Neil Kinnock – 1986 Speech on Libya

Below is the text of the speech made by Neil Kinnock, the then Leader of the Opposition, in the House of Commons on 16 April 1986.

This House is united and firm in its view that terrorism is evil and cowardly and a completely unjustified and unjustifiable way of advancing any cause, whether it be political, religious, or any other cause. [Interruption.] The question before the House today, therefore, is not one of competitive loathing for Mu’ammar Gaddafi or any other supporter and sponsor of terrorism. It is not a question of who hates terrorism the most. The real question is not how we describe terrorism but what we do about it.

Faced by the terrorist menace which has emanated from Libya and many other countries over past years we must answer the question, what is the effective response to be made to terrorism and terrorists? The effective response is what today’s debate is and should be about, because it is the benchmark against which we have to judge the actions of the President of the United States and our own Prime Minister and because it is the only way to answer the question of where we and our allies, on both sides of the Atlantic, go from here. Therefore, we must judge the President and the Prime Minister on the effectiveness of the action which they have jointly taken.

The purpose of the bombing raid on Tripoli and Benghazi on Monday night was said by President Reagan to be to

“bring down the curtain on Gaddafi’s reign of terror.”

I do not believe that anyone can seriously believe that that objective has been or will be achieved by bombing. The use of such force does not punish terrorism. The use of such force will not prevent terrorism. Indeed, the use of such force is much more likely to provoke and expand terrorism. In any case, the strategy of using military force for the purpose of teaching Gaddafi a lesson is fundamentally flawed for, as the Daily Telegraph said this morning, it presumes

“a degree of rationality in Tripoli about cause and effect, which is palpably lacking”.

There are some who would say that the evidence—[Interruption.]

Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking) rose—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The Prime Minister was given a fair hearing. That is equally the right of the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr. Kinnock

It was clear from the earliest seconds of my speech what the tactic was to be and I know that you, Mr. Speaker, will be the judge about that.

Some will say that a great deal of weight must be given to the evidence which has been made available to the Prime Minister and to some others in this House.

Mr. Onslow rose—

Mr. Kinnock

I shall give way in a moment.

It is important to give attention to the evidence, but I caution people who allow their judgment to turn solely on the evidence—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Kinnock

No one needs any convincing about the criminality of Gaddafi and those who put their whole weight of judgment on the evidence of a particular series of planned atrocities are in great danger of all falling into the trap of saying that where there is evidence the response must be bombing raids. There is great danger in that. If they do not say that when there is evidence available, they must tell us in which cases, in which countries and on what occasions the evidence is to be neglected and the bombing raids are not to take place. That response should not be undertaken.

Mr. Onslow rose—

Mr. Kinnock

I shall give way in a moment.

The other consideration is that those who put their complete faith in the evidence as a justification for military strikes are saying that where there is such evidence the considerations of international law can be put aside. We do not accept that at home, we do not accept it abroad. That is not a point of nicety; it is fundamental to realism in the conduct of international relations and it is fundamental to our moral and material strength in international relations.

Mr. Onslow

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for belatedly giving way. I have no desire to destroy his speech. [Interruption.] I am simply anxious that he should not mislead the House. Earlier he quoted some words, attributing their implication to President Reagan. The House and the right hon. Gentleman may like to know what those words should have been. President Reagan said:

“I have no illusion that tonight’s action will bring down the curtain on Gaddafi’s regime, but this mission, violent as it was, can bring closer a safer and more secure world for decent men and women.”

The right hon. Gentleman must not mislead the House.

Mr. Kinnock

I know what the President said, I know what he implied, and I also heard the right hon. Lady—[Interruption.] I also heard the right hon. Lady yesterday say that this action was about turning the tide of terrorism. No one can be in any doubt that the whole proposition of the action, as given by the Governments and understood by the people, is that by such a bombing strike such damage can be inflicted on Gaddafi as to stop him engaging in terrorism. No one doubts that.

The response that President Reagan can count on is the very opposite to what he intended. Gaddafi is without doubt a malignancy. No one can doubt his involvement in financing and sponsoring terrorism throughout the world. However, as a consequence of the actions of the United ​ States in the past few days, Gaddafi has a degree of support even from moderate Arab states that have previously regarded him with unrestrained hostility.

By the same means and for the same reasons, the influence of the United States and of Great Britain has been diminished, and we have heard from our European and Commonwealth allies statements of condemnation that would have been unthinkable about our country a short time ago.

I suggest that reasons such as those explain why the strategy of using military force against terrorism has never been employed by British Governments that have had to deal with that evil epidemic in recent years. Out policy until now has been a national policy. It has been a restrained policy. It has been a thorough policy of diplomatic sanctions, tightened security, the best anti-terrorism forces in the world, a readiness to take action wherever terrorists are caught and cornered, and an uncompromising attitude that refuses to trade hostages or to make any concessions to terrorism.

That has been our policy, and that policy has always stopped short of responding to terrorism with the might of armed force, such as was involved in the American attack on Monday night. That has not been because we are supine or because we are passive. It has certainly not been because we have cringed before terrorism and it is certainly not because we have not been provoked. The sentencing of British subjects, the kidnapping of British citizens, the murdering on our own streets of a policewoman and of others—all obviously make our blood boil.

Mr. Tony Favell (Stockport)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Kinnock

I will give way in a moment.

However, we have not struck back with bombers because, while we know that the first step may be relatively easy, all further steps into conflict and all further steps back from conflict produce impossible difficulties. That policy of rationality, restraint, and fierce antiterrorism is the right policy. It can be, and now should be, strengthened, especially in the case of Libya, which is known to he a haven for terrorists. We should and could have strong commercial and financial sanctions and I now believe that we have an unprecedented opportunity to make those effective against Mu’ammar Gaddafi.

I believe that we can take that opportunity, because Libya is a country 80 per cent. dependent for its resources, and 100 per cent. dependent under its leadership, on oil, and with oil prices plummeting Gaddafi will be looking for credits. Those credits can and must be denied him until such time as the pressure of commercial, economic, financial, diplomatic and political sanctions squeezes the very life out of the Gaddafi regime. That is the way to do it. [HON. MEMBERS:”Hear, hear.”] That is the practical course. That is the effective course. That is the way to isolate Gaddafi. It is the best means of punishment and prevention of that evil. That is the way we should go from here.

The Prime Minister has declined economic sanctions in the past. Frankly, that reluctance to use economic sanctions is not becoming in a Government who on Monday were prepared to use this country as a base for bombers and to condone the use of those bombers.

Of course, the task of securing comprehensive economic and other sanctions has now been made much ​ more difficult by the decision of the Prime Minister to be a compliant accomplice rather than a candid ally of the United States President. The right hon. Lady has not shown solidarity with our ally; she has shown subservience to the United States President. She was, as the Financial Times pointed out this morning,

“wrong to give in to US pressure on this occasion.”

She was wrong—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. This is a very important debate and the whole House—[Interruption.] Order. The hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) is not even in the House.

Mr. Kinnock

The Prime Minister was wrong to believe that the F1l l s were necessary for the operation or capable of reducing the casualties. She was wrong to depart from the common sense and legality of the British policy against terrorism as her Government and other Governments have operated it. She was wrong to neglect the impact that this action and her complicity in it would have on opinion among moderate Arab leaders She was wrong to disregard the reservations of our European allies.

Whatever plaudits the right hon. Lady’s deference to the President of the United States may bring her in America, they will not be echoed on this side of the Atlantic. In this continent—and especially in a generation older than mine—we know that the achievement and maintenance of liberty sometimes requires great sacrifice and death. But we also know that it is foolhardy to start something that by its very definition cannot be properly finished.

There cannot be any hon. Member—

Mr. Michael Heseltine (Henley) rose—

Mr. Kinnock

There cannot be any hon. Member in this House, or anyone in the country, who does not understand the frustration and resentment of the American President and people at the goading and attacks of terrorists. All of us, if we are honest with ourselves, are completely familiar with the instinct of revenge. Every one of us knows that lust for reprisal that we feel when we hear of assassination and bombings and, still more, when we see the bodies of children and old people shattered as a consequence of terrorist atrocities. Every instinct rages against it.

Mr. Heseltine rose—

Mr. Kinnock

But we know, too, that the world simply cannot be run on the basis of such instincts. We know that an international strategy cannot be built on such instincts, and, much as we comprehend the sense of outrage, we cannot support the calculated reprisals that arise from that outrage.

Mr. Heseltine

Can the right hon. Gentleman give the House any reason to suppose that there is an historic precedent for the belief that economic sanctions would work, or that they would achieve the reductions in terrorism of which Mr. Gaddafi is so patently guilty?

Mr. Kinnock

I need not persuade President Reagan of that, for he is the most avid practitioner of economic sanctions against a series of Governments. I am sure that we could gain the ready acquiescence of the President to a comprehensive strategy of sanctions against Libya.

Mr. Heseltine rose—

Mr. Favell rose—

​Mr. Kinnock

With reference to the right hon. Gentleman’s precise point, as I deliberately said earlier, Libya, with its great dependence on oil, and only oil, as its source of revenue and as Gaddafi’s base for power, is uniquely positioned for the implementation of comprehensive international sanctions.

Mr. Favell rose—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member must sit down when the Leader of the Opposition fails to give way.

Mr. Kinnock

It is obvious that the case for sanctions goes way beyond the House and any affiliation that the Labour party may have. Yesterday, I listened to a most persuasive interview given by Sir Anthony Parsons, a former adviser to the Prime Minister, who recommended precisely that course of sanctions as the most directly appropriate to the present circumstances.

The right hon. Lady was wrong to give support for the actions of reprisal that arose from the instincts of rage and outrage of the American President. That is not merely our view; it is the view of international law. The Prime Minister gave us her interpretation of international law and of self-defence yesterday, and she repeated it today. We have listened and we are not convinced. Much as the Prime Minister clearly believes in her interpretation, she can find no recognised authority outside the immediate ranks of the Conservative party to support her view of international law.

In the past 24 hours, we have heard from scholars of international law, from the lawyers who plead in the international courts, from the specialist political analysts and from experienced diplomats who have dealt with questions of international law throughout their professional lives. None of them upholds the right hon. Lady’s view of international law.

There are, of course, people who now say that international law as it is presently conceived was intended for a different age and that the age of terrorism means that the law must be stretched to embrace new sets of circumstances. I counsel against that, not from any reluctance to act directly against terrorism, but simply because of the impracticality of hitting back at terrorism with military force and because of the inhumanity which results from killing and maiming the innocent neighbours of terrorists.

I am not alone in that view. At the beginning of this week, the Secretary of State for Defence told the listeners of Radio Clyde:

“My colleagues and I are very dubious as to whether a military strike is the best way of doing this. It is liable to hit the wrong people. It creates other tensions in the area.”

No one could have put it better than that.

We need only ask ourselves, “Where are the modern terrorists?” They are found in their hideaways in the farms, villages and tenements of Ireland, Beirut, the Punjab and even some of the cosiest suburbs of European cities. They are scattered throughout the people, and that is what makes the idea of retribution by mass military force so impractical and such a dangerous course for future action.

If we set our hand to a strategy of reprisals, it will provoke, not prevent, terrorism and any subsequent pause in such a strategy of reprisal would be seen as irresolution and weakness by the terrorists and would encourage them to commit further atrocities. If we pursued the strategy of reprisal, we should be caught in a trap of either doing too ​ much or never doing enough. We could never get such a strategy right. It is not a strategy; it is a snare. British Governments have long known that, and that is why they have avoided such snares.

I strongly urge the right hon. Lady to resume that course of common sense and legality. There is only one policy that she can effectively pursue now. She can return to our European allies and partners and urge them to adopt the comprehensive sanctions that are essential to the isolation of Gaddafi. I know that that is very difficult. It will be especially difficult because the Prime Minister has a Foreign Secretary who, at the same time as he was agreeing in The Hague on Monday a communiquÉ which urged “restraint on all sides”, knew that the Americans had already unleashed their dogs of war. The reaction of allies such as Leo Tindemans, Bettino Craxi, the Germans and the French testifies to that difficulty. The fact that it will be difficult does not mean that it will be impossible.

The right hon. Lady can repair the damage which she has caused, and if she pursues that course of securing combined and co-ordinated sanctions she will have strong support. It is essential that she makes that change, for she has not been strong, she has been supine, in her support for the American President. She has not acted in the interests of Britain. She has caused us to be more isolated from our allies and she has damaged our long-standing and wise anti-terrorist policy. She has not defended British citizens; she has put them in greater jeopardy. That is why the Prime Minister’s policy has been and will be rejected by the British people. They know that she can have neither justice nor effectiveness on her side. They know that her might is not right.