Charles Kennedy’s stance against Iraq was a great moment for politics
I met Charles Kennedy many times. He was a remarkable politician with all the gifts: a great communicator, strong principles and great charisma.
But his finest moment was in 2003. That was the year when he was the only mainstream political leader to come out against the Iraq war.?
In some ways it was a straightforward decision. Some politicians who supported the war now cover their embarrassment by claiming that “we did not know then what we know now” or “the real problem was the post-invasion arrangements”. But actually, the facts were clear at the time. The pretext for war was the existence of stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. However, more than once, the last UN weapons inspector to Iraq, Scott Ritter, came to parliament to explain that, when he left Iraq, he was confident that all the weapons of mass destruction had been eliminated. He always added that the possible exception was some chemical weapons, but that they would have deteriorated by now. So nobody who had paid attention all along was surprised when no weapons of mass destruction were actually discovered after the ill-fated invasion.
A desperate Tony Blair got his PR man Alastair Campbell to produce the notorious “dodgy dossier”. This was supposed to contain the case for war. But the dossier was just that – completely dodgy – with no new facts. It was a pretext for voting for war, not a fact-based argument.
But politically opposing the war was still a very hard decision for Charles Kennedy to take. This was because of the pressures on him. You have to have been in parliament at the time to know that there were strong rumours the Lib Dems would in fact come out for the war because senior, and much more establishment-minded, Lib Dem figures were pressing him to do so. The argument was that a serious party had to ultimately close ranks with the rest of the British establishment and get behind our armed forces.
So you cannot overstate Charles Kennedy’s bravery in finally coming to the right decision. I was on the huge “Stop the War” march and rally. It was the biggest ever and on the platform at the end was Charles Kennedy. He was not a regular on left platforms, but his determination and convictions shone through and the crowd loved him for it.
The Labour party is now in the midst of leadership and mayoral selections. Most of the candidates supported the Iraq war, so try to pretend that it was all long ago and not relevant to anything. But the Iraq war is still undoubtedly relevant in geopolitical terms. Much of the bloodshed and killing we see in the region was precipitated by it. In terms of domestic politics, where you stood on the Iraq war is a test of both your principles and your judgment. And these remain relevant issues for leadership in any party.
Charles Kennedy’s decision to come out against the Iraq war was a great moment for him. It was also a great moment for his party, which went on to get its best ever result in a UK election. But it was also a great moment for Westminster democracy. For one brief, shining moment people saw a party leader ignore the spin doctors and take a decision purely on principle. If more of my fellow politicians were prepared to do this, people’s confidence in Westminster would be so much greater.