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Sunday 7 June 2015


Obituary: Charles Kennedy

Whatever your politics, it would take a hard heart not to have liked Charles Kennedy

FLUENT HUMAN: Charles Kennedy, a man of charm, intelligence and humour

MPs in the British House of Commons, which like most parliaments is usually empty, dull or acrimonious, spent more than an hour last Wednesday eloquently, sincerely and sensitively telling 10-year-old Donald Kennedy, sitting in the public gallery with his mother, why they loved his father.

Charles Kennedy had charm, intelligence and humour, but above all, what the MPs from all parts of the United Kingdom so appreciated, was his lack of political tribalism. He seemed able to connect with everyone. "He believed utterly in the causes he stood for," said Nigel Dodds of the DUP, "without hating anyone else for believing in theirs. He approached each day - I remember meeting him on many mornings - with good-natured relish, free from any contempt for his political foes but absolute in his convictions."

"Charles reached out to everyone," said Alastair McDonnell of the SDLP, "listening as much as talking…he was a genuine, great human being."

Yet he was no namby-pamby in his political views: he took sometimes controversial and unpopular positions during his political life and will long be remembered as a leading parliamentary opponent of the Iraq War. Yet later he would become an intimate friend of Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's right-hand man, also someone fighting alcoholism. "When I say that Charles was a lovely man and a talented politician," wrote Campbell in his blog, "I mean it with all my heart."

Charles Peter Kennedy had a short adult life outside parliament. Born on November 25, 1959 in Inverness, the youngest of the three children, and raised in Fort William, he was always a devoted son to Ian, a crofter and draughtsman, and Mary, a housewife, both of whom were musicians very active in the Roman Catholic Church.

The MP Stephen Pound told the Commons that on Wednesday evenings, when Mass is held in the Commons chapel, he would see Kennedy at the back of the church "just worshipping and communing with his God".

Recognised at Lochaber High School as a talented debater, at Glasgow University, where he read first English and then politics and philosophy, he became President of the Union and won the Observer Mace debating against the cream of British and Irish universities.

Precociously political, at 15 he had joined the Labour Party, but in 1981, when Labour centrists set up the Social Democratic Party (SDP), Kennedy defected, set up an SDP club in the university and in 1982 campaigned for its leader, Roy Jenkins, who won a stunning victory in a Glasgow by-election.

After a brief period as a radio reporter for BBC Highlands, Kennedy flew to Indiana University on a Fulbright scholarship to do a PhD, but was back within a few months to seek successfully the SDP nomination for Ross, Cromarty and Sky. Touring a constituency he described as "two million acres of mountain, glen and moors", his father helped him attract crowds by playing the fiddle. He was elected in 1983 at the age of 23 with the unofficial title of Baby of the House.

Kennedy would represent that constituency for 32 years. The Conservative James Gray ran unsuccessfully against him in 1992 and found him delightful.

When Gray came into the Commons five years later as an MP for an English constituency, "Charles was the first to welcome me with open arms. He remained a close and good parliamentary friend ever since.
"His warmth and magnanimity of personality spoke for him. He was a Highlander through and through: he had a Highland warmth and a Highland welcome; a Highland lack of interest in party politics: and a Highland friendship for people of every kind."

Kennedy was a fluent if sometimes under-prepared parliamentary debater who in 1987 was the first SDP MP to defy the then leader David Owen and call for the SDP's alliance with the Liberals to become a merger.

It was a tough, bitter period ending in Owen's departure and the creation of the Liberal Democrats. Kennedy rose fast in the party and despite his lack of interest in detail ("He treated the necessary but often tedious detail of policy discussions within the Liberal Democrats with the same attitude he viewed Ben Nevis in his own constituency", said Nick Clegg. "Something to be admired from afar, but a trial to be endured by others"), he effortlessly won the leadership in 1999 at the age of 39 on a platform of social justice, higher taxation for better public services, joining the Euro, staying on the centre-left and avoiding coalitions with either major party.

As a hugely entertaining media performer he was immensely popular with the public. As one Lib Dem colleague said: "If any honourable member is ever invited on to Have I Got News For You, my advice is, 'Say no, unless you want to be made out to be a prat or unless you are Charles Kennedy.'"

Although in 2005 his party won more seats that it had had for 80 years, Kennedy had to resign as leader the following year because his drinking could no longer be covered up: there were too many no-shows or slurring performances on important occasions. He would never criticise or plot against his successor, Nick Clegg, although he thoroughly disapproved of his going into coalition with the Tories in 2010.

Kennedy's marriage foundered on alcohol too, though the divorce was amicable and he remained a devoted presence in Donald's life. His mother died two years ago, his brother was subsequently paralysed, in April his father died, in May he lost his seat and his party was almost wiped out; and on June 2 he was found dead in the little crofter's house where he had been brought up.

David Cameron spoke for the whole house and indeed for millions of British people when he quoted the heartfelt words of his political enemy Alastair Campbell: "He spoke fluent human, because he had humanity in every vein and every cell."

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards