Nick Clegg's speech to Spring Conference 2015

March 16, 2015 5:00 PM
Originally published by UK Liberal Democrats

Watch Nick Clegg's speech to Spring Conference here.

Last autumn, the news was dominated by dark and grisly stories.

Allegations of child abuse, ebola, ISIL, conflicts in Ukraine, Libya and Gaza.

And then, one day in November, a different kind of story appeared on the new

A small group of scientists and engineers had spent years tracking a comet the size of a city as it hurtled through space from the edge of the solar system.

And on that day in November, as that piece of rock was half a billion kilometres away, travelling 40 times faster than a bullet through the vacuum of space, they, we, humanity, landed an object the size of a washing machine on its surface.

Of course, because nothing goes 100% to plan, it bounced off and flew back into space, and for a few nervous hours we waited.

And then it sent us back a signal. It had landed.

There it was, sat on the surface of an alien rock it had no business being on, further away than the mind can conceive.

Rolling news cameras were filming in the mission control room as the news of the initial landing came through.

As the room erupted in cheers and applause, the camera panned to Professor Monica Grady, one of a team of scientists from the Open University in Milton Keynes, who had dedicated two decades to the incredible Rosetta project.

She grabbed a TV reporter in an ecstatic embrace as tears of joy streamed down her face.

What an amazing thing to have achieved.

What an audacious, optimistic thing to have even dreamt of attempting.

What an inspiring moment for thousands of young girls and boys to witness.

What a beautiful, hopeful thing it said about us.

The British people have had to put in the hard yards and make real sacrifices these last five years.

But if the last five years were about doing what was necessary, I want the next five to be about doing what is possible.

I want us to take just a little bit of the spirit of that audacious project and start to think big.

I want us to look to the future with renewed optimism.

Britain is an open-hearted, open-minded, optimistic country.

Full of decent, hard-working, generous people.

Buzzing with creativity, innovation, entrepreneurialism.

There is nowhere in the world like this country.

Nowhere as gutsy.

Nowhere as hopef

Nowhere as welcoming.

We are a small island but we are a big, big country.

The legacy of the financial crisis, the aftershocks of that brush with catastrophe, they've shaken us.

But we take our hits on the chin.

When we get knocked down, we get up, brush ourselves off and carry on.

In tough times, it is natural to fear the worst.

But now it is time to dream of the best.

So what next?

What sort of Britain do we want to become in 2020?

How about a Britain where a child can dream of what they want their life to be, and not be held back from getting there by the circumstances of their birth or the colour of their skin?

Where a young girl who saw Professor Grady's tears of joy on television can know that with talent and hard work she too can achieve great things.

How about a Britain where a young couple don't have to dream of owning their own home, but can actually afford to do it?

Or where they can plan for their family, knowing that the choice of who returns to work and who stays at home with their baby is theirs and theirs alone?

How about a Britain with a thriving economy, with British companies expanding and creating jobs, and leading the world in cutting edge green technologies?

A Britain with clean air and green spaces, where our natural heritage is protected for generations to come.

A Britain with a world class NHS, where people know that if they or their loved ones fall ill they will receive the best care in a way that suits their needs.

And where there is no shame in suffering from anxiety or depression, any more than there is if you break your arm.

How about a united Britain, with proper home rule for Scotland and Wales?

And how about a Britain where a young gay, bisexual or transgender man or woman can know in their heart that they will be accepted, not judged, for who they are?

Or where a young Muslim or a young Jewish person can walk down the street without that nagging fear that they might not be welcome, where they can feel that this is their home as much as it is anybody else's?

A stronger economy and a fairer society, with opportunity for everyone. It's not just a slogan to stick on leaflets or adorn conference auditoriums, it's a destination.

That is the sort of Britain I want us to be.

That is the sort of Britain we can help to build.

So how do we get there?

Let's start by making clear that there is light at the end of the tunnel, that all those sacrifices, all that hard work, was worth it.

While the job of fixing our economy is not over yet, the end is in sight.

By sticking to the sensible and fair approach to balancing the books that we have pursued in Government, we can end the era of cuts.

We can end austerity in three years' time.

And once we have, as the economy grows, we can invest again in our public services and in the modern infrastructure - the roads, railways and houses - that we need to flourish in the 21st century.

We can make life a little bit easier for millions of working people by continuing to cut their tax, just as we have done every year in this Government.

We can spread opportunity to a new generation by protecting and investing in education.

One of the proudest moments of my time in Government - so far - was at the end of last year, when the latest primary school results were published.

They showed children from the poorest backgrounds getting their best ever results and the gap between them and their better off classmates narrowing.

This was in large part down to two decisions Liberal Democrats took in Government.

The first was to protect the schools budget in real terms, despite strong resistance from the Conservatives.

The second was to create the Pupil Premium, a policy straight from the front page of our manifesto that targets money - more than £1,000 per pupil every year - directly to the poorest children in our schools.

That has made a real tangible difference to the life chances of thousands of children - not just the poorest pupils but their classmates too.

So let's go further.

Let's protect not just the schools budget and the Pupil Premium, but funding for early years, sixth forms and colleges too.

Let's triple the amount of money we target at the poorest children in nursery.

Let's make sure every primary school child, not just the youngest, gets a healthy meal at lunchtime to help them learn in the afternoons.

And let's make sure every child in a state school is taught by a qualified teacher.

I want every child to leave primary school to be confident at reading - ending child illiteracy for good.

We can help young families to own their own homes by building hundreds of thousands of new houses, creating a new generation of garden cities and a new model of ownership where every time you pay your rent you are buying a share in your home.

We can protect our natural heritage and lead the fight against climate change, with our five green laws to look after our countryside and put us on the path to a zero carbon Britain.

We can build the liberal, innovative and open economy that will create jobs and power our growth for years to come.

And while we're at it, let's help a million more women into work and close the gender pay gap too.

We can give Scotland and Wales more power to determine their own destinies, just as we can for regions, cities and towns in England.

We can restore faith in our immigration system, with a firm but fair approach that counts people in and counts people out too.

And we can make sure our NHS remains strong and meets the demands of a growing and ageing population by ensuring it has the extra money it needs to adapt and grow

But public services are about more than just numbers, they are about people.

Yesterday, I visited a mental health trust in the north of the city for the second time in the last few weeks.

I met Iris, an extraordinary woman for whom a deeply traumatic childhood caused a lifetime of mental illness.

She told me the enormous difference it makes when people treat her normally, when they shake her hand without flinching and look her in the eyes when they talk to her, not look away in embarrassment.

I also met Robert, who had been both a carer and a patient.

He told me that a little while ago he had been in hospital with a heart condition.

While he was there, he was visited regularly by friends and family, sometimes as much as three or four times a day.

To be surrounded by loved ones and well-wishers meant a huge amount to him.

But he told me he had also been hospitalised once before, this time for a mental health condition.

And there were no regular visitors.

In five long lonely months in hospital, he was visited just three times.

That tells you everything about the stigma that surrounds mental health. It is real - and it is devastating.

For too long, millions of people have lived with their private stories of pain.

In Government we have slowly started undoing the damage caused by years of neglect to mental health services.

It's not been easy, we have had to fight for resources and sometimes it has felt like for every two steps forward we have taken, individual local decisions have taken us a step back.

But we have made real progress.

Equality for mental health treatment enshrined in law; the first ever waiting times standards; and hundreds of millions of pounds for talking therapies and services for young people with eating disorders.

And in next week's Budget we will do something big and bold to address possibly the most heart-wrenching tragedy of all of this.

In our country, there are thousands upon thousands of children with mental health problems who go without support or treatment.

On average, three children in every classroom has a mental health condition.

You heard me right, three children in every classroom. In Britain. In 2015. That cannot be allowed to carry on.

That's why I have announced that we will be putting an extra one and a quarter billion pounds over the next five years into mental health services for children and young people…

…with the first ever waiting time standards to go with them…

…and a new plan to get specialists in children's talking therapy to every part of England.

It's a plan that I worked up with Norman Lamb and Simon Stevens, the head of NHS England, that will give the NHS the resources it needs to treat more than 100,000 children and young people by 2020.

That's more than 100,000 lives we can change for good.

But we must keep going.

We can and we must make sure mental health is treated with the same urgency as physical health, with money to back that up.

And we must work every day to end the stigma.

That's why I am so immensely proud that we are the first party to put equality for people with mental health problems on the front page of our manifesto.

A Britain with a stronger economy and a fairer society. That's the country I want us to be in five years' time

But our recovery cannot be taken for granted.

The fairer society we are building is not a given.

Our future as an optimistic, open-hearted and outward-looking country is not guaranteed.

Right here, right now, liberal British virtues - tolerance, generosity, moderation - are under threat as never before.

The story of the early 21st century is one of change at a relentless pace.

The digital revolution; the global financial crisis; climate change; the rise of extremist ideologies.

And here at home and across Europe, reactionary populism and divisive nationalism are on the rise, slowly moving from the margins to the mainstream.

As the world changes around us, how we respond will dictate the sort of society we live in and shape the lives of our children and grandchildren for decades to come.

If we want to remain an open, confident, outward-looking society, it will only happen if political parties who believe in compassion and tolerance step up to the plate.

Instead, the opposite is happening.

Labour and the Conservatives are deserting the centre ground.

Compromise is treated like a dirty word.

Everywhere you look there is blame and division.

It's in the angry nationalism of UKIP, setting citizen against citizen as they pander to fear.

It's in Theresa May's Go Home vans.

In the glint in George Osborne's eye as he announces that the working age poor will bear the brunt of the cuts.

It's in the red-faced bluster of the Tory right wingers who are determined to scrap the Human Rights Act and drag us out of Europe.

It's in the 'us versus them' scaremongering of the Labour Party, as they condemn every decision to balance the books as a betrayal and then make wild predictions about mass unemployment or the death of the NHS that they know are not true.

As the Conservatives and Labour veer off to the left and right, who will speak up for decent, moderate, tolerant Britain?

UKIP, the Green Party, Respect, the SNP, the DUP?

What will Britain become if Cameron's Conservatives or Miliband's Labour spend the next five years begging for votes from that rag tag mob of nationalists, populists and special interests?

Not one of them will stand up for the moderate majority.

Not one of them will keep Britain united.

There is a whole cottage industry that has sprung up predicting which parties could end up in coalition with each other after the next election.

And this morning we hear that UKIP are offering a pact with the Tories, just as the SNP has offered to prop up the Labour Party - in the one case to take the UK out of Europe; in the other to take Scotland out of the United Kingdom.

So let me be clear: just like we would not put UKIP in charge of Europe, we are not going to put the SNP in charge of Britain - a country they want to rip apart.

It's just not going to happen.

Only the Liberal Democrats will keep Britain on track and govern for the whole country.

We have shown that we are prepared to put the national interest first, even if it means taking a hit to our short-term popularity.

And we will continue to put the national interest first.

If others won't stand up to the growing mood of divisive populism, we will.

We will face down the nationalists and isolationists who seek to divide our society.

We will stand up for tolerance, decency and fairness.

I won't let the populists decide what Britain becomes.

I won't let the Conservatives or Labour decide what Britain becomes.

Britain is an open minded, open hearted, generous country.

Britain needs people who will defend those values now more than ever.

Britain needs liberal voices, right here, right now.

This election is about what sort of Britain we are going to be in five years' time.

So what sort of Britain do Labour and the Conservatives want?

Do they even know?

David Cameron and Ed Miliband are not offering light at the end of the tunnel.

They are not offering hope.

They are in a defensive crouch, hoping to win by default, not because the British people share their vision but because they dislike them a little less than the other guy.

Look at the way David Cameron tried to dodge the leaders' debates by hiding behind the Green Party. It's the greenest thing he's done since he's been in government.

Or Ed Miliband, whose election pitch appears to be that he's not David Cameron.

It speaks volumes that the most interesting thing the Labour Party has done in the run up to a General Election is buy a pink van.

Where's the substance?

Where's the vision?

Where's the hope?

Labour appear to have learned nothing since they had their chance and wasted it.

We have still had no apology from them for crashing the economy, destroying jobs and slashing incomes.

They have taken no responsibility for the tough choices they forced on us in Government because they left us - in the famous words of the letter David Laws found in his desk in the Treasury - with no money.

The fact is you can't have a fairer society that creates opportunity for everyone if the economy is weak.

Yesterday, Ed Miliband unveiled his new pledge card.

That card costs £70bn. That's how much more than us Labour will borrow in the next five years.

£70bn - more than we spend on schools and the police put together.

And they would leave us paying an extra £4bn just on the interest on our debt.

It's not a pledge card, it's a credit card. And you, me and every other British taxpayer will be paying the bill for years to come.

The Conservatives don't offer light at the end of the tunnel either. They have made that crystal clear.

As George Osborne said to rapturous applause at the Conservative party conference, they will cut much deeper than is necessary to balance the books and make the poorest bear the heaviest burden.

Gone are the days of compassionate Conservatism. Now they promise to cut and cut and cut, not because they have to but because they want to.

In the firing line are teachers and social workers, soldiers and police officers.

And education.

We have spent five years stopping the Conservatives from doing immense damage to the life chances of our children…

…whether it's trying to cut the schools budget in real terms...

…or bringing back the old-fashioned two-tier education system.

Some Tories even wanted to let free schools be run for profit.

The Conservatives are a threat to education.

They will take billions of pounds away from existing schools in order to create 500 more free schools, regardless of whether or not they are actually needed at all.

And they will cut, drastically, the money that goes to nurseries, sixth forms and colleges.

Why? Because it's what they do.

Cows moo. Dogs bark. And Tories cut. It's in their DNA.

The huge welfare cuts they propose mean taking £1,500 from 8m families on the lowest incomes in our country.

Not the wealthy. Not the better off. Not their friends in big business and big houses.

They're not even pretending they want us to be 'all in this together' any more.

The Conservative plan for the next government is an ideological lurch to the right.

They have gone from being the self-proclaimed heirs to Blair to Nigel Farage in white tie.

And yet they have the gall to say they are staying on the road to recovery.

They are not staying on the road, they are veering off it.

David Cameron, George Osborne, you can't have it both ways. You cannot say that this Government has done the right thing and then in the next breath call for a drastic change of course.

Either we are doing the right thing or we aren't. If we are then why won't you stick with it?

I'll tell you why: because left to their own devices the Conservatives will cut public services, take away support from the poor and look after their own kind in a way they haven't been able to do in this Government…

…because we were there to stop them.

The Labour Party or the Conservative Party. What a dismal choice.

The SNP or UKIP. All they offer is division and blame.

The Green Party. No plan. At least nothing based in reality.

Only the Liberal Democrats will keep Britain on track.

Only the Liberal Democrats will cut less than the Conservatives and borrow less than Labour.

Only the Liberal Democrats have a plan to build a stronger economy and a fairer society, with opportunity for everyone.

And we can do it.

The five priorities on the front page of our manifesto: ending austerity, cutting taxes, investing in education and health and protecting our environment…

…we can say we will do these things because, unlike ever before, we have a record of action in Government to back us up.

A record achieved not in a time of plenty where there is cash to throw around, but a record achieved in the toughest of circumstances.

Back in May 2010, uncertainty was everywhere.

As images of riots on the streets of Athens were beamed into British homes in the days running up to the election, people at home and abroad were looking to Britain and wondering if we would be next.

So when the chance came to enter Government, the big question we faced was this: could we rescue the British economy?

It wasn't just a question of what we would do, but a question of whether we were up to the task.

Would we, this brave third party with no experience of national government, have what it takes?

Liberal Democrats, we have been tested and we passed the test.

We rescued the economy. We held our nerve.

And make no mistake, the recovery would not be happening without the Liberal Democrats.

The story of the last five years is one of rescue at a time of emergency, but it is also a story of how we, in Government for the first time in generations, have delivered policy after policy to make Britain fairer.

A story of spreading opportunity despite the toughest of circumstances.

More than 1,400 gay people are now married - hopefully happily.

More than two million apprentices are learning the skills they need for their careers.

1.6 million boys and girls are getting a hot, healthy lunch every day at school.

More than 26 million people on low-and-middle incomes have had their income tax cut every year, worth more than £800 from next month.

And more than three million of the lowest paid workers are no longer paying any income tax at all.

And I want to go further - much further - in next week's Budget to cut taxes for ordinary people again.

Twice as many homes are being powered by renewable electricity.

43,000 small businesses have been supported by the British Business Bank.

Thousands of mums and dads will soon be able to decide for themselves how to balance work and family.

Nearly 12 million pensioners are getting a bit more in their pockets thanks to the triple lock guarantee.

And no more children of asylum seekers are being locked behind bars.

We did that. You did. All of us.

Everyone in this room and everyone out knocking on doors, making phone calls and pushing leaflets through letterboxes.

Every single one of us had a hand in making Britain fairer.

We did something else too. Something historic.

We changed the political landscape forever.

Five years ago we were told a hung parliament would be a disaster for Britain.

We were told that without a clear majority for one of the old, establishment parties, Britain would collapse into chaos.

We proved them wrong.

We broke the stranglehold of the two old parties and proved that coalition can be strong, stable and successful.

We proved that the give and take of different parties working together can be a very British way of getting things done.

We challenged the power of the vested interests on the left and right of the British establishment and we felt their wrath in return.

And we are still standing.

At the heart of our success has been an incredible resilience.

As Labour and the Conservatives flailed around, pulled to the left and right by competing factions, we haven't wavered.

We have remained strong and resolute, anchoring the Government in the mainstream centre ground, ensuring stability and making sure that tough decisions were taken as fairly as possible.

It is because of our resilience that Britain has a strong, stable Government and a strong, stable recovery.

It is because of our resilience that we have been able to achieve incredible things.

And it is because of that resilience that we will defy the odds and win again this May.

So when people tell you we can't, tell them where to go.

I have a message for all those who are writing us off once again: the Liberal Democrats are here to stay.

I've heard the predictions. I've seen the polls. But let me tell you this: we will do so much better than anyone thinks.

In those seats where we are out in force, making our case loudly and proudly, we are the ones making the weather.

I've seen it for myself in Liberal Democrat seats across the country.

We are showing that with hard work, strong local campaign teams and a record of delivering for people in national and local government, we can and will win.

We have demonstrated it in countless council elections.

We have demonstrated it in mayoral elections in Bedford and Watford.

And we demonstrated it in Eastleigh in the only parliamentary by-election that was held on our turf.

It won't be easy, but winning shouldn't be.

We need to persuade people every day between now and May the 7th that their lives will be better with Liberal Democrat councillors making a difference in their communities, Liberal Democrat MPs fighting their corner in Westminster and Liberal Democrat ministers serving them in Government.

Every Liberal Democrat elected in May makes our voice louder.

So get out there and tell people what we have done to help them and their community. No one else will do it for us.

Tell them what we have done to build a stronger economy and a fairer society and what we want to do next.

The story of the next five years must be one of hope.

If you are thinking of voting Conservative but are worried that they won't be fair - don't do it.

If you are thinking of voting Labour but are worried they will ruin the economy - don't do it.

If you think a vote for UKIP, or the Greens, or the SNP is harmless - it isn't.

If you want a stable government that won't lurch to the extremes of left or right, you have to vote for it.

If you want a stronger economy and a fairer society, you have to vote for it.

If you want a government that will create opportunities for everyone, vote Liberal Democrat.

This is a fight for our future, for the decent values of our country - we can and we must win.