Charles Kennedy – 2002 Speech to Liberal Democrat Conference

The speech made by Charles Kennedy, the then Leader of the Liberal Democrats, to the party’s conference in Brighton on 23 September 2002.

One year ago we gathered as a party conference against the backdrop of September 11th. The images of that terrible day will remain with all of us for evermore.

One year later and the world is still a precarious place.

Parliament will meet tomorrow. Despite the recall coinciding with this Conference, I make no complaint. I was after all the first party leader to call for Parliament to be reconvened. It should have happened before now – but it is essential and welcome that it is at last taking place.

We shall be contributing constructively and responsibly to those parliamentary exchanges. It is the very fact that free and open discussion and debate can take place in a parliamentary democracy which is a fundamental distinction between a democratic society and a totalitarian regime.

On Wednesday we will have a debate on Iraq situation. I want the British public to hear and reflect upon what the Liberal Democrats have been saying on this matter. So I also want to hear from you. We need to know and understand each other just as much.

And there’s another strand of opinion which we need to take into account in reaching our conclusions – the sensitivities of the Muslim community at home- and the views of the Arab world abroad .

Now with events developing day by day – and with so much at stake – it is vitally important that what we say is clear, coherent and rooted in first principles.

From the outset of our conference I want to enunciate those first principles. For us. Hence this statement.

One year ago I said to you that our country was correct to stand shoulder to shoulder with the United States. That we were well placed to be a candid friend. And that a feature of such friendship was closeness and the ability to offer the occasional cautionary tap on the shoulder.

Twelve months later and I see no reason to revise that assessment, whether we are confronting international terrorism or weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

But we should not lose sight of the fact that there is still no definitive evidence linking the Iraqi regime with Al Q’aida and the atrocities of September 11th.

We have spoken on behalf of this party with principle, common-sense and consistency. And in so doing I believe that we have spoken for a huge body of concerned and informed public opinion across our country. Opinion that straddles the conventional divisions of purely party politics.

We have continually emphasized, we will do so again in parliament tomorrow and thereafter, our legitimate concerns.

Terrorism is a most fundamental assault on individual human rights. And we are a party of the individual and of human rights.

We are also, instinctively so, a party of internationalism. To cope with, to combat, the sheer, sustained evil of international terrorism, we must work with others.

You have not heard – and you will not hear – from me criticism of this or any other British Prime Minister whose efforts are directed to that end. For us, that would be to deny a central element of our point and purpose.

But we will not suspend our critical faculties either. That would be to abandon the necessary and obligatory role which is effective parliamentary opposition.

Am I alone in feeling increasingly concerned about this concept called “regime change?” I think not. Who decides the legitimacy of such change? On what basis in international law? And with what ultimate objective in mind? I have yet to hear a satisfactory answer to these questions. There is more than a hint of imperialism here.

Am I alone in worrying about the undermining of the moral, legal and practical authority of the United Nations? Again, I think not. The first priority of the British Government must be the return of the UN weapons inspectors . Anything less than unfettered access anywhere in Iraq is unacceptable.

The unconditional return of the inspectors requires a clear timetable. And no ruling out of an ultimate resort to military action as a last resort if that necessary compliance is denied or thwarted. But we are not there yet.

The United Nations, despite all its imperfections, and under the proven leadership of Secretary General Kofi Annan, has to remain central in these affairs.

We need evidence to help us reach the right decision. We are promised more evidence tomorrow and I welcome that fact. But the UN inspectorate must be allowed its opportunity to establish evidence as well.

It also requires respect for the operational judgement of Hans Blix, head of the inspection team, as to whether his inspectors have been systematically obstructed by the Government of Iraq.

And in all of this we have to maintain pressure for re-starting the Middle East peace process. The scenes of the past days and months make that more urgent than ever before. There must be a just settlement, giving Israel security and the Palestinians a state of their own.

Tomorrow there will be no specific proposal before Parliament to commit British troops to military action. If or when there is, we shall insist on the right of the British House of Commons not only to be consulted, not only to be kept informed, but also to be able to vote on any proposal which might involve our military personnel in action.

But we Liberal Democrats will do everything we possibly can to ensure that the route of unconditional inspection within the UN structure is followed rather than the extreme uncertainties and dangers of the use of military force.

That was the specific substance of the last question I put to the Prime Minister, on the floor of the House of Commons, just before the summer recess. And again, that remains our unaltered position.

What has been said in the name of this party in the past few weeks constitutes a sane and measured approach. I commend it to this conference and to our party as a whole.

And I believe equally that it commends itself to our country as well.