Political pragmatist or principled objector?

first_imgCharles Kennedy says he is an idealist, but does his foreign policy tally with this? There is no doubt that opposition to Iraq gave the Liberal Democrats credibility and support, particularly among students, yet that strength of purpose is now missing. Surely Iraq gave Kennedy a unique mandate to attack the Prime Minister on trust, and the ability to expose his failings as a leader out of touch with his nation? Yet today there is a deafening silence. The Liberal Democrats’ greatest weapon is impotent, Iraq has been reduced to background noise. Where did it all go wrong, or are we waiting for something that was unlikely to happen?More than any other group, the Liberal Democrat war stance enticed students to the third party. Kennedy quotes Gladstone while arguing that his political creed is based upon “having faith in people and what they can achieve”, yet it is hardly images of the Grand Old Man which come to mind when one considers the Liberal Democrat electorate, particularly the support among the youngest statistical bracket of the population, 18-24 year olds. However, Liberal Democrat support among this demographic may well prove to be an irrelevance in the coming General Election. On 12 April Sarah Teather was already bemoaning recent opinion polls which showed that 42% of young people had already decided not to vote, while MORI has predicted that the turnout among young people may be as low 23%, compared to a 54% average.If the 18-24 year olds voted in numbers close to that of the ‘grey vote’ so crucial to the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats would be in a stronger position to claim ‘second party’ status. While accepting that there is what he terms a “disillusionment with the formal political process” among young people, Kennedy cites growing incidences of political activism, particularly on single issues, as an example of continued interest in politics as a means of expression. “Political parties face a real challenge in making policies which are relevant to young people,” he argues. “Disillusionment is rooted in young people feeling that their views are not heard and not taken account of.”The Liberal Democrats have been at great pains to attract young voters, and have launched a Manifesto for Young People containing popular policies such as opposition to top-up fees. There are a broad range of factors which influence Liberal Democrat popularity among the young: an impression of youth within the party hierarchy; a perceived separation from dirty front-line politics; a commitment to lowering the voting age to sixteen; a popular leader. Foreign policy is an area where the Liberal Democrats have recently found strong support among students. While many political commentators and statisticians believe opposition to the Iraq War may not prove to be a big vote-winner, the Liberal Democrat position reflected the view of a majority of young people.“To say that young people are not interested in politics is to ignore the growing rise of political activism – mostly involving young people – that characterises modern society,” argues Kennedy, contesting the impression of political disillusionment among the young. This political activism has been particularly noticeable in ‘single issue’ disputes, such as top-up fees and Iraq. “People want politicians to believe in something,” he said. The Liberal Democrats are fortunate enough, or perhaps wise enough, to believe in something which enthuses ‘the young’ to political activism, but their Iraq policy looks increasingly like a tactical decision.Central to opposition to the war in Iraq has been a rejection of US foreign policy principles. Clinton has been replaced by Bush and Rumsfeld, two men unlikely to enthuse the left-leaning youth of modern Britain. “The threats identified by the United States cannot be ignored,” he argues. “Although the approach of the United States and Europeans may differ, the goals of extending democracy, freedom and human rights, and extending stability and security beyond our borders, are goals that we share.” This is rather standard fare, but surely we have to make a choice? Not so, according to Kennedy. “It is my view that it is not a question of choice, but one of balance. Working together the United States and Europe can achieve much more than they can in isolation. It is in the interest of Britain to build a Europe that is constructively Atlanticist.” This, it seems to me, could have come from any leader of the three main political parties. Like Michael Howard and Tony Blair, he would not appreciate the label, but has Charles Kennedy too been drawn into the politics of fear?Perhaps we can find a real foreign policy difference when examining Europe, yet when asked about the accession of Turkey to the EU, he found himself quoting the Labour Foreign Secretary: “The admission of Turkey will be a strategic decision of historic importance. The Foreign Secretary himself spoke of Turkey forming a bridge between Islam and the West.” Once more, the reactionary would be disappointed. Similarly, when talking about French attitudes to European governance he merely states, “The French political establishment has to realise that enlargement of the Union means that their traditional approach to European negotiation can no longer be sustained.”However, should we really be surprised by Kennedy’s distinctly cautious approach? There is nothing wrong with his views: they are those of a man who wishes to be taken seriously as Prime Minister, and furthermore they chime in with broad, Liberal principles. His statement that “the opening of accession negotiations with Turkey is the surest way to maintain the momentum already evident in that country towards reform” is very much consistent with Liberal Democrat views on the war in Iraq.Therefore, one is left with the rather odd realisation that perhaps opposition to Iraq was a flash in the pan for the Liberal Democrat party. Of course for many it was a matter of conscience and an admirable decision, but it seems also to have been an understandable tactical decision. Therefore those who look to the Liberal Democrats for similar guidance in the future might be disappointed, and those who saw this decision as indicative of the general principles of the party have been led up the garden path. Such a hypothesis might well be met with outrage by Liberal Democrats, but it needn’t be seen as a criticism. After all, politics is a game. Perhaps the relative reluctance of Kennedy and Sir Menzies Campbell, his foreign affairs spokesman, to stand up in Parliament or outside and really make a stand, observed by Matthew Parris inThe Times on 16 April is not, as he argues, a crisis of “leadership and direction”, but merely a reluctance to expose themselves in the future.Parris intelligently asks what Gladstone would have made of such reluctance, and we can be sure that he would not have acted as Kennedy has done. Gladstone, a man of principle to the point of obstruction, took Turkish atrocities in the Balkans so much to heart that he campaigned constantly against Disraeli on the issue. Of course, things have changed since Gladstone’s long, impassioned tirades against evil in the world, but in light of such a comparison it might seem odd for Kennedy to have cited Gladstone at the beginning of our interview. If he wants to emulate the Grand Old Man, and convince young voters of his strong intentions and beliefs, now would be a good time to expose Blair on Iraq. The Liberal Democrat opposition to war uniquely allows him this honour.ARCHIVE: 0th week TT 2005last_img