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Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Some reflections on Charles Kennedy's life

Charles Kennedy speaking in Glasgow, 2013

Like many of us, I was shocked and saddened in equal measure to learn of Charles Kennedy's passing.

I didn't know Charles particularly well, although I would have liked to. He was someone I admired and, whenever I met him, I found him amusing, sharp-minded, warm and unusually interested in others. I last saw him at Conference in 2013, when he joined Bob Maclennan and myself outside for a chat about Europe...and the inevitable cigarette - but what stays with me was his genuine interest in my own life and various projects I was working on.

I was not a member of the Liberal Democrats when Charles served as leader, but he was someone it was easy to respect. His leadership coincided, not accidentally, with improved General Election performances and with a renewed emphasis on social justice and equality. On the key issues he has been proved right time after time - on Europe, on human rights, on the Iraq invasion and on Scotland. He understood Scotland. Unlike myself, Charles was a committed believer in the United Kingdom, but he recognised that the constitutional status quo was unsustainable and undesirable. He was a federalist who had no truck with much of the unionist scaremongering of Better Together, which he labelled "stupid".

Whatever can be said of Charles, there can be no escaping his political courage. Earlier today, I wrote for KaleidoScot, outlining the consistent and principled stance he made on LGBT equality - at a time when there was no electoral advantage to doing so. Furthermore, lest we forget, when the Liberal Democrats took a position of opposing the Iraq invasion public opinion supported the war. That we were later proved correct, with the public mood shifting dramatically, obscures the riskiness of the decision. It was a difficult one to take. But Charles, after some persuasion I believe, had the courage to take up a potentially unpopular position for no other reason than it was the right thing to do. For me, this typified his approach to politics: if something is right, then it is worth doing.

It was also true of his approach towards the European Union. He was far more overtly pro-Europe than any leader before or since. His last conference speech, in 2013, saw him articulately extol the values and benefits of the EU. It was compelling viewing - an example of the great orator at his irresistible best. I remember another of his conference speeches - his leader's speech in 2001 - when he turned on Euroskeptics: "well I say to those people - you are wrong, you are wrong." He did not, however, explain why they were wrong. I considered this odd at the time, but it became clear to me that he felt the case was so obvious and so sensible that no argument was needed. It was, as always, a simple matter of making the right choice.
Two former SDP MPs, two former leaders:
Charles Kennedy and Bob Maclennan in 2013

I have been somewhat dismayed today to see so much focus on Charles's "demons". That is not because I believe these diminish Charles - in fact, as someone who has his own "demons", I feel it actually adds to his humanity and demonstrates his deep courage in facing them. Indeed, the decision to effectively oust him in 2006 is, even now, something I consider a deep stain on the party. But, in considering his life, these difficulties should not be defining, and they should not be perceived as character flaws. Flaws are not unique to politicians, or even those with alcohol difficulties and mental health problems. Charles suffered - and he did suffer - not from some flaw of personality but from a tragic illness that took its toll on him, his relationships and his political potential. 

Charles's battles, often very public, show his determination to overcome and succeed. At a time when the party needs - more than ever - people of those qualities, losing him now is particularly cruel. Probably (on his day) the finest orator our party has produced in decades, and unquestionably the most personable leader in living memory, Charles was able to command respect as a serious politician while also presenting himself as affable, amiable and "in touch". His ability to project both a statesmanlike understanding of government with a gift for being able to easily relate to "real" people can be seen in his performances on Question Time and Have I Got News For You. He was himself real, authentic, decent, principled - and yet was able to be those things while wearing his politics lightly. He hated formality and stage-managed situations, thriving on spontaneity and the freedom to be himself.

Of course, some would argue that "being himself" ultimately became the problem. They may be right. However, Charles's image as an honest, principled, people-person outlived his leadership - something admitted by even political opponents. 

We owe more to Charles than simply the successes of his leadership period. An SDP MP since 1983, it was Kennedy who - with Bob Maclennan - made the merger of the two Alliance parties a reality five years later. What would have become of the Alliance, and third party politics more generally, without his characteristically bold and unpopular decision to support merger in a meeting of the 5 SDP MPs is open to question, but my personal belief was that merger was necessary with Kennedy playing a significant (and often underrated) role in bringing it to fruition.

Charles Kennedy was, electorally speaking, our most successful leader since Lloyd George. He did more to facilitate equality than any modern Liberal leader, and brought a credibility to the party that no other leader was able to. In creating a Lib Dem shadow cabinet, he also professionalised the parliamentary party and, more than any other, sought to prepare it for government. Perhaps more significantly, he was an effective constituency MP who never lost sight of what was truly important: empowering people. 

Charles spent more than half of his life in politics, but politics did not define him. He was always his own man, bringing his own humanity and innate decency into his political activity. He preferred collaboration over conflict, but was unafraid of combating prejudice and injustice when he encountered it. He could be cautious, but ultimately willing to take risks if he felt it was right. In the modern era, in which politics has become a media circus, he rejected the carefully orchestrated and stage managed politics typified by New Labour - opting instead for a more relaxed authenticity.

I loved him for it. I still do.