20 years on: Menzies Campbell’s speech in 9/11 recall

Today is the twentieth anniversary of the recall of Parliament in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in the USA.

We posted Charles Kennedy’s speech earlier. In a subsequent debate on international terrorism, Menzies Campbell, then our foreign affairs spokesperson, spoke. He made some unfailingly liberal points, about how important it was to focus on justice rather than retaliation, to make sure any response is based on decent intelligence and international co-operation and, importantly, that we should note that the perpetrators of the genocide in Rwanda and the Srebrenica massacre were not met hunted down with international military action. We mustn’t, he said, give the impression that the lives of those in the richest countries are worth more than those in the poorest.

Here is his speech in full, taken from Commons Hansard.

Back then, he and Paddy Ashdown were go-to people for the media on foreign affairs. They had huge credibility and were well known.

Not for the first time this week, I reflect on the fact that no matter how rich or diverse the English language it is inadequate to convey the sense of horror and frustration that so many of us feel about the events that have taken place across the Atlantic. Expressions such as “defining moment” have been thrown about—there are many of my generation for whom the defining moment appeared to be the assassination of John F. Kennedy—but I suspect that the life of the most powerful city in the most powerful country in the world will never be the same. I refer not just to the irritation of increased airline security, but to the realisation that no country, however powerful, can guarantee absolute safety for its citizens.

After the emotions of shock, sorrow and anger has come, as the Prime Minister rightly expressed, our admiration for the people of the United States. The United States is a great country with enormous economic resources, but this week we have seen that it has great resources of character as well. How else can one explain the extraordinary unified response to these events: immediate bipartisanship in the Congress, the quite extraordinary valour of the emergency services and, in towns and villages throughout the United States, public protests of determination that the people will not be intimidated?

In our occasionally patronising way, we on this side of the Atlantic sometimes raise our eyebrows at the United States’ style of public affirmation of nationhood—the pledge of allegiance and the public support for the flag. The truth is that this week has demonstrated that, in time of crisis, that public expression of unity is priceless in promoting a common purpose and a determination to triumph over adversity. The collective response of the people of the United States has rightly earned the admiration of us all.

When the roll call of nations that have lost citizens is set down, it will tell us that the nations of the whole world were the indiscriminate targets of the zealots whose barbarity has brought sadness and grief to so many families. For me, and perhaps for others, the close proximity of the headquarters of the United Nations has more than symbolic significance. We know that the heaviest burden will be borne by the people of the United States. Out of the collective sorrow that they suffer, and that we share, there must surely come a resolve that through collective action the perpetrators will be brought to justice and terrorism will be met in all circumstances by a robust defence of democratic values.

Let me try to put to rest the canard that somehow United States’ policy in the middle east was the cause of these events. I have not always agreed with United States’ policy in the middle east, and indeed I have said so in the House on many occasions, but the cause of these events was a deliberate and calculated decision to take the lives of as many as possible, allied to the willingness of desperate men to implement that decision at the cost of their own lives. The Prime Minister was correct to tell us that we must not suffer any ambiguity in our analysis of terrorism, but we should also remind ourselves that terrorism often flourishes where real or perceived injustice prevails. Communities which have an unresolved or unrecognised sense of grievance are driven sometimes to assume that terrorism is the only way of seeking resolution or recognition.

This is not an occasion to conduct a detailed analysis of policy or to try to offer long-term solutions, but let me offer two thoughts. There are Governments in the middle east today to whom these events will be a chilling reminder of the radical discontent in their own countries and who themselves have an overwhelming interest in co-operating with the efforts of the United States and others.

After the Gulf war, President Bush’s father, then the President of the United States, used the quite extraordinary coalition that he had forged to achieve the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait to breathe new life into the middle east peace process. Out of that came the Madrid conference and the Oslo agreement. President Bush of today has forged a remarkable coalition of interest—a coalition of condemnation. Is it too much to hope that this unity of purpose may give an opportunity to repeat the effort to breathe life into the peace process in the middle east?

I cannot but conclude that we will more easily put down terrorism when we understand the causes of terrorism, although I am by no means so naive as to assume that if Israel and Palestine were to strike a bargain today and to begin to implement it tomorrow, that would be an end to the terrorist threat. There are some so opposed to that reconciliation that the mere fact of the reconciliation would be a further provocation towards terrorist acts.

The Prime Minister used the words “brought to justice”—I imagine that he used that formulation deliberately—but I have some sense of relief that the pressure for retaliation has abated. Retaliation is not self-defence by any legal measure with which I am familiar. The United States as our oldest ally—our strongest ally—is entitled to our support, and we have heard already of the unique invocation of article 5 of the North Atlantic treaty. But this is a sovereign House of Parliament, and this sovereign House of Parliament and this nation, even accepting the letter and the spirit of the article 5 requirement, cannot give a blank cheque for military action. NATO operates by consensus and if there is to be any NATO action and implementation of the article 5 obligation it will be only because it is supported by all the 19 members of that organisation.

I suggest that any response should be based on clear and unequivocal intelligence, that it must not be disproportionate and that it must be consistent with the principles of international law. I do not rule out for a moment the use of United Kingdom forces and materiel for the purpose of such a response if that be appropriate.

There is a risk—a risk of what is sometimes called rich man’s justice—lest, by the overwhelming zeal with which we pursue the perpetrators of these terrorist acts, we give the impression that the lives of citizens of the richest countries are worth more than the lives of citizens of the poorest. In the past 10 years, we have seen in Rwanda hundreds of thousands, incalculable numbers, massacred—that is a form of terrorism—while the world looked on and the United Nations uniquely had to make a formal acknowledgement of failure. In Srebrenica, in the name of Christianity, 8,000 Muslim men and boys were massacred, while units of NATO—the most successful military alliance in history—looked on and the skies above were quiet, and empty of the aircraft that a short time before had bombed Iraq into a wasteland.

Perhaps the events in New York and in Washington are a watershed. Perhaps they reflect a new beginning. Perhaps they are a defining moment. They will be such if they achieve the apprehension, in accordance with justice, of those who were the perpetrators of the terrible acts of this week. But they will also constitute a defining moment if they make the Srebrenicas and the Rwandas much more difficult to achieve.

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  • It’s hard to say that Campbell’s remarks have aged particularly well: in particular, it’s hard to say that the coalition he lauds was motivated by anything except revenge, or that it accomplished any of its ostensible purposes. Al-Qa’edah was not extinguished; the Taliban were removed from power only temporarily; we found that eliminating leaders of movements did not eliminate the movements, which persist as long as their underlying causes are still there. But we didn’t need practical lessons in that; we could simply have bothered to read history.

    However, we did let loose a wave of brutal xenophobia, racism, intolerance, and the triumph of the surveillance state, and the ideology that the solution to the problems created by war is more war. And the floodgates of illiberalism, once opened, helped to drown this party. How are we to find our way back?

  • Brad Barrows 15th Sep '21 - 7:54am

    What ‘helped to drown this party’ was nothing related to 9-11 or to ‘floodgates of illiberalism’ as you suggest – it was done, completely, by the calamitous decision to join in coalition with the Conservatives in 2010. I trust lesson has been learned so that if we should find ourselves in such a pivotal position after a future election, we will not repeat the error.

  • John Marriott 15th Sep '21 - 2:33pm

    @Brad Barrows
    What I fail to comprehend is that Lib Dems appear still passionately to support voting reform, which rarely produces a majority government. Surely, therefore, you have to factor in the need to negotiate in the event of a hung Parliament.

    What happened back in 2010 was indeed unusual under FPTP. I seem to recall, and I was an active member at the time, that most of the party appeared prepared to put its money where its mouth was and to accept Cameron’s offer, with all the risks that offer entailed. That the party leadership made a mess of some major initiatives, the referendum on voting reform being one of them and, of course, the tuition fees fiasco, one might put down to naivety and, yes, the sight of Lib Dem ministers clearly enjoying those government limos didn’t go down well amongst some of the purists, who will forever want to remain true to their beliefs, and in a permanent minority.

    I learned from many years of working with other parties at local government level that compromise is often the best way forward. I don’t know much about your background; but wonder whether you have ever had to face tough decisions.

  • @ John Marriott Like you I’ve served in a coalition Cabinet in Local Government…….. and negotiated an increase in the Social Care budget. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with Coalition per se…… it’s what you do with it when you’ve got it…. and that was the problem in 2010-15.

  • Paul Holmes 15th Sep '21 - 4:29pm

    At the risk of endless repetition -the failure in 2010-2015 was not one of the principal of Coalition Government but of entering a Coalition with Austerity Tories and of mishandling it so badly that ‘we’ kept appearing in the media to defend the cuts and all the the rest of it.

    There are many ways to respond to the possibility of entering a Coalition:
    a) Don’t do it because the terms are wrong -as the Liberal Party chose in 1974 when the Tories refused to introduce PR as part of a deal. We did not have to enter a Coalition in 2010 -and just as refusing to do so in Feb 1974 did not lead to a wipe out in Oct 1974, neither in 2010 would it have led to anything remotely resembling the fall to 8 MP’s that actually ensued from a bad Coalition.
    b) Enter a looser pact such as that of the Liberal Party with the Lab Govt 1976-1978 or the Unionists with the Tories 2017-2019.
    c) Enter a ‘Co-operation’ such as the Green/SNP one currently where the Greens reserve the right to speak out and vote against certain areas of policy.
    d) Enter a clearly defined and well negotiated Coalition without sacrificing everything -as the LD’s did so effectively for 8 years with Labour in the first two Scottish Parliaments. As so many Parties do in all those democracies (the great majority) which operate PR systems.

    The 2010-2015 shambles and destruction of our Party should be a text book lesson in how not to ‘do Coalition’ (especially in a FPTP system). Not a warning never ever to have anything to do with Coalitions.

  • David Evans 15th Sep '21 - 4:51pm

    Paul Holmes has it exactly right, as usual. The coalition negotiations were rushed (because our leaders let themselves be spooked like the rest of the herd, by wanting a 5 year deal based on about six months worth of agreement. And wanted to prove “Coalition works” well it did, for the conservatives. The problem was that our leaders were totally unprepared for what coalition with Tories meant, but had talked up a big game plan and stuck to it even though it was clearly failing after only six months.

    Additionally an thoroughly inexperienced and intransigent leadership, protected by the administrative power of the party bureaucracy, and a party establishment including the third estate who took the demonstration of uber loyalty from art form to a competitive sport , totally stymied any attempts to face reality by those who could see what was going wrong.

    We went into coalition as the party that wanted to change Britain’s failing political system (e.g. an end to broken promises), but so many came out as being thoroughly comfortable rubber stamping appalling decisions the Conservatives were proud of.

  • nvelope2003 15th Sep '21 - 5:32pm

    Paul Holmes: The problem with your argument is that the Liberal Party has entered a number of Coalitions or Agreements with other parties ,either implied or defined, and every time it has led to disaster for them. The one example where they might have been expected to triumph was after the 1923 Election fought on the issue of Free Trade which at that time was the raison d’etre of the party. The non Coalition Liberals increased their number of MPs from 59 to 159 and Mr Baldwin’s Protectionist Conservatives lost 89 seats. Labour, which wisely also supported Free Trade gained 191 seats and formed a Government supported by the Liberal Party. This Government quickly collapsed and in the 1924 election the Liberals dropped to 39 seats of which only 8 were elected in three corner fights with both Conservative and Labour opponents, exactly the same number as in 2015 when they also got 8 seats. If we had PR coalitions might be necessary but it is likely that there would be a reasonable number of Liberal Democrat MPs after an election but not very many. There are only 4 MSPs, about a quarter of those formerly held, despite PR. The Liberals no longer have a defining identity as they did with Free Trade and the DUP or SNP have with Unionist or Nationalist policies but even the DUP is struggling with the post Brexit situation as their people are having to rethink their position as part of the UK and also part of the EU.

    As Brad Barrows says, there is only one realistic position for the Liberal Democrats and that is as the party of Protest, avoiding coalitions and deals and standing for Liberalism, as everything else has failed. It is a perfectly honourable position. Also I seem to recall that the 2010 Coalition was popular with many voters as they thought it had tried to deal with a difficult situation in a fair way but of course the protest voters like the lady who declared that if she had known the Lib Dems were going into Government she would not have voted for them and presumably those like her did not do so ever again.

  • John Marriott 15th Sep '21 - 5:57pm

    Yes, a ‘party of protest’. That’s the problem and one of the reasons my enthusiasm waned. However, just what does ‘standing for Liberalism’ actually mean? I suppose it’s a bit like those largely middle class idiots currently blockading parts of the M25. I notice they weren’t there on Tuesday when it was tipping it down! Don’t worry folks. It’ll soon be conference and you can pass all the motions you like. You know it makes you happy.

    However, to be serious for a change, the lady you mentioned is not untypical of our generally politically uneducated electorate. Yes, she was quite right, she didn’t vote for a coalition; but neither did I back in 2010. However, I knew that, on its own, my Lib Dem vote was absolutely wasted in Lincolnshire; but would count towards the total of votes the party achieved nationwide, given its performance during that campaign, to justify a coalition which accounted in theory for over 50% of the votes cast in the General Election of that year. The cynic might add that, in the Labour and Tory parties, you have de facto coalitions in any case.

  • Paul Holmes 15th Sep ’21 – 4:29pm:
    …the failure in 2010-2015 was not one of the principal of Coalition Government but of entering a Coalition with Austerity Tories…

    The austerity was imposed on us by the EU. If Labour had been returned they too would have had to have made similar cuts…

    ‘Alistair Darling: we will cut deeper than Margaret Thatcher’ [March 2010]:

    Alistair Darling admitted tonight that Labour’s planned cuts in public spending will be “deeper and tougher” than Margaret Thatcher’s in the 1980s, as the country’s leading experts on tax and spending warned that Britain faces “two parliaments of pain” to repair the black hole in the state’s finances.

    ‘Austerity has not been a Tory choice, but an EU one’ [July 2019]:

    The Application of powers to the United Kingdom

    The EU has opened Excessive Deficit Procedure measures against the UK three times (1998, 2004 — 2007, and 2008 — 2017) since the Stability & Growth Pact was signed. It was the most recent recommendations from 2008 which led to all major parties in the UK promising to reduce the deficit through austerity measures. […]

    By the following year, The EU Council acknowledged that the UK had not taken any remedial action, and set the UK a deadline of 2015 to end its excessive deficit situation. To achieve this, the EU Council recommended a deficit reduction of 1.75% per year from 2009 to 2015. This was a large figure, not possible through growth of the economy alone. Only by cutting expenditure substantially could this ambitious figure be achieved.

    Five years of coalition austerity still was’t enough to get the EU off our backs…

    ‘Council Decision (EU) 2015/1098 of 19 June 2015 establishing that no effective action has been taken by the United Kingdom in response to the Council Recommendation of 2 December 2009’:


    Article 1

    The United Kingdom has not taken effective action in response to the Council recommendation of 2 December 2009.

  • Well the first comment on this thread was vaguely on-topic. Even if it only picks up on one sentence in Campbell’s speech – and misses all the key points he made.

  • Paul Holmes 16th Sep '21 - 2:14pm

    @nvelope. My first 22 years earning a living were teaching History so I’m all in favour of looking at historical examples. However I think that better lessons on modern coalitions can be learned from more modern examples such as the ones I outlined from 1974-2021, rather than from something that happened in very different circumstances a century ago.
    @cassie. I sat behind Ming as he made his speech in the Commons as I did behind Charles when he made his. I agreed with both of them and like both of them supported the justified intervention in Afghanistan -the ensuing mismanagement over 20 years is a different matter. Likewise, we voted against the entirely unjustified and illegal invasion of Iraq 2 years later.

    The first commentator you refer to, claimed that the 2001 decision led to the ‘drowning of this Party’ and subsequent debate has been devoted to pointing out how incorrect that is. We actually of course went on to do even better in the next 2 General Elections than we had in 1997 or any time previously since before WW2. The Lib Dem disaster of 2010-2015 was entirely self inflicted and had nothing to do with events in 2001.

  • nvelope2003 16th Sep '21 - 5:36pm

    John Marriott: The origins of the Liberal party are in the protests made by certain members of Parliament, often radical Protestants, against the attempts by King Charles I to institute a more authoritarian monarchy in place of the traditional Parliamentary system. I was not thinking of people who block the streets and stop people getting to work or hospital in pursuit of some grievance though maybe it amounts to the same thing as they started a civil war. We don’t want things to reach that stage. There is little likelihood of the Conservatives agreeing to Proportional Representation and it might not be considered constitutional if the Labour party were to attempt to impose it by a vote in Parliament without a referendum which the Conservatives would sabotage as they did the one on the Alternative Vote. Conservatives only accept PR in devolved assemblies where they would otherwise get few if any seats and seem to be trying to abolish it in London, which is what they would do if it was ever enacted by Parliament so we need not concern ourselves about coalitions brought about by PR.

    We do need a protest party which has strong democratic principles otherwise people who are unhappy might be tempted to vote for extremist groups as has happened in various places and seems to be getting possible here but if the protest party joins coalitions, especially with the Conservatives, it will not be much use. I am not too keen on None of the Above places on the ballot paper as there are enough parties to suit even the most fastidious tastes and people should be encouraged to think about what they stand for instead of opting out. The Liberals were the traditional opponents of the overmighty and powerful which is why they still attract some support. The coalition betrayed that support and any future coalitions would have the same outcome as all the previous ones, namely disaster for the party even if it survived. It is strange that so many people think things will be different next time. The party needs to find some more attractive policies.

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