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John Whitelegg: The myth of Mr Kennedy's opposition to the war

I can think of no more unprincipled stand than to say the war is unjust but we support it anyway

It is not true that the Liberal Democrats opposed the Iraq war. But it is a myth that keeps reappearing in political media coverage and a myth that could mislead millions on polling day on 10 June. So it's time we exposed the facts.

It is not true that the Liberal Democrats opposed the Iraq war. But it is a myth that keeps reappearing in political media coverage and a myth that could mislead millions on polling day on 10 June. So it's time we exposed the facts.

Let us go back to Brighton to the Liberal Democrat annual conference of September 2002 to start setting the record straight. Delegates did not oppose the war. The conference set out the conditions that would make war acceptable to the party. In the end none of these conditions was met but the party supported the war anyway.

Its federal executive didn't oppose the war. In January 2003 it simply reiterated the conference decision and supported the Lib Dem MPs' line that there was "no compelling argument" for war "at the present time". What is significant here is that the argument never became compelling by the Lib Dems' previously expressed criteria, but they supported the war anyway.

Charles Kennedy did not oppose the war - not even when he addressed the anti-war rally in Hyde Park in February 2003. He spoke of "real concerns" and the "powerlessness" of "vast numbers of people" to whom Tony Blair "must listen". But he didn't say, as the Green MEP Caroline Lucas said at the same rally, that the war would be illegal, unjust and counter-productive. Indeed Kennedy said on the party website at the time: "We are not the all-out anti-war party. I believe that the United Nations is the proper place to make the decisions." He said firmly that there should only be war if the UN Security Council gave a clear mandate. But the UN never gave such a mandate. And unlike Blair, Kennedy never even claimed there was a clear UN mandate, yet he supported the war.

On 18 March 2003 the Liberal Democrats voted against the motion allowing the government to take Britain to war against Iraq. But even as they voted against the government, the party's MPs fell into line behind it. Lib Dems abandoned talk of forcing the Prime Minister to prove the unproven case for war. Lib Dem conditions requiring a clear UN mandate and proof of a threat from Iraq melted away. Kennedy's view was that the decision had been made and the Lib Dems must give it their "genuine support".

In effect, the Lib Dems were saying they didn't believe the war was necessary but they would support it once it started. I wouldn't call that opposing the war. In fact I can think of no more unprincipled a stance than to say: "This war is unjust, but we'll support it anyway."

Those of us in Green politics have come to expect the Liberal Democrats to say one thing and do another. We watch them do it all the time over roadbuilding, aviation, incinerators. After 11 September, we watched them position themselves as the party of the measured response, but then support the bombing of Afghanistan anyway.

Shirley Williams in the House of Lords provided a superb example of the fudged nature of Liberal Democrat politics. She agonised over the "catastrophe". She mentioned the "emphasis on regime change by the Bush administration" which was "an objective not recognised in international law". She alluded to attacks on civilian infrastructure, saying the bombing was "likely to knock out the key elements of Iraq's ramshackle infrastructure". She said: "Thousands more innocents will die. And from their ashes thousands more terrorists will spring up."

She made what would pass for a powerful anti-war speech - until the point where she said we must support it anyway because "our troops are not politicians and they deserve to be supported in the professional job they are asked to do by Her Majesty's Government". On that logic, anyone who opposes any unjust war should turn their coats and support it on the grounds that their government did. It's like saying: "I'm opposed to the invasion of Poland/East Timor/the Falklands but I'm going to support it because the troops are only doing what Hitler/Suharto/Galtieri told them to do."

And whilst Kennedy had only ever skirted vaguely around the word "opposition" he now gave his "genuine support" to the invasion. But some Lib Dems went further. Emma Nicholson, the party's South-East Euro MP, said: "This conflict has one of the strongest moral and ethical mandates since the Second World War. It is a just war which we know to be right."

One may speculate about the origins of the myth that the Lib Dems opposed the Iraq war. "Media balance" in this country has more to do with the size of the parties than the strength of the viewpoints. Hence the public was to a large extent shielded from the truly anti-war political choice because the "balancing views" broadcast and published were mostly those of a pro-war party expressing itself in different terms. Whatever the Lib Dems may have said before or since, the party gave what Kennedy himself described as "genuine support" to Blair's war.

The writer is a Green Party candidate in the elections for the European Parliament