BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 08.12.02

Interview: Charles Kennedy MP.

Are the Liberal Democrats really the honest party they like to present themselves as being?

JOHN HUMPHRYS: But first, the other leader of the opposition... Charles Kennedy. He's not quite that yet... not officially. The Liberal Democrats have only fifty three seats compared with the Tories' one hundred and sixty five. But they say things will be different after the next election. They are on their way to becoming the first party of opposition. Well... maybe. But they've a lot of voters to win over between now and then. One of the ways they're trying to do that is to persuade us that they're different from the other parties. You can believe them when they tell you something. They don't spin. They don't make promises they know they can't keep. They're straightforward ... and their leader is proof of that. Honest Charlie. He's with me now. Good morning Mr Kennedy. CHARLES KENNEDY: What a kind introduction. It can only go downwards ...... HUMPHRYS: It can only get worse, exactly. So what you're saying is what you're seeing is what you get. That's the essence of your pitch, if I may use that word. KENNEDY: Yes, I think so. HUMPHRYS: Yes, grudgingly. KENNEDY: No, I say this with care and moderation because we have got to up our game as a political party. Now I think the opportunity is there. I mean people will no doubt see you conversing with Iain Duncan-Smith in the course of this programme, but I do think if you look at the state of the Conservatives, and you look at what a lot of people are asking themselves, and you look at parliament and politics generally at the moment, they're saying here's a Prime Minister with a three-figure majority in the House of Commons into his sixth year of office, the country requires effective coherent opposition. Now, you're not getting that from the Conservatives, they're spending too much time squabbling amongst themselves ,they're forgetting the people out there that do want to hear a rational articulate difference in terms of what an opposition party can provide, and I hope that that is what we are providing. HUMPHRYS: And an honest difference, let me test you on a couple of the claims towards honesty that you've made, and one of them is about honest where tax is concerned. You've always said, you had always said, if we want better public services such as education you've got to pay for it. Therefore you had a policy of putting a penny extra on income tax if you got into power, because that is what education needed, that penny devoted to it. Now you've dropped that which rather implies that you're now telling us that we can get something for nothing. KENNEDY: No, I don't subscribe to the view that we can get something for nothing. Indeed, the education discussion of this past week very much solidifies that case. There is a price tag to be attached to all of this, but what we have acknowledged, having argued before, during and since the last election that more money needed to go to education, we voted for the fact that the government are now putting that extra investment in. The question is about how effectively does that investment actually reach the classroom. How effectively does it reach those who are in need of that extra support. Now, that's where the difference, the debate is now to take place. HUMPHRYS: No, the big debate is how you pay for that, and you're saying are you, we don't need tax increases to pay for it? KENNEDY: At this stage you don't, because the government..... HUMPHRYS: Why did David Laws your Treasury man say Brown may have to consider tax rises later in this parliament? KENNEDY: Later in this parliament he may, he may. I don't know what the economic situation is going to be in another two or three years time. The Chancellor has just had to revise some of his own statements, as he said to the House of Commons just last week. What we are saying is, if that taxation is required we will be honest enough to go out and argue for that. At the moment we are also being straightforward enough to say, yes, the government is putting in more money, we voted for this, we welcome the fact that the extra resources are now being devoted. Let's make sure it's money well spent. HUMPHRYS: The point is this, you believe, along with others - indeed, along with Gordon Brown himself that he's having to borrow a great deal of money, much more than he would have hoped to borrow, far more according to many people bearing in mind British Rail and all them, whatever they call themselves these days, old Rail Track, that he's going to have to borrow twenty billion more even than he told us, so therefore they're borrowing too much money. You don't want to cut spending, clearly you don't want to cut spending, so therefore tax .... KENNEDY: We do want to make sure that spending is well allocated. HUMPHRYS: Of course, of course, but nonetheless if you're not going to borrow more and you're certainly not arguing for that, if you're not going to cut spending then it follows you'll have to put up taxes. Can't you just be honest and say taxes are going to have to go up? KENNEDY: No, we're not saying that at the moment. I think what people really want from politics is transparency in terms of the taxation, and just seeing that the public services benefit as a result. Whether it's the fight against crime, whether it's decent transport, whether it's good education and health services, and so on. Now, that's a perfectly legitimate sensible argument to put forward. HUMPHRYS: Except that the sums don't add up. That's the problem isn't it, and you should say so if you're going to the straightforward party. KENNEDY: I think we are perfectly legitimate in the criticisms that we make of Gordon Brown and of the government in the fact that they denied that there was a need for extra taxation and then implemented it after the General Election, having disavowed such an approach. No wonder people get pretty cynical with folk like me in politics, when they say. Well look they do one thing before an election, and then they do something else after an election. HUMPHRYS: But even with that extra, with the extra in National Insurance that we're going to have to be paying from the spring, the sums still don't add up do they, given all the extra spending that he has in mind. Unless you're going to borrow more money. Still more money. KENNEDY: No, it's a question of efficiency and effectiveness in how you actually devote the very, very substantial sums of money that are going into the public services. Now, I don't think you can do it, and this is where the big criticism of Gordon Brown comes in - I don't think you can do it by this over-micro management of each of the public services that we've got in this country. I think that you have to accept that decentralising decision making and the financial control that goes with it probably means that you get a more efficient use of the budget sums. HUMPHRYS: But it doesn't mean spending less. You wouldn't pretend that for a moment, so if you're not going to spend less.... KENNEDY: We have voted for these increases. Of course we have. HUMPHRYS: Precisely, precisely, so, if you're not going to spend less and you can't borrow any more, then I repeat, it follows the taxes would have to go up. KENNEDY: I do think that efficiency is the key to all this, and I'm not at all sure, and indeed from what I hear from people who work right across the whole ambit of the public services, they don't feel that money is efficiently devoted in terms of the national resources. I would like to see more local people having more local control of the sums that ... HUMPHRYS: You - all this talk of efficiency and everything and not wanting to put up taxes, you sound exactly like the Tories, which may of course not be a coincidence, because what you're after is the soft Tory vote isn't it. That's where you are actually getting your votes from, or some of them. KENNEDY: Well, I'm interested in people coming to support us full stop, and I don't think that we should get over obsessed as a party in this stage in the political cycle if I can put it that way, by what people's previous allegiances have been. I think that people just want a straightforward approach about what you're going to raise, what your priorities are, how you're going to go about it. Now, there must be many Conservatives looking at the state of that party at the moment, shaking their heads in disbelief, despair frankly, but they are looking for an opposition party which is able to articulate a responsible view. HUMPHRYS: And when they look at you they may start shaking their heads with a wee bit of disbelief as well eventually because, let's..... KENNEDY: Why would they do that? HUMPHRYS: I will give you another example. I think I've given you one, but I'll give you another one, and that is your ear-marking of National Insurance for health now. This implies, implies.. it quite clearly states in your view there is going be greater investment, I'm quoting, greater investment than we have every proposed before to rebuilding a world class NHS. That's the intention, that's the ambition, according to your alternative budget. But it simply isn't true is it. Doing that would not imply that, would not lead to that. KENNEDY: Well, the key question, or the key issue, about ear-marking NICs for this - National Insurance Contributions for the Health Service is that it is year on year on year. In other words, you can have a Chancellor that stands up as Mr Bountiful and says "I'm going to give you billions more pounds for the National Health Service". "Terrific" everybody says "good news". The problem is that that is time limited, if you ear-mark National Insurance Contributions, that becomes a rolling contribution to the future of the NHS. HUMPHRYS: Oh, it may well do, it may well do, but what it doesn't mean is what's that quote again "greater investment than ever". According to your own man, your own frontbencher, Nick Harvey, it is a book-keeping exercise that does not commit any extra money to the NHS, that's what he said. KENNEDY: Well, I don't know the context in which Nick and we mustn't get our Nicks mixed up here. HUMPHRYS: We mustn't. But let me help you out there, let me give you another one... KENNEDY: Sure. HUMPHRYS: ...and you would know the context of this because he said this at a meeting just recently. Jonathan Davies, another man you will know every well "it is the economies of ENRON and the honesty in tax raising and not the honesty in tax raising of which we have been so proud". KENNEDY: Well, I... HUMPHRYS: Pretty clear what he thinks about it. KENNEDY: Yes, well I don't agree. I do not agree and in a political party, a democratic political party, you can have honest and open disagreement. I think the way that we have gone about this has been very systematic, has been very responsible and I think long-term it would deliver better for the future of the National Health Service than short-term fixers. HUMPHRYS: But it isn't this the greatest...the greater investment than we have ever had before? That's what it is not and you have said it would be that and it won't be that, by your own admission, it won't be that. KENNEDY: Year upon year, year upon year, year upon year it will be just that... HUMPHRYS: You can't possibly say that. KENNEDY: Well what the National Health Service needs is a long-term stability. It needs... HUMPHRYS: That's different. KENNEDY: needs less political interference from the centre... HUMPHRYS: That's different too. KENNEDY: ...and it needs a guarantee of subsequent funding year upon year upon year... HUMPHRYS: And that's different, too. KENNEDY: and that... HUMPHRYS: It is not the greatest investment. KENNEDY: ...and that is what our policy would deliver. HUMPHRYS: All right, well, we'll leave that one rest for a while. KENNEDY: People will judge. HUMPHRYS: And indeed they will. KENNEDY: People will judge. HUMPHRYS: As in all these things. Let's give you another one and this is red tape. You want to cut all the red tape I think I'm using your phrase here again that "holds enterprise back". KENNEDY: Yeah. HUMPHRYS: The truth is, the truth is that you want a whole raft of new regulations. KENNEDY: Well, in what respect, I mean in what respect? HUMPHRYS: what respect. KENNEDY: Political parties want to do certain things. HUMPHRYS: Right... KENNEDY: ...that by definition involves regulation. One of the things I keep saying regularly to the people that I work with is that for every idea we come forward with, I would like to see proposals for things that we would stop the state doing... HUMPHRYS: Oh, I've heard that before. The Tories said exactly that a few years back, Labour have said exactly that. Let me give you three areas where you want more and not less regulations. KENNEDY: Fire away. HUMPHRYS: You want more flexible working, therefore that imposes certain conditions on employers, you want more consultation before bosses can sack you... KENNEDY: Yes. HUMPHRYS: ...exactly the want greater protection, greater protection even than we have just had for more...for part-time workers. Now, in each of those cases, that means that the bosses cannot do what they want to do. You may say it's a very good thing. You may say quite right, bosses must be circumscribe, they must protect their workers, but in each of those cases, there would be profoundly more regulation. KENNEDY: But look, an enlightened society, one that works in a sensible, harmonious way is one in which actually good business, good company, corporate approach is environmentally aware, its employee aware... HUMPHRYS: I don't argue with that. I don't argue with that... KENNEDY: .....and so on and so forth. HUMPHRYS: I don't argue with that. What I'm saying is it's more regulation, not less regulation and if you're going to have this bonfire of red tape, you're not going to produce it. KENNEDY: Well, look, we have a system in this country where at the moment, if you take some of the things you have just been referring to which derive from European Union Directives, for example, a lot of gold-plating goes on in our country. What's gold-plating? Gold-plating is when... HUMPHRYS: Means we don't bend the rules. KENNEDY: ...the mandarins in Whitehall say "right, here's an EU Directive, we've agreed to it, we've signed up for it, we're going to implement it". Fine. What we'll do is we'll tag on quite a few other things that have been gathering dust in the Department of Employment or whatever it might be - the DTI or something - and this is a good excuse and then if anybody complains afterwards, well, we can always blame it on Brussels. HUMPHRYS: All right. KENNEDY: Now, we want to have a much more transparent approach than that. HUMPHRYS: Let's give you another one. Renewable energy, a very big thing for your party. KENNEDY: Indeed. HUMPHRYS: Very big indeed. You're saying one thing nationally, which is twenty per cent should come from renewable energy, which obviously means mostly wind farms, that's the way it is at the moment anyway, the vast majority would come from wind farms. But locally, on the ground, your people, Liberal Democrats, are saying "we don't like these things" and the fact is, I think it is seventy five per cent of all wind farms are stopped because of planning objections. Now your people on the ground are many of the people who are supporting those objections, so one thing nationally, the other thing in the real world. KENNEDY: Well, I think when it comes to the planning process in this country, it is, by definition, all about local accountability and local decision making, but that doesn't in any way take away from the viewpoint that the party would adopt and pursue on a national basis. HUMPHRYS: So when...if you were in power then you would like your local people... KENNEDY: What...what I can do... HUMPHRYS: say "no you can't object to that wind farm" you, with yours on the Isle of Skye for instance. You have been a bit equivocal about the great big wind farms they want to put on the Isle of Skye. KENNEDY: No I have not actually. I have not at all and that application has just gone through... HUMPHRYS: Are you wholly opposed to it? Entirely opposed to it? Or entirely in favour of it? KENNEDY: I'm a supporter of it. HUMPHRYS: Totally in support of it with no qualifications whatsoever? KENNEDY: No, I put in plenty qualifications, perfectly sensible qualifications, as the local MP should... HUMPHRYS: But you wanted it to go there? KENNEDY: terms of the consultation process, in terms of the decision making, how it was arrived at and so on and so forth. HUMPHRYS: But you want the wind farm on the Isle of Skye? KENNEDY: I have said so, yes. HUMPHRYS: Right. All right. KENNEDY: I have said so locally, yes. HUMPHRYS: And you would say the same to other colleagues in Ceredigion for instance, or wherever it happens to be, where they don't like wind farms, you'd say the same, support them? KENNEDY: No, I wouldn't. I wouldn't presume to know. HUMPHRYS: Okay. KENNEDY: It's a matter for them to make that judgement locally and that's as it should be. HUMPHRYS: Right, your own leadership - in Brighton you said, and I'm quoting again that "you were going to quicken the pace" because you were really on the cusp now of taking over as the opposition, if not the government. You didn't actually say, go back and prepare for government. KENNEDY: No, I did not say that. HUMPHRYS: But you see, what most people have seen is you've been extremely laid back since then, at least that is the perception and the thing most people, I suspect... KENNEDY: Might be some people's perception. HUMPHRYS: Some people's perception but what everybody will know, or at least I think pretty much everybody, is that you are about to chair this "Have I Got News for You" programme and they'll say "hang on a minute, is this bloke serious about being a political leader, or is he a showbiz character?" KENNEDY: Well, people will say that sort of thing. First of all I would say there's a local hospice in the Highlands of Scotland that will benefit as a result of this and it is the season of goodwill.. HUMPHRYS: No doubt about that. KENNEDY: But secondly, I think the more important point is this, that you and I spend a great deal of our professional and public life bemoaning the fact that too many people are not engaging in the political process, particularly younger people. You have got to, I think, in politics today, use the mediums of communication available to you... HUMPHRYS: So, they will come out and vote because they see you do a bit of knockabout on television. KENNEDY: No, they will pay attention and they will reflect upon the fact that politicians can also, believe it or not, be human beings. HUMPHRYS: But that programme holds politics up to ridicule. That's one of the things that it does, it pillories politicians, it lampoons them all the time and you will be part of that. KENNEDY: It's satirical, it's satirical... HUMPHRYS: Savage as well.. KENNEDY: Well, I don't know. You've got to have broad shoulders in this life but the, I think there is a place for satire in politics. I think that you want politicians who take themselves seriously but also, can equate with the general public. HUMPHRYS: But I mean, just try to imagine Tony Blair doing that when he was Leader of the Opposition. KENNEDY: Well quite. To ask the question is to answer it. Could you imagine Iain presenting it? HUMPHRYS: Well alright - leave that one on the table as well. Cherie Blair - what's your view of what has happened there. I mean obviously you don't want to attack Cherie Blair personally, nobody ever does because she's.... and all that. But nonetheless, Number Ten's role in it. KENNEDY: Well I think obviously there's been mixed messages that have been coming out of the Number Ten press organisation in terms of all of this which they probably need to address. HUMPHRYS: In what sense. KENNEDY: There's something obviously wrong when one impression is given to the press, apparently, so, I've not been party to any of this obviously, but one impression is given and then clearly another version of events emerges. Now that's not very effective or coherent press operation. HUMPHRYS: That's all you have to say, it's not very effective or coherent. You don't think it's more serious than that. You don't think we've been misled. KENNEDY: It's very difficult to know. I don't know whether you have been consciously misled..... HUMPHRYS: .....are they being honest? KENNEDY: terms of the media community or not. That's a matter that no doubt will be trawled over for days and weeks and months to come. I do think the important thing is that there has got to be voracity where public servants are concerned and there must be a distinction made between public servants acting on behalf of the government of the day, which is one thing and public servants being asked to communicate information which to say the very least appears to be open to question in a more personal and private capacity. HUMPHRYS: Charles Kennedy, many thanks. KENNEDY: My pleasure. Thank you.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.