Nick Clegg: Our economy must serve a nation, not one square mile

THIS year will show the best of Britain. The Olympics and the Diamond Jubilee, a nation proud of our past, but with our face to the future. A nation that treasures liberty, honours hard work and values fair play and fair chances. That is the character of our country: strong, confident, united.

And our character as a nation is being tested because the road to full recovery for our economy will be long. Anybody who says there is a quick or easy way out is kidding themselves. At times like these, we must pull together. Some people think there is something slightly un-British about liberalism. But this country is the home of liberty.

And we Liberal Democrats are heirs to the great, British liberal cause. I am proud that now, in this coalition Government, Liberal Democrats are repairing Labour’s industrial-scale destruction of liberty. Our biggest challenge is to rescue our economy. We need to sort out the financial mess Labour left us. But we need economic reform too. We need a new economy that serves not one square mile, but one nation. Not creative accounting, but creative industries. Not the City, but all our cities. Healing the divide between North and South. That’s why our Regional Growth Fund is investing £2.4bn in creating more than 300 hundred thousand jobs in the areas that need them most.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

We will bring sanity and responsibility to our banking sector. That’s why we’ve put up the bank levy. And why we are protecting high street banks from risky investments.

We will free our cities. That’s why we are striking deals with our biggest cities to give them new opportunities to be the engines of growth again. And we will rebalance power in the workplace. That’s why I want us to build a “John Lewis” economy, where workers have a real stake.

Some say we have to choose between boosting growth and being green. What a load of rubbish. Going for growth means going green. The race is on to lead the world in clean energy.

So the choice for the UK is simple: wake up, or end up playing catch up. Going green is not a luxury for the good times. It is the best road out of the bad times.

In these hard times, we have to look out for each other. That’s why I fought so hard for benefits to be increased fully in line with inflation. Benefits for the unemployed were protected, too.

I am also strong supporter of the basic idea driving the coalition’s welfare reforms to make work pay, boost independence and give real help finding a job rather than leaving people stuck on the dole, enslaved by poverty.

That is why I will be launching the new Youth Contract. A Liberal Democrat drive for youth jobs: 20,000 more apprenticeships, 160,000 new jobs and 250,000 work experience places. A £1bn scheme to get every jobless youngster earning or learning.

Yes, that includes encouraging work experience. There’s been some controversy about this policy but I make no apology for it because we are doing the right thing. Labour’s benefit rules actually penalised unemployed youngsters for getting work experience. So thousands of them ended up on the sofa, glued to the TV, cut off from the world of work, wasting time and losing hope.

Our policy means young people can get up and get on, keep their skills alive, keep up the habits of a working life and improve their chance of landing a job.

There is nothing liberal about leaving our young people to waste away on the dole.

We all have a part to play and those with the broadest shoulders should carry the heaviest burden.

But that is not how it feels today. Too often, rather than paying their dues the wealthy pay their accountants to get them out of it. Avoiding tax, minimising the amount they have to contribute – that’s the name of their game. Boasting about the latest wheeze for moving an asset here, a property there and a loophole everywhere. All to make the tax bill lower.Let me tell you, few things make me angrier as multi-millionaires avoiding tax by moving their money around.

That’s why we will call time on the tycoon tax dodgers and make sure everyone pays a fair level of tax. I also want the Budget in 10 days time to show how we are anchoring this Government in the centre ground. Credible - but fair. The last Labour budgets led our nation to the economic precipice. Fantasy budgets issued by a party in denial – out of ideas – and abdicating responsibility.

This month’s coalition Budget will show the determination of both parties in Government to repair the public finances, keep our economy safe and help working families.

The last big tax-cutting budget was in 1988. Nigel Lawson cut billions from the tax bills of the highest-paid workers: a budget for the few, not for the many. But this year’s coalition Budget must be a budget for fairness.

*This is an edited extract from Nick Clegg’s keynote speech to the Lib Dem spring conference on Sunday.