Charles Kennedy: I'm in politics because it is fun. Why not try it?

Taken from a speech given by the leader of the Liberal Democrats to sixth-formers in Westminster Central Hall


There are four things that are fundamental to being a Liberal Democrat. We're the champions of good-quality schools, universities, hospitals, trains and buses, supported by a fair, transparent and honest tax system. We're champions of civil liberties and human rights. We're champions of internationalism – there are so many problems in the world that can't be solved by nation states acting on their own. And we're champions of the environment – we don't want to see the earth's resources irretrievably damaged before they're handed down to the generations of the future.

Let me just mention one particular part of the public services where we've made quite an impact. Everyone, we think, should have the right to go to university if they have the ability. But the tuition fees scheme brought in by the Labour government set up a barrier that quite clearly discourages poorer students from going into higher education.

When we went into partnership with Labour in the Scottish Parliament just under three years ago, we insisted that tuition fees should be abolished in Scotland. And they were. And we're fighting to get them abolished in England and Wales as well. We think we're winning that argument.

The second key to being a Liberal Democrat is a belief in civil liberties and human rights. We've fought for decent treatment for asylum-seekers and equal treatment for people who happen to be gay. There's a bill that's started its way through Parliament in the Lords. It says that people who've established what we call civil partnerships should have the same rights as married couples. It would apply to gay couples and also to heterosexuals who live together without being married. For instance, if one partner died, the other would have the right to stay in a council house registered in the dead person's name. It's a Liberal Democrat bill instigated by a Liberal Democrat peer, and I very much hope that it becomes law.

And there's another aspect of equal rights that we're pursuing – equal rights for young people over 16 to vote. You're allowed to marry when you're 16. You can join the army. And you can pay tax. Why shouldn't you be able to vote? The worrying thing about last year's general election was how few people turned out. I think that you'd engage a lot more people in the political process if you allowed them to vote younger. And it would make politicians pay more attention to the needs and opinions of people in their late teens.

When I became leader of the party, I called for a royal commission on drugs. Some people attacked me for being irresponsible. Private Eye did a spoof which ended with the words "Charlie Cannabis is aged 17". But I stand by what I said. The drugs policies of successive governments have been a dismal failure. Drug use has not been controlled. Crime has gone up. We have to take a fresh look at the whole issue.

The third key to being a Liberal Democrat is to be an internationalist. If 11 September taught us anything, it was to show that countries have to work together to uphold the rights and values in which we believe. One of the most basic rights is the right not to be killed or maimed by a terrorist. That's why the Liberal Democrats supported the efforts of the international coalition against al-Qa'ida and the Taliban. But we said that the action should be proportionate and based on clear proof of complicity in the attack on the World Trade Centre.

Last, but not least: the environment. There's a lot more we could be doing to make sure that the earth's in reasonable shape half a century from now. We need to do more about global warming. We need to rely less on fossil fuels and more on renewable energy.

I'm in politics because I believe in these four things, but I'm also in politics because it's fun. And I hope that some of you, after what you've heard and seen today, might think of becoming active in politics, too.

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