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Breakfast with Frost
Charles Kennedy MP, Liberal Democrat party leader
Charles Kennedy MP, Liberal Democrat party leader

Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used

DAVID FROST: The party conference season gets underway this weekend as the Liberal Democrats converge on Brighton. But for the second year running, Charles Kennedy will have to practically lose one of his set days to a recall of Parliament. Ironically, Mr Kennedy was one of the key voices who influenced the Prime Minister's decision to get MPs back together for an emergency debate on Iraq and yesterday he said, some would say rather audaciously, that the Liberal Democrats, not the Tories, are now the official opposition on important issues like public services and Iraq. Are they or aren't they? Well Charles Kennedy is there, there you see the man himself, gazing at us from Brighton.

CHARLES KENNEDY: Good morning David.

DAVID FROST: Good morning to you. What was, what's your reaction to what we're hearing today about Iraq and where you stand on Iraq and where Clare Short stands on Iraq and where Tony Blair stands on Iraq?

CHARLES KENNEDY: The position as of today, and it's clearly a developing position on a near daily basis, as we've seen, is that it comes as no surprise that there's a gradation of opinion within the Cabinet on this issue, because I think that's no more a genuine reflection of the gradation of opinion within the country as a whole. And we've been seeking, as a party, with consistency, and with coherence and credibility I believe, to articulate that. And of course I'll be doing so at this conference, but equally I'm looking forward to doing so during the parliamentary recall, which we were, as you fairly say, at the forefront requesting when the House is reconvened on Tuesday.

DAVID FROST: And what will be your position now? Is it still that whatever happens there must be a UN blessing?

CHARLES KENNEDY: Yes we want to see the moral as well as the political authority of the United Nations remain paramount in all of this. That indeed was one of the last two questions that I put to Tony Blair just before the summer recess - the other being that the House of Commons, and there isn't a specific proposal this week coming before the House of Commons, but if we reach the stage at a later date, that there is a proposal involving, perhaps, the deployment of British troops, we will again be pressing for the House of Commons to be able to vote on the issue. But right now, we are some considerable way from that and the political and diplomatic pressure which we're seeing, for example, our representatives - our British representatives - in New York devoting their considerable talents and intelligence to at the moment, to secure agreement at UN level for the returns of the weapons inspectorate, that has to be priority number one.

DAVID FROST: And in terms Charles of the situation, if you were to oppose, if we were to go into Iraq, attack Iraq with the United States, without the specific blessing of the UN, and you would oppose that fiercely, but when, what would you do when the British troops and planes were actually risking their lives, their existence and so on? I mean would you, at that stage, rally round the flag, or what?

CHARLES KENNEDY: Well I think that the House of Commons has a long and a proud tradition of giving its support to British troops when they are carrying out the instructions of their political masters. But I think, equally, the House of Commons, and we've been hearing from some very senior, highly experienced and decorated British officers over recent weeks and months, that British troops also look to their parliamentarians to make wise judgements based on the best available evidence. And that's why those wise judgements can only be properly informed if the weapons inspectorate, under the mandate of the United Nations, are able to assess the position and if the Security Council, with Britain as permanent, fully participating member, is then able to reach decisions, perhaps involving a deadline being placed on the Iraqi regime. This must be the focus of the political activity at this stage, and not loose, and rather irresponsible, talk from other quarters about taking precipitate action now, almost irrespective of the evidence, or indeed the ramifications politically on an international basis.

DAVID FROST: But to fall out with the United States, is that a possibility? Would it be a mistake or might we have to?

CHARLES KENNEDY: Well I've always said, really since this time last year, that the role of Britain has to be that of a candid friend to the United States. And one of the defining characteristics of a candid friend, one who stands shoulder to shoulder with your friend, is that once in a while you're able to exercise a precautionary tap on that shoulder with some wise counsel and advice. Now I hope very much that the British Government, on all our behalfs, can continue to do that. Equally, the United States must recognise that the United Nations has to be the ultimate moral arbiter on this and that we don't want to see the, the role and the legitimacy of the United Nations undermined in any way.

DAVID FROST: In terms of Liberal Democrats, as you look ahead, do you really believe now that you could become the second largest party in parliament, or will that take a decade or two?

CHARLES KENNEDY: Well obviously in the course of the current parliament, based on the straight forward figures, we are some way short of being in that positions, vis--vis the Conservatives. But I think two things are happening on issues like Iraq, on issues like the future of public services - very important major debates going on at this conference here this week on the effective delivery of those public services at a local, democratically accountable level, now that we've won the argument for the extra investment to go in - and of course the Conservatives, by contrast, still oppose that extra investment going in. Now in all these things I think that we can be the more effective and responsible opposition and, on the domestic agenda, like the public services, as much as on the international agenda, like Iraq, I think we're speaking with a force and a persuasion and a seriousness which does mark us out as the more credible of the two opposition parties, and I want to see our party continue to maintain and build on that very valuable momentum.

DAVID FROST: If this week, or indeed the following week, a doubtful Labour voter and a doubtful Conservative voter came to you at the same moment and said "we're thinking of joining the Liberal Democrats what promises can you make about their policies," what would you say that would appeal to both of them? The Labour person and the Conservative person? Or would you say I think you should go into separate rooms?

CHARLES KENNEDY: No I certainly wouldn't say that. What I would say is very much in the tenor of what we said at the time of the last general election. It was significant, was it not, that on the same night, having campaigned on the same national manifesto up and down the land, we were winning seats off Labour, like Chesterfield, and seats off the Conservatives, like Guildford. That was because it was a coherent package of proposals. And what coherence appeals to people who perhaps in the past have tended to vote Labour or tended to vote Conservative, they both share a genuine anxiety, for example, about education; they will both be deeply concerned about the issues that you've just been discussing with Estelle Morris; they will both recognise that only one party, over several general elections, has been consistent and honest enough to say that if extra taxation was required for education, we would provide it. Equally, they are concerned at the other end of the spectrum about the fact that their elderly parents and relatives don't have the security of free, long-term personal care. The Liberal Democrats, as part of a coalition in Scotland, are providing it there. Again, the more of us you have in future parliaments, in future Houses of Commons, the more likely you will see that kind of social priority applying in England and Wales also. There is no contradiction between the two.

DAVID FROST: All right, the obvious thing after that, to say oh yes there is, and you say oh no there isn't, and the contradictions continue zipping and so on, there are votes coming up this week about whether instead of one in two MPs being a woman, it should be one in three, and an idea - or MEPs in that case - also at the same time the other thing is should the all-woman short lists be abolished and so on. Where do you stand on both of those issues?

CHARLES KENNEDY: Well I used to, before becoming party leader in fact, I was unpersuaded, personally, by positive discrimination. I think now the evidence of the last two parliaments is that you have got to take remedial action. If you really want - to go back to what we were discussing a moment ago - if you really want to be the effective opposition party in British politics and to represent more and more people in this country, you've got to look representative of the country. And the hard fact of the matter is that where women are concerned, we are not yet in elected positions, certainly in the House of Commons, it's better in the European Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament, but not the House of Commons, we are not effectively representative of over half the female - of over half the population - of this country. So I would like to see the party embrace some form - there are options of which specific form is the most practical - but some form of positive discrimination. Personally, I would probably go for one in two in terms of short lists, but that's up for discussion. The key thing is, we cannot sit to one side here and allow this situation to develop, I am absolutely determined about that.

DAVID FROST: And you've given up on electoral reform and a European referendum, haven't you, in this parliament?

CHARLES KENNEDY: No I've not given up on those. I think that the European referendum certainly seems to be slipping in terms of the convictions of the Government and the priority I believe they should be giving it. We will certainly continue to make that case as the most unambiguously pro-European of the parties - and after all we were the first of the three parties to actually call for a referendum on the issue itself. As far as voting reform is concerned, next year, after we have the diet of elections in May, local government elections, Welsh Assembly, Scottish Parliament, the Government is pledged in its last election manifesto - general election manifesto - to have a thorough review of all the voting systems now in use at every elected tier in Britain. Now we will be pushing them very hard to honour that pledge and obviously we will be extremely active participants in those discussions.

DAVID FROST: Well thank you very much for joining us Charles - by the way, has marriage changed you at all?

CHARLES KENNEDY: Well, I'm running more punctually and everybody keeps telling me I'm looking healthy and happy so I would recommend it, I should have done it years ago.

DAVID FROST: Charles thank you very much indeed.


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