Charles Kennedy: You Ask The Questions

Obviously, the circumstances of my departure as party leader were regrettable
? but for all included. I’m not someone who dwells upon past events, taking
the view that life is too short. And since my resignation speech at the
time, I’ve chosen not to offer any further comment on either the individuals
or the issues involved. That remains the position. I’ve long since moved on
and would continue to advise everyone else to do exactly the same. Since
being leader I’ve served a term as vice-president of Liberal International,
as well as currently being both president of the European Movement in
Britain and rector of the University of Glasgow. I’m more than occupied.

Has Nick Clegg disappointed you as leader of the Liberal Democrats? Annie
Rand, Durham

I think that former leaders are best seen occasionally and not too often heard
? particularly on the subject of their successors! Having said that, I think
Nick is proving an excellent party leader: he thinks ahead and is prepared
to take risks, both essential characteristics. David Steel once observed
that if you’re not prepared to live a little dangerously as our leader then
the bigger risk is that you don’t live at all. I agree with him.

We face a daily disproportionate struggle to be noticed and to be heard amidst
the clamour of a reporting system which, by instinct, wants to view British
politics through a two-party prism. These days it’s anything but, yet the
media remains behind the voters in recognising that reality. The next
general election offers ? at last ? the prospect of leaders’ debates. I
would have loved the opportunity of the equal status which that will afford
us. It will be a big chance for Nick to capitalise upon ? and I’m sure he
will.

Is life on the backbenches better than being in the limelight the whole
time? Don’t you miss influencing public debate?
Katherine Moore, Lancaster

Michael Howard wrote to me at the time and advised that I would soon discover
just how much life there was to be had after leadership. He was correct. In
professional terms I have much more control these days over my diary and am
enjoying focusing on the things I really want to do, rather than the things
you’re told you have to do. What remains much misunderstood from the outside
world is the sheer extent to which our leader is immensely embroiled on a
daily basis on what are important but essentially internal (and therefore
inward-looking) party matters. I think there is a healthier relationship
between the role of Lib Dem leader and the membership than you would
probably encounter in the Labour and Tory parties, which is positive, but it
comes at that price. As we continue to grow in significance and power, ways
have to be found to maintain the good aspects of that relationship, while
cutting the leader more time and slack to focus on communicating the message
to the wider world.

For myself, I think I continue to enjoy internal influence and now have other
outside platforms which offer influence in other ways. There are no shortage
of invitations and opportunities; it’s just up to yourself how best you
choose to exploit them. Although to be used sparingly, I have yet to
experience a phone call to anyone which has gone without reply.

Why is your party completely wasting the talents of more experienced people
like you, Ming Campbell and Paddy Ashdown? You’ve got a bunch of neophytes
in your Cabinet.
Kim Mundy, Hull

I just don’t recognise that description of our Shadow Cabinet. On a one-to-one
basis they’re every bit as capable and more than their Labour and
Conservative opposite numbers. And I don’t think that other former leaders
would feel that their abilities go untapped ? in parliament and in the wider
party. Any party needs a blend of youth and experience; despite the
iniquities of the electoral system we’re fortunate from among our
Westminster ranks to have a good reservoir in both categories. It’s also
worth bearing in mind that the next general election will be curious in that
the incumbency factor ? at least for some ? will not necessarily be seen as
a potential, in-built advantage. So, a fresher appeal can serve us well, and
the context of this coming campaign will also serve to help keep the more
long-serving among us on our toes. No bad thing, either.

Are you aware that the mess your party made of conference season
disappointed all those looking to you as a serious alternative to Labour?
Barbara
Smethwick, Woking

Not for the first time in history, what was written up as a rocky-ish party
conference was followed by a rise in our opinion-poll ratings to some of
their best levels in a long time. The alchemy of these things never ceases
to confound. It’s my view, based on what we built steadily across the 2001
and 2005 elections, that we are now in prime position to challenge Labour in
many seats where we are today the established challenger. That requires
straight-talking nationally about social priorities based upon properly
costed proposals. You can’t make an omelette without first cracking eggs.

David Cameron has said that on civil liberties, the environment, and social
justice there is no difference between his party and yours. He’s basically
right. So why would anyone vote Liberal Democrat now?
Matthew Almond,
Reading

I could answer here at policy length, so allow me instead to offer a more
general observation. David Cameron ? whom I both like and respect ? has been
a good leader for his party in that he was wise enough to identify the
inescapable need to “decontaminate” the Tory (sorry, “Conservative”)
brand. Step forward civil liberties, environmentalism, social justice, et
al. And he is an effective salesman in communicating that strategy. So far,
so good, you might well say.

The problem is that there’s a world of difference between tactical
repositioning and genuine conversion of a political movement to new causes.
The latter is simply not there. And, on Europe, where Cameron has had
genuine political influence and power to exercise over his party, the
outcome has been completely counter-productive. The alternative approaches
offered by the Tories and ourselves are very clear-cut indeed.

Public schoolboy, ruddy cheeks, young family, brown hair, cares about the
poor. Would you say that fits David Cameron or Nick Clegg better?
Timothy
Ayres, Oxford

These sorts of superficial similarities can always be pointed to in public
life. The same sorts of observations were being made when Nick was
contesting the party leadership against Chris Huhne. I don’t think they
matter for much. As a matter of fact, Nick’s background and career is
remarkably different to David Cameron. To take an obvious example, Nick
worked for Leon Brittan when the latter was an EU Commissioner; David worked
with Norman Lamont as Chancellor. You don’t require much imagination to work
out which must have been the happier, more constructive experience. Nick
understands Europe; David clearly does not.

Why are our troops in Afghanistan, propping up drug lords and a corrupt
government? And why don’t the Lib Dems make political capital out of saying
we should pull our troops out?
Nicola Sharpton, Cardiff

It’s often overlooked that we supported the intervention in Afghanistan from
the outset, when I was leader. Indeed, a related issue in our opposition to
the war in Iraq was precisely because it would divert from the more globally
pressing issues in Afghanistan, notably terrorism and drugs. The tragedy
subsequently has been the way in which successive redefinitions of our aims
and purposes in Afghanistan have all been made with insufficient attention
or priority being given to explaining such objectives to a domestic
audience. Now we’re playing catch-up.

I think that the party’s approach has been correct in asking the probing
questions that need to be asked at this juncture, not suspending our
critical faculties but not jumping our fences either. If the US President
can ponder long and hard, then it’s no disgrace for us to be doing the same.
Never equate opposing a military engagement, even one which is proving
controversial and unpopular in many quarters, with the making of some
illusory political capital. Not only would such an approach be wrong in
principle, it could well turn out to be quite unlike what you might have
anticipated.

I was convinced that we were correct on grounds of principle over Iraq;
equally ? and privately at the time ? I thought that we might end up paying
a heavy electoral price for our stance. I was correct in one judgement and
wrong in the other. The point never to lose sight of is to be guided by the
correct thing, as you see it. It’s the only way to approach such profound
matters and retain your integrity.

Would you like to host your very own chatshow called ‘Chatshow Charlie’ and
who would you first three guests be? I thought you were very good on Have
I Got News for You.
Jeff Downs, Manchester

Jeff, thank you. I’ve always thought HIGNFY is one of the most seriously good
of television programmes, because it informs, educates and entertains in the
spirit of the original BBC Reithian principles. I was touched, earlier this
year, when it received an award for its 20th successful year, and the team
asked me along to make the presentation. I’m next due to appear over the
first weekend in December. I hanker after someday making a series which
focuses on leadership across a spectrum of public life and have a clear view
as to those with whom I’d like to discourse. But that’s a thought on the
back-burner at present.

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