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 Today, we are faced with a Conservative Party that is outdated and divided - in much the same way as Labour in 1983.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.

Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge
books
Arts and Entertainment
Don’t send in the clowns: masks and make-up conceal true facial expressions, thwarting our instinct to read people’s minds through their faces, as seen in ‘It’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Go figure: Matt Parker, wearing the binary code scarf knitted by his mother
comedy Mathematician is using comedy nights to teach and preach sums
Arts and Entertainment
Ryan Gosling in 'Drive'
filmReview: Ryan Gosling is still there, but it's a very different film
Arts and Entertainment
Urban explorer: Rose Rouse has documented her walks around Harlesden, and the people that she’s encountered along the way
books Rouse's new book discusses her four-year tour of Harlesden
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25, and battled with Hollywood film studios thereafter
film
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Franco Zeffirelli's production of 'Aida' at Milan's famed La Scala opera house
operaLegendary opera director in battle with theatre over sale of one of his 'greatest' productions
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Juergen Wolf won the Young Masters Art Prize 2014 with his mixed media painting on wood, 'Untitled'
art
Arts and Entertainment
Iron Man and Captain America in a scene from
filmThe upcoming 'Black Panther' film will feature a solo black male lead, while a female superhero will take centre stage in 'Captain Marvel'
Arts and Entertainment
The Imperial War Museum, pictured, has campaigned to display copyrighted works during the First World War centenary
art
Arts and Entertainment
American Horror Story veteran Sarah Paulson plays conjoined twins Dot and Bette Tattler
tvReview: Yes, it’s depraved for the most part but strangely enough it has heart to it
Arts and Entertainment
The mind behind Game of Thrones George R. R. Martin
books

Will explain back story to fictional kingdom Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Dorothy in Return to Oz

film Unintentionally terrifying children's movies to get you howling (in fear, tears or laughter)
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robert James-Collier as under-butler Thomas

TVLady Edith and Thomas show sad signs of the time
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Dad's Army cast hit the big screen

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge

books
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning?
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
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.

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
    The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

    Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

    Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
    Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

    What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

    Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
    A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

    Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

    Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
    Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

    'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

    A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

    Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

    The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
    Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

    Paul Scholes column

    Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
    Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

    Frank Warren column

    Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
    Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

    Adrian Heath's American dream...

    Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
    Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
    How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

    Turn your mobile phone into easy money

    There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes