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Breakfast with Frost
On Sunday, 27 July 2003, Breakfast with Frost featured an interview with Charles Kennedy, Liberal Democrat Leader.

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

Charles Kennedy MP
The BBC will continue long after this government

PETER SISSONS: Now, three months after the conflict in Iraq ended, it continues to have a profound effect on politics here in Britain.

The debate about weapons of mass destruction, the row between the government and the BBC, the death of Dr. David Kelly, all have ensured that the war remains decisive and controversial.

The Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy voted against military action and was the only one of the main party leaders to speak of the huge anti-war demonstration earlier this year.

Charles Kennedy joins us now. Charles, good morning. You must feel pretty vindicated in your opposition to the war?

CHARLES KENNEDY: Well I think we were correct to ask the pertinent questions. That needed to be put forward in parliament. We did so because we believed it.

As I said to my colleagues at the time, this is the line we should take because we believe it to be the correct line. Parliament needs to hear this case being put forward. But even if it proves to be wrong, or even if it proves to be unpopular we should do it.

Now it's proved to be neither so far, but I don't think vindication is the right word because lives have been lost and where we are now really in all of this, it is about trying to build the peace.

PETER SISSONS: You must accept the world is a better place without Saddam Hussein and without his sons who can chop people down the middle, supervise mass decapitations and feed people to the lions, as in the Sunday Times story today.

CHARLES KENNEDY: No sane or sensible person can possibly object to that. We're well rid of that kind of horrific totalitarian regime. The issue really is in the global perspective, could we have achieved on a more peaceful basis, the regime change that everybody welcomes without all the damage being done internationally, without the massive loss of life of Iraqi citizens themselves and without the fragility ...

PETER SISSONS: You don't think that Saddam & Co. could have been got out by diplomatic means, do you?

CHARLES KENNEDY: Well, I think that if the weapons inspectors had been allowed to run their course and of course WMD have not been turned up in any significance thus far.

That's not to say they might not come across something yet, I've never ruled out that possibility. But had the possibility of containment been pursued, allied to a beefed-up United Nations presence, which was on the table effectively, then you might well have seen the internal pressure within that country building.

And that I think longer term for Middle Eastern and global politics would have been better. But we are where we are.

PETER SISSONS: We're going through turbulent political times here.

CHARLES KENNEDY: We certainly are.

PETER SISSONS: How much is riding on the outcome of Lord Hutton's enquiry?

CHARLES KENNEDY: I think quite a lot.

PETER SISSONS: The future of ministers, prime ministers?

CHARLES KENNEDY: Well I think that certainly the future of ministers, perhaps civil servants at senior level within departments, not least the Ministry of Defence, these will all be very much held to public scrutiny.

Equally there will be hard decisions to be taken at the top level of the BBC as well. Because, as we've seen from Gavin Davies, the chairman's article in the Telegraph today, there are very strong views there within the BBC sincerely held as well, about its role and its independence in all of this. So yes, big ramifications.

PETER SISSONS: The polls show that the people are losing trust fast in the Prime Minister. Have you lost trust in Tony Blair?

CHARLES KENNEDY: Well I wouldn't say on a personal level I've lost trust. I went out of my way to ...

PETER SISSONS: Do you believe him when he tells you something over the despatch box?

CHARLES KENNEDY: I would say the despatch box is perhaps not the most truthful of environments in politics, it has to be said.

PETER SISSONS: You wouldn't be allowed to say that in the House of Commons.

CHARLES KENNEDY: You'd have to put it in parliamentary prose before the speaker called you up. But I think that on a personal level, no I've never questioned Tony Blair's sincerity.

I don't do so now, but I do think that the damage that has been done and it is corrosive, is profound for him personally, is for the government. It is for all of us in the political business. And that's way, really, the quicker this spat, for example, between the BBC and the government, moves on the better.

And I think that the government are very unwise to allow themselves to be portrayed as somehow calling into question the independence of the BBC. That's a big mistake.

This government will come and go like any other government but the BBC is here to say as an independent broadcasting organisation on a global level and ministers would do well to remember that.

PETER SISSONS: Any government can undermine the BBC's independence, that's what the BBC chairman is on about today in the newspapers.

He attacks the government, he accuses the government of attacking the BBC's integrity because it takes a different view on editorial matters from the government and its supporters. I mean he calls it political bullying. Would that be your assessment too?

CHARLES KENNEDY: I think that the government do run the risk of being perceived in that way and although politicians and journalists don't always between us score the highest ratings in public esteem, when asked to choose most members of the public will choose an institution like the BBC on the trust factor, more than any particular set of politicians or any given government of the day.

Now, those in and around No. 10 Downing Street might do well to remember that fact.

PETER SISSONS: Well, also this morning Peter Hain enters the argument again, blaming the media for being obsessed with sound bites interpreted by spin, a self-indulgent obsession with process not substance which breeds cynicism which is corrosive of democracy.

CHARLES KENNEDY: That's a very good thumbnail sketch of the last six years of all that this government's been doing. Indeed, even before they came to office. There's a great temptation in life isn't there, always, blame the messenger. In political life there's a great temptation not just to blame, but to shoot the messenger.

I think the government would be better reminded to keep things in perspective. There are probably more people sitting round their breakfast table with this programme on the television this morning, taking about John Fashanu than they're talking about Alastair Campbell. And this Westminster obsession with these internal, in-house stories, rather than the bigger picture which actually should engage people in politics, that is being lost in the process.

PETER SISSONS: Then you agree entirely with what else Peter Hain is saying. He says that if we don't burst this Westminster bubble and bring more integrity into public life we will all go down together. So you would at least agree with him on that.

CHARLES KENNEDY: Well I should be generous on a Sunday morning and heaven should rejoice of a sinner repenting, but you know Peter Hain has gone quite a way up the greasy pole in this government himself, presumably benefiting from some of these more questionable arts that have been employed by this government and if he's now trying to make a virtue of the fact that he's seen the light good and well.

A lot of this, you know, reminds me of when the late John Smith and in a very untimely fashion very tragically died, there was a great debate in the media, in parliament, that we needed to raise the tone, change the nature of the debate and so on and so forth. And people soon began to fall back into their old ways.

I suspect the same will happen again and the longer they do that the longer politicians don't give the impression that they're answering the question that they're more obsessed with personalities than actually the issues on schools and hospitals and pensions that concern people, the more people will turn away.

I'm determined that certainly for what I can do and we can do as a party, the Liberal Democrats, we're not going to fall foul of that.

PETER SISSONS: Now, the polls, though, the YouGov poll last week I believe was the latest to show that Labour's invincible electability and the Prime Minister's public trust is wobbling if not severely undermined.

The public finances now are being questioned in a big way by eminent commentators. Why aren't the Lib Dems cashing in on all this? Are you feeling a groundswell of support, Kennedy for Downing Street?

CHARLES KENNEDY: Yes, I do hear a groundswell of support. I never get excessively euphoric about polls and I never get excessively depressed about them either.

The thing that strikes me most about the polls is that we've been coming in solidly above 20% for a long time now. This is our highest ratings, sustained ratings, really since the party was formed.

This year we got 30% at the local national elections in Scotland Wales and England in May. So things are going well. But one swallow doesn't make a summer. I'm a cautious type.

And we've got to go out there and make our fortune by being persuasive, by arguing what we believe in, as we did over Iraq and people will respond.

PETER SISSONS: If, at the next general election Labour does squeak in again. Well, they didn't squeak in last time, but if they squeaked in because of all their troubles.

CHARLES KENNEDY: Well they didn't have a very big percentage here of the vote. Nothing like a majority.

PETER SISSONS: But say they needed Liberal Democrat support. You've flirted with them previously on joint committees, on proportional representation, all that sort of stuff. Back in to bed with Labour?

CHARLES KENNEDY: I don't think so somehow. Under my watch this party is prospering on an independent campaigning basis, based on our policies, based on the personnel that we've put before the public, not just me but plenty others based upon the philosophy that underpins that.

We would be daft at this stage in the parliament to start getting confused in the public's mind by spending all our time talking about other brands that are on offer.

I'm here to sell liberal democracy as the relevant approach to modern Britain and that's what we're going to do.

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See also:

27 Jul 03 | Politics
Blair 'staying for third term'
27 Jul 03 | Politics
BBC hits back in Kelly row

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