RIP Charles Kennedy
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 to 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.