Charles Kennedy – 2005 Speech to Liberal Democrat Spring Conference


Below is the text of the speech made by Charles Kennedy, the then Leader of the Liberal Democrats, on 5 March 2005 to the party’s Spring Conference.


We Liberal Democrats are ready for a General Election.

And we are looking forward to it.

We have a strong message and a powerful case to put forward.

In so many ways the story of this parliament, now coming to an end, has been the way the Liberal Democrats have emerged as the real opposition to Tony Blair’s Labour Government.

The Real Opposition to an illegal war in Iraq.

The Real Opposition to Labour’s authoritarian instincts.

The Real Opposition against student top-up fees, against poverty pensions, against the Council Tax, against false choice in our public services.

We have been principled.
We have stood up for the people of Britain.
We have not wavered when the going got tough.

We have shown our resolve as a national opposition party.
As a result we have grown in strength and in support.

At this General Election – we will be the Real Alternative.
We will be the party that people turn to.
People want a credible, principled political party which offers a different vision of what Britain can be.

They want a real alternative to Labour.
At this General Election the Liberal Democrats will be that Real Alternative.

The main issue currently before parliament – is an issue and a set of principles alongside it which go to the very heart of our democracy.

And it shows just how important it is to have a real alternative in Britain.

I am talking of course of the proposed control orders being introduced by the Home Secretary.

The Liberal Democrats – for the past three years – have been principled and persistent critics of the situation at Belmarsh Prison.

For us it is utterly unacceptable for individuals to be incarcerated – facing indefinite detention – without charge and without trial.

That it is not the Liberal Democrat way.
And that is not the British way.

And that’s why the Law Lords declared the Government’s policy illegal.

So the government were duty-bound to respond.
And respond they did with their ill-fated proposals for house arrest.

3 weeks ago, at Prime Minister’s Questions, I raised with Tony Blair our central concern.

It must be a judge – never a politician – who decides whether someone is to be locked up.

Mark Oaten and I sustained that key concern at the Downing Street discussions which then followed.

And we welcomed the degree of undoubted movement on the Government’s part which had taken place in the intervening period.

Welcome movement – but by no means enough.

Fundamental objections remained.

And those concerns still remain.

Now, as this legislation is before the House of Lords, let us be crystal clear about the ongoing Liberal Democrat position.

There is an onus here on the politicians – irrespective of party – to seek a consensus where responding responsibly to what I acknowledge is both the threat and the reality of international terrorism.

We are willing to try and find a solution which delivers proper security with a respect for human rights.
We are not however about to set off down a path which leads inexorably to a surrender of principles.
Anything but.

That is the spirit in which we have engaged on these matters.
We have a real alternative which will maintain our security and protect our liberties:-
And these will continue to be our guiding principles.

1. Prosecution should always be the first option.

2. Decisions over detention must be judicial and not in the first instance political.

3. The standard of proof must be of the highest possible order.

4. Defendants must have access to defence lawyers and to see the evidence against them.

A sensible Government would have come up with proposals based on these principles in the first place.

Without these safeguards Liberal Democrats in Parliament will not support this Bill.

All too often with this government, when presented with a genuine problem the instinctive response is an authoritarian one.
Undermining trial by jury, house arrest, compulsory Identity Cards

That is not the Liberal Democrat way.
That is not the British way.

This issue is not the only one where our party has been well tested in this parliament.

Take of course the issue of Iraq.

With regard to the war itself, our views of course are well known.
We took that stand in Parliament against the war.
The Conservatives backed Tony Blair.

Tony Blair took us to war in Iraq on the basis of the supposed threat of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction.

Mere weeks before the war the Prime Minister was still telling Parliament “I detest his regime?but even now, he could save it.”

Now, because it has been shown that there were no weapons of mass destruction, the Prime Minister says that the removal of Saddam justifies the war in itself.
Not what he was saying just before it.

And today – if he is so confident of his case – why will he not allow the Attorney General’s legal advice to be published?

The Prime Minister wants us to move on – but we cannot until we know the full facts.

He should publish – and if necessary be damned.

Of course Britain should honour its legal and moral responsibilities with regard to the situation in Iraq.
But we need to focus on a proper exit strategy – as we warned at the outset.
That should mean a phased withdrawal of British troops to coincide with the end of the United Nations mandate this year.

It is vital to apply your principles with consistency – at home and abroad.

And nowhere is that responsibility more required of politicians than when it comes to discussion of the issues concerning immigration and asylum.

I believe the duty here for politicians is to begin with a straightforward statement of personal belief.

And this is mine.

I believe that our country is a richer, more vibrant society precisely because it is a multi-racial, multi-ethnic society.

Let that be the starting point for any debate over immigration and asylum.

And let us not confuse the two in people’s minds either.

On immigration we have no problem over identifying quotas for skilled shortages in our society.

But we would do so on the basis of an independent evaluation of the needs of the British economy – not the prejudices of politicians.

Where would the National Health Service be without the numbers of migrant workers – doctors and nurses – on our wards?

On asylum, let us not go down the route of declaring artificial limits.

This country has a proud history of opening its doors to generations of people fleeing personal persecution, civil unrest and war.

We must never surrender that track record.

So my message here is clear.

Where immigration and asylum issues are concerned, the challenge is for the politicians to make the systems work in the best long-term interests of the country.

But never to pander and play to people’s fears.

In recent weeks, much of the political debate has centred on what the parties plan to put in their election manifestos – and rightly so.

But if you take the big issues of this Parliament – Iraq, the Hutton and Butler inquiries, anti-terrorist legislation, top up fees, foundation hospitals – these were scarcely mentioned during the campaign four years ago.
They largely fall into the category – which Harold McMillan once described as ‘events, dear boy, events.’

Manifestos will obviously matter, but voters will simultaneously be making a more fundamental judgement;
They will be assessing how the different parties might deal with those ‘events’ in the next four years;
And seeking solutions which reflect their personal hopes and fears.

How will they judge the Conservatives?
Their record in this parliament has been pathetic.
They have flip-flopped over the big issues of the day.
Iraq, Hutton, Butler, top-up fees, ID cards?I could go on.
When called upon to make a judgement – in the heat of the moment – the Conservatives have consistently made the wrong one – then tried to back-track when they see political advantage.
Poor judgement and opportunism.
You won’t win elections like that because people won’t trust you with Government.

And Labour?
What a squandering of the good will which greeted Tony Blair in 1997!
What an abuse of public trust!
Will voters really forgive being misled on Iraq?
Or the broken promises on tax?
Or top up fees?
Or the instinctive authoritarianism?

And what about the dismal failure to take a lead on Europe?

Which leaves us – the Liberal Democrats.  The Real Alternative.

Throughout the course of this parliament, week on week, issue after issue, we have acted in accordance with our principles.

We argue sincerely for what we believe is in the best interests of our country.

For us politics isn’t about gimmicky pledge cards with vacuous statements.
It’s about real solutions to real problems.
It’s about being straightforward about how you will deliver.
And it’s about being straightforward also about how much it will all cost.

Throughout this parliament, I have insisted that our balance sheet must add up.

And on tax, we seek to be both bold and fair.

Britain is the 4th largest economy in the world.
We have world class businesses and a world class workforce.
So why are 2 million of our pensioners living below the poverty line?
And why are the poorest in our society paying a higher proportion of their income in tax than the richest?

There is another way – that is what being the real alternative is all about.

Being bold doesn’t mean making promises we can’t keep.

Boldness requires us to make the case for taxation.  Why? Because people know you can’t get something for nothing.
And boldness means making the case for tax reform, so that it is fair.

At the last election Labour promised not to put up income tax. What did they do? They raised National Insurance.

The Conservatives are currently suggesting that they can cut income tax, stamp duty, inheritance tax, capital gains tax, council tax, savings tax, small business tax, environmental taxes AND increase public spending all at the same time.
Oh – and cut the national debt while they are at it.
No one really believes them. Candy floss economics.

And even if you do look at the small print of their plans it shows the tax burden will actually rise under the Conservatives – by £24 billion.
So much for straight-talking there.
In contrast, what we propose is credible.

Anyone who earns over £100,000 would pay 50p in the pound on every pound earned above £100,000.
According to government figures, that would raise £5.2 billion a year.
What would we use that sum for?
1. We would abolish top-up and tuition fees
2. We would provide free personal care for the elderly, just as we have delivered in Scotland
3. We would scrap the Council tax and hold down the rate of local taxes.

Now this is targeted taxation for targeted spending commitments.

And for those who predict gloom and doom, the end of civilisation as we know it – remind them, this is still a lower rate of top tax than was the case for the majority of the period that Mrs. Thatcher was Prime Minister of this country.

And, strange to record, the sun kept rising in the east and setting in the west.

What’s more, this tax change will affect just 1% of the wealthiest income tax payers in the country.
So by definition 99% of people will not be paying more.
But the benefits will be for 100% of people.
Now that is a real alternative.

As for tax reform – a fair tax system is one which is based on the principle of people’s ability to pay.

Council tax is fundamentally unfair.  It bears no relationship to earnings and means that the poorest in our society pay more from their income than do the richest.  That cannot be right.

So we would scrap the Council Tax and replace it with a local income tax.
We would do it through the Inland Revenue which is cheaper to administer.
As confirmed by the Institute of Fiscal Studies last week about half of people would pay less.  A quarter would be unaffected.  And a quarter would pay a bit more.
A typical family would be £450 a year better off.
And over half of all pensioners, would pay no local tax at all.
Now that is the real alternative.

Being in Government is all about priorities.
What you choose to spend tax payer’s money on – and what you choose not too.

Being the real alternative means spending public money differently.

We would raise £5 billion a year by scrapping departments like the DTI and ODPM and transferring key functions elsewhere.
We would scrap the next stage of Eurofighter, the baby bonds and the compulsory Identity Cards scheme.
Now these are tough choices.
But look at what we would deliver with that money

10,000 more police of the streets – cutting crime and the fear of crime.

A Citizen’s Pension for the over 75s – Over £100 a month extra on the basic state pension, millions of pensioners off means testing, and an end to the scandalous discrimination in the pensions system against women.

An end to the hidden NHS waiting lists – quick diagnosis so treatment is not delayed.

Free eye tests and dental checks.

Lower class sizes for our youngest children – because children taught well in their early years have a far better chance of successful and rewarding lives.

Now that is the Real Alternative –
Costed, affordable polices to make Britain better, fairer, safer.
The balance sheet is balanced; the costs add up.
It’s a matter of priority.
And I think it’s a good deal.
And what’s more – I think the people of Britain will think it is a good deal.

All of this will be underpinned by a Green thread running through our manifesto.

The environment is central to our vision.

A Britain in which sustainable living is a reality so that we minimise the impact of the way we live on the world around us.

A Britain that looks beyond the Kyoto treaty to the next stage of the battle to limit climate change; standing up to the conspiracy theorists and those in denial over the threat of global warming.

You know – a month ago I challenged Tony Blair and Michael Howard about just this issue because I think the seriousness of the threat transcends party colours.

I wanted the three parties to come together to agree that the science is real and the threat is real.

To pledge ourselves to pursue new and stronger international goals on climate change.

And to make sure Britain has its own house in order by agreeing a series of long-term baseline targets for our own environment.

Sensible, consensual politics to deal with a long-term threat that faces all of us now, and the generations to come.

But such an initiative simply does not fit in with Tony Blair or Michael Howard’s idea of politics.

So again at this election, the Liberal Democrats will be the Real Alternative on the environment.

So far this campaign has had all the hallmarks of the kind of spin that turns people off.

Take the latest row over cancelled hospital operations.

The slanging match between Labour and the Conservatives – as they both scrabble for headlines – demeans our politics.

What people want are positive solutions to sustain and strengthen our National Health Service.
Right now they deserve better than they are getting.

What they seek is good schools and hospitals – run efficiently.
They want proper public provision for the weakest and most vulnerable members of our society.
They want straight talk from politicians and fairness.
They don’t want to be patronised with token promises.

And they don’t want politicians always interfering.
People want to get on with their own lives.
They want to take their own decisions in and about their own neighbourhoods and communities.

So this election will be about more than just manifesto promises.

Our party has been the real opposition in this parliament.
If you voted Conservative in 2001, yet opposed the war in Iraq.
If you don’t want compulsory Identity Cards cards.
If you are suffering under the Council Tax.
If you are worried about the environment.
What good did it do you voting Conservative?
Your vote was wasted.

Because today, the Conservatives are out of the race in Scotland and Wales, and most of urban Britain.
While they are fading, we are growing.

The challenge for our party throughout this period, and my aim as your leader, has been to show that the Liberal Democrats are credible; that we are the real alternative.

When people grow tired of the old parties they turn to us to see what we can do.
This is what has been happening in Liverpool and Newcastle – big cities run by the Liberal Democrats.
And Liberal Democrat Ministers in Scotland.

Up and down the country the Liberal Democrats exercise real power and real responsibility.

As we enter this general election people now have a much clearer idea of what we’re about.

They do see in us a real alternative on offer.

And a real alternative that’s on their side.

Where the big issues are concerned.

Axing the council tax.

Abolishing student tuition fees.

Guaranteeing free personal care for the elderly.

Tackling pension unfairness – especially for women.

Pursuing positive engagement in Europe – and the wider world.

With real action to promote the environment.

Two years ago one million people took to the streets of Britain to try to make politicians listen –
They wanted to send a message to Tony Blair – don’t go to war in Iraq.
When I am told that people in Britain don’t care about politics,
I think about the people I marched alongside that day.

People of a different political persuasion from me and people of no political persuasion.

They were fed up with the way the Prime Minister was behaving;
Fed up with the way both the old parties – Labour and the Tories – were standing shoulder to shoulder in defence of George Bush.

What they needed was a real alternative;
A party which was listening to their concerns;
A party which was prepared to stand up and say so;
The party which said no to the Prime Minister.

I am proud that we were the real alternative then.
I am proud that we have continued to stand apart from the other two parties on important issues of principle.
I am proud that when it comes to tackling unfairness in this country,
the Liberal Democrats put that top of the agenda.

We enter this election as a truly independent political party.
We will campaign through this election as an independent political party.
And we will emerge in the next House of Commons as an independent political party.

That way we will do best – by ourselves and by the country.

More votes, more seats – beyond that no glass ceilings to our ambitions.

Now that’s the real alternative in this election.

And it’s called the Liberal Democrats.