It’s extremely rare that the death of a British politician brings with it a near-universal outpouring of genuine sadness amid cross party appreciation. But Charles Kennedy, the former Liberal Democrat leader, who as died at the unthinkably young age of 55, was that increasingly rare thing in British public life: a politician who retained his authenticity.
Although his considerable career achievements came to be overshadowed by his well-documented and public personal struggles in later life, it should not be forgotten that Kennedy was a politician who often went out on a limb for what he believed in and at great risk to both person and party.
He was also an extraordinary communicator, whose appearances on Have I Got News For You, A Kick In The Ballots and other shows made him both popular with the wider public and a household name.
Moreover, he was the most successful Lib Dem leader in history, leading his party to its largest ever number of seats at the 2005 General Election: 62 seats with 22.1 per cent of the total vote. It’s a total that looks unlikely to be bested any time soon.
Iraq War opposition
This performance was largely as a result of his principled opposition to the Iraq War, a decision that looks easier today with the benefit of hindsight. But it was not easy then, and particularly so because rumours of his drinking problems first began to surface in the run-up to that tumultuous vote.
It was not the first time Kennedy had made a stand. In 1983, he was the only SDP MP to gain a seat at the general election (there were only six voted in) despite still being a Fulbright scholar at the time.
He was actually the last member of the house to be voted in as an SDP MP. After the disappointing 1987 election he was the most prominent advocate of merger with the Liberals led by David Steel. In fact, he was the only SDP MP to support the idea, despite David Owen’s opposition.
He frequently warned against Steel’s successor Paddy Ashdown becoming too close to the new Labour leader Tony Blair, both before and after defeating Simon Hughes to become leader of the party in 1999. He had a good 2001 election, gaining six more seats, but it was over the Iraq War that he became a truly national figure.
Despite the party’s relative success in 2005, however, his personal issues came to dominate the narrative surrounding him. He had won a snap leadership election he called to try to head off dissent, but dissatisfaction with his performances grew, and when this turned into front bench revolt he resigned in January 2006.
An ardent pro-European, he often spoke on the subject in the House. He also resumed his media appearances, and remained a popular figure.
It was a great sadness to him that having resigned, he was not able later to champion the anti-nationalist campaign in the Scottish referendum. He was very wary of the Lib Dems going into the Coalition with the Conservatives for which they paid so dearIy at May’s election.
Of course, the last many of us saw of him was his concession speech on election night, in which he fell victim – after 32 years as an MP – to the SNP landslide in Scotland. Before that, there had been a troubling appearance on BBC Question Time, which reignited concern for his health.
A talented politician
Through it all, he remained a talented politician of rare principle, one who was prepared to go out on a limb for what he believed in and talk to the public with an often humorous and authentic voice that was not entirely snuffed out by his party’s spin doctors, or the need to be entirely politically correct.
Great company; friendly, open and generous to friend and foe (and journalists he didn’t know – as I can personally attest), he was neither glossy nor artificial.
And that, allied to his talent and relative youth, is why there is such sadness at his passing today, so many heartfelt tributes. He leaves behind a young son, Donald, from his marriage to Sarah Gurling, later dissolved.
He causes us to wonder about what might have been, and whether – despite all our public protestations in the affirmative – we really do want our politicians to be authentic. His voice will be greatly missed in British public life. And you can’t say that about too many people.