Published on Tuesday, September 25, 2001 in the Guardian of London
No Blank Checks for the US, says Kennedy
War on Poverty is Key to the Struggle Ahead, Conference Told
by Michael White
Charles Kennedy yesterday led the Liberal Democrat conference in an impassioned plea to the US-led "coalition against terror" to ensure that the threatened military response to the attack on America is part of a broader assault on global poverty and injustice.
But the somber warning he delivered was not directed only at George Bush and Tony Blair. Lib Dems would also face choices as they gauged the "balance between the liberty of the individual and the threat that the terrorist presents to that very liberty".
Mr Kennedy set out four principles which should guide the international response:
A common resolve to root out terrorism;
The need to balance emergency legislation with civil rights;
Vigilance "against those who would seek to make scapegoats" of British Muslims and other minorities;
The recall of parliament "if events require it."
He buttressed his appeal with an insistence, widely echoed on the conference floor in Bournemouth, that standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the US - as Mr Blair is doing - must be accompanied by "an occasional cautionary tap on the shoulder" by America's "candid friends" in London. "There are no blank checks to be issued."
The Lib Dem leader made a low-key contribution hours after the emergency debate, in which he had only joined to lead two minutes of silence for the 6,000 dead.
In demanding a response "precise and proportionate to the need" and consistent with international law, the party's foreign policy spokesman, Menzies Campbell, had prefigured Mr Kennedy's warning at the start of the day's debate.
"A military response based on these principles is justified, and the UK should make forces available for that purpose.
"I do not say that lightly, but I understand, and I want you to understand, that in committing forces in this way we are accepting the risk of casualties.
"Easy to say in the autumn calm of a seaside town; more difficult to explain to grieving relations in the dawn at RAF Lyneham," said Mr Campbell.
On the first full day of this year's party conference season, the chorus of sympathy for the US after the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington - "a grievous crime against humanity" - was mixed with pleas for restraint by the succession of MPs, expert analysts and grassroots speakers, some of them British Muslims.
On the conference fringe, such talk was offset by the exiled Iraqi national congress whose representatives said the attacks had "Baghdad's fingerprints" all over them. They called for Iraq to be included in the bombing targets.
In the conference hall, Kishwer Falkner, a Muslim who said she had seen her rights "fundamentally eroded" as a succession of Islamic states were "talabinized", warned that Hindus in Afghanistan were also persecuted.
Nasser Butt from Sutton warned against "terrorizing the whole Afghan population" with threats of air strikes and complained that sheer ignorance of Islam had led to attacks on non-Muslim Sikhs "because they look like Muslims".
He appealed to politicians and the media to be careful in the language they used - a point echoed by Mr Kennedy when he chided talk of "war" and "crusades" as inappropriate. Susan Kramer, former Lib Dem candidate for London mayor, rejected calls from Israeli politicians to widen the targets. "You do not find a needle by burning the haystack," she said.
But a recurring theme of the debate was that September 11 must change the world for the better, by ensuring that the growth in world inequality - which Alistair Carmichael MP said had grown since the second world war - was reversed.
"We have bombed and shot ourselves to the brink of disaster, and if we think we can bomb and shoot ourselves out of this one we are dangerously wrong," the Orkney MP said.
Jenny Tonge MP, foreign aid spokeswoman, argued: "We must bomb this area, but we must bomb it with food and aid. It's cheaper than military action and may win over a lot more hearts and minds. Poverty and starvation breeds terrorism and conflict."
In an ominous warning, Lord Wallace, the defense expert, said: "If the gap between rich and poor continues to grow in the next 10 years, we will not win this war."
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001