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Last Updated: Sunday, 16 May, 2004, 11:43 GMT 12:43 UK
Super Thursday
On Sunday, 16 May 2004, Sir David Frost interviewed Charles Kennedy, MP, Leader of the Liberal Democrats

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

Charles Kennedy, MP, Leader of the Liberal Democrats
Charles Kennedy, MP, Leader of the Liberal Democrats

DAVID FROST: On June 10th, Super Thursday, voters will go to the polls in a trio of important elections for the European Parliament, for the local councils in England and Wales, and in London for the City's Mayor.

It will be a big test of opinion for the main party leaders and over the next three weeks we'll be talking to all three of them.

The Prime Minister, Michael Howard and, this morning, Charles Kennedy. Charles Kennedy's party, the Liberal Democrats, launched their campaign for the local elections last week. The Lib Dems are hoping that widespread anger at big council tax increases will translate into votes for them.

The party wants to scrap the council tax and replace it with a system of local income tax. After his recent bout of illness, the Lib Dem leader has been campaigning energetically. And the other issue he's keen to highlight is Iraq.

The European elections, he said, will be a chance for voters to pass their verdict on that war.

Charles Kennedy is here with me, pass verdict on that war, is that the main issue, or is the main issue these upcoming elections, the council tax, or what?


DAVID FROST: Oh I haven't said good morning. Good morning Charles.

CHARLES KENNEDY: Right, well I think the issue about Iraq obviously is that it overhangs everything else in British politics and British public opinion, understandably so.

But yes, you're quite right, when it comes to the local elections the council tax is a very important issue. When you look at the European elections and the local elections, one of the things that we're stressing is environmental policy, green initiatives.

This is a way of demonstrating, for example, that at a European level you can have more emphasis on the environment because pollution doesn't know national boundaries.

So countries have got to work together. Equally, at a local council level, you can bring the environment right down to a domestic or a community level, what people do about recycling can make their own contribution. So there are different issues. But you're right, Iraq obviously is a predominant anxiety for everybody.

DAVID FROST: And where, where do you think, in his curve Tony Blair is now? We hear all these things today about him considering stepping down before the next election. Unlikely, probably, but very strong scenario this weekend. You see him regularly, I mean not just on the floor of the House of Commons. Does he seem to you to be a man who's wanting to step aside? I would have thought not, but maybe he does.

CHARLES KENNEDY: I don't see him that regularly. But the conversations that party leaders inevitably have with each other on day to day business, or concerns that you should be talking about, it doesn't strike me in that fashion either.

But I would be concerned given the gravity of the situation in Iraq, if the Prime Minister, now I hope he's not, was thinking about his own fate rather than the fate of the British troops there and the dangerous position they're in. And of course, the fate of the innocent Iraqis who've been losing their lives in thousands as this conflict continues.

DAVID FROST: Absolutely, politically do you want him to stay? Would a new leader, with a new honeymoon, be more difficult?

CHARLES KENNEDY: I have a golden rule which is, I don't take particularly kindly to giving advice to other party leaders about my position, and so I apply the same self denying ordnance where they're concerned. That's a matter for the Labour Party, I just concern myself about Liberal Democrats.

DAVID FROST: But would you rather run against Tony Blair or Gordon Brown?

CHARLES KENNEDY: Well I would rather run for the Liberal Democrats myself, that is my basic position. And I don't think that political parties if they've got a self-confidence in themselves, should be overly concerned, and certainly shouldn't be tailoring their approach to suit whoever happens to be the leader of another political party.

I mean, we've seen this and recent experience with the Conservatives - Iain Duncan-Smith came and went. We've read a lot a few months ago, oh well, it's back to two party politics now Michael Howard's here, and all the rest of it. That's the end of the Liberal Democrats.

What's happened, Conservatives are feeling a bit more self-confident about themselves. Mind you, that could hardly be otherwise given the state they were in. But the Liberal Democrat national rating is still there, healthily above 20%. We're being told these elections with the biggest national sustained level of support that we ever have. Now I think the outcome can be very good for us and very good for British politics.

DAVID FROST: In that way that's the balance there as you see it. And what about, what about on Europe. I thought your latest document showed a sort of, a slight modifying of your position, in the sense that you're now, your red lions are really the same as Tony Blair's red lions, aren't they now really?

CHARLES KENNEDY: Oh we were always very clear. We agree with the government on this but when it comes to issues of tax, defence, the commitment of British troops, social security, these big items - the House of Commons has to retain national control over these matters.

When, on other issues, and I mentioned pollution earlier, it makes sense for countries to co-operate, that's something that we would embrace. We're in Europe but we're in Europe and we want to see Britain engaged at the heart of Europe so that we can bring about the necessary reforms that make sense. I stand for election to the House of Commons, have done over the last 21 years now.

I don't agree with the basis upon which it's elected, I don't agree with a lot of the decisions it arrives at, I don't agree with the way that it goes about arriving at some of those decisions. But that's not to say that I'm a whole-hearted participant because I want to reform it for the better. That should be our attitude to Europe.

DAVID FROST: Would you on Europe, would you if there was a referendum on the Constitution, would you go shoulder to shoulder, to use a phrase that's been used in another context this week - Tony Blair and George Bush. But, shoulder to shoulder with Tony Blair? Campaigning together on occasions?

CHARLES KENNEDY: Well I wouldn't like to think that if I was shoulder to shoulder with Tony Blair that it would be in quite the way that Tony Blair is shoulder to shoulder with George Bush at the moment. I think that will be an unhappy comparison.

But if we were to have a referendum on a sensible constitution which I think and hope can be achieved shortly, then obviously you will want an all party campaign. But equally important, not just the politicians, the formal party politicians and I will happily work with Conservatives like Michael Heseltine and Ken Clarke as I have in the past. I will happily work with Tony Blair, Gordon Brown or whoever. But equally I want to see people coming in from outside politics, from other walks of life, because I think that would send a very persuasive signal to people.

DAVID FROST: Why has the anti-European lobby, it's more than a lobby, got such support. Seemingly is that partially because there's been too little campaigning by all of you who are on the other side? I mean how can you, how can you win a constitution in that way?

CHARLES KENNEDY: Well, what's happened here is that really since they came to power, the very handbook that Labour used in opposition for themselves, you don't win elections in three or four weeks, it takes three or four years of hard work and persuasion, and graft.

That's been cast to one side on Europe. They've gone fairly quiet on the issue, they've allowed the antis to have most of the run, obviously those of a sceptical disposition have got a lot of backing in the press. And we launched Britain in Europe, all the people I mentioned, whichever parties including myself, and then nothing happened. And we've really got to learn from that lesson.

We've got to go out there and start making a broad pro-European case now. And the issue we've got to get over to a lot of those watching this programme who are perhaps not pathologically anti-Europe, but are a bit concerned about things, it's, look, a constitution's a good idea if it bolts down what Europe can do, and what Europe can't do. Now we haven't got that at the moment, so if I was sceptical, which I'm not, I'm a Euro enthusiast obviously, I would in fact welcome this development because it makes life a lot clearer.

DAVID FROST: And what about the point that we were touching upon earlier, coming back to the, we've talking about Europe in these elections, we've mentioned Iraq in these elections. We didn't just cover one point that I was thinking about which was what Geoff Hoon was saying about the troops, about more troops.

Do you think there could or should be more troops - double one paper says, but he doesn't know where that comes from? Do you think there should be some more troops, and do you think there should be no more troops without a specific vote in the House of Commons? What do you feel about that, assuming the commanders obviously say they need some?

CHARLES KENNEDY: Absolutely, that's the first and most important thing. If the British commanders in the field request more troops for the reasons of maintaining the work that they're obliged to do as one of the coalition occupying forces, and for the safety of our existing troops, then obviously any government would give that very serious consideration.

However, that is very different indeed from saying that we will expand dramatically either the geography or field of operations outside where we are at the moment, or that we'd place ourselves under American control in those areas, because some of the excursions, the counter-insurgency activities of the Americans.

And General Sir Mike Jackson has made this clear himself quite recently, they have a very different approach to the British approach in these matters. And we felt with rather disastrous consequences, rather than being seen as liberators, we're now seen as an occupying force. I was disappointed to hear Geoff Hoon, as Tony Blair has in the past, link terrorists and fanatics as the people causing all these problems. Of course there are terrorists and fanatics. But if you are innocent women and children and you're being bombed from the skies by American helicopters because of the present of some terrorists and fanatics, that's just going to radicalise ordinary peace-loving Iraqi civilians.

Now that is something we must guard against. Tomorrow there's a debate in the House of Commons, it's a Liberal Democrat debate on this situation. That's the first proper debating opportunity for some time, that the Commons has to be consulted about this and I hope Geoff Hoon and others will listen carefully.

DAVID FROST: So you think there should be some tighter rules of engagement, for instance in the area that you just said, tighter rules?

CHARLES KENNEDY: We need tighter rules of engagement and, in addition to that, we should certainly not rule out the fact particularly if the government in a few weeks' time was to come forward and say we're putting more British troops in.

But to go beyond the remit and the understanding that they're therefore at the moment I think Parliament would want to speak on that, and it would be almost untenable that Parliament was not given the opportunity to speak on that.

DAVID FROST: And what would your exit strategy be then? Robin Cook's exit strategy today is to get out after June 30th. Colin Powell says if we're asked to go, although it's probably unlikely that we would be asked to go by the people who would be in power, that we would go. What would be your exit strategy? Can you in fact get out of there while there's no sign of internal peace?

CHARLES KENNEDY: Well, the best long-term hope at the moment for internal peace and stability, has to be the United Nations in the form of Mr. Brahimi and what he hopes to be able to put together in the run-up to June 30th and beyond. Now we've always said the more you can internationalise the situation in Iraq through the auspices of the United Nations, the better it will be.

But I think at this stage to set arbitrary limits while that process, that political process is still going on, would probably be ill-judged. That's what we should be working to. It was a tragedy that the United Nations was set to one side by the British and the Americans at the time, and it will remain a tragedy until the United Nations becomes part of the solution of what we're trying to achieve.

DAVID FROST: And is Iraq a campaign issue or is it just a judgemental issue? I mean are you actually going to campaign on Iraq?

CHARLES KENNEDY: Well I think it's both actually. And for this reason a million people took to the streets of Britain. I addressed that rally, saying not in our name in the build-up to the war. We had not given the weapons inspectors the further time that was required. We were not allowing the United Nations to fulfil its remit at that point. Then we went to war, we spoke, we voted against it. We wouldn't have had this war, we wouldn't be here now, if we'd had our way.

Given that what's since happened, people feel that their views have been ignored by the government, despite expressing them peacefully in such huge numbers. And they look at a British government acting on behalf of our country, getting ever closer, apparently uncritically, with a very divisive and increasingly dangerous Bush Administration in the States, whilst at the same time we seem to be getting distanced from our principal European allies notably France and Germany.

They feel anxious about that. Well the European elections are an international election and that has to be the best democratic forum to send a real signal to Tony Blair. And everything I hear on non-stop touring round the country is that's what people are going to do.

DAVID FROST: And in conclusion Charles, how's the health situation? We read about it all the time. You must be fed up to the back teeth with it, but we said there, campaigning energetically at the moment - and you look pretty energetic this morning.


DAVID FROST: Bounded in here this morning. But, so you're in rude health?

CHARLES KENNEDY: I'm in rude good health. I like election campaigns, the joke at the time of the Brent by election was that I was paying the council tax in Brent I was spending so much time there campaigning. I hope if there's a future election I'll be paying a local income tax which will be a lot fairer. The last general election we clocked up more miles that either Tony Blair or William Hague.

These local elections, European Elections, and the Mayor for London election in support of Simon Hughes doing exactly the same. The adrenalin is flowing and I hope the votes will be flowing in our direction too.

DAVID FROST: Are you a football fan, and if so for whom?

CHARLES KENNEDY: I am a football fan and I have divided affections. I've got Ross County and Inverness Caladonian Thistle.

And at the risk of losing the vote of every Arsenal supporter watching, the big news in British football yesterday was that Inverness Caladonian Thistle won promotion to the Scottish Premier League. So I hope we can take our place subject to negotiations, at the top table.

NB: this transcript was typed from a recording and not copied from an original script.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.

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