Leader's speech, Blackpool 2005
Charles Kennedy (Liberal Democrat)
Commentary:This was Kennedy’s final conference as party leader and followed Labour’s historic third consecutive general election victory. In this speech, he claimed the London bombings of 7 July highlighted the need for the Party to reassert liberal values, and criticised Labour’s response to the attacks. In particular, he condemned its policy of detaining terror suspects for three months without charge and its legislation to prohibit the glorification of terrorism. He also censured the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Finally, Kennedy outlined his vision of a Liberal Democrat Britain, and pledged that his party would protect the environment, reward success, tackle poverty, and treat elderly people with dignity.
Splits, plots, rival camps, backbiting, leadership speculation: how I wish I could be a fly on the wall here at the Tory party conference in two weeks’ time. Some things just don’t change do they? The Conservatives are having yet another leadership election. Their fourth in seven years. I can see their conference slogan already. ‘We’re not sure what we’re thinking.’
Meanwhile, back in Labourland, the jockeying goes on as ever between the Blairites and the Brownites. Tony Blair, desperate to protect his legacy; Gordon Brown, desperate to end it. The prime minister was delighted he had a hand in bringing the Olympics to London. It’s said on hearing the news he punched the air. He’s getting more like John Prescott everyday. But at least he’s not yet claimed credit for the Ashes. Even he has learned the lesson that you can’t win with a team of eleven spinners!
Now, at the general election it was crucially important to see our liberal tradition again confirmed as the growing force in politics:
- our championing of the individual and the community over the vested interests of the state;
- our defence of human rights and fundamental civil liberties;
- our innate sense of fairness;
- our commitment to social justice;
- our environmentalism.
It is my determination that we, as a party, continue to make that fundamental restatement of liberal values in the politics of our country.
It’s remarkable the pace of events since that general election. Some events of the most immediate and terrible seriousness - like the awful consequences of the hurricane in the United States, the continuing nightmare in Iraq, and of course, terrorism here at home.
Above all, the London bombings in July have made it critical for those liberal values to be reasserted. The terrorist seeks to smash the most fundamental liberty of all: the right to lead our everyday lives on the basic assumption of safety. There can be no compromise with such a mentality.
It is the government’s fundamental duty to ensure the security of every individual citizen. And the responsibility of politicians is to frame laws which give effect to that principle. But the response must always be proportionate to the threat. That has always been our party’s approach. It long predates those appalling attacks in London in July.
The government’s reaction to those tube bombings has been mixed - but so typical. At first it was measured; then it was muddled. Spin and counterspin. When what we really needed was leadership and clarity.
This is no time for a turf war between No 10 and the Home Office. And it is no time either for the prime minister to play politics with the leaders of the opposition. I believe when the country feels threatened it is important that we are seen to be working together to find an appropriate structure for dealing with terrorists in our midst.
But I won’t play a walk-on part. This process can’t be all show and no substance. We now have the details of what the government is proposing. And I want to make it clear: we shall not accept what is on offer.
There can be no consensus on detaining people for three months without charge. That’s a prison sentence by any other name.
This party will oppose any blanket extension of custody powers. This proposal undermines our most basic rights and eats into our most cherished freedoms. If we undermine the foundations of our legal system then we let the terrorists win.
There is always a temptation for governments: see a problem and announce a quick fix. Labour’s gut reaction is to chase a headline, where, as I said earlier, leadership has to be about judgment. New law must be law which works, not a raft of unnecessary measures which simply sound tough. That is why we will oppose the unworkable offence of ‘glorifying terrorism.’ It is a badly drafted proposal that, frankly, won’t stand up in court. The government says ‘but we all know what we are talking about.’ What complacency. That is no way to make laws. You can’t be vague when framing legislation. In fact, the bill already contains a better solution that will serve the same purpose: that of the incitement to commit terrorist acts.
It is my belief that how this administration deals with the ongoing threat of terrorism will be one of the defining aspects of this parliament. Ours will be a distinct voice in this debate. And, just as we Liberal Democrats opposed the flawed logic of that war in Iraq, we will oppose the flawed government claim that we have to surrender our fundamental rights in order to improve our security.
And I will take no lessons from the Conservatives on these matters. They have only been consistent in their inconsistencies.
There is just one party which has been tested again and again and stuck firmly to its principles on these touchstone issues. It’s our party, the Liberal Democrats.
That is not to say we will oppose for opposition’s sake. Some aspects of the government’s proposals are good.
We agree it should be an offence to plan terrorist acts.
We agree it should be an offence to provide training to terrorists.
We agree it should be an offence to incite terrorism.
But, even if we can get our domestic response to terrorism right, we will not succeed unless, and until, we get our foreign policy right. Along with President Bush, Tony Blair’s so-called ‘war on terror’ has been so badly implemented that it has actually boosted the terror threat, not diminished it. When they should have been concentrating on bringing a proper peace to Afghanistan, Bush and Blair waged war in Iraq. It is our stance on the war in Iraq which has defined the Liberal Democrats for so many people. And, however hard this government tries, it cannot ‘move on.’
It cannot move on when the prime minister remains in denial.
It can’t move on when people are dying every day.
And it cannot move on when our British troops are still there in the firing line.
It is absurd for this government to pretend that what has happened in Iraq has no impact beyond its borders. The reality is that invading Iraq was a terrible mistake. And, given all the warnings that I - and this party - made at the time, the failure to plan properly for the aftermath is unforgivable.
The invasion of Iraq has created a volatile, fragmented country now facing the threat of civil war. The terrorists have been given a new lease of life. Thousands have been killed in Iraq since the elections there. The UN mandate is running out. So hard choices must now be made.
Parliament must play a central part in those choices.
The government must confront the fact that the presence of British and American forces in Iraq is a part of the problem. After this week’s events in Basra, we cannot sustain the myth that Iraqis see coalition troops as liberators. What they see is an occupation.
The government must wake up and admit its responsibility. The prime minister’s pride should not get in the way of finding a solution for the people of Iraq. His blind support for George Bush is continuing to cost lives: Iraqi citizens and coalition soldiers. It’s time he laid before parliament a proper, structured exit strategy for the phased withdrawal of British forces from Iraq. They have served there with distinction, courage and skill.
But prime minister, what people are asking now is: ‘When can our troops come home?’
A liberal Britain
Just as we showed over Iraq, we have achieved the most when we have stuck to our liberal values. Now, more than ever, we must avoid getting distracted by noises off about whether we are left or right. Viewing British politics through the prism of left v right is completely the wrong vantage point and it leads to quite a misleading view.
Because all experience shows that the vast majority of people no longer see their choices in old-fashioned left-right terms. It is no longer possible to categorise most issues like that.
Just look at the things we have been discussing at conference this very week:
- meeting the UN millennium development goals and controlling the flow of small arms to regions of conflict;
- maintaining both our security and our civil liberties;
- getting rid of the obsession with central control and target setting;
- race relations;
- school discipline.
These don’t fall neatly into the old left/right axis.
Our solutions are liberal solutions based on our liberal principles.
Proposals to make the Post Office network viable and give Royal Mail the commercial freedom to compete.
Not left - not right - but liberal.
Proposals to reform the European Union budget.
Not left - not right - but liberal.
Proposals on tackling antisocial behaviour - solutions that Liberal Democrats in power up and down the country are already implementing.
Not left - not right - but liberal solutions that actually work.
Colleagues, we must not allow ourselves to be led by the media and define our debate in their terms. This left/right, either/or mindset is out of date and out of time. It is Liberal Democrat solutions that this country needs. Our take on things. Not the false interpretation of others, many of whom don’t wish us to succeed.
And let me say this clearly and firmly. There is absolutely no contradiction between economic liberalism and financial discipline on the one hand, and fairness and social justice on the other. I find it deeply ironic that, as we approach the centenary of the greatest reforming Liberal government ever, that some people still believe you cannot reconcile the two. Those who argue that somehow this party must choose one or the other would have received short shrift from Asquith and Lloyd George. They would have found that argument utterly ludicrous. We must display the liberal values that lie behind a particular stance on an issue, or a particular approach to a policy area. In doing so we achieve lasting political credibility. And it’s bringing results.
We run cities: Liverpool, Newcastle, Durham, Cambridge, York.
We run county councils, like Somerset, Devon and Cornwall.
London boroughs like Islington and Southwark.
Today we have MPs in almost every major city: Manchester, Leeds, London, Bristol, Cardiff, Birmingham, Glasgow, Edinburgh.
At the election, we doubled our representation in Wales.
And in Scotland the result gave us more seats and more votes than any party except Labour. The SNP down to third and the Tories a poor fourth.
When you look at our record in government in Scotland it demonstrates how successful we are at implementing our policies that spring from those liberal values.
In Jenny Willott, Julia Goldsworthy and Jo Swinson we have the youngest MPs in Wales, England and Scotland - all women elected to parliament as Liberal Democrats.
A liberal identity
So the political framework in Britain is changing. And we are an integral part of that process. But I believe the changes go deeper than that.
A debate has now been joined about Britishness, about our sense of national identity. And what’s so telling are the morose tones of so many when they address the issue. They talk of a disconnected country; a society ill at ease with itself; a crisis in our national identity. Profound questions are being raised over race and faith as well; concerns which go to the heart of our multi-racial, multi-faith, multicultural society. Concerns which cannot adequately be addressed if politicians merely fall back on simplistic responses to complex questions, or speak in emotive or pejorative terms about what it should mean to be British today.
I am far more an optimist.
Perhaps it’s because I've been born, educated and brought up, and always considered home to be the Highlands. I think of myself as a highlander first. But with it a Scot - and with that I’m British. And through that a citizen of Europe. When England play Scotland at rugby, or, much more rarely now, in football, I have not doubt who I want to win. But I cheered England through the Ashes. I got caught up in the national mood. I’m clear about my identity. And in that, I am no different to 10s of millions of British citizens.
We have to recognise the complexity of our country - from city to city, community to community.
We have to recognise that the best way to tackle the tensions in our society is community by community.
We need stronger local politics.
And that requires a changed mindset among politicians and civil servants alike.
The truth is the gentleman in Whitehall does not know best. If he had then many of the present difficulties might have been addressed more successfully and much sooner.
The same is true for our public services. Labour’s obsession with authoritarian central control - with this culture of target setting and micromanaging - distorts community priorities. It means that local people are making do with inadequate and badly structured services. Yet they feel they don’t have the power to make real change in their communities.
That is why I am determined that in our policy review we will look at new and innovative ways of devolving power, of raising more money locally, to be spent locally, on what local people really want.
Ours is the liberal conscience and the liberal voice. It’s vital and authentic.
Because, to a far greater extent than any of the others, we are a political party that is instinctively decentralist.
Community solutions are the first and best approach.
Because we trust people.
The health of British democracy
But what trust can people have in our electoral system in return?
Let’s be clear about one unarguable conclusion of this year’s general election. Ask yourself: how many votes did it take to elect a Liberal Democrat MP? Well it was 96,000. And to elect a Labour MP? The equivalent figure? Just 26,000.
People have every right to feel cheated by a system in which four out of five eligible voters did not vote Labour, yet people woke up the next morning to find a majority Labour government.
After all the other arguments collapsed over Iraq, Tony Blair fell back into saying that it was essential to help establish democracy. He might have had a bit more credibility if he set an example here at home. Because what kind of democracy was it that delivered back in May?
A democracy which returns an outright majority on little more than a third of the popular vote.
How can we any longer call something like that ‘the popular vote’?
How ‘popular’ was the government, even among those who did vote Labour?
That’s Blairite democracy for you.
This prime minister has got to realise: he may have a working majority, but he cannot claim any moral mandate. This argument, about Westminster voting reform, just won’t go away. And we’re not going to let it go away. Even with the odds stacked against us, the truth is at this election, Labour became just as worried about the Liberal Democrats as they ever were about the Tories. And in that they were undoubtedly correct.
We represent a change to the status quo. An end to their comfortable two-party system. We threaten directly their arrogance in power. And I say to all those who held their nose last May and voted Labour without conviction: don’t get fooled again.
But you know what I reject most of all is the idea of British politics being a desultory contest between two essentially conservative parties. One calls itself Conservative. The other conducts itself as conservative. I don’t care if one is led by a Davis or a Clarke. I don’t care if the other is led by a Blair or a Brown. What people don’t want, don’t deserve and don’t demand is yet another conservative party in British politics. Small c or capital C. That part of the pitch is already overcrowded.
And I can assure all of you: I did not enter public life with the ambition of leading yet another conservative party in British politics. I’m happy to leave it to others to compete over a law of diminishing returns. One where the level of Labour support is on the slide. And the Conservatives cannot break through a losing glass ceiling.
At the next general election you could well be looking at a situation where it is understood that the Conservatives cannot win. But that Labour can certainly lose.
That’s our opportunity.
That’s our challenge.
Ambition for Britain
When this Labour government falls - which one day it surely will - the party that is ready for the challenge of government will be ours. I will lead this party into the next election as the clear alternative to a discredited Labour government. It’s my ambition to lead the first government in the liberal tradition in the 21st Century. Because, it is my ambition to restore to government in Britain the fairness, the decency and the tolerance that should be the hallmarks of our democracy and our society.
I want a Britain that tackles poverty - and with it the poverty of ambition.
I want a Britain in which every one of our children has the opportunities I had growing up - and more besides.
A Britain in which ambition and opportunity is not diminished by the circumstances of birth.
I want a Britain which pays its debt to our older generation.
Which looks after them when they are ill and in need.
Which provides our pensioners with dignity, security and peace of mind.
I want a society that tackles crime - but really does tackle the causes of crime.
I want a Britain where older people again feel safe to answer their doors.
Where parents can let their children walk to school - or play in the park - without the incessant worry.
Where our streets and town centres are free from fear at night.
And I want a system of prison, punishment and rehabilitation that produces people fit for work not just fit for reoffending.
I want a Britain with first-class public services, so that people can be treated well in a local hospital, and they don’t have to shop around for a decent school, they are there on the doorstep.
I want a Britain that has a vibrant growing economy that rewards success, not penalises it.
That encourages innovation and entrepreneurs, setting them free from over-regulation and the dead hand of government.
Only in that way can we hope to generate the revenue to afford the world-class services we need as a country.
I want my child to grow up in a Britain in which the environment is protected.
I want him to enjoy our natural landscape every bit as much as I do.
To breathe clean air.
It will be our children and their children who will feel the full consequences of climate change.
We have got to get serious about this.
I’m sick and tired of hearing Tony Blair make excuse after excuse for George Bush.
We need action and we need it now.
I want a Britain that is pro-European and proud of it.
That lives up to its responsibilities on the international stage, that values international law, that is genuinely outward looking and emphatically internationalist.
Because I want a Britain that is respected around the world.
These are the ambitions that brought me into politics in the first place 25 years ago.
These are the things that have driven me over those years - and still drive me.
They are what I want the Liberal Democrats to achieve.
Not for me, not for us, but for Britain.
A Liberal Democrat Britain.