Charles Kennedy – 2003 Speech to Liberal Democrat Spring Conference

The speech made by Charles Kennedy, the then Leader of the Liberal Democrats, on 16 March 2003.

This won’t be a normal spring conference speech. We’re not this weekend living in normal political times. There is a real possibility that our armed forces may be at war within the next seven days.

In those circumstances, I feel it’s appropriate for me to focus this speech entirely on the Iraq crisis.

It’s the right thing to do because of the seriousness of the situation. But it’s also right because of the central role which our party has played, is playing and will continue to play in the national debate on the issue.

This is a worrying and difficult time for our country. The summit today in the Azores holds out little hope of peace. It has all the makings of a final council of war between the so-called coalition of the willing.

I see it as a council of despair. I believe that it’s too early to give up the hope of a peaceful outcome. But the signs are that President Bush and Tony Blair have decided to abandon that hope.

They say that they’re going the extra mile for peace. I don’t see how. This meeting looks highly unlikely to go a single extra inch for peace. If the President and the Prime Minister were serious about finding a peaceful solution, they’d be talking to Kofi Annan, not to each other. And they’d be heeding the warning which the Secretary-General has given against military action without a further explicit UN resolution.

“The legitimacy and support for any such action”, he’s said, “will be seriously impaired. If the USA and others go outside the Council and take military action, it will not be in conformity with the Charter.”

If this was a genuine effort to explore alternatives, there’d be other Heads of Government in the Azores today too – the President of France, the German Chancellor, the leaders of the other nations which currently have seats on the Security Council. Instead, this looks like one of those summits where the final communique is already written before a single word has been spoken.

The British Government may have signed up in the ranks of the willing. But the British nation has not. This will not be a war which most in our country have sought or support.

George Bush and Tony Blair say there is no other option – Saddam Hussein is dangerous – this is the only way to disarm him. I have questioned this approach all along – and I continue to question it now. But don’t be mistaken. This is not because I have the slightest sympathy for Saddam Hussein.

Saddam is a brutal dictator. He has used chemical weapons on his own people. He has defied the Security Council. He needs to be disarmed. The question is how.

There is one group of people who are uppermost in our minds at the moment – our British forces. Politicians can debate issues like Iraq in the safety of a party conference or the Palace of Westminster. Our armed forces are required to risk their lives. If the fighting begins, everyone in this hall would wish a speedy and successful conclusion to hostilities and the safe return of all members of our armed forces.

They are risking their lives in our name. All through this crisis, I have paid tribute to their courage and skill. I do so again now. They are the bravest and the best. We are proud of them.

Let no one be in any doubt. The Liberal Democrats are backing our armed forces in the Gulf wholeheartedly.

Our critics may not acknowledge that. But the country understands our position very well. And the majority of our fellow citizens agree with us. There is no inconsistency between criticising the strategy of the Government and supporting the service people whose duty is to carry that strategy out.

But we also have in mind another very important group of people – the innocent civilian population of Iraq. They have suffered terribly under Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. There is no question about that. But war could so easily make their plight so much worse. There are no bombs sufficiently sophisticated, sufficiently smart, to avoid causing civilian casualties. And bombs aren’t the only danger they face.

Any war will cause a refugee crisis of huge proportions – not to mention the dangers of famine and disease.

There are concerns nearer home. There is a real danger that the war could alienate British Muslims. Many moderate Muslims already feel that they are victims of prejudice. Action against Saddam could fuel that prejudice and leave the law-abiding Muslim population of Britain feeling excluded and aggrieved.

Those are factors which have to be weighed very carefully in the balance before any decision is taken to go to war. They’re factors which I fear haven’t been considered nearly hard enough.

When I went on the march last month to Hyde Park, I was proud that our party played its role in the largest demonstration in British history.

Our slogan was not peace at any price. It was give peace a chance. I feared then that the British and American governments were denying that chance. That is still my fear today.

Our position is founded on principle. There are three fundamental beliefs which have always guided the Liberal Democrats – and the Liberal Party before us. First the principle of internationalism – of nations working together. Second, respect for universal human rights. And third the commitment only ever to use force as a last resort.

Before the Second World War, the Liberal leader Archibald Sinclair was one of the first to support Winston Churchill against Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement. But then Jo Grimond was the first party leader to oppose Suez. And in more recent times our party backed action in the Gulf War, in Kosovo, in Bosnia and in Afghanistan.

All along, our commitment has been to support action by the international community where that action will promote the causes of peace and security. And to oppose action which has the opposite effect.

For months now, I have been putting a series of questions to Tony Blair on the floor of the House of Commons. They are questions which people want answered – questions which the official opposition has not been asking. Questions which have probed the Government’s commitment to the United Nations and its relationship with the United States. Questions about the circumstances in which British troops would be sent into battle. Straight questions to which I have had no straight answers.

Throughout this crisis, we have insisted on a number of crucial tests. We have said that decisions must lie with the United Nations.

Only the UN can command a legitimate political mandate based on an unquestioned moral authority. And that means that any military action has to be sanctioned by a second resolution of the Security Council of the UN. UN decisions in their turn, we say, should be based on adequate information. They have to be informed by the assessment of Hans Blix and the weapons inspectors – not by some arbitrary verdict of the Bush administration.

Thirdly we say that the British House of Commons has to sanction any deployment of British troops by vote.

And we also say that war should only be a last resort after all other diplomatic and political options have been exhausted.

We have asked wider questions too. What benefits will military action bring? What legitimacy does it have? What will be the consequences for Iraq, the region and the wider world?

We have always been the party of the United Nations. If George Bush and Tony Blair are about to act without the authority of the UN, they risk undermining our most important international institutions. They put in jeopardy almost sixty years of painstaking work to build an international order. They weaken not only the UN, but NATO and the European Union as well.

Let me offer you a quote: “We must not allow ourselves to get into a position where we might be denounced in the Security Council. While force cannot be excluded, we must be sure that circumstances justify it and that it is, if used, consistent with our belief in and pledges to the Charter of the United Nations. And not in conflict with them.”

The speaker, the Leader of the Labour Party – Hugh Gaitskell at the time of Suez. He understood the importance of the United Nations. He understood how damaging it is for Britain to be seen to be ignoring it.

What a tragedy that his successor Tony Blair has betrayed his legacy. I’ve never questioned Tony Blair’s sincerity. But I do question his judgement.

The United Nations is fundamental to our vision as Liberal Democrats. It’s not perfect. It needs reform. But its basic principles are sound. When it comes to issues of war and peace and security, there is everything to be said for pooling our national sovereignty with others to mutual advantage. The large and complex problems which face the world are smaller and more soluble when we face them together.

Action without a UN mandate by the United States or the British Government will have severe consequences. I will undermine the authority of the United Nations not just with regard to this particular operation – serious though that in itself may be – but with regard to future operations for a very long time to come.

The debates in both Houses of Parliament at the end of last month addressed many of the issues which we have been raising. Politicians from all political parties probed and questioned the build-up to war. There was great concern about the motive for an attack – concern which unhappily the Prime Minister has been unable to alleviate.

MPs and peers alike were troubled about what is being planned in our name. Is the object regime change – a moral crusade to rid the world of a tyrant? If so, however desirable it might be to take action, there is no justification for such action under international law.

Or is the issue some connection between Saddam and Al Qa’eda? Is this part of the war against terrorism? If so, we have not been shown the proof. Or is it a straightforward question of depriving Saddam of his weapons of mass destruction?

If so, why does the American President keep insisting that he will attack Iraq whatever Hans Blix and the weapons inspectors might or might not determine.

The worries I’ve expressed are shared extremely widely. Here are the words of Kenneth Clarke. “How many terrorists”, he asked in that Parliamentary debate, “will we recruit in the greater, long-standing battle against international terrorism? It will be far harder to win. What will we do to the stability of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan or Egypt?”

He went on: “The next time a large bomb explodes in a western city, or an Arab or Muslim regime is toppled and is replaced by extremists, the Government must consider the extent to which the policy contributed to it.”

Or take the powerful case made by Chris Smith from the other side of the House. He argued that there was no weakness involved in opposing an attack. “Strength”, he said, “does not lie simply in military might. Strength lies in having an unanswerable case. It lies in making the right moral choices. It lies in maintaining the pressure, and it lies in securing the furthest possible international agreement.”

The doubts have come from senior politicians of all parties. And the Government doesn’t have the confidence of senior military men either. These are the words of Field Marshall Lord Bramall, a former Chief of the Defence Staff and architect of the victory in the Falklands War.

“If anything goes wrong,” he said, “certainly in the short term but probably in the longer term, serious questions will undoubtedly be asked about why the Government went down that road in the first place.” And he pointed out that there was a better alternative: “continued containment of Iraq and concentrating on the more imminent threat posed by Al Qa’eda and other terrorist organisations.”

This is a formidable array of wise and expert opinion. At the very least it should give the Government cause to stop and think.

War is sometimes unavoidable. I do not believe that this war is unavoidable at this time.

But if there is a war and if Saddam is defeated, the international community will still face huge problems.

Iraq will prove enormously difficult to administer if and when any fighting is over. The Americans appear to favour a regime headed by one of their generals. This is a task which is clearly much better entrusted to the United Nations. There must be doubt about the scale on which other nations would fund and resource a programme run by the USA to deal with the aftermath of a war instigated by the USA.

Post-war Iraq will pose not only security problems but a huge humanitarian challenge.

Let me give you some idea of the scale.

Nearly a million children under five in Iraq already suffer from chronic malnutrition.

Iraq has the highest increase in infant mortality anywhere in the world.

Almost three quarters of the country’s population depend on food aid.

Many more face starvation because of successive years of drought.

The water supply and sanitation system in Iraq have almost completely collapsed.

Half a million tons of raw sewage go into the Tigris every day and half of the country’s sewage treatment plants don’t work.

War will certainly make all these problems far worse.

In addition, another two million people could be displaced from their homes within the country.

Others will flee, many of them across areas which are heavily mined. Iran alone expects almost a million refugees from Iraq.

So the international community has an enormous task on its hands.

The precedents are not encouraging. Before the attack on Afghanistan, President Bush said: “To the Afghan people we make this commitment. We will not walk away, as the outside world has done so many times before.”

But look what has happened. The United States has not been prepared to leave enough troops behind to help rebuild a nation shattered by war. The transitional government has been unable to exert its authority over most of the country.

The problems facing a post-war Iraq would be just as daunting.

The prospects for security look bleak. The prospects for the democracy which the Americans say they want look bleaker still.

The country could easily become less rather than more stable, given all the tensions which exist between Sunnis, Shias and Kurds. And instability could easily spread throughout the whole region.

Regime change is a thoroughly flawed doctrine. There is nothing in international law to justify it. Yet it is increasingly clear that this has been the objective of the Bush Administration all along.

The more the United States pursues this doctrine, the more chance there is that it will increase rather than diminish the threat of international terrorism. It is easy to see terrorists exploiting the post-war situation. They could recruit more easily and operate more freely if governments are destabilised and resentment is swelling against the west.

So what’s the alternative? Well, it’s to give Hans Blix and the weapons inspectors time to do their job thoroughly – to make inspections, conduct interviews and scrutinise documents. If the inspectors say that they are being refused co-operation, then the time might have come for force to be used. But not until then. The most effective way to rid Saddam of weapons of mass destruction must be to ensure that there’s an inspector there to watch the weapons being destroyed. That’s far more precise than any bombing campaign.

And what of the continuing issue in the Middle East, the question of Israel and the Palestinians? This should be the first priority for the international community. It has been ignored to a worrying extent. President Bush has at last put it back on the agenda. But months have already been wasted.

It is vital that the peace process is resumed with all possible urgency. We need to see action, not just words. We must not lose sight of the goal: the state of Israel at peace within secure borders and an independent state for the Palestinians.

It would be the height of cynicism if the Bush administration were to use a new-found concern for tackling the Palestinian question just to try and make its policy on Iraq more acceptable.

As for our own Prime Minister, when a million people marched through the streets of London, it should have been a wake-up call. He should have listened. But he didn’t.

This war should not begin before all peaceful means are exhausted.

It should not begin at the cost of the great international institutions which have guaranteed world security since the end of the second world war. It has put at risk NATO and the UN and split the family of European nations.

And Britain should not go to war without the formal approval of the House of Commons. Nearly, fifty years ago, Jo Grimond complained that the House was not consulted before the action over Suez. Half a century onwards we still have no legislation which compels a Government to go to Parliament before it goes to war. In this respect, the British Prime Minister is less accountable even than the President of the United States. That’s a scandal.

This war is a very high price to pay to disarm a country which is weaker now than it was in 1991, when a huge coalition under a UN mandate drove Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. I can only hope that if we are now embarked on the final stages of this crisis that the end will come quickly and with the minimum of bloodshed and that our armed forces will come safely home.

We can be proud of the stance which our party has taken – and proud of the fact that it is a united stance. I’m proud of the way we’ve conducted ourselves this weekend – and proud of the quality of the debate which we had yesterday.

I leave you with this. There has never been a time when the country has had more need of the Liberal Democrats.