Tuesday, June 02, 2015

What we owe to Charles Kennedy

When David Penhaligon died so suddenly in 1986 the grief was widespread, reaching far beyond the Liberal Party. You hoped David had sensed how widely he was loved and respected.

I feel the same about Charles Kennedy today.

Despite his popularity and public persona of ‘chatshow Charlie’, I agree with David Boyle that Charles was a shy man. I wonder if this “the gap between appearance and reality” David identifies contributed in some way to his problems with drink.

Charles’s greatest service to the Liberal Democrats may have been his very first.

When the party was formed from the debris of David Steel’s grand strategy it was by no means certain that David Owen’s Continuing SDP would melt away so quickly. It was largely Charles’s decision to join the Lib Dems that made the difference.

Much of today’s media commentary on Charles’s life has dwelt on his opposition to the Iraq War, but it has not told the whole story.

He did not lead the party against Iraq: he was bounced into that position by the wider party. James Graham told some of this story in a post written in 2008 (five years after the events it describes).

But once he embraced opposition to the war Charles showed real political courage in holding to this position. It is worth remembering that, in the Commons, the Conservatives were even more hostile to him than Labour.

Quite what Charles believed in was always a bit of a mystery to me, even though I was on the party’s Federal Policy Committee when he chaired it as leader.

As I wrote for the Guardian when he resigned the leadership:
When Kennedy stood for the leadership of the Liberal Democrats in 1999, the West Highland Free Press - a radical newspaper published in his own constituency - remarked that people in London were beginning to ask what they had been asking for 15 years: what exactly does Charles Kennedy stand for? 
Though he won that contest and went on to lead the party for nearly seven years, we never really found out. 
But maybe what you saw with Charles was all there was to get. He held a range of sensible, moderate opinions – pro Europe, pro political reform – and held on to them.

The lesson may be that you don’t have to be a wild-eyed visionary or have a young family and look improbably youthful to win the public’s affection.

Charles's basic decency, leavened with that Highland charm we English are such suckers for, was enough.


James said...

"...It is worth remembering that, in the Commons, the Conservatives were even more hostile to him than Labour...."

Indeed, which is why I've been resisting the temptation to post some fairly bitter stuff about some of the Tory vitriol spewed at Charles at the time of the Iraq war and subsequently - the initials IDS spring to mind....

Anonymous said...

In fairness there were some unpleasant words utterly by some Liberal Democrat MPs who pushed him out. Where are they now?

Charles was a thoroughly decent man who stood for everything that was good about British Liberalism. The fact he was never publicly bitter about Clegg and the coalition speaks volumes about his loyalty and decency.

Had he lived I suspect he would have played a major role in rebuilding the party. Now we will never know.

Herbert Eppel said...

Charles Kennedy was quite possibly the only Question Time panelist for whom the telly was never at risk of having something thrown at by me, if you see what I mean. Minded to add a link to this blog post to the 'highlights' collection at "http://herbeppel.blogspot.co.uk/2015/06/tributes-paid-to-charles-kennedy.html"

Anonymous said...

I held Charles Kennedy in enormous respect although this was a view I gained of him from his media appearances. Since his death its clear this was not a false impression. I admired his stance on the Iraq war and agreed with his view on how wrong it was to go into the coalition with the Tories
I come from a family of solid Liberals with connections going back to Gladstone. My grandfather also a Charles(Masterman), also a Liberal politician, who died early in his fifties after battling his own demons including drink and leaving a young family, so I feel enormous sympathy and sadness for his son. With this background I had ambivalent feelings towards the modern LibDems now hardened into antipathy after their collaboration with the Tories but Charles Kennedy like my grandfather was a Liberal who put humanity ahead of economics and politics. Eleanor Pepper