Charles Kennedy – 2001 Speech to the Social Market Foundation


Below is the text of the speech made by Charles Kennedy, the then Leader of the Liberal Democrats, on 29 January 2001.


What’s it’s all about?

Does it matter?

Why, above all, is a party leader here this evening,

talking about an abstract political concept,

just three or four months before an election.

That could be a risky strategy,

when all the pollsters and pundits tell us,

that people are bored by politics,

and that the only chance we have of getting any message across,

is to talk about schools, hospitals and pensions,

in only the most basic terms.

Well, one of the arguments I shall make this evening,

is that schools, hospitals and pensions are issues of liberty,

and that progressive politicians have all too often lost sight of that basic case.

More of that later

But I want to start off focusing,

on one of the traditional liberty issues:

civil liberties.

When I look at the current government,

and its record on civil liberties,

I find it very difficult to attach the label progresssive to it.

Just look at Labour’s record.

Preventive detention of people with ‘severe personality disorders’.

Snooping on private e-mails.

Removing benefits from offenders,

if they don’t meet all the requirements of community service.

Mandatory drug testing of those arrested.

Denying bail to drug addicts.

Restricting the right to trial by jury.

Failing to tackle drugs afresh.

Labour’s priorities veer too much towards punitive populism.

Neither treating the causes of crime,

nor safeguarding the rights of the individual.

There is, I sometimes think, a judgement made by Labour politicians,

that they have to out-Tory the Tories on crime.

That somehow, knee-jerk reactions are the best.

policies like ending jury trials.

Or blanket curfews for kids.

That’s just a hammer to crack a nut,

And the kind of policy you would expect,

from a Conservative Home Secretary,

not an allegedly progressive one.

It’s not just the policies of the government that worry me.

It’s also the tone.

The current Home Secretary likes to lash out

at so-called ‘woolly Hampstead liberals’,

joining William Hague’s refrain

that liberals are the cause of most of Britain’s ills.

I don’t just blame Jack Straw.

I do think that Labour’s obsession with spin,

is partly to blame.

On that subject, I like the quote from the 1997 election.

It came from a Labour Party press officer.

” Later today Tony Blair will be spontaneous. Tomorrow he will be passionate.”

But the problem doesn’t just lie in Number Ten.

The New Statesman said a while back,

in an interview with David Blunkett,

that if he became Home Secretary,

he’d make Jack Straw look like a woolly liberal.

Well, if Jack Straw is a liberal,

then I’m Ann Widdecombe.

There are too many signs of the centralising, bossy and collectivist tendency

that was so much at the heart of Old Labour.

Unfortunately, it seems also be part of New Labour.

Little change there,

as far as I can see

in the basic culture of the party.

It’s a travesty of what this Labour government could have been.

A concern for liberty should not be alien to the Labour Party.

It was deeply rooted in the ethical socialism of the early part of the last century.

The early speeches of Ramsay MacDonald spoke vividly of individual freedom.

And Roy Jenkins’ record as a liberalising Home Secretary,

was an impressive one.

But the differences now,

embodied in the figures of ministers like Jack Straw,

are all too apparent.

And that’s why all this recent talk,

of electoral pacts between ourselves and Labour,

is so preposterous.

For four reasons.

First, we are fighting to defend seats against Labour

and to win some more from them.

In my own seat, Labour was in second place in 1997,

so I need no lesson in how to win against Labour.

Second, I don’t just want to win more seats at this election.

Wherever we fight, I want to win more votes for the Liberal Democrats,

so that we can get into second place where we are third,

and so that in the election after next, we can win even more seats.

Third, across the country,

we will be fighting Labour hard on civil liberties.

Highlighting the government’s illiberal policies on asylum and law and order.

It is our territory, and we are deeply disappointed with Labour’s record.

And finally,

I don’t believe that party leaders should dictate to the voters,

by restricting their choice at election time.

Only Labour, with its centralising approach,

could believe that is the right way,

or even that it’s possible.

But it’s not the Liberal Democrat way.

And it’s a basic issue of political liberty

that I think all progressives should feel strongly about.

So at this election,

there will be no pacts, no deals,

where the Liberal Democrats and Labour are concerned.

Wherever we stand,

and that will be every seat in England, Scotland and Wales,

our candidates will be fighting for every single vote.

Anything else would be betraying the cause we believe in,

and which Labour does not.

I’ve talked about civil liberties.

And I want to talk now about wider issues of liberty.

The ones that aren’t always seen as liberty issues.

Liberty is of course about government not telling you how to live your life.

But it should also mean social justice.

Nearly a hundred years ago,

The Liberal philosopher Hobhouse said,

‘the struggle for liberty … is the struggle for equality’.

He was right.

If you live in a high rise flat,

bringing up a child on your own,

or struggling on a pension,

liberty isn’t about government making you buy healthcare or education.

If you live in those conditions, liberty is about social justice.


Decent public services.

Decent welfare support when times are hard.

A first class education system.

Whatever your income, whatever your background.

That means a key role for politics,

and a role for government.

And it is a great contrast to the Hague approach.

The Conservatives tend to equate liberty with rampant market forces.

They think that government,

especially at a European level,

is public enemy number one.

But I take the view

that liberty does not mean ‘minimum government’ for the sake of it.

It seems to me preposterous to assert that people are more free,

when government does less.

If government did nothing to provide decent health and education services,

then many people in Britain would be manifestly less free,

because they would not be able to provide these services for themselves.

For me, social justice,

protected and enhanced by government,

equals more liberty.

If progressives recognised this openly,

that would represent a major shift in progressive thought.

Traditionally, we have been hung up on the conflicts between liberty and equality,

seeing them as somehow contradictory.

But I don’t think we should see them as contradictory.

Instead, we should recognise them to be two sides of the same coin.

For guidance on how to do that, we can turn to Isaiah Berlin.

Isaiah Berlin was the first person to argue that there were actually two sorts of liberty.

Negative liberty and positive liberty.

Negative liberty, he said,

means wanting to curb authority,

leaving individuals alone to do what they want,

providing that their actions do not restrict the freedom of others.

Positive liberty was different.

It meant using political power to emancipate.

It meant groups, or the state, judging what was best for individuals.

Berlin did not oppose positive liberty entirely.

In fact, as Michael Ignatieff’s biography points out,

Berlin was, in politics, a New Deal liberal.

He was neither a conservative,

nor a laissez-faire individualist.

He accepted that poverty and ignorance were not the ideal conditions for liberty.

But Berlin did urge us to recognise the contradictions between liberties.

The conflict between negative liberty and positive liberty.

He would want us to recognise

that although we may tax somebody to create opportunities,

we may still be restricting the liberty of the taxed.

That is the heart of the conflict between positive and negative liberty.

I think this is a conflict that can help us.

Although not quite in the way Isaiah Berlin would have liked.

What we have to accept,

is that although there are conflicts between negative and positive liberty,

they are still both forms of liberty.

Both are about promoting individual freedom,

giving everybody the chance to make the most of their life.

So I think that it is now time to recast the liberty-equality debate,

into a simple liberty-liberty debate.

We have to recognise that we are not,

when we speak of investment in education,

talking about creating equality.

We are talking about creating liberty.

Yes, it is positive liberty, but it is liberty nevertheless,

and that can, I think, make it easier to pursue an agenda

which incorporates both traditional liberty issues,

and traditional equality issues.

That is where New Labour has, I believe, failed.

Although we hear a lot less about the Third Way than we used to,

it still lies at the heart of the Labour approach.

The logic goes something like this:

do something left-wing one day, and right-wing another,

or talk right and act left.

and all will be fine

You will build a Big Tent,

that everyone can enter.

But all you end up doing,

is building a Big Dome,

which has no Big Idea,

and very few people want to enter a Big Dome.

This is where, in my view, the Liberal Democrats are succeeding.

We published our general approach to this last summer,

in our pre-manifesto, Freedom in a Liberal Society.

It states quite clearly our view that there can be a modern progressive politics,

that takes traditional equality issues,

and recasts them into liberty issues.

It takes the issue of the liberty,

and places it right at the forefront of the message we will take to the country.

By doing that, I hope that we can make liberty not only the challenge for progressives, but the challenge for the country as a whole.