A rallying cry that inspired my journey into politics

My party must be a permanent and independent force in British politics

JUST OVER 16 years ago I was in America, studying for a PhD at Indiana University. The 1983 general election intervened. I had a choice to make: continue with my enjoyable lifestyle in the US, or return to Britain to run for Parliament. I opted for the latter. To the surprise of many, the Alliance moved from fourth place to take Ross, Cromarty and Skye. We had fought a whirlwind campaign, and at the age of 23 I became Britain's youngest MP.

Why did I do it? The answer begins in 1979, when Roy Jenkins delivered his famous Dimbleby lecture. Roy brought sharply into focus the unease I felt about the choices that Labour and the Conservatives were offering the British people. He offered a vision of the type of political party I wanted to join. He spoke of the need for a party to bring about constitutional and electoral reform at the heart of our political life, to end the failures of the two-party system. The new political system that resulted would allow parties to co-operate where they shared ideas. Power would be devolved by this new party, and it would advance new policy agendas for women, the third world and the environment. He spoke, too, of the need to combine "the innovating stimulus of the free market economy" without the "brutality of its untrammelled distribution of rewards or its indifference to unemployment".

For me, the Dimbleby Lecture was a rallying-cry for those who wished politics to move beyond the class war that it had become. It was a vision of a radical, decentralist and internationalist party. It was a vision of the party that the Liberal Democrats have become. From the first, I was clear that I wanted to be part of this new force.

When the 1983 election was called, my decision to fight the election was all about seizing the moment. When I think back to that time I remember a gut instinct, a belief that it was the right thing to do, and a sense that there was a historic window of opportunity for Britain to do things differently. We needed then a party that was serious about fighting for social justice, at the same time as changing the nature of our political system and advancing the cause of Europe.

I feel exactly the same now. Today, we are faced with a Conservative Party that is outdated and divided - in much the same way as Labour in 1983. Today's Labour Government has forgotten the poor, the powerless and the dispossessed - in much the same way that Thatcher's Conservatives did. In contrast, Liberal Democrats offer a vision of conscience and reform. We want to change the very nature of British politics, and we fight for social justice and the environment.

Now, in 1999, Britain needs the Liberal Democrats as an independent political force more than ever. As we enter the new century, there is another historic window of opportunity for Britain to do things differently, and Liberal Democrats are prising this window open. The past decade has shown the Liberal Democrats to be doggedly persistent and fiercely independent. These qualities have borne fruit in our electoral successes at all levels of Government. Ten years ago, no one would have believed it possible for us to have 46 MPs, 5,000 councillors and significant representation in the European Parliament and Welsh Assembly, and to share power in a new Scottish government.

After we have made such progress it would now be the utmost folly to put a limit to our ambitions as a party. Looking ahead over the next decade, I want us to be making further inroads into both Conservative and Labour votes. Labour's rotten boroughs offer us obvious targets for developing our strength in local government, as we have recently done in Sheffield. The Conservatives meanwhile, increasingly outdated and out of touch, may offer even easier targets.

I want us increasingly to be a party of government. We have already demonstrated in local government - and have begun to do so in Scotland - that Liberal Democrats aren't just good campaigners. We are also good at running things. I want us to be in government at all levels and I believe that this can be achieved. To do this, co-operation with others may be necessary, and we should not flinch from it - after all, we have spent decades opposing tribal politics and saying that parties should co-operate more. Now that we have a real chance to work with others, we should not adopt a simple oppositionist mentality. The principles we operate in the council chamber - partnership where it is sensible, opposition where it is right - apply equally at national level.

So we should continue to work with the Government on those policy areas where we agree, and where a cross-party approach to long-term change makes particular sense. We can see, in issues such as fair votes for local and Westminster elections and the campaign for British entry into EMU, that there are further areas where we shall want to work together. Beyond these great constitutional questions and our current dialogue on foreign policy, it looks unlikely that there will be other areas for co-operation in this Parliament, but we should not rule out the possibility, with tough negotiations for our case, and with the party working as one with the leader. Equally, we shall continue to oppose the Government when we disagree, as we have successfully done in the current Parliament. The alternatives would either fatally undermine our independence as a separate party, or reduce us to knee-jerk oppositionists. Neither of these approaches would, in the longer term, help us achieve the changes that we seek to bring. Both should be rejected.

In my view, the party now faces a window of historic opportunity. We are strongly represented at all levels of government at a time when the Conservatives are unable to offer a viable alternative to the present Government. We must seize this chance to speak clearly and distinctively on the big political issues facing the British people: social justice, the environment, and Europe.

The Liberal Democrats must be a permanent, independent force in British politics, not afraid to work with others in the best interests of Britain, but confident to do so because we are confident about our unique identity and approach, and want to make that independent vision count.

As a student in the US, I was moved by Robert Kennedy's words: "Some men see things as they are and say `why?'. I dream things that never were and ask, `why not?'" This is the spirit in which we should approach our politics. It is the spirit in which I intend to lead our party.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum