Charles Kennedy: You Ask The Questions

The MP and former leader of the Liberal Democrats answers your questions, such as 'So, were you betrayed by Vince Cable?' and 'Do you want your own chat show?'
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The Independent Online

Do you regret the circumstances in which you left the party leadership? Were you betrayed by Vince Cable? Alexander O'Donoghue, Glamorgan

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.