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RIP Charles Kennedy

June 2, 2015

Politics has lost one of its most gifted and genuine communicators. Charles Kennedy, when on form, was a brilliant extempore speaker. He needed no notes or autocue to marshall his thoughts and wow an audience. In the TV studio he was fluent and unspun.  His cheery demeanour won him friends across the political spectrum and endeared him to the public. In an age of grey, robotic, tribal politicians, he will be sorely missed.

I first heard of Charles when poring over the 1983 general election results in the Saturday papers. I was an SDP supporter but, in the middle of my O Levels, I was too young to vote and too busy to get involved. His win in Ross, Cromarty and Skye was the only SDP gain of the election. I joined later that year and during the 1984 Cynon Valley by election became an activist. I first heard Charles speak at an SDP conference later that year and heard him many times thereafter.

I didn’t meet him in person until 1999, when I was newly selected as the Prospective MP for Bristol West and Charles was running for party leader. I supported him and over the next six years he was a great support to me in my unsuccessful run in 2001 and my victory in Bristol West in 2005.

When I arrived in Westminster I was surprised by two things about Charles. First, how remote he seemed from longer serving colleagues and his personal shyness with all of us. Over time I realised this was related to the second surprise, his drink problem. At first I refused to believe colleagues who told me Charles was an alcoholic. But eventually I had to accept it was true.

I never got to see him for a private discussion before he resigned. He was slowly working his way through the 2005 newbies in alphabetical order and never got to me, Mark Williams and Jenny Willott. But he had spoken to me on the phone in July 2005, asking me to serve as Vince Cable’s deputy Treasury spokesman. I said I’d had enough of tax and economics after 17 years in business consulting and wanted to do something else in Parliament.  I asked if instead I could be our public health spokesman, as I wanted to make the case for a comprehensive ban on smoking in public places.  He agreed to both my appointment and the policy stance, which given his other well known vice, was generous to me and an example of his sound liberal judgement.

So when it came to the public revelation of his alcoholism during my first Christmas recess it was with great sadness that I agreed with colleagues that he could no longer carry on as our leader.

But today I want to remember the Charles Kennedy who was kind and funny, eloquent and inspiring. He will be remembered as the most successful liberal leader since Lloyd George, at least in general election tallies of seats. In broader political history he deserves to be acknowledged as the only mainstream party leader who was right on Iraq. He was right from the outset, when it was not the populist stance it became months later.

I also recall a warning from him to the parliamentary party, when discussing the 2005 general election results. He didn’t think we would hold on to protest votes and needed to craft a fresh liberal appeal to voters based on progressive polices. But he warned that any attempt to position the Liberal Democrats to the left of Labour was “an electoral cul de sac.”

Those protest voters have indeed deserted us and the party would do well to heed Charles Kennedy’s warning about electoral positioning. In the next couple of years the Liberal Democrats must be the leading ppositive voice for Britain’s continued membership of the European Union. Charles Kennedy was a passionate Europhile and his clear distinctive voice will surely be a much lamented omission from our national debate.



6 Comments leave one →
  1. June 2, 2015 12:49 pm

    well written Stephen. Sad that he was ousted too. And on a personal note I’m sad that you lost your seat, but I wish you happier times outside of (frontline) politics again.

  2. June 4, 2015 7:00 pm

    Very sad indeed He was a Great Man

  3. June 4, 2015 7:17 pm

    The truth of the matter is that many Scotsmen including me like to have a drink to unwind in
    the evening………..Charlie Kennedy & Alistair Campbell …………appear to have been
    “Functioning Alcoholics” if that is the correct term……………I am a unipolar Hypomanic
    like Alistair Campbell & Stephen Fry but we all function perfectly well with medication to
    even out the peaks & troughs of our psyche……………………..
    Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill suffered from the same condition & was crowned
    “Greatest Briton” by the British Public a few years ago……………………….
    The condition makes you strive for excellence & brook no opposition
    Charlie Kennedy has devoted his Life to Politics & Politics owes him the respect he
    deserved & I hope that ALL Party Leaders will be at his Funeral……………………….
    A Piper will no doubt sound the Lament at his graveside but at 55 we have been robbed
    of his Statesmanlike gravitas………………….

    ” Better to have Loved & lost than never to have Loved at All”

    Sleep well…………………….Braveheart……………………………..

    Douglas James Reid

  4. June 4, 2015 7:36 pm

    Charlie Kennedy will remain an inspiration to us all…………………
    Douglas James Reid,
    nephew of Sir William Kennedy Reid ex Parliamentary Ombudsman

  5. June 4, 2015 7:45 pm

    Stephen………………the Night of the Skean Dubhs claimed many scalps including yours.
    All the campaigning I had done for you over the years just went up in smoke.
    I am not a natural Lib Dem but I supported you as you were the best candidate in
    Bristol West & Jon Rogers & Fi Hance were great people……….
    You should be proud of your record & all the things you achieved in your 10 years
    in Parliament…………..



  6. June 4, 2015 8:48 pm

    The Lib Dem fight back to “Legitimacy” is going to take at least 10 years & Charlie Kennedy would have been one of those to turn the Juggernaut around but sadly he is
    no longer with us because of the widespread disdain of student tuition fees.


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