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Monday, 24 September, 2001, 15:59 GMT 16:59 UK
A tricky balancing act in Bournemouth
Charles Kennedy
Nick Assinder

This was one of the most important speeches a Liberal Democrat leader has ever made.

Charles Kennedy took the stage on the opening day of his party's annual conference sharply aware that his leadership would be irrevocably defined by how he positioned himself over the looming war with terrorism.

There will be particularly difficult dilemmas ahead...a gauging between the balance of the liberty of the individual against the threat that the terrorist presents to that very liberty

Charles Kennedy
His task was to flow with the tide of public opinion - which is demanding draconian action against terrorism - while, at the same time, remaining true to liberal values of civil liberties and human rights.

And, in a carefully crafted speech, he offered support for the action likely to be taken by President Bush and Tony Blair.

But he was also careful to insist he would draw the line at measures that would compromise individual liberties or unnecessarily risk the lives of British servicemen.

And he repeated his insistence that there should be no blank cheques issued to the US.

Resolute and in tune

In a key part of his statement, he highlighted the harsh choices facing his party.

"There will be particularly difficult dilemmas ahead for our party.

"Those difficulties will involve a gauging between the balance of the liberty of the individual against the threat that the terrorist presents to that very liberty."

And this was precisely the problem he was attempting to address.

He wanted to place himself at the head of those urging caution and diplomacy, while still appearing resolute and in tune with public opinion.

It was a difficult tightrope to walk, but he appeared to pull it off.

Hawkish statements

The most remarkable aspect of his speech was the response it received from his audience.

His talk of a "measured and appropriate" military response did not draw the howls of opposition which may once have been expected from a Liberal Democrat conference.

Instead he won applause for more hawkish statements about striking at the heart of international terrorism.

This appeared to be yet another example of the extraordinary political unity that has been forged in the wake of the terror attacks on the US.

But Mr Kennedy is well aware of the fact that there is a substantial body of opinion - particularly within his own party - deeply fearful of the consequences of an all-out war with terrorism.

He hopes his speech has given voice to those concerns while, at the same time, maintaining the consensus building against international terrorism.

If he has succeeded in doing that he will have strengthened his leadership of his party.

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