WATCH: Alistair Carmichael’s speech to Conference

On Sunday morning, Alistair Carmichael gave his keynote speech to Conference. It was as funny, liberal and hard=hitting as you would think.

Governments and babies’ nappies need changing often, much for the same reason, he said.

Liberal Democrats will have no truck with the demonisation of desperate people. We will crush the people smuggling market by giving people safe and legal routes to get here, he promised.


He said that Liberal Democrats mustn’t just tell people what we’re against. We must say what we are for. We champion the rights of the individual to do what they like as long as it doesn’t harm others.  We also understand that meaningful freedom means pooling freedoms to form communities and upwards to nation states.

We are a party of law and order, he said, because we can’t be free if we don’t feel safe to leave our homes as he attacked the Conservative record on community policing.

He highlighted how the Conservatives are upping use of facial recognition technology like that used in China and how that had never been authorised properly by Parliament. Any influence we have in the next Parliament will be used to put the money wasted on this into frontline policing.

He warned that we might be sleepwalking into a surveillance state. He tackled that line much favoured by those who want to lead us down an increasingly authoritarian path “If you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear.” We are all perfectly entitled to hide things. It’s called privacy.

He reminded us of some of Labour’s failings on civil liberties – their “authoritarian streak a mile wide” with DNA databases and 90 day detention. We will not support any of that agenda should they go into power.

Liberal Democrats are not about splitting the difference between the Tories and Labour. We trust the people, they want to control them. We demand a change in the way we are governed. We demand a stronger, greener, fairer and more United Kingdom.

We need to get out there and fight of that door by door and street by street as if the future of our nation depends on it – because it does.

Watch the whole thing here:

The full text is below.

Good morning, conference.

It is good to be back here in York – or, as I have heard some of you call it in the last couple of days, “the north”.


North – South- These terms are all relative, as I was just saying the other day to my favourite colleague from the south, Jamie Stone.

I am particularly fond of York.

Like Orkney and Shetland this is a place that embraces its Viking heritage, albeit in the most genteel way imaginable.

I don’t know if there were many vegetarian vikings – the sagas are silent on the subject of plant-based diets, but I am pretty sure that, if there were, THIS is where they landed.

Now THERE was a moment in our nation’s history where it would have been quite legitimate for someone like Suella Braverman to get wound up by the threat posed by people coming here in small boats.

Talking about Suella – did you see her saying that the country is being run by Islamic fundamentalists?

Liz Truss, on the other hand, says that the country is being run by trans activists.

Now, I am no expert, but I kinda think they can’t both be right.

What is quite remarkable, however, is that neither of them seems to think that Rishi Sunak might be running the country.

In that much, at least, they could both be correct.

We may not have a date for the election.

There has not been a single vote cast but already they are acting more like an opposition than a government.

They have simply lost interest in running the country

One of the fundamental truths of politics is that governments and babies’
nappies need to be changed regularly and for much the same reason.

Never was that as clear as it is today and this Conservative Government.

In 2019 – with Jeremy Corbyn as an alternative – many people were prepared to hold their noses and to vote Conservative.

Five years on, they can hold their noses as tightly as they want but now there is no getting away from the stench of cronyism and corruption.

So let us be quite clear.

When that election comes a vote for the Liberal Democrats will be a vote to rid our country of their corrupt and corrupting influence.

In the next parliament – as in this one – Liberal Democrats will have no truck with the demonisation of desperate people fleeing persecution war or starvation.
Be equally in no doubt – we shall break the people smugglers’ “business model”.

But we will not do it by cooking up pointless schemes, eye wateringly expense and planes to Rwanda.

We will do it – as we have done for people coming from Ukraine or Hong Kong – by giving them safe and legal routes to get here.

And we shall do it because that is still the sort of country we are.

We are still a country that believes in obeying the law – at home and abroad.

We are still a country that will live up to its obligations.

Still a country that is at its strongest when we bring people together and not when we divide them.

If this Conservative Government cannot perform these most basic of functions then they do not speak for this United Kingdom and they have to go.

But – come that election – not being the Conservatives can only be our starting point.

People will want to hear more than that.

They will want to hear that this party knows not just what it is against, but what it is for.

That is what we must tell them.

As liberals our starting point is always the freedom of the individual.

The right that we all have to do as we want – as long as it does no harm to others. We are liberals, not libertarians.

We understand that for people to be truly free we pool our individual freedoms to make a thing called community and then we build upwards to make nation states which we then expect to work with other nation states.

This is why this party truly is a party of law and order.

We can not enjoy our freedom if we are not safe to leave their own front door.

That is the reality for so many of our fellow citizens today

Three out of four cases of burglary and car theft are still going unsolved.

Victims of crime have to wait for hours when they report a crime – if anyone shows up at all


Look at the numbers of police officers focussed on frontline policing.
Just Twelve per cent of officers in England and Wales are assigned to neighbourhood policing teams.

The Tories have taken over 4,500 Police Community Support Officers off the streets since 2015.

Day-to-day Home Office spending is expected to be cut by nearly one fifth in real terms over the coming financial year.

This government is failing on the basics of keeping our communities safe.

To stop and to solve crime we need police frontline – out and about in their communities.

And now, not content with trashing the basics and ignoring the people’s priorities, they are again off tilting at windmills

It was buried away in the footnotes to last week’s Budget, but they have just set aside almost a quarter of a billion pounds to fund pilot schemes for live facial recognition and more use of drones.

It sums the double standards of this government up pretty well.

The Foreign Office talks a good game criticising the Chinese Government for their oppression of the Uyghur population in Xingjiang Province.

At the same time, however, the Home Office is opening the door to companies like Hikvision whose technology made it all possible.

The use of live facial recognition technology has never been authorised by Parliament to be used on our citizens in this way.

That stands in fundamental contradiction of the basic British principle of policing by consent.

That is why I tell you today – any influence that this party has on the next government will be used to put every penny of that quarter of a billion pounds back into frontline community policing.

Under this increasingly authoritarian Conservative Government we risk sleepwalking into a surveillance state.

We know how it happens.

The starting point is always “If you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to fear.”

Well actually lots of people have plenty to hide – more than that, they are quite entitled to hide it. It’s called privacy.

Information about your health, your finances, your family, your business. All sorts of things that are no one’s business but your own.

They will tell us then that there is nothing to worry about – your data will be held by the government.

“Trust us – we are the government”.

Try telling that to the 9,500 officers and civilian staff of the Police Service of Northern Ireland whose names, work place location and unit were inadvertently published on the force website.

Yes, it was an accident, but it was an accident that was able to happen because the force had no strategy for keeping that data secure.

And that is no accident.

That is the product of a political system and government that allows the people at the centre and at the top to think that they should control us.

In this party we know that it is our right and our duty to control them.
Only the Liberal Democrats understand the importance of this.

Who here thinks that Labour can be trusted to protect our precious freedoms?

I’ll tell you now, I don’t.

Labour has an authoritarian streak a mile wide.

Every time they want to try to “out-Tory” the Tories, then acting “tough” on civil liberties is their go to option.

That is why the last Labour Government tried to introduce Identity Cards with a national identity register and a huge database of its use.

That is why they tried to introduce ninety day detention without charge.

That is why they allowed the growth of stop and search powers for the police that did so much to destroy the relationship of trust between the police and so many of our communities that they are charged to protect.

If the election puts the Labour Party into government and, if they want to pursue that agenda again in the future, then they should understand now that they will do it without the support of Liberal Democrat MPs.

This party is not about “splitting the difference” between the Conservatives and the Labour Party.

This party has its own distinctive roots and vision.

We trust the people – they try to control them.

We embrace diversity and and difference – they see that as a threat.

They may offer a change of government – we demand a change to the way in which we are governed.

We demand a stronger, fairer, greener and more United Kingdom.

Our vision is for a society where none shall be enslaved by poverty ignorance or conformity.

That is what this party stands for and the moment is fast approaching where we are going to have to get out and fight for it.

Door by door, street by street, vote by vote.

Fight for it like the very future of our country as a force for good in a dangerous ever changing world depends on it.

Because, be in no doubt. It does.

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  • Jack Nicholls 21st Mar '24 - 4:50am

    I loved every bit of this speech – just one small point on terminology. Alistair says ‘we are liberals, not libertarians’ – I assume that was aimed at the Truss-variation of self-described libertarianism, which is in truth as connected to real liberty as chocolate soufflé is to humpback whales. I appreciate the politics of the line, but there are many shades of libertarian, and those of us of a leftist/old radical flavour are keen to wrestle the term back from the populist Tory right and it’s international equivalents.

  • Ross O’Kelly 22nd Mar '24 - 8:59am

    AC has always been my kind of liberal. I remember him saying in a party political broadcast a year or two back, that the only reason we wanted power was to give it back to the people (or words to that effect). How many people in politics really believe that ?

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