Hey everyone It was with a mixture of shock, horror and genuine sadness that I heard of the death of the former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy aged 55. Tributes have come from all parties and among those paying their respects were the Prime Minister The Right Honourable David Cameron Former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, First Minister Of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon, Former First Minister Alex Salmond Newly elected MP for Glasgow East Natalie McGarry who paid a warm and generous tribute to him in her maiden speech this afternoon and the man who succeeded him as MP For Ross Skye and Lochabar Ian Blackford
For me this death is a very personal one and yes I am truly sad to hear of the loss of a real Liberal and a true statesman. Now some of my friends may be surprised at the esteem in which I held the man particularly when you consider that Charles Kennedy and I had very contrasting visions of Scotland and the different directions we wanted our country to take during last year’s independence referendum.
Yet despite those differences I had a genuine respect for a brilliant debater and a decent honourable man who fought with all he had for the principles and values he cherished. T,o his family and ideed his wider political family In the Liberal Democrats and across the political spectrum I send you my deepest condolences and will remember you In my prayers as I pray for the soul of the departed.
I think the reason this death has hit me so hard is the fact that Charles was only two years older than myself so I had always followed his political career with interest. He was in many ways the first politician of any party to whom i could truly relate in the summer of 1983 as in different circumstances the man who had just won an election at the age of 23 and became the Social Democratic Party MP for Ross, Cromarty and Skye gaining the seat for the Liberal Social Democratic Party Alliance could have been a year or two above me at school.
It was this and the fact he put up pictures of David Bowie on his House of Commons office wall which me think at least for a time that he wasn’t just the youngest MP in the house that summer he was also the coolest one. However before anyone judges me on this admission I want you to remember that this was my first General Election and I had in fact voted Labour as along with most of the central belt of Scotland because I was told by my elders that it was only way to stop the Tories getting in. This of course proved to be completely wrong and despite winning double the amount of Scottish seats than their Conservative opponents the Conservatives were returned to power with their majority increased from 44 to 144. This to me was my worst possible nightmare and desperate for change I briefly flirted with the idea of joining what would have been the old Liberal Party at the time.
The more I thought about it however, the less flirtatious I became and by the autumn of that year the aftermath of the election result and the powerlessness of the Labour Party and The Alliance to stop that woman proved beyond any doubt that if Scotland desired to see any sort of decent political change we would need to vote SNP to get it. Cool or not, not even Bonnie Prince Charlie Kennedy could wed me to a British Identity.
That said, young Mr Kennedy was a star on the rise and it wouldn’t be long before in the words of one of musical heroes he would see his Golden Years. After the two headed monster that was The Alliance merged to become the Liberal Democrats as we know them today The Honourable Member for Ross Cromarty And Skye was a man who was seen to be going places . This was a man who had a sharp mind and ready wit and was as much at home in the TV Studios as he was in the cut and thrust of the debating chambers in the palace of Westminster perhaps even more so. After serving under leader the joint leader ship of David Steel and David Owen and Paddy Ashdown fate decreed that in 1997 it would be to Charles Kennedy that his party would turn for inspiration, guidance, and most of all leadership.
With Tony Blair now now encamped in Downing Street having got there on the rather facile and vacuous New Labour, New Britain which was like the emperor’s new clothes a wee bit too see through for anyone with a shred of political decency. The Liberal Democrats decided they also needed to reconnect with the voters and Charles Kennedy was just the man to do it . This was a wise choice as under Kennedy’s leadership the party increased its number of MP in both the 2001 and 2005 General Elections This was in no small part due to Kennedy’s style of leadership as he gained a reputation not only as a man of stature but also a man of principal speaking out with passion and conviction against Britain’s participation in the war with Iraq. It was in no small part due to the stance of a principled rebel that the Liberal Democrats gained a reputation as the anti-establishment party and it was this stance which in the 2005 General Election saw them gain a higher percentage of the public vote share for the first time since 1987.
This however was not to last and when the SNP won control of the Scottish Parliament Kennedy was among the first to congratulate the new administration and challenge traditional unionist ways of thinking saying that Scotland needed to be given a voice within the union or the prospect of independence could become a very real threat to the United Kingdom. Needless to say too few were listening and i don’t think he was in any way surprised at the SNP Landslide victory in the 2011 Scottish Election.
By this time however Charles Kennedy was not the force he had been in previous years. Though still a respected statesman and a voice worth listening to Kennedy was no longer at the forefront of Scottish or UK politics and both were much the poorer for it
Even or perhaps especially for the most gifted politicians Westminster can be a lonely and frightenning place and the fame such as they get can haunt them as they are living in a poitical goldfish bowl where every move is scrutinised. It is the kind of place which if you have any demons they will find you and make sure they place temptation at every corner. Charles Kennedy’s temptation was drink and It was to play a significant part in the man nicknamed Champange Charlie losing the leadership of his party to former Olympic athlete and fellow Scot Menzies Campbell.
By the time of the 2010 election Nick Clegg was the new poster boy for liberal democracy. Though not as charasmatic than Kennedy and far less likely to appear on chat shows Clegg was or so it appeared at the time a safer pair of hands. Boosted by his popularity in the first ever televised election debates this was a man who believed he could take his party into government as part of a coalition and did a deal with the Conservatives .
Whilst Nick Clegg and his key supporters stood to gain from this arrangement, there were others who were not so sure on the merits of this coaition and warned that it would have disasterous consequences for the party. Chief among the dissenting voices was one Charles Kennedy. The principled rebel returned to his social democratic roots and refused to serve in any Tory led coalition. It is perhaps one of the cruellst ironies of my political lifetime that the one Liberal Democrat who refused to sit at the cabinet table was the one who would have been most suited to doing so.
In his tribute to Mr Kennedy former Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond suggested that Mr Kennedy’s heart was not reallly committed to the official pro union better together campaign and I have to agree with my former party leader to some extent. Don’t get me wrong, neither I nor Alex Salmond despite the bile ridden drivel of some of the more right wing unionist hacks would ever claim that Charles Kennedy supported independence but what I would say and the former First Minister would I think agree, is that it is perfectly acceptable for someone like Kennedy who was a man of honour and princpiple to be a committed unionist without spewing out an official pro Westminster line.
You see unlike the bettter together party hacks, when Charles Kennedy spoke for the union he was speaking of the union he wanted to see and that meant he could reach out to people like me yes voters who would search for common ground wherever we could find it and respectfully agree to differ where we could not. This was a man who sought ailies not enemies, a man who had no time for those who would talk of bayonetting the wounded That was never his style nor could It ever be. Charles Kennedy would be far more likely to say I could live In your kind of Scotland and you could live in my kind of Britain. That to me was the mark of the man who was a liberal minded democrat and a very principled rebel.
Love And Best Wishes