Conference speeches: Alistair Carmichael: Liberal Britain will follow this party once again

Here is Alistair Carmichael’s speech to Conference in full:

It is good to be back in Brighton.

It has been quite a year since we all left Bournemouth after autumn conference last year.

I remember the journey home.

We had had a good conference.

Membership was up and we had more new members at conference than I had ever known

Glee Club had been as hot, tuneless and tasteless as I had ever known it.

Tim had delivered a stonker of a leader’s speech

The mood was upbeat.

But too be honest I remember thinking on that train pulling out of Bournemouth that it was all a little suboptimal.

I had just spent a week with good friends who had been fantastic colleagues in parliament but who had lost their seats just the same.

Good men and women who hadn’t deserved to lose.

Vince Cable, Norman Baker, Simon Hughes, Mike Moore, Jo Swinson, Lorely Burt, Mark Hunter, Steve Webb, Lynne Featherstone, Dan Rogerson….

I could go on.

Mostly, replaced by Tories carried in on a national tide who, even sixteen months later, for the most part I would struggle to recognise let alone name. How their constituents must regret it now.

That was hard.

It was, quite honestly, hard to see a way ahead for this party that I first joined as a fourteen old.

It was hard to see our purpose.

It was even harder to see our future.

After five difficult years in coalition it felt like the Tories had got all the benefit and we had

got all the grief.

They had won the majority in parliament. They wore the mantle of economic competence like they do so much in life – with that unmistakable sense of Tory entitlement.

As I say – just a bit…suboptimal.

Well, what a difference a year makes.

Twelve months after that rather subdued journey from Bournemouth home to Orkney, the landscape looks pretty different today.

David Cameron – the Tory’s hero of the May election, the man who delivered their first commons majority since 1992 – gone.

George Osborne – the Chancellor of the Exchequer – the man with the economic plan – the safe hand on the tiller of our nation’s finances – gone.

That mantle of economic competence? – gone. Shredded.

That Tory sense of entitlement – well actually, that’s still there.

Our Prime Minister may lead a party with a majority but it has no mandate, no legitimacy and no clue about what to do next.

The Carmichael family took our holiday in New York this year.

As well as all the usual sightseeing – Time Square, Central Park, Fifth Avenue – we thought it might be nice to take in an evening in a comedy club.

Apparently, most responsible parents don’t take their fifteen-year-old children to Off-Broadway comedy clubs. In my defence, I would say that this was only explained to me after we had paid for the ticket.

After this had been pointed out to us (and the whole assembled company) a few times, the final act came on stage. After identifying us in the audience and asking us where we had come from, he started on the same riff as all the others but then he stopped.


He broke off and suddenly it wasn’t about comedy. In this New York comedy club he says, “…but seriously…Boris Johnston…what is that about?”.

And, conference, at that moment I realised completely what these people and their sense of entitlement had done to my country.

I had been in American many times before and always people there had seen our country as a force for good in the world. That had gone. Now they look at us with bewilderment. They see us as a laughing stock.


Because a handful of Bullingdon boys thought it would be easier to have a referendum on our membership of the European Union than it would be to take on and beat the swivel-eyed europhobes on their own back benches.

So conference, that is why my mood has changed since last year.

That is why the political landscape looks very different today.

That is why no one can question our purpose today.

That is why our country, our politics, needs liberalism today more than it ever has.

And, conference, don’t let the Tories fool you.

Don’t buy the line that somehow the party led by a grammar school girl is different from the one led by the Bullingdon Boys.

The truth is very different.

We know that because we have seen Theresa May’s instincts at the Home Office.

This is the woman who wanted to introduce the Snoopers’ Charter – but was thwarted by Nick Clegg.

This is the woman who thought it might be a good idea to leave the European Convention on Human Rights joining a club with only one other member – Belarus.

This is the woman who, seeing millions of refugees coming across Europe, thought that it would be sufficient to commit to taking twenty thousand over five years.

And make no mistake conference, you could see Theresa’s fingerprints over each of Cameron’s paltry announcements that came out – drip by measly drip.

Clearly she thought that helping these desperate refugees was less important than trying to meet her party’s ludicrous immigration targets.

For as long as Theresa May is in number ten; for as long as the Tories govern our country; for as long as our country is run by those who want to turn our country inwards.

For as long as that remains the case – this country will need a liberal alternative.

This country will need the Liberal Democrats.

Now, conference, as you know, David Cameron is gone; George Osborne is gone.

But that is not all.

There is another one who is gone and, brace yourself, I regret his passing. It is Michael Gove.

Michael Gove may have been a “difficult” Secretary of State for Education but as Secretary of State for Justice he was showing signs of understanding some of the important basic truths about our justice system – especially our prisons.

That was why, when the Queen’s Speech in May committed the government to some fundamental reform of our prison system, I said that we in the Liberal Democrats would support it.

Less than three months later, however, and Michael Gove was gone and the commitment to prison reform seems to have gone with him.

That is something that every liberal should care about.

Our prisons are full to bursting.

The crisis is manifesting itself in the most depressing way -increasing violence and self-harm.

In the 12 months to March 2016, 290 people died in prison, the highest number on record.

Just think about that for a moment.

290 lives lost in the most depressing circumstances possible.

For decades the rhetoric of successive Home Secretaries and Justice Ministers has been about toughness. About making prisons harsh unforgiving places of punishment rather than rehabilitation.

And you know what? It has not worked.

In just over a decade the prison population has risen by 92%.

No thought has been given to reducing the numbers.

Instead budgets have been stretched and understaffing has got worse. Prisoners end up spending more time locked in their cells, being warehoused rather than rehabilitated.

And still we keep cramming them in with no thought for the consequences.

It costs us, as taxpayers £35,000 per year to keep someone locked up in prison. Never mind the cost of police time, court time, witnesses, judges, prosecutors and defence lawyers. Surely as taxpayers we are entitled to a prison system that does more than detain the damaged before putting them back on the streets more damaged than when they went in.

I worked for some years as a criminal court solicitor. First as a prosecutor, then as a defence agent. The young men (and yes, they were overwhelmingly young men) who were my clients had more often than not fallen through every safety net that society sought to provide for them.

Failed by their families, failed by the education system, failed by the care system, failed by social work – prison did nothing to arrest their fall.

If anything it accelerated it.

Of course those who commit crime must be punished but if that is the summit of our ambition then things are never going to get any better.

Instead of locking prisoners in their cells for hours on end every day – give them skills that might in turn help them to get a job at the end of their sentence. Rather than sending them back out on the streets unchanged.

You won’t do any of that, however, while our jails are fit to burst.

Overcrowded prisons are violent environments where neither staff nor inmates can feel secure.

It is not rocket science. Our prisons are overcrowded because we sent too many offenders into custody.

That has got to change.

So, conference let’s start again at the beginning. What do we expect our prisons to do for us?

I am not naïve. There are some for who prison will always be necessary but prison should be reserved for those who have committed the most serious offences and pose a real risk to public safety.

For the rest tough community sentences where the public can see justice being done is more useful and appropriate.

Tagging meaning that curfews and other restrictions can be enforced and monitored at far less cost to the state.

In Scotland we now have a presumption against sentences of less than three months. There a court has to actively consider whether a custodial sentence is the most appropriate disposal and if it is they have to explain why.

Now the Scottish government is looking at going further because in fact three months has been a good start but does not go far enough.

And that makes sense.

The evidence is there.

Short sentences do not work.

Almost half of those released from prison will go on to be reconvicted within the year.

And for those serving sentences for less than 12 months this jumps up to 60%.

The evidence is clear – custodial sentences of less than 12 months fill our prisons, make rehabilitation more difficult and we should not scared of saying so.

Personally, I want to see a presumption against prison sentences of less than 12 months in all parts of the UK.

Let’s stop locking people up just for the sake of it.

This is not an impossible dream, it can be done.

In Coalition Liberal Democrat ministers prioritised reducing the number of young people that were being given custodial sentences.

Over five years we managed to halve the number of under-18s being sent to prison. Today the number stands at 1000. Now this is still too high, but it’s a start and shows what can be done when politicians give a lead.

Conference – that is a liberal approach to criminal justice.

An approach where we follow the evidence of what works rather than the rhetoric of toughness which has failed, continues to fail and will continue to fail.

Conference, let others chase the easy headlines and the soundbites.

If our voice is to be heard in the politics of today then our message must be clear and distinct.

Above all else it must be liberal.

Let others contest the mantle of orthodoxy. Let them offer solutions that have failed.

Our future is as a party of ideas.

A party unafraid of challenging orthodoxies wherever we find them: in prison reform, on immigration, on drugs policy, on health, on education.

The road less travelled is not always an easy one to take but if the evidence says that it is right then we should follow our liberal instincts and take it.

There is no room in politics for another party following the herd and tinkering with things that everyone can see have failed.

So be prepared to be bold, be prepared to stand up for the things that we know to be right.

Be prepared to give a lead to the millions of people in this country today who crave change.

Let this party give a lead to Liberal Britain and Liberal Britain will follow this party once again.

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