20 years on: Charles Kennedy’s speech at the 9/11 recall of Parliament

Twenty years ago today, Parliament was recalled to debate the 9/11 terror attacks. Charles Kennedy, our then leader, spoke with customary good sense. He spoke of the need for international organisations to rise to the occasion. He spoke of his concern at the way asylum seekers and immigrants were already starting to be demonised. Here is his speech in full:

On behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, I wholly associate the Liberal Democrats with the proper sentiments that have been expressed so well by the Prime Minister and by the new leader of the Conservative party—whom I congratulate despite the sad circumstances that coincide with his election—about the breathtaking nature of the savagery that we have witnessed in the United States. Many of our constituents and communities throughout our land, never mind the United States and the wider international community, will have been affected.

We all have a heavy heart today. As I listened to the Prime Minister, I thought back into history. Speaking in the House of Commons in very different circumstances, John Bright spoke of the sense that the angel of death was floating above the Chamber. There is no doubt that the angel of death is very much with us today.

I spent one of the happiest years of my life as a student in the mid-west of the United States, in Indiana, and I have been a fairly regular visitor back and forth to New York in the 20 years since then. Until I became a student in the United States, I did not understand how mid-west America feels divorced from east coast and west coast America. Speaking to friends—including one who once worked in one of the buildings that were attacked but who, just before the summer, was transferred further down Wall street and was therefore not afflicted by this terrible tragedy—I was struck by the remarkable extent to which middle America, east coast America and west coast America have become united as never before. We, a country on the other side of the Atlantic, must not underestimate that. We have to understand the scale of the shock and the unity that it has brought about in that great country and on that great continent.

Yesterday afternoon, in common with the Conservative party leader, the Prime Minister, the former Conservative party leader and other Members of Parliament, I went to sign the condolence book in Grosvenor square. It was remarkable to read the sentiments expressed there. There was a bouquet of flowers from a Polish ex-service man in the second world war, now domiciled in London. A family from Dagenham who had no connections with the United States wanted to say how sorry they were. American tourists here in London are bereft because they do not know what has happened to people they know, family or loved ones: they are without information.

The scale of the tragedy is, in itself, a great opportunity. The Prime Minister is absolutely correct: this is the moment for the international community to get its act together in a better way—certainly in a different way. I agree that this is not the occasion for party political debate, but I want to ask the Prime Minister how he envisages the international bodies to which we are such a significant subscriber beginning to organise their decision making and their capacity to govern the intelligence services and act against the people who would perpetrate such dreadful deeds in a way that will be more efficient and effective. Does he envisage that happening through, for example, the G8 with its intelligence capacity, or through the United Nations? What role might the European Union have to play in such a welcome development?

I strongly underscore the comments of the Prime Minister and the leader of the Conservative party about the importance of all of us sending the correct and legitimate signal to the Muslim community in Britain. There is no argument to be had here, and woe betide anyone in a position to influence public opinion who tries to suggest that there is. Over the past couple of days, I have become concerned about the emergence of a strand of comment and sentiment that mixes those horrific acts with legitimate differences between the parties and so on about asylum seekers, immigration and the position of various ethnic communities within our countries. It is not about that. The House of Commons must send that signal defiantly.

It seems almost inevitable that there will be some sort of military response at some point—although at the moment we do not know where, when, or against whom. Will the Prime Minister confirm that he does not rule out a further recall of Parliament, especially if, as I imagine they will be, British service people are to be involved in such action?

An American writer once observed that the terrorist attempts to wash an impure world clean with the blood of innocent victims. The impurity here is the dreadful deed of the terrorist. On that, this House stands shoulder to shoulder in full support of our American cousins.

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