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

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

DAVID FROST: Well it's good to have you with us. Overall, there's no doubt people said Tony Blair's new year message was too pessimistic, but in terms of your own party, you're in a much more upbeat mood.

CHARLES KENNEDY: Yes, I think we ended last year on a good note and we're beginning this year on an even better note. We've got our highest opinion poll ratings in over a decade, we've got the opportunity that we didn't have last year, apart from the local elections last May, where we got the highest ever share of the vote the party's achieved at 28 per cent, but this year we've got big elections, local authorities across England, plus of course the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. So there's a lot to be working for there as a party and I think that we're not going to be negative about the issues but carry on the way that we've been - be positive and ... other people's aspirations.

DAVID FROST: Do you think, you spoke of a seismic shift, do you think there is the real possibility of a total realignment of British politics, so have - people of talked of - a Blairite centre right party, a Charles Kennedy centre left party and then the two fringes. Is there possible - is that possible, a seismic shift? Was that what you had in mind?

CHARLES KENNEDY: Well there's a number of things. Obviously short of the voting system change, if the voting system changes then British politics becomes much more like continental mainstream politics, where you tend to have rather more extreme right wing parties. You have mainstream Christian democrat parties, if you like the kind of party that a Chris Patten would be in; you have our kind of liberal party, liberal stroke radical party, and then you have the social democrat tradition, in a way that Tony Blair would like to occupy, although strangely he confuses the picture by sometimes sending more and behaving more in his politics like a Christian democrat. So I think it's a very mixed picture but I do think what's happening, when I look back over the, the 20 years that I've been in the House of Commons, the big change is this: British society is changing rapidly, party allegiances aren't what they were. I mentioned the various levels of election, you could add in the Mayor of London. People might vote for me for the local MP, they might vote for the Scottish Nationalists for the Scottish Parliament. They might vote for red Ken last time round to become Mayor of London, they might have been quite happy for Tony Blair to get a second term as prime minister, and they will see no contradiction in that any more. I think that that kind of left-right ideology is increasingly out of date and we should be a party well placed to take advantage of those changes in the structure of society.

DAVID FROST: And so if you were feeling magnanimous and generous and so on, I mean what would be your advice at this moment, this difficult moment, to Iain Duncan Smith?

CHARLES KENNEDY: Well I think it's very difficult. I think that the problem is not Iain, personally, because we've seen the same problem under William, before him, to a certain extent even in government we saw the same problem under John Major. It is that ... Mrs Thatcher ceased to be leader of the Conservative Party, A) the Conservative Party has not been able, internally, to make its mind up what kind of party it is in this spectrum that we've just been discussing; and secondly, as a result, it really doesn't show much signs of being capable of being led by anybody. Now that is the essential difficulty and what a lot of people in politics are looking at now is they say well here's a Labour government in its sixth year, it's got a three figure majority, can't really be defeated in the House of Commons, we need a good opposition, an effective, credible opposition, we can't get it from the Conservatives because they're too busy opposing each other, and therefore it falls to the Liberal Democrats to try and fill that vacuum.

DAVID FROST: Well that takes us straight into Iraq, where you have a different point of view than the government, or certainly a different point of view to the Tories on this.


DAVID FROST: As we hear the stories and read the stories today that evidence is starting to come out, not necessarily conclusive yet, it is looking more and more likely that we're going to have to disarm Saddam forcibly, isn't it? And we should, presumably if those are the findings?

CHARLES KENNEDY: Well I think we all - I think we all want to see a world, short of these findings, in which we'd all be better off without a Saddam Hussein regime presiding over Iraq and the tyrannical behaviour that he represents for his own poor people, never mind for the rest of that region. But I don't think that the government are helping the case in this country, and the American administration even worse, by sending out such mixed messages. We are deploying British troops into the region at the moment, and they are not being given a clear idea - are they liable to be engaged in conflict or are they not? Sometimes the government seems to say it's all now but inevitable and yet we heard Charles Clarke, and we've heard a foreign office minister just over the last 24 hours, say it's by no means inevitable. Now what is the position? I think that the position can only be clear if you stick to the sort of principles that we set out 15 months ago and we have stuck to in the House of Commons. It must go through the weapons inspectorate and then the United Nations. That's where the moral and the political mandate must lie. And whilst they're doing their job, it's not helped by confused rhetoric from either Washington or London, which is trying to prejudge the issue one way or the other.

DAVID FROST: But if you had a situation where there was a veto from someone being awkward in the Security Council, otherwise there was a general feeling in favour, then, then in that situation surely we should act? We shouldn't let Saddam get off the hook just because somebody does a blocking veto, should we?

CHARLES KENNEDY: Well - there are a number of different scenarios and you could speculate from now until January 27th, and well beyond, what may happen. I think that the key thing is you stick to the principle of the United Nations having the authority, you allow the weapons inspectorate to do their job - now they've got to be unfettered within Iraq, but they shouldn't be fettered either by noises off on the international stage. And if we do reach the stage - under whatever circumstances - that it does look as if British troops are going to be have to asked to go into action, whether that's with a UN mandate, with a second resolution, whether that's backing the United States in a unilateral action, whether it's some other international coalition of interest, perhaps with the full authority of the UN Security Council, the British House of Commons must be able to record an affirmative vote on that issue.

DAVID FROST: But once the decision is taken, when our troops go there, rather like Michael Foot at the time of the Falklands -


DAVID FROST: - whatever your feelings, at that point you will close ranks and support it?

CHARLES KENNEDY: Well we must support our troops but we owe it to our troops in the House of Commons to give them a clear political direction. They will do a good job, we know that, in a patriotic way, and that's a very good thing that we benefit from in this country, but it begs so many questions. Let's suppose that there is a military conflict in Iraq - I hope there won't be but let's suppose there is - it will probably be successful, given the sheer weight of military superiority involved, not least the Americans, what happens then. Once successful, say Saddam is toppled or sent into exile or whatever, who is going to run Iraq in an interim administrative basis? And beyond that, who then takes over in a new Iraq? And what weaponry, conventional weaponry, are they going to be allowed to have? Now all these questions remain unanswered at the moment by ministers. And that's not good enough for the service personnel that are out there at the moment, any more than it is for domestic public opinion.

DAVID FROST: Two or three writers this week, have said that this could be another Suez. Do you think that's possible?

CHARLES KENNEDY: Well, obviously I very much hope not. Clearly the big difference with this is that in Suez, the whole crux of the or matter was that the Americans pulled the plug on the British. But I do think that what Tony Blair has got to do is to answer the question, if you like, the other way around: what would be the circumstances under which the British would find it impossible to go along with the Americans? And they keep sidestepping that question. That's the question people are asking in this country, and they're not getting a clear answer.

DAVID FROST: There's a, there's a demonstration against government policy in three weeks time. Could you imagine taking part in it?

CHARLES KENNEDY: Possibly, depending on the circumstances at that point. Hans Blix is saying at the moment that his report in New York, coming up on the 27th, will be of an interim, take stock, nature, because he thinks that the timetable needs to be extended. The Americans seem to be suggesting that might not be good enough. Now, it would be wrong for me to prejudge things when my plea to the British government and to the American administration, having decided to go down the UN route, is for themselves not to prejudge things, that would be an inconsistent position to adopt.

DAVID FROST: Immigration. Asylum.


DAVID FROST: You said very clearly in various statements and so on that asylum seekers should be given all necessary information, time and help to make their applications and so on.


DAVID FROST: The Daily Mail, The Sun and other newspapers, have been giving the whole subject of asylum seekers a hard time. And those, those accused of creating deadly chemicals in North London, once they were found to be asylum seekers, that's changed people's views as well, and there are calls for everyone who arrives in this country, without the proper entry documents or entry visas, to be put in some form of detention until the situation is clarified. That word, detention, is a anathema to you?

CHARLES KENNEDY: No, it's an emotive word, obviously. I mean people have got to be put in some kind of secure circumstances whereby you can assimilate them, you can determine what their circumstances really are. I mean there's a big practical as well as ethical set of problems here. If somebody arrives in Britain without documentation but they've flown from some war torn area of civil strife or persecution, then you might not expect us all to have packed out toothbrush, our passport, our necessary papers in such circumstances, if they're running for their lives. And equally, I think what you've got to remember about the professionally organised terrorist is that they're more likely not to go down an asylum and immigration route, which will open them up to all those kind of questions. They're likely to be suitably well financed on an international basis -

DAVID FROST: Although they were asylum seekers at -

CHARLES KENNEDY: Yes. I mean there are obviously different circumstances for each one. But a year ago we had a whole series of debates, we were able to temper them tabled in the Commons and the Lords, some of what we saw as the more excessive anti-civil libertarian instincts of David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, on this, and at that point the government were arguing that these were necessary measures which would deal with the problem. Well we weren't sure if they were necessary measures, but one thing's for certain, they haven't properly yet dealt with the problem.

DAVID FROST: But there's a change in the mood, I think, don't you detect that to a certain extent? The fact that we don't seem, a despair that we don't seem to be able to track these people down or keep track of them is very worrying to people.

CHARLES KENNEDY: It is worrying to people and, as I say, there's a lot of quite emotive coverage on this. But I do think that you've got to address the issue rationally, and you've got to reassure people that the House of Commons, in general, the government in particular, is aware of the situation. But you've also got to keep it in context that the vast majority of people seeking refuge in our country, as they have historically over decades and centuries, are here for probably the worst reasons in the country that they're leaving and the very best reasons our country represents internationally.

DAVID FROST: What do you feel about, the subject we were talking about with Charles Clarke earlier on, the new bill about student tuition fees?

CHARLES KENNEDY: Well it's been a long time a-coming. They first promised this one year ago and it's been delayed and delayed and delayed and we've seen Estelle Morris resigning in the process and so on and so forth. I think that if the government, and we have not got all the details yet and that's quite right, Charles will be making a statement to the House of Commons first in a couple of days time, but if the government is going down a broadly Scottish route, the kind of route the Liberal Democrat ministers have implemented there for the Scottish universities, that's clearly better than the status quo we've got in England and Wales at the moment. But there are still very big question marks outstanding here and I think that he will still find there is major unhappiness and criticism, not just from our benches but as he's well aware, as you were pointing out to him, from Labour benchers as well.

DAVID FROST: And we can't leave without asking you the vital question, how has marriage changed Charles Kennedy?

CHARLES KENNEDY: Well I'm a much happier person. I don't think I was ever a particularly gloomy person in times gone by but much happier, very content. Sarah and myself are enjoying it all greatly and coming back to what you said to me at the outset, kindly about croaking a bit today, I've only missed two Prime Minister's Questions in the three years I've been leader. One is having flu this past week and the other one was my honeymoon, and I want to assure you that I do not put either on the same basis.

DAVID FROST: They're very different.

CHARLES KENNEDY: One is incredibly preferable to the other.

DAVID FROST: But they both involve spending a great deal of time in bed.

CHARLES KENNEDY: You may say that, I couldn't possibly comment.

DAVID FROST: Thank you very much indeed.


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