated with human rights’.   

So Mr Cameron, which of these do you find especially frustrating?  the right to life, the ban on torture, protection against slavery, the right to a fair trial, respect for privacy, freedom of thought and religion, free speech and peaceful protest….. 

These are not frustrations, these are integral to what it is to be British.  

And they are the legacy of Winston Churchill.  And seeing the Tories trashing his legacy, I am in no doubt that today he would once again be a Liberal.  

Mr Cameron you may also be prime minister, but you are no statesman.

So it was back to the future with Labour, as they reheated a failed socialist ideology.

And it was back to the future with the Tories as they reheated the failures of Thatcherism. 

But here’s the thing, an awful lot more unites than divides them:

Tories and Labour both saying we shouldn’t be investing more, 

when WE know that we literally need to build our way to the jobs and growth that delivers economic security. 

Not least, the houses we so desperately need to tackle the crisis of affordable homes in our country.

Tories and Labour both saying they will kick the ladders of support away from our young people, by engaging in an arms race over who can be toughest on cutting benefits for the under-25s, 

when WE know that young people need jobs and opportunities not penalties and punishment.

Tories and Labour both saying they will be tougher on migrants,

But we will damage our economy if we make the wrong choices on visas and make our country a harder place to do business.

And Tories and Labour, as always, failing to grasp the scale of the threat from climate change. Unwilling to make any of the tough decisions to protect our environment for future generations.

Britain deserves better than this dismal lack of choice.

There is nobody but you and me to provide a genuine alternative.

An alternative that takes seriously the concerns and fears of an uncertain world. 

An alternative that doesn’t pander, doesn’t just tell people what they want to hear.

But an alternative that offers real genuine solutions. 

Only possible with a liberal government that is active and ambitious.

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You can be proud of what we have achieved.

Abraham Lincoln said ‘all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power’.  

Well our character has been tested and we have not been found wanting.  

We stand proudly on our record.  

Fixing Labour’s economic mess, only possible because we had the guts to go into government. And then – in government – successfully fighting for the investment needed to kick-start the economic recovery.

The result?

2 million new jobs; 

Tens of thousands of families secure in their homes, not repossessed;

Thousands of business alive and blossoming

That’s the real life consequence of that tough decision to take power. 

And just imagine if we’d let the Tories go it alone….

Who seriously thinks that the Tories would have introduced the pupil premium without us? 

The policy that has given £2.5 billion to the schools that Tories are least likely to send their kids to.

 Who seriously thinks that the Tories would have raised the tax threshold, giving a £800 tax cut to the 24 million workers least likely to vote Tory?

Who seriously thinks that the Tories would have given freedom to the 3,500 children of asylum seekers who would have been held in detention?   3,500 children who will never know what horrors they were spared nor who to thank for being spared them.  

I doubt that Nick Clegg won a single vote for ending that shameful detention of innocent children, but it’s in moments like that when you see someone’s integrity. 

It’s in moments like that when you see that winning elections and taking power is more than worthwhile, it is essential.  

So, while being proud of our record, let’s also be very clear about this:

People vote with their eyes fixed forward, not looking over their shoulders.  

They are not interested in the past, they are interested in the future.  

Their votes depend on what happens next, not what happened last.

Looking back alone will not win us a single seat next May.  

And believe me, our challenge next May is not just to win seats in Parliament and in local government, it is to win the right to build a new consensus for government that does not spectate but sets its sights high for our country, that doesn’t walk on by, for government that is liberal, green, internationalist, competent with our economy, compassionate with our society.

Every leaflet you deliver, ever door you knock upon, every stakeboard you put up, every donation you make, everything you do this next six months is about building a new consensus…

a new consensus for a Britain that can be at ease in a community of nations in a global economy. 

A nation where people feel that they matter, because they do matter.

Where our liberties and our livelihoods will be protected by a government that is on our side. 

So we must ensure that our economic policies are comprehensively liberal. 

That means being prudent, wise and living within our means when it comes to revenue spending

But it also means opening the door as wide as we can on capital spending to transform Britain’s infrastructure.  

If we want to free our people, and defend them against the harsh winds of globalisation then we must literally build a better country.

It is time to open up the potential of all of the people and all of the places in this country.  

Thirty years of passive, inactive government has left us with a massive housing crisis.  

The right to buy without a duty to build has devastated our communities. 

We have ludicrous house prices and an overheated private rented sector.

That’s why in the next decade we will need a national mission for three million new homes to prevent nothing less than a return to the squalor that Beveridge sought to eradicate.

So let’s let housing associations and local government off the leash and let them build.  

Let’s be the people to make that happen.

Thirty years of passive, inactive government means that our country is hopelessly and damagingly economically unbalanced. 

While we pour opportunity upon opportunity on a minority of people who live in the right place, went to the right schools, have the right parents and restrict opportunities to everyone else….

We prevent Britain being all it could be.  

It is ludicrous that our largest city is more than seven times bigger than our second largest city.  

So many of the social problems in London, and outside London, rest on the fact that London matters far too much for its own good and for the country’s good.  

We need to liberate the potential of the rest of Britain.

So that we can attract investment and jobs and give opportunities to our young people without them needing to move to the other end of the country.

And nothing will do more to rebalance our economy than to bring our towns and cities closer to together with faster rail links.

So, we have got to deliver HS2.

I know the intellectual heavyweights in Ukip don’t like it. Presumably because it increases the chances of people coming to your town, who aren’t from your town, and some of them might be foreign.

But the threat to this project comes from Labour too. Ed Balls has repeatedly tried to kill it off. 

But this scheme is vital for our country.

The alternative is to build more and more motorways, increasing congestion, damaging the environment.

And don’t be fooled that it’s all about speed. In fact the way it’s sometimes been sold has been a little patronising – as if all we northerners need to achieve economic and personal fulfilment is to be able to get to London quicker.  Do not flatter yourselves!

A new north-south rail link is about capacity – getting those longer journeys by high speed trains into a new line so we can tackle the horrendous over-crowding people face as they commute into our towns and cities to work.  

But we can’t stop at HS2. 

We have to tackle East-West links in the UK too. So we should be planning not just HS2, but HS3, 4 and 5 too!

Starting with a high speed link between Hull and Liverpool, through Leeds, Bradford and Manchester.

Connecting East and West as quickly and as seamlessly as we connect North and South. 

Let’s be the people who make that happen.

And thirty years of passive inactive government has meant a frankly pathetic response to the greatest crisis facing humanity: climate change.   

Reducing green-house gases by 80 per cent by 2050 is just not good enough, when only 100 per cent will do.  

For pity’s sake what’s the point in aiming to do less than we need to?  

What sort of mission is satisfied with failure?  

And any target is pointless without proper action.  

So let’s be massively more ambitious with the Green Investment Bank – greater capitalisation; allowing it to issue green bonds; to raise money on the markets.  

There must be a green economic boom with government investment in renewables, so that sixty per cent of our electricity by will be carbon free by 2030 and that all our energy will be carbon free by 2050.  

Let’s transform the Green Deal and give every single home in Britain an energy efficiency makeover, eradicating fuel poverty and halving demand for energy by 2030.  

We should be proud of Ed Davey’s leadership, and we should claim a green future that is optimistic, inspiring. Winning the war on climate change is not about hair-shirts and austerity, it’s about a positive, innovative, hugely motivating mission to beat catastrophe and boost Britain’s economy.  

If you are not pro-Green then you are not pro-business.

Let’s be the people who make that happen too.

And all this: only possible through ambitious, active liberalism. 

Only achievable with an ambitious, active, liberal government.


These are ambitious goals.

But liberalism has been ambitious before.

Liberalism in Britain gave us universal suffrage

The abolition of the death penalty. 

Freedom of religion. 

The old age pension. 

The welfare state. 

Healthcare, free at the point of use 

LGBT equality. 

All things we take for granted, all things won by liberals in this party and beyond.

We should be proud and encouraged by these victories. 

Britain is better because of you.  

But we know that there are more battles to be fought and won.

Just look at how far we still have to go to achieve real equality.

Last month Emma Watson spoke at the United Nations. 

She gave a passionate call for men to join the fight for gender equality. 

It was met with vile threats and a barrage of personal abuse.

In 2014 women still, too often, are paid less, represented less and matter less.  

That is a moral outrage.  

But you know as well as I do, that our politics and our party do not yet reflect the society we represent either.  

That is unacceptable – and we should redouble our efforts to change it.

Last year my daughter started secondary school.  She is brighter more beautiful and more decent than you would ever expect given that she is my daughter …She’s inherited my football team, otherwise she’s got everything going for her…I want her to know that nothing is beyond her reach, that she is capable of being anyone and doing anything that she wants.  

That there is no glass ceiling that cannot be broken – and I want men to be part of making that happen too.

You see the challenges that we face are big, but Britain’s politics is small. 

Never then has it been more essential that Britain has a strong liberal party – this Liberal party. 

So let’s get behind an ambitious, active liberalism that captures the imagination of the country.

Let’s say to Britain: there is a future that we can all get behind. 

We will not compete with the silver tongued populists by being pale imitations of them.  

We have to be the people calling for wisdom amidst the hysteria: 

Calling for hope amidst the fear.

Calling for ambition amidst apathy.

We will not blame our plight on foreigners, 

people on benefits 

or green crap.  

We will offer our vision for a greener, fairer, better, dynamic and more liberal nation.  

For government that does not wash its hands, but rolls up its sleeves.  

For active, ambitious liberal government.

If you get that… 

If you want that…. 

This is our opportunity.

This is the Liberal moment.  

Let’s grab it.