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banner Sunday, 23 September, 2001, 19:19 GMT 20:19 UK
Dilemma facing Kennedy
Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy in Bournemouth
Charles Kennedy: Reserves the right to criticise
Nyta Mann

Charles Kennedy had hoped this year's annual Liberal Democrat gathering would be the conference at which his party spent the week "talking about themselves".

He meant in contrast to the perpetual Lib Dem condition of the party's relations with Labour or the Conservatives being the main talking point.

That is certainly not the story this week, but only because a far bigger cloud overshadows events in Bournemouth.

As Lib Dems arrived in Bournemouth, Home Secretary David Blunkett confirmed that the first domestic legislative fall-out of the terrorist attacks on the US will be a raft of new laws which will pit the government against civil libertarians of all parties.

That is likely to put Mr Kennedy in the uncomfortable position of having to stave off demands from within his own party to strongly oppose a key plank of the government's response to last week's terrorist assault.

Freedoms curtailed?

The precise shape of the cross-departmental package of measures currently being examined by the prime minister is yet to be unveiled.

Home Secretary David Blunkett
David Blunkett: Confirmed that ID cards could be on the way
But there is very little doubt that it will involve some curtailing of the freedom of UK citizens.

The government's justification is that this is unavoidable and essential to protect what Mr Blunkett called "the most basic freedoms of all, the freedom from insecurity, from fear and of course from taking of life".

It looks set to be a stringent - draconian, say critics - package, with Mr Blunkett having raised the very real prospect of compulsory identity cards and amendments to the just recently passed Human Rights Act.

And it will be at least a week or so before the measures are unveiled.

'No blank cheques'

So it is lucky for Charles Kennedy that his party's conference is taking place now rather than a few weeks hence.

The Lib Dem leader has pledged his full support for Tony Blair's efforts to help provide a constructive and measured response to the attacks in New York and Washington.

But he has also stuck firmly to the line that there can be "no blank cheques", reserving the right to criticise the government if it comes up with a mistaken or inappropriate response.

Tony Blair visited four world capitals, including Washington, last week
Tony Blair is examining the proposed new laws
That warning, strongly reiterated on the eve of Monday's conference debate and speech from Mr Kennedy on the crisis, is in large part intended for internal consumption.

Defence of civil liberties - and opposition to New Labour's streak of social authoritarianism - is a key strand of modern Liberal Democracy. It has also been a defining characteristic the party's differences with Tony Blair's government.

Warning not to rush new laws

Grassroots Lib Dems will not want to compromise on that. Nor will Lib Dems in parliament - especially the House of Lords.

The highly controversial Terrorism Act 2000 came into force earlier this year but only after a bumpy ride through parliament. Lib Dem peers were among its most passionate opponents.

Mr Kennedy has warned of the dangers of rushing through new anti-terrorist legislation.

He pointed out that hasty laws, particularly those enacted with all-party agreement, usually make bad legislation.

The classic corroborating example cited in evidence is the Dangerous Dogs Act of 1991, introduced by then-home secretary Kenneth Baker at the height of media clamour and public fear over savage dogs.

The strength of immediate public concern meant it took a bold politician indeed to oppose the swift enactment of new laws aimed at alleviating the problem.

Soon after the Lib Dems have left Bournemouth, it could well be Mr Kennedy facing demands from his own party to be the bold one.

The BBC's Caroline Quinn
"This should have been the conference in which his party celebrated their gains at the general election"
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