Lord Dick Newby's Richard Wainwright Lecture

Lord Newby, Leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords and good friend of the man himself gave the Richard Wainwright lecture at the Regional Conference in Ossett.


Lord Newby received a standing ovation for the extraordinary speech, a copy of which we have uploaded below:

"It is a great honour to be asked to deliver this year’s Wainwright lecture. I cannot claim to have known Richard Wainwright well, although when I went to work as secretary to the newly formed SDP Parliamentary Group in 1981 he was still a Liberal MP and he participated in meetings which I attended. My only real contact with him was in the early years of the newly formed Liberal Democrats when, sensing that the new Party needed to generate a flow of new policy ideas, Richard made a very generous personal donation to help establish the Centre for Reform, which became CentreForum and the Party’s principal think tank. As Chairman of the Centre for Reform Board I was the delighted recipient of Richard’s cheque.

His donation was typical of him. He saw the need for a think tank. He had the means to help and he did so generously and without the subsequent desire for day-to-day interference which sometimes afflicts political donors.

What would he have made of today’s political situation? I think like many of us he would appalled by many recent developments and rather unsure both as to how we have come to the current pass, and what we should do to get out of it.

In attempting to chart a path forward he would, I am sure, have started with first principles. What does it mean to be a liberal? Which liberal trends in our society are at risk? And how should we combat these risks? I am not presumptuous enough to pretend to know how he would have answered those questions, but let me tell you how I would do so.

First, what does it mean to be a liberal? The word is susceptible to many definitions, but I am going to take as my litmus tests of liberalism, four characteristics, which are eloquently enunciated in Edmund Fawcett’s recent work : Liberalism The Life of an Idea – a book which though not exactly a light read, I would strongly recommend.

The four are:

An acceptance that conflict is in the nature of society

A resistance to unchecked power

The embracing of progress and

Respect for the individual.

The first – an acceptance that conflict is in the nature of society - many seem rather strange, but it is fundamental. Human beings do not naturally tend to agree about how to do things. We are, as a species, disputatious at best and all too willing to engage in physical conflict at worst. Liberals accept that this is the nature of things, but believe that by developing structures which channel conflict into competition, we can turn argument into innovation and progress.

This is certainly reflected in our own Party, where members tend to be independently-minded, sometimes cantankerous debaters, but do so within the framework of respect for those with whom they disagree and the acceptance of democratically agreed decisions.

The second liberal characteristic - of opposition to unchecked power - is more familiar ground to us. We oppose domination of society by any single interest, faith or class.  As I shall describe, this concept was in the ascendency in the second half of the 20th century, but is now under threat.

Thirdly, we embrace progress, because we believe that human society can develop for the better. We are therefore the antithesis of the UKIP voters, who when asked before the last general election in a Lib Dem organised focus group what they most admired about Britain, they answered “the past”. We should answer “ we value our country because of its capacity to move forward and change for the better.

The fourth and final liberal characteristic is respect for the individual. This has two facets, first the concept which we associate with John Stuart Mill that people should not be debarred from doing anything which does not impact negatively on others. And secondly the argument, first associated in Britain with the Edwardian New Liberals, that society needed to intervene positively in people’s live to enable them to develop and live their lives to the full. This idea lay behind the creation of the welfare state and the recognition that the state had a responsibility to adopt a policy of promoting full employment. These policies are, of course, associated with three great twentieth century Liberals – Lloyd George, Beveridge and Keynes.

These ideas were not of course only the preserve of the Liberal Party or the Liberal Democrats. There were many small “l” liberals in both Labour and Conservative parties particularly in the 50 years following World War Two. And this period – which coincides roughly with my lifetime - has seen massive social and economic change – not just in the UK but globally - which one could argue was based largely on liberal principals.

It has been a period, in Europe at least of historically low levels of conflict. This was possible as a result of international structures – NATO, and subsequently the EEC, which from the outset, had the avoidance of conflict at their heart. The very fact that the leaders of EU member states have had to meet regularly to thrash out common solutions to shared problems has proved a complete victory of “jaw jaw” over “war war”. This has been a revolutionary change for the better.

The embrace of progress and increased respect for the individual have been hallmarks of the decades following the World War. Technological change has underpinned the greatest sustained rise in per capita income that the world has ever seen. In my lifetime the average income per head in the UK has increased approximately three-fold. Such an increase is unique.  Contrast it to the situation in previous centuries. In 1797, there was a naval mutiny at Spithead. The cause was that sailors pay had not increased for well over a century. And that was because real wages were flat over a very prolonged period.

The impact of increased real incomes is felt in every aspect of how we live our lives, but one stark example sticks in my mind. My mother was born in Carlton near Wakefield. As a boy I went to collect the weekly supply of eggs from a retired miner who lived in the village and who – in over 80 years – had never stepped outside the circle with Leeds and Wakefield at opposite ends of the diagonal – a distance of 10 miles. My mother’s cleaner, from the next village, and also now beyond the state retirement age, now regularly takes foreign holidays – something which the miner never even contemplated.

Increased national wealth has not only given people greatly increased disposable income. It has also enabled the state to raise taxes to allow it to fund levels of provision – whether in education, health or social benefits - which were unimaginable in previous eras. These in turn have enabled people – particularly from poor backgrounds - to be better educated, housed and longer-lived than their forebears could contemplate.

The unprecedented rise in real incomes has been matched by a social revolution which by increasing respect for previously discriminated-against groups has been a huge victory for liberalism. When I was born, not only was homosexuality and abortion illegal, but a female civil servant was required to resign on getting married. Racism was openly tolerated, not least in the property lettings market Floella Benjamin’s account of coming to live in London from Trinidad as a girl – Coming to England - eloquently describes these attitudes.

The raft of reforming social legislation, exemplified by the reforms introduced during Roy Jenkins’ period as home Secretary and rounded off by the Coalition’s Same Sex Marriage Act have liberated millions of our citizens. And these legal changes have been mirrored by positive changes in attitude. When the Same Sex Marriage Bill was being debated in the Lords, the Tory opposition was much less than expected. When I asked one of the Tory hereditaries why he replied “Like many of my colleagues I used to be homo phobic. But I’ve changed my mind.”

If I were giving this lecture ten years ago, I might have stopped at this point with this description of the seemingly unstoppable spread of liberal principles and policies.

However, history does not run in a straight line, and the last decade has seen a worrying broad range of areas where the tide of liberalism has been halted or reversed.

We have certainly seen a rise in international conflict. With the fall of the Berlin wall, it seemed as though the West had won the ideological battle and Russia was in no position to threaten anyone. Now Russia had seized Crimea, fomented rebellion in Eastern Ukraine and is increasingly threatening the Baltic States. Internationally Russia is in the process of destroying not only the opposition to the regime in Syria, but also much of the country’s infrastructure.

It does so in a region where first Al Qaeda and now ISIS has gained ground by using methods of unrestrained barbarism in the name of religion, which have not been confined to the region, but have spilled over into the street of London, Paris Brussels and Nice. This has happened in the aftermath of disastrous Western interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, where a failure to plan for the aftermath of Western military victories and an unwillingness to maintain a long-term internal peacekeeping role has led to continuing  civil wars of unremitting brutality.

These foreign conflicts had other domestic repercussions. They have led to heightened levels of fear and suspicion of Muslim communities, which have crystallised at one end of the spectrum into attacks on mosques and at the other, into personal abuse directed at individual Muslims going about their daily lives. They have also led to increased levels of anti-Semitism. Social media has become a disturbing new channel for these views, with the cumulative impact of multiple tweets and e-mails is some cases becoming almost unbearable. We have heard of individual Labour MPs receiving up to 25,000 anti-Semitic messages over a short period. This level of abuse is new and particularly worrying.

Intolerance has also grown as a result of another new, creeping development, which was first identified in the US but which has now spread to the UK and the whole developed world. This is the end of year on year real wage increases for many skilled and semi-skilled workers in both industrial and service sectors. Real wages have been more or less static for many people for a decade now and in some cases have fallen. Costs –particularly housing costs – have continued to rise. For many people economic change has also meant a move from long term secure employment to often short term gig-economy type jobs. This has disproportionately affected manufacturing and mining areas in the North. It has shattered many people’s expectations of their future pattern of work and life. And it has led to anger, frustration and a search for scapegoats.

There has been no shortage of scapegoats, whether it is City bankers, Brussels bureaucrats, self-serving politicians or immigrants – whether from Asia or Europe. It was this generalised discontent which fuelled the rise of UKIP and much of the Brexit vote. It has had disturbing consequences. The language used during the referendum campaign by the Brexiters, the false promises and the demonising of foreigners has legitimatised in many people’s eyes the expression of anti-immigrant views, which have ranged from insults in the playground to murder on the streets in Essex – and an increase in hate crime in July nof some 49% according to the National Police Chiefs Council.

This rise in intolerance is not of course unique to the UK. We have seen how the National Front has peddled it with increasing success in France. We see it with the Northern League in Italy, with Geert Wilders in Holland and the AfD in Germany. And of course we see it in the attitude towards Mexicans and Muslims of Donald Trump. And it is perhaps the fact that he has been able to gather a potentially winning level of support in the US whilst mouthing crude and deeply illiberal sentiments which should perhaps give us greatest pause.

The UK Government does not of course support anti-Semitism or any kind of hate crime. But in two respects at least, it has shown an indifference – to put it mildly – to the fate of others. Firstly, its use of EU citizens living in the UK as bargaining chips in the Brexit negotiations is repugnant. But it is its complete lack of humanity in addressing the refugee problem in Europe which is shameful. At  a time when Germany has taken over one million refugees and even Sweden has taken 125,000, our Government  reluctantly set a target of  taking 20,000 over a five year period. And last week, when a Minister updated the House of Lords on progress towards this target, it was clear that the Government was no-where near being on track to meet even this modest goal.

On child refugees it has been completely heartless. After two defeats in the Lords, it finally caved in and agreed to accept an unspecified number of unaccompanied minors into the UK – via the so-called “Dubs” amendment. It refused to accept the Save the Children target of 3000 unaccompanied minors and now, despite at the last minute taking several hundred from the jungle in Calais it has refused to agree to take the full 1500 children estimated to have been in the camp. It has no plans to take any further children from elsewhere in the EU. It has refused to plan for receiving these children and then cites the lack of planning as a reason for not taking more. My colleagues in the Lords – Shas Sheehan and Roger Roberts – have been magnificent in their championing such children, but their passion and commitment has not met with a proportionate Government response.

So for liberals, the current environment threatens our values across a wide front. Indeed, there is much media commentary about the death of liberalism. Such claims are clearly overdone, but there is no doubt that we cannot take liberalism for granted and we cannot rely on other parties to share our liberal values to the extent which we could a decade ago.

What then should the liberal response be?

I think there are two key dimensions. The first is one of attitude. We must be not be cowed in the face of illiberalism nor accept that it is either inevitable or irreversible. This of course applies to liberals with a small l across all the parties but it is our unique role now to fly the liberal flag not least because liberal voices in other parties are very much in the minority.

As a Party, the Conservatives are daily showing their illiberalism in spirit and in action.

Far from reforming the nasty Party away from nastiness, Theresa May showed in her conference speeches that she is prepared to beat the nastiest drums if they serve to maximise her own internal Party support. And the issue on which she seems to care most is migration, where she has shown remarkable stubbornness, matched only by an almost complete policy failure as Home Secretary, in seeking to get immigration down. This could well be her only red line in the Brexit negotiations. Her response – and that of the Government as a whole – to the hysterical anti-judge headlines in the light of the Article 50 ruling, shows how far she is prepared to go to ride the tiger of right wing populism.

The Labour Party, which has over the decades fought for many liberal causes, is now one of the most illiberal organisations in the country. Internal levels of disrespect are extraordinarily high. One of our Party’s new members served as the disability representative on the TUC General Council for a decade in the noughties. He left the Labour Party because he could not tolerate the degree of hatred shown by one comrade to another. His experience is typical. And this culture of intolerance of course is not just reserved for internal disputes. It pervades the Corbynista view of the world. It is the antithesis of liberalism.

If we are to be bold, self-confident liberals, and be successful in the political marketplace, we need to advocate bold policies which not only address the most pressing issues facing society but do so with a substance and in a language which is clear, straightforward and appeals to people’s sense of fairness and common sense. As optimists we must show how we can rise to the challenge of a rapidly changing world and not shrink from them.

Over the summer, I chaired the Party’s emergency manifesto-drafting committee where we rapidly put together a serviceable manifesto for any snap election called this year. We are not going to get such a precipitate election despite some recent feverish headlines. This is a good thing, not least because the manifesto process demonstrated that we need to do more thinking as a Party in a number of policy areas where developments in society have been deep and rapid and where we, in common with the other Parties, are struggling to keep up.

What I’d like to do now therefore is explain how we reviewing our policies as a way of developing a liberalism fit for purpose in the 21st century and how we are tackling the single biggest public policy challenge of our political lifetimes namely that of Brexit. I hope and believe that in each case we are being guided by the liberal principles which I enunciated at the beginning of my lecture.

I am going to concentrate on just two non-Brexit issues. The first has been thrown into sharp relief by the Brexit vote, and indeed was one of the main drivers for it. It is the presence of large numbers of disillusioned people who feel left behind by globalisation and social change and who are looking for policy responses which offer them a higher standard of living and dispel a sense of cultural insecurity brought about by real or imaginary consequences of large scale immigration. In England they are to be fund predominantly in the Midlands and the North, in the cities, the old de-industrialised towns and rural areas whose economies now depend on immigrant labour. They despise bankers, the City and London as a whole as much as they do Brussels. And they have no time for conventional politicians.

Addressing their concerns in a manner which they will find credible will not be an easy job. This is why Tim Farron has just appointed William Wallace to lead a task force to develop our policies in this area. William is of course the ideal person to do this, as he combines a deep understanding of the poorer communities of West Yorkshire with an academic’s ability to analyse the issues and produce clear, compelling responses. But when one looks at the underlying causes for the concerns of the left behind, you quickly realise how complex they are to address. To give a flavour the issues which William will be grappling with, there is

  • First, the balance – or imbalance – of public spending between the northern cities and London. This is particularly stark in terms of transport infrastructure, but with the devolution of business rate revenues, those areas with existing successful businesses are going to gain at the expense of those which do not. Left unadjusted this will skew expenditure even more towards London and the south east, not least as London is campaigning hard to get greater devolution of tax revenue to further its own economic development
  • Second, the problem that in areas with high levels of recent immigration provision of schools, health and other services has not always matched the changed demographics. We have been woefully bad at this up to now and we are in the ludicrous position of EU nationals being demonised despite the fact that they are net contributors to the public purse – money which we have chosen to use to reduce the deficit rather than ensure that we provided the communities in which they live with the public infrastructure they need
  • Third how to improve the education system – from nursery school to further education – to equip people with the skills they need to do the jobs where labour is in short supply. One of the more misleading claims of the Brexiters is that if only we restrict EU immigration and do nothing else. we will reduce domestic unemployment. Leaving aside the fact that employment participation rates are at an all-time high – particularly for women, the only reason we have such large scale EU immigration at all stems from the inability of employers to be able to recruit the type of workers they need from the local population
  • And fourth, we need to sort out the housing crisis – particularly in relation to social housing. My colleague John Shipley has just been appointed by Tim to be the party’s housing spokesperson and lead a parallel task force to that of William on how we meet the housing challenge.

By simply enumerating these issues one gets a sense of their scale – so William’s in for a busy few months.

The second area where we need radical reform in in the provision of health and social care. The NHS remains the most respected institution in Britain, but it is in financial crisis – a crisis that can only get worse – and there is a dysfunctional relationship between health and social care which simply has to be resolved. That is why Norman Lamb called for a cross-party commission to look at the long term future of the NHS. But given the complete unwillingness of the government to contemplate such an eminently sensible idea, he has now established our own independent panel which will look at how the health and social care system can be funded on a long term basis. In particular, it is going to look at the options for introducing a dedicated health and social care tax. We need to confront the electorate with the scale of the funding challenge and then show how it can be met. Exactly how to achieve this is the remit of the panel, but any proposal must and will meet the tests I set earlier of being fair, common sense and optimistic about the future of our healthcare system.

This brings me to by far the most important challenge for liberals facing the country – namely how to respond to the Brexit vote.  I don’t need to repeat the extent to which the Leave vote was based on and has further provoked illiberal values.  As Liberal Democrats, I think we can take that as given. The question is what to do about it. The immediate excitement relates to the High Court decision on Thursday on the need for a Parliamentary vote on triggering Article 50. It now looks highly likely that Parliament will be debating a Bill which would allow the Article to be triggered. We welcome this decision because it is a reassertion of Parliamentary sovereignty – an issue of course which in any other circumstance the Brexiters claim is close to their hearts.

The fact that a Bill will be required – now reluctantly accepted by the Government despite their decision to appeal the High Court decision – will enable Parliament potentially to amend it. It is very easy to see how that might be attempted – for example by adding conditions which the Government would have to seek in any negotiations. But before we get too carried away by what could be done during the Bill’s passage, we need to remember a number of sober facts. The first is that in the Commons there is a large majority for pressing ahead and getting the best Brexit terms we can. There is deep division about what that means in practice but there is nothing like a majority for the Lib Dem view that any final deal should be put for decision to the people.

The second is that, whatever you want the final outcome to be, there are no benefits and potentially very high costs in seeking to delay the process out of devilment. And for us in the Lords, whilst we will want to give the Bill very serious scrutiny – and I am sure that the Government understands that this will need to happen - I do not believe that it would be constitutionally or politically acceptable for us to seek to derail the start of the Brexit negotiations.

This is a very long way from saying that we believe that Brexit is an inevitability. We have argued that the people should have a further opportunity to give a verdict on Brexit when the terms are known. This seems a common sense view, given the false prospectus on which many of the Brexiters voted last June. We will be looking at how we can assemble a majority in the Commons to enact such a provision, but we cannot be sure to succeed. Nor can we assume however that any further vote would necessarily give us the outcome we want.

But this brings us back to our principles. Trust the people must continue to be our watchword. We may not like their verdict but we must always respect it. Our task over the months and years ahead is to persuade the people that our view of an open, tolerant and united Britain – a liberal Britain – is the kind of country they wish to live in. In today’s climate this is quite a task. But Richard Wainwright would not have shirked it. Nor should we."

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