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BBC BREAKFAST WITH FROST HOSTED BY PETER SISSONS INTERVIEW: CHARLES KENNEDY MP LEADER OF THE LIBERAL DEMOCRATS JULY 14th, 2002
Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used
PETER SISSONS: Now it's three years since Charles Kennedy beat off a challenge from his colleague Simon Hughes and grabbed Paddy Ashdown's mantle, Leader of the Liberal Democrats. Its standing and that of his party has remained stable, he's more trusted than the other party leaders but critics say that with the Tories floundering Charles Kennedy ought to be doing even better, Charles good morning.
CHARLES KENNEDY: Very good morning to you Peter.
PETER SISSONS: Pretty scurrilous talk in today's Mail on Sunday a plot, a plot by heartless Lib Dem MPs, a wedding surprise it's to be for you, wild talk of a stalking horse candidate in September?
CHARLES KENNEDY: Well I think the silly season is probably upon us, it's that mad time of the year at Westminster. In fact all my parliamentary colleagues have just unanimously re-elected me under the constitution of the party, as leader for the rest of this Parliament so the story is just rubbish.
PETER SISSONS: There might at one time have been a grain of truth in the unattributed quote "Charlie's a great guy but he just doesn't put the hours in"?
CHARLES KENNEDY: Yeah well that I think is partly to do with if you have a, an image or a reputation for being fairly laid back, not being too hysterical about things, people can sometimes equate that into things that it's not. But I think if you look at the evidence, best ever general election showing, 27, 28 per cent in this year's local elections, high standing in the opinion polls for this point in the Parliament, things are not too bad. But I'm a cautious type, I keep saying to everybody, politics is a marathon much more than a sprint and you've got to pace yourself for the course of this Parliament and we are.
PETER SISSONS: I'll come back to, to the generalities in a moment but one specific this morning which you may have a view one, Iraq, there's more talk in the newspapers of the United States preparing a military attack and of Blair meeting Bush soon, how do you judge it, do you think there's a real prospect of more?
CHARLES KENNEDY: Well I think that obviously the key thing that we all want to see happen is the weapon inspectors to get back in under UN Administration, now at the moment Saddam Hussein is not complying with that and he's flying in the face of international opinion. We've got to keep the pressure on there but equally we do have to keep reminding people there has not been a tangible shred of evidence which has linked directly Iraq to the events of September the 11th, so we have to keep this under a United Nations ambit Britain should play its part but as we've said all along as a party, you can't go around just issuing blank cheques to the United States.
PETER SISSONS: So if, if Tony Blair, and it's a huge if...
CHARLES KENNEDY: Yes.
PETER SISSONS: Were to commit British troops you would oppose it?
CHARLES KENNEDY: Well you would have to see what the circumstances were obviously, if tangible evidence was brought forward, for example, and Saddam Hussein had the capacity for weapons of mass destruction and indeed the potential to use them then clearly the whole global community would have to respond to that not just the United States and Britain would be part of that as a member of the UN Security Council. But we're not there yet and that's why I think a very cautious approach is one that's required. I think that, if you like, is responsible opposition, we're not being anti-American, we're not being unpatriotic towards a British government behaving in a the way that it judges to be correct for the safety our own citizens and the wider community, but we are asking pertinent questions and I think that's a better approach at the end of the day, more reassuring to people in this country than perhaps the approach of the Conservatives which appears to be let anything go.
PETER SISSONS: Spending review coming up next week...yeah, all that stuff about a penny on income tax to pay for education is pretty old hat from you now, the government's committed to spend more than you ever thought of?
CHARLES KENNEDY: Well the government level, I welcomed the fact that the government had at last putting in the investment that we argued for before, during and after the last general election. If you like we have won the argument over the need for investment in the public services, now that is a significant victory and this has been a significant week in politics because the Conservatives have just announced that they're not going to put in that level of investment. So you have two parties arguing for greater investment, the difference however between us and the government is we actually want to see that investment being delivered in terms of doctors, nurses, on the wards, in the classrooms. I'm not sure that the over-centralised tendencies of Gordon Brown are going to produce that.
PETER SISSONS: But given the prospect of the economy and the, the rate, likely rate of growth it could be that the Conservatives are being just more realistic?
CHARLES KENNEDY: I don't think the Conservatives are being very realistic at all and I don't think that they carry much credibility with people. People have got longer memories than perhaps the Conservative Party would wish to be the case. They know the under-investment that dogged the public services but equally they know that Gordon Brown for most of the last Parliament persisted with that under-investment which means that even although this money is going in, and welcome though that is, it's going to take a long time before we see the tangible benefits. I suspect, for example, you take the Health Service, that by the time of the next election, another two and a half, three years, however long it might be, people will still be coming to politicians and saying why can't I get my operation? Why has my operation been cancelled or delayed? Why isn't there the investment that we've been promised in these headline figures? Now it's up to us to make the case for realistic investment that actually counts.
PETER SISSONS: Let me put it, put this question to you, what are the Liberal Democrats for, if Labour's popularity slumps it's likely to be because the pips of middle England are squeaking, but you wouldn't make life any easier for middle England would you?
CHARLES KENNEDY: Well I think what we would do in terms of taxation and expenditure in the public services is we'd be an awful lot more transparent. One of the ideas, for example, that I'm floating within the party at the moment and we'll debate it at the conference in the autumn, is ear-marking a specific tax for the Health Service so that people see where the money's coming from and see what it's being deployed in favour of rather like...a penny of income tax...
PETER SISSONS: You promised no relief from tax for middle England who, who are being hit steadily and, and more rises will come in next spring as, as will the extra penny on National Insurance contributions for employers, are you going to oppose that?
CHARLES KENNEDY: Well we certainly think that there are too many burdens on employers, this is the case that we've made, not least bureaucracy, we need to lift an awful lot of the red tape that are burdening people, both private employers and those in the public services, working in the public services. But in addition to that I think what we've got to make the case for is honest, transparent taxation. Now middle England as you, as you characterise it, will understand if they know that it's being fairly levelled, not stealth taxation...of the kind that Gordon Brown...
PETER SISSONS: They might not understand that if it's hurting?
CHARLES KENNEDY: Well it won't hurt in the sense that if they can see the tangible benefits in their community. People know that we're under-resourced in terms of the police service, they know that the schools need more, they know that there are shortages of nurses and doctors and so on. Now if they can begin to see practical benefits accruing then they will understand, that was the message at the last election, that was the message of this year's local elections.
PETER SISSONS: But what is your unique selling point as a party, what, what really is the, is the slogan if you like, that, that sets you apart from the other parties?
CHARLES KENNEDY: Well if we didn't exist I think you'd have to invent us in British politics at the moment, we're the only party...
PETER SISSONS: But that's hardly a, that's hardly a selling point.
CHARLES KENNEDY: I'm not here to come up with a slogan but what I will say to you is this, that if you look at the state of British politics at the moment, particularly what young people are saying, very disillusioned with their politicians, much more enthusiastic about the Liberal Democrats, now that's because we're a party that's going places, we're building, we're a party looking very much to the future whereas the rest are really looking rather shop-soiled. We're the most environmentalist, we're the most international, we're the most committed to Europe and we want effective civil liberties defended which are under assault in this country at the moment and I'm not being defended by the Conservatives and we want to see a modern constitution. Now that I think is a bright, attractive, original package to put to the people.
PETER SISSONS: It's your last weekend as a bachelor and next weekend you marry Sarah in the House of Commons Chapel?
CHARLES KENNEDY: Yes indeed.
PETER SISSONS: You're a Catholic and she's an Anglican, how are you going to square that cirlce?
CHARLES KENNEDY: Well we have special marriage licenses, the Anglicans and the Catholics are now adept at producing a wedding service instead of rites, which accommodate the, the needs of both traditions, both religious traditions so that hasn't proved a problem at all.
PETER SISSONS: It's said she's, she's, she's changed your life, she's improved your dress sense I read, she's reduced your waistline...
CHARLES KENNEDY: Yes.
PETER SISSONS: What else is going to happen, is she going to make you a better person all round?
CHARLES KENNEDY: Well I don't think that Sarah's viewing this with a view to consciously setting about deconstructing and then reconstructing me but I think that the, the temperate influence that she brings to bear is very helpful to me, not least when the rigours and the vigours of the job begin to take over as they do all, all too often. But we're a relaxed couple, we get on very well.
PETER SISSONS: And can we, can we see lots of celebs, lots of members of the government, lots of members of the government, lots of members of other parties, Hello magazine?
CHARLES KENNEDY: No absolutely, we're not turning this into some kind of circus of that type, it's very much for our friends across the political spectrum it should be said and family and we just want it to be a happy day hopefully with a bit of sunshine and we want everybody to come and have a good time.
PETER SISSONS: Charles thank you very much and I'm sure everyone here, all our viewers even, would wish you and Sarah all the very best.
CHARLES KENNEDY: That's very kind, thanks Peter, thank you.
PETER SISSONS: Right, Charles Kennedy.
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