David Boyle

Supplicants or citizens: the new divide

Speech to Liberal Democrat conference, Brighton, September 2006


Tony Blair really is extraordinarily predictable.  It doesn’t matter what the issue his: he will always side with the wealthiest and most powerful person in any argument.

Is this evidence of a vacuum at the heart of his convictions?  Is it socialism?  I don’t know.

If it’s about energy, he inevitably embraces the nuclear industry.  If it’s diplomacy, well then, he backs Bush.

That’s the background to this motion.  Because it provides for us an outline of just what Blair lacks: a moral compass, a purpose, a conviction.

Of course it isn’t enough.  We know where we stand on the great issues of the day.  But we have to be honest and say that many people out there really don’t.

We’ve had a great deal to say about those issues.  But people haven’t always heard them or remembered them, because they haven’t perceived the moral core behind them.

And let’s go on being honest.  We’ve sometimes fudged what should have been clear statements of principle because they didn’t fit into the gap allowed for them on Newsnight.

We’ve used slogans when we should have been thinking.

But all that’s going to change.  And when the history of our party in the noughties comes to be written, this motion and the Meeting the Challenge process, will stand out as the moment it started to do so.

So three points about this motion.

First: it may look as though these are three unconnected statements.  Actually, they’re different aspects of the same thing.

We’re not free in a ruined environment.  People can’t fulfil their potential if every decision is, government and commercial, is taken centrally. 

Second: the heart of this motion, though it doesn’t use the word, is local, local, local.  Not just because it’s more democratic. Though it is.

Not just because it means better decisions.  Though it does.

But because public services that are managed locally actually work.  Centralised services grind to a halt in a flurry of conflicting targets and disempowered professionals.

Make that our watchword.  Local works.

Third: we are in a new political world now.  There is no right versus left.  There is no private versus public.  It’s all the same meaningless mush.

What we have is big versus small.

Yes, I know there are exceptions.  We don’t want small minds.  Or small pay packets.

But people desperately want a political force that can represent them in this key battle.

They want human scale services.  Not vast, distant factory hospitals or giant schools that corrode the vital relationships between pupils and teachers.

They want a human and a local choice.  Local post offices, banks, shops.  Not vast sclerotic agencies, with their virtual, ineffectual, disempowered staff.

The quango responsible for key worker housing in London has left a third of their stock empty.  It is inconceivable that local government, however useless, could cock up on that wasteful scale.

But that's what Blair and Brown ’s Britain has given us, just as Labour always has done.

Vast central agencies, public and private – whether they are RDAs or supermarkets – which use the rhetoric of choice but prefer our relationship to be one of supplicant.

That is the battleground it seems to me.  Whether we shall be supplicants or citizens.

New Labour prefers us to be supplicants to their giant quangos, or to the great retailing monopolies that decide what we should be offered to buy.

They hate the thought that we might claw back some independence.  Some power of self-help.

Supplicants or citizens?  That's the choice.  This motion sets out unambiguously which the Liberal Democrats want us to be.


title: books by David Boyle
Broke Voyages of Discovery Money Matters Blondel's Song Leaves World to Darkness The Little Money Book Funny Money The Tyranny of Numbers