UK Politics

Charles Kennedy: Make pro-EU voice heard

Charles Kennedy

The Lib Dems must be "unequivocal" in their pro-Europeanism as they are the only party able to make the case for it, ex-leader Charles Kennedy has said.

Europe was in the party's DNA, Mr Kennedy said, and the Lib Dems must be more outspoken now the "chips were down" ahead of a possible referendum.

In his only appearance at conference, he said the Lib Dems must risk unpopularity for what they believed in.

Like Iraq in 2003, voters would respect them for their sincerity, he added.

Mr Kennedy, who led the party between 1999 and 2006 and was the only MP not to endorse the party's coalition with the Conservatives, was speaking during a debate on European policy.

'Greater good'

"We have been debating policies here this week where we are acknowledging unpopularity, things we do not necessarily like, items that we have had to swallow for the greater good," he said.

"But, for god's sake, Europe is something we believe in, is in our DNA this is something we should be passionate about.

"If it makes us unpopular in certain quarters, let us be unpopular for what we care about, what we believe in and what defines us and what we think is best for the country.

"I am happier to be unpopular for that than for some of the things we are having to swallow as a result of the age of austerity."

Mr Kennedy said the Lib Dems must be "unequivocally on the front foot" in making the case for the UK's role in the EU ahead of next year's European elections and the prospect of a referendum on UK membership by 2017.

'Expedient'

While David Cameron had "utterly marginalised" the UK in Brussels, Ed Miliband was set to "be in a long tradition of Labour leaders - utterly expedient where Europe is concerned".

"We can forget UKIP, we can forget the Tories, we can forget Labour. If the voice of rational pro-Europeanism is going to be heard, there is only one place it can come from. It should be us and it will be us."

Mr Kennedy said he was frustrated when he was leader at being told to tone down his pro-European rhetoric.

"We can't make that mistakes at these coming elections and the referendum that may lead on because the chips are down on the issue of Europe as never before in British politics. A lot of the responsibility rests with us."

And he likened the party's stance on Europe to its opposition to the Iraq war, which he said had left it isolated at the time but proved to be the right thing in the long run.

"What that episode proved to me is that you can take a distinct position which is not necessarily popular but marks you out and people can recognise your sincerity and honesty."