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 Today, we are faced with a Conservative Party that is outdated and divided - in much the same way as Labour in 1983.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

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