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Leader's speech, Brighton 2002

Charles Kennedy (Liberal Democrat)

Location: Brighton


The focus of Kennedy’s speech was Iraq, and the need for a UN resolution on the resumption of the weapons inspections. He also argued that there should be no military action without the support of that organisation. On other issues, Kennedy said the government should start preparing for a referendum on the single European currency, and that more action was needed on the environment and poverty. Kennedy celebrated his party’s success in the local elections in May, restated his support for proportional representation, and pledged to give local people the opportunity to run public services in their area.

It’s been a highly significant - if not seminal - week.

For this conference, this party, parliament and our country.

Iraq - naturally and properly - has been the overwhelming preoccupation.

And the Liberal Democrats have been the prevailing voice of people’s concerns and anxieties.

I say today - on the evidence of this week alone - to anyone who is still cynical or unsure about us, to anyone who doubts our collective capacity to respond with swiftness and responsibility to fast-moving events, to anyone who dismisses what has long-since become our permanent role in British politics and public life generally:

Think, look and listen again. To the kind of people we are; to what we have to say; reflect upon our principles, our priorities, our policies.

Consider our relevance, note our willingness to state a case in the court of public opinion - and then to defend it in united and articulate fashion.

That distinguished parliamentary correspondent, Norman Shrapnel, once observed that too much silence is much more ominous than too much noise in a parliamentary democracy.

I sat in the chamber of the House of Commons, at our recall session, on Tuesday. I listened with great care and attention to a detailed and lengthy statement from the prime minister. The night before I had read carefully here the advance copy of the dossier made available to the opposition party leaders on privy council terms.

And then I listened to the leader of the other opposition party. And the sound I heard? The sound of parliamentary silence.

If the predominant party of power throughout most of the twentieth century finds itself reduced to brief banalities on one of the early defining issues of the twenty first - if it has scarcely any questions to ask of the government of the day - then I say that’s a party which is rendering itself redundant and irrelevant in the body politic of our country.

By total contrast - we speak, we question - for the country. We do so on the basis of those first principles I set out before you at the beginning of this week.

The rule of international law.

The role of our House of Commons.

The supremacy of the United Nations.

The need to contain and disarm a despot who exterminates his own people, threatens regional security, represents an affront to civilised values.

For those of us who never embraced unilateralism by Britain, it wouldn’t make sense to subscribe to it by the United States now.

And that is not for one moment to deny or in any way dilute the collective assault upon America and the rest of us which were the atrocities of September 11th.

I repeat our stance over Iraq.

There must be a new UN resolution, setting a timetable for the readmission of weapons inspectors. Without conditions.

The House of Commons must have a vote prior to any possible future deployment of British forces to Iraq.

Parliament must remain mindful of the anxieties now amongst the Muslim community here in Britain.

And every effort must be made to restart the Middle East peace process - genuine security for Israel, stability for a Palestinian state.

A resort to military force must be a last resort - and under the auspices of the UN.

In all of this we speak for the common-sense and humanity of the vast majority of the British people. We shall continue to do so.

Gladstone once described the Liberal party as one of conscience and reform. That still helps define us today.

And it’s why our influence has grown so much on the domestic front as well.

In parliament, our stance has been that of a critical but constructive opposition.

Precisely what a functioning parliamentary democracy requires.

Effective opposition.

The prime minister and the government know that.

This party knows that.

The country knows that.

Consider what we’ve achieved in the past year.

Again and again our MPs have reined in Labour’s worst excesses.

And our peers have used their pivotal position in the House of Lords to force the government to think again.

We’ve stood up proudly, courageously and effectively for liberal values.

Yes, we backed the action which followed September 11. But we also fought against proposals which offended civil liberties. And we won.

We opposed unlimited detention without trial. We stood up for trial by jury as well. And of course we spoke up for asylum seekers and for the most vulnerable in our society.

There’s much we’ve spoken against too:

Special advisers exceeding their powers. Overstretched troops with inadequate equipment. Broken promises on transport. Bureaucracy undermining teachers. Health targets that prevent doctors treating the most urgent cases.

Older people languishing unnecessarily in hospital

Again and again we’ve held this government to account and found it wanting.

Only the Liberal Democrats have probed the government’s failings consistently, thoroughly and effectively.

There’s one fundamental difference between the government and ourselves.

We’re liberal. They’re not.

And you don’t need me to point that out. Just take the behaviour of the home secretary.

With every day that passes, David Blunkett becomes more insensitive in his language and more intemperate in his actions.

Who talked about swamping schools with asylum seekers?

Who instructed immigrants to use English in their own homes?

You’d have never heard that from a reforming Labour home secretary like Roy Jenkins.

But there’s a broader charge. And it can be directed at the government as a whole.

I believe it’s lost sight of the bigger picture - the positive picture.

Remember that marvelous Jubilee parade along the Mall?

It celebrated the diversity that is today’s Britain.

The Union Jack, paraded by people whose skin happens not to be white - that really does say a lot about identity in Britain today.

Of course there are racial problems, but there are also so many positive signs of our society growing together.

We should seek to build on that.

Increasingly we are a society of multiple identities. I find no contradiction between being a Highlander, a Scot, a citizen of the UK and a citizen of the European Union at one and the same time.

The European cause is one which all too often we Liberal Democrats have been left to champion alone.

It’s an issue which is at the core of my personal beliefs as a Liberal Democrat.

Back in the 1940s, the Liberals were the first British political party to vote at their annual conference in favour of a European Union.

But as you know our party conferences have never been anything other than wise and visionary in any decision they’ve taken.

Now eight leaderships later in our political lineage and we remain still the most consistent pro-European party in British politics.

It takes a long time to establish and maintain such principled consistency.

It takes a much shorter time to squander it. So - consistency on Europe - well you’d certainly never accuse the Labour party of that.

Look at their attitude to the single European currency referendum:

Mixed messages. Followed by claim and counter claim. Followed by briefing and counter briefing. Followed by spin, reverse spin and then - in case you missed it - back spin.

This is not leadership. This is not a recipe for winning hearts and minds.

We deserve better. We can’t allow such an important cause to be undermined by such an abdication of responsibility.

We have argued - again and again and again - that the government has to set a timetable for the timing of a referendum.

Tony Blair could do it this autumn - in the Queen’s speech. It would be a start. A bill, paving the way for the referendum. It would be a clear signal of intent, kick-starting the debate.

But I’m not holding my breath.

The prime minister and his chancellor have got to resolve their collective political position.

Europe has become the unacceptable conspiracy of silence in British politics.

Tony Blair would like to talk more about it - but Gordon Brown just won’t let him.

It’s an insult to the collective intelligence of the British people. And here’s another cause we Liberal Democrats have been left to champion on our own - the environment.

The west - and in particular the USA - must stop plundering the resources of the planet.

It’s not only future generations who’ll suffer. It means more deprivation here and now for the poor countries of the world.

And that glaring injustice will inevitably lead to future conflicts - more economic migrants, more human misery, more fertile ground for terrorists.

Johannesburg was a step forward - but what a small one! But what did our government contribute? John Prescott!

Well I suppose it briefly spared us the exhaust emissions from his two Jags.

But he apparently swapped them for five Mercedes instead. It’s hardly progress.

We Liberal Democrats want to see real action on both poverty and the environment.

It’s high time this country met the UN aid target of point seven per cent of GNP.

And it’s high time we addressed our environmental problems at home as well. Look at the government’s current plans.

Are they seriously considering a new generation of nuclear reactors?

And without a public debate?

Without even a nod towards viable alternatives?

While Labour are talking up nuclear, this country already has combined heat and power plants capable of cutting carbon emissions by a million tons a year. They’re standing idle.

Now that’s a scandal.

And it’s the duty of any effective opposition party to point that out again and again.

So no surprise that the Conservatives have been totally silent on the matter.

In fact there’s very little that they seem to want to talk about at all these days.

Not even Europe. I wonder why?

After all Iain Duncan Smith presides over the born-again party of British politics where matters European are concerned.

The arch-Eurosceptic leader has actually sent his shadow cabinet off round the rest of Europe - wait for it - to discover why our European partners have got right all the things which successive Conservative governments got so wrong.

Apparently they’re looking for inspiration.

More like W C Fields being found reading the Bible.

‘Just looking for a loophole.’

We could have saved them the price of all those travel tickets.

All those lonely hours spent at railway stations and airports.

Waiting for something to turn up.

I say this to Iain Duncan Smith and the Conservative shadow cabinet.

If you really want to know how to improve public services, go and talk to the real experts - former head teacher Phil Willis on education, Dr Evan Harris on health, Professor Steve Webb on social security.

And if you want to know about anything else - anything at all - then just give Conrad Russell a ring. But set aside some time.

The French translate Shadow Cabinet as Cabinet Phantome. And never has there been a cabinet more phantom than the Tory front bench. We’ve seen more recently of Lord Lucan than of some of them. Coming to think of it, perhaps Lord Lucan is a member of the Tory Shadow Cabinet.

At the moment, the only direction the Tories are going is backwards.

Iain Duncan Smith knows it. His response? A reshuffle. Now there’s a thought.

But the trouble with the Tories these days is this: it’s not just the individual personalities or the policies. It’s the party itself that’s the real problem.

They look faded. They sound jaded. The party of yesteryear.

And that gives us Liberal Democrats a great and growing opportunity. We’re seen increasingly as the party of tomorrow. Particularly among young people - as survey after survey this year has shown.

But not just among young people. We had one of our best ever results in the countrywide elections in May.

Norwich, Hull, Milton Keynes, Kingston on Thames, Lambeth, Southwark, Worthing, Cheltenham, Eastbourne - all now run by the Liberal Democrats - and Dorothy Thornhill triumphantly elected as Mayor of Watford.

Meanwhile, we’re attracting new recruits from all quarters - and attention from both sides of industry too. This year Sir Iain Vallance, having completed his term as President of the CBI, joined the Liberal Democrats. And earlier this month I became the first leader of any party other than Labour to be invited to deliver a platform speech at the TUC Congress.

Our message is the same, whether to the TUC or the CBI. And it’s equally welcome and equally relevant to both. By the time we gather again this time next year we’ll have been through another even more important set of elections.

In Northern Ireland, our sister party the Alliance Party are fighting Assembly Elections. David Ford and his colleagues have shown great courage in the past year. They deserve their reward at the ballot box.

There’ll be more major local authority elections across England too.

Liberal Democrat councils - and council groups - campaigning on their record of action and delivery, with the promise of still more.

In Scotland and Wales, Liberal Democrat government ministers will be campaigning on their record in office.

And it’s a record in which they can take great pride.

In Wales we’ve now secured additional help for the hardest-pressed students.

In Scotland we’ve scrapped tuition fees and won free personal care for the elderly.

And just this week, Jim Wallace has put Scotland on track for proportional representation in local elections.

It’s a great achievement. But we want to see fair votes at every level. The Government said they’d review our many electoral systems after next year’s round of elections.

It was a promise I sought and extracted from them. And I mean to hold them to it.

The case for PR has never looked so strong. We’ll be there at the table, making that case.

It’s high time the Government extended fair votes to Westminster. It would give us a system which made every vote count. And it would also give us a Parliament which looked far more like a genuine cross section of our country - male and female.

And in the meantime, while we still have first past the post - I intend to go on doing everything I can to get more women Liberal Democrat MPs elected. The gender balance task force has my strong and active backing.

We Liberal Democrats have always been a party of ideas. And I’m proud of that fact. We remain true to that tradition, leading the way with new thinking while the other parties trail behind.

The question which dominates domestic politics now is the future of our public services.

That’s why, shortly after the last general election, I invited Chris Huhne to chair a new Party Commission into these matters.

We had to be prepared to think afresh - and think aloud.

And think about the basis of our thinking itself - our philosophical values set in a contemporary context.

That’s why Chris Huhne’s report has to be read alongside Alan Beith’s paper on party philosophy.

The two go hand in hand.

Not just ‘How do we go about things?’

But equally ‘Why do we want to go about things in a certain way?’

And both papers answer that second question clearly and emphatically: it’s about freedom. Our objective is to give people the freedom to make the most of their lives.

And the best way for the state to ensure this is to provide quality public services.

This Conference has endorsed the Huhne Report. And thanks to Chris and his colleagues, there’s now a crystal clear difference between ourselves and the Conservatives over public services policy.

We’ve got one. They haven’t.

But at the same time we have a radical and exciting alternative to Labour’s plans.

The argument’s no longer about how much you spend - but about how effectively you spend it.

We’ll earmark National Insurance for the National Health Service. People will be able to see how the money is raised and see how it’s spent. That will force politicians and managers to deliver the most efficient service.

Gordon Brown’s plans are time-limited. National Insurance Contributions guarantee investment in the Health Service year in, year out.

And we’ll continue to guarantee decent pension provision as well. The Liberal Democrats have always had costed plans to make sure pensions are funded generously. It was the Liberal Party which first introduced the state pension. It’s one of our proudest traditions. We have no intention of abandoning it.

There’s a second radical reform in our programme for public services. And that is to reduce the power of central government over them. Reduce it drastically. Ensure that the people making the decisions are local. People who understand the needs on the ground much better than Whitehall.

And our third big new idea is to give local people - including the professionals who work in schools and hospitals - the opportunity to run them.

That means far more scope for doctors, nurses and teachers to exercise their professional judgment.

And it means more power for patients and parents to make decisions for themselves - choice for everyone, not just those with money.

The policy’s distinctive, it's fresh and it has great appeal. It’s a case we can argue with confidence and conviction between now and the next General Election. We value the hard work and dedication of all those who work in schools and hospitals and police stations up and down the country. That’s why our policies aim to support them, to give them more freedom to work effectively, so that they can better serve the people who depend on them.

This is an exciting time in politics. It’s what some call the new politics.

The Conservative Party’s lost its head. The Labour Government’s lost its way. We can show there’s a better way - our way.

Why was it that we won Guildford from the Tories and Chesterfield from Labour in the same General Election?

You’d think they wouldn't have that much in common - apart from the fact they were at opposite edges of this week's earthquake zone

But we did win both. And I can promise you that we’ll be creating a lot more earthquakes of our own at the next General Election.

You see, people no longer recognise any relevance in the old distinctions of left and right.

In this era of new politics we can set out our stall with conviction. In the knowledge that the argument is going our way.

The budget earlier this year was a decisive moment.

The Conservatives opposed it. They actually voted against all those vital extra resources for schools and hospitals. That decision destroyed their credibility. They’re comprehensively off the field of play. It’s left to us to make the case.

Increasingly a defining debate for the next General Election is between the Government and ourselves, the Liberal Democrats. And the issue is this: do you spend the money wastefully from the centre - or effectively through local people?

The so-called official opposition can’t engage in that argument. The Liberal Democrat opposition is already at the heart of it.

That’s what people will be talking about as we move towards the next election. The debate has moved on from funding to delivery.

And it’s a debate which is bound to secure and enhance our reputation as the effective opposition.

And today we can honestly advance that claim.

Steadily, month by month, our influence and credibility is growing.

The attraction isn’t simply that we’re not Labour or the Tories. Our image is becoming ever stronger, our role ever more clear.

We’re the only party committed unswervingly to human rights. The only truly internationalist party. The only party with a real vision of Europe. The only party with a consistent track record on public services. The only party with genuine credentials on the environment.

I’ve always said as your leader that the process of building up the Liberal Democrats in British politics is more a marathon than a sprint. But now has to be the time to quicken the pace.

British politics is up for grabs in a way it has not been for a hundred years.

The prize is very great. There’s no law which says when the Conservative Party is down it must come up again. And there’s no law which says the Liberal Democrats need forever remain third amongst Britain’s parties.

As a party, we believe in ourselves as never before. And there are millions more out there who can be persuaded, who want to be persuaded, to believe in us too.

We’re now in the strongest position to speak for the British people because we’re most in tune with the British people. They’re looking to us. To speak up on Iraq. To speak up on public services. To speak up on human rights. And to speak up and speak out for Liberal Democracy.

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