Wednesday, 30 December 2015

2015 In Memoriam: Charles Kennedy

1st June 2015 – Charles Kennedy, 55

("Charles kennedy feb 2009" by Moniker42 - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons )

“Paddy Ashdown is the only party leader who was a trained killer. Although, to be fair, Mrs Thatcher was self-taught.”
Charles Kennedy

“With Kennedy’s death a light has gone out in Scottish and British politics.That may appear as an over-worn cliché but Charlie Kennedy did brighten every room, every company, every conversation he entered. He was a marvellous communicator an engaging companion and will be missed terribly.There was an impish quality to his public persona and he was seldom without a smile on his face but he was every inch the serious politician and was a hugely successful Liberal Democrat leader – at least with the public.”
Alan Cochrane, Telegraph

Leader of the Liberal Democrats from 1999 to 2006.

Charles Kennedy was a university pal of my mothers, and had an almost predestined aura about him even then. As President of the Glasgow University Union, he turned his back on decades of established order by allowing female students access to the Union, after several protests. [Why they actually wanted in that dump, I don't know, but as Mum, who protested points out - it was the fact they werent allowed as opposed to the want to be in there!]

On graduation, Charlie looked at his options. "Academia, writing...if all else fails, politics" he told his Honours advisor.

He had been selected for the safe seat of Ross, Comarty and Skye. And by safe seat, we mean it was a Conservative safe seat, with Hamish Gray, even with constituency boundary changes, expected to hold onto his majority of 4, 735 votes from 1979. It is quite common for political parties to run younger bright hopes in unwinnable seats so they can learn the ropes of how to fight an election campaign and put it into better use in a more winnable seat when they are older and a bit wiser. The Social Democratic Party had no particular hopes for Ross, Comarty and Skye, and indeed, as seen as the 1983 election, the Labour and SDP vote tended to cancel each other out on the night at the reward of Mrs Thatcher.

No, the object was quite clear. Give young Kennedy a taste of the electoral rigmarole, once he returns from his trip to the US, then let him get on with academia for a bit. You can see Strathclyde and Glasgow fighting over his lectureship. Then, a SDP seat in 1987/88, a run in their front bench in the 90s, and sometime in the 21st Century, leadership, and who knows what?

But then a funny thing happened on the way to the pre-ordained career.

Charlie Kennedy won his unwinnable seat.

"“The Highlands and islands provided the sting in the tail of Mrs Thatcher’s election triumph with a clean sweep for the Alliance in the four northernmost constituencies, including yesterday’s major shock – defeat for Tory Oil Minister Mr Hamish Gray. It came at the hands of the General Election’s youngest victor, 23-year-old Mr Charles Kennedy, the only new Social Democrat MP. SNP and Labour’s shares of the vote plummeted as the student, born and raised on a croft at Lochyside, Fort William, swept to victory. “It was a tidal wave shift that was impossible to stop” said Mr Gray.
Stuart Lindsay, Alliance Highland wins provides sting in tail, Herald 11 June 1983

And so Mr Kennedy went to Westminster. He brought along his debating skills, which had already won the Observer mace, and his stubborn refusal to move from his own inner beliefs and ethics. 

The aforementioned university adviser, incidentally, responded to the election success by sending him a congratulatory telegram with the words "I guess all else failed then?" on it!

"From 1970 until this election it was represented by the Conservative Member, Mr. Hamish Gray. I congratulate him on his peerage and movement to another place. I congratulate him equally on his appointment as Minister of State at the Scottish Office. As many know, there was considerable interest and, indeed, controversy not just in the Highlands but in Scotland generally about his appointment. I am optimistic and encouraged by what happened to Lord Gray, and I hope that it sets a trend by the Government. I hope that 3 million people, many of whom lost their jobs largely as a result of Government policies, will shortly be placed, as a result of Prime Ministerial decision, in much better jobs."
Charles Kennedy, maiden speech, House of Commons 15 July 1983, recorded in Hansard

If you were thinking the Baby of the House would be a bit of a shrinking violet and take time to adjust to things in the House of Commons: well, within a month, he was calling out the government on their hypocrisy, and within a year, he was an Alliance spokesperson on calling out Labour for disunity in the opposition. [There are, actually, several similarities in this regard between Kennedy and one recently elected Mhairi Black, though time will tell if those are more than surface details!]

After the 1987 election, there was many calls for a complete merger between the SDP and the Liberal party, instead of the "Alliance" which had been on the go for the previous 5 years. The Alliance had failed to produce an electoral break through for either party, and big hitters like Roy Jenkins, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams were now outside of parliament. The Liberal big names were all in favour of a merger, but SDP leader Dr David Owen was against. 

Charles Kennedy was one of the first to break ranks from Owen and call for a merger. [David Owen would show his usual class later on and blame this on Kennedy feeling the pressure from Liberal activists in his constituency, ignoring Kennedy's inner Liberal which was evident even then...]

A majority in both parties agreed, and so the Liberal Democrats were formed, minus David Owen. 

After the merger, Charlie Kennedy, still aged only 30, moved onto the Lib Dem front bench, as Health spokesman (where he pushed for the expansion of cold weather payments to vulnerable and old people).

"My fundamental objection to the Bill is its lack of intellectual honesty. There are two reasons why the Government have felt it necessary to introduce a Bill to reform the National Health Service. The first is straightforward: the Health Service is both big and bureaucratic. It is the biggest civilian employer in western Europe. Anything like that is bound to attract the disdain of a Government such as this, who do not like to respond to, or to have to deal with, any group in society that can wield the kind of power that the National Health Service can. Secondly, and derived from that, the Bill is a response to political frustration. After 10 years of being told that the Government are spending more, employing more, treating more and building more, the public do not believe them. From the evidence in their own communities, the public do not believe the rhetoric of Ministers at the Dispatch Box. Largely out of the sense of frustration, the Prime Minister insisted on a political and legislative response. She split the Department of Health from the Department of Social Security, downgrading the then Secretary of State for Health and Social Security. She then dismissed him and brought back the previous Minister for Health, who has had to pull together this ill-assorted ragbag of ideas and try to present it as a coherent political philosophy when, in its basic analysis, it is not, because it is a response to political rather than patient needs."
Charles Kennedy, opposition to the National Health Service reform bill, House of Commons 15 March 1990, recorded in Hansard

He also spoke heavily in favour of folk effected by contaminated blood, for emergency workers pay, and for decreasing the costs accrued by nursing students, among many other subjects. In one particularly amusing moment, Michael Forsyth thanked Kennedy publicly in the house for his constructive criticism at committee level in the government's planned health reforms (see above), only for Kennedy to quickly retort that he was glad the exchange wasn't on TV: "What does the member have against me?" he quipped, jokingly alluding to the kiss of death that a public Tory recommendation would have to a Liberal.

Alongside the Health concerns, Charles Kennedy was quick to ask questions of the government on all manners of Highlands life he felt needed protection or support, from crofting grants to the Skye Bridge. Through out his time at the Scottish and Health offices, these questions were frequently batted directly at Michael Forsyth, and there are times reading old Hansards you can almost feel Forsyth's despair as he can't get through one Commons announcement or week either a question in the house or a written question again waiting him from Charles Kennedy, ready to out debate him. If he thought the move to Employment in 1992 would provide respite, worry not - Kennedy was asking questions that way too! 

And when he appeared on Question Time? There was Kennedy once more. Really, the two men either had to have become firm friends, or wound up killing each other.

"A sterling effort, although you don't sound any better to this side of the house in Gaelic!"
Charles Kennedy, in response to Forsyths use of Gaelic in a Commons debate, recorded in Herald 28 July 1988

After the 1992 election, Charles was moved to the Foreign affairs brief on the Liberal front bench, which meant his analytical, and dogged, questioning style was moved onto Douglas Hurd. John Watts, a Transport minister, frequently received The Fort William Inquisition over railway privatization and what it meant to the Highland economy, but alas, he just responded to the champion debater with "no comments". 


During this time, Kennedy worked closely with Liberal Democrat party leader Paddy Ashdown, who helped double the number of Lib Dem MPs in the 1997 election. So in 1999, when Ashdown retired, it was Kennedy who stormed to the front of the field in the race to replace him, beating Simon Hughes in the final round of votes.

Charles Kennedy was Liberal Democrat leader, and 39.

"We have to be a voice for the vulnerable and the disenfranchised, because those voices are not being heard by New Labour."
Charles Kennedy, victory speech, 9 August 1999.

His friendly, conversational and witty style, coupled with frequent Have I Got News For You appearances, made political opponents underestimate him. But, as seen by his frequent oratorical batterings of Tory opponents in the 1980s and 1990s had proved, Kennedy's was a mind to overlook at your peril. He instantly saw how the Liberals could present themselves as a clear alternative between the admitted similarities between Tony Blair's Labour and the Conservative party. 

In that regard, a net gain of six, to make 52 Lib Dem MPs, in 2001 was a qualified success. However, had the turn out for 1997 been the same in 2001, the Tories could have ended in double figures and the Lib Dems in triple figures. The slow success gave ammunition to those on the right of the party who equated Charlie's centre left stance with near socialism. [As Kennedy pointed out in the 1980s debates, and again when talk of him defecting to Labour after 2010 happened, he was avowedly a Liberal, not a Socialist.]

However, in 2003, the thing which was to be the epitaph, signpost and history marker for Charlie Kennedy's career happened. Well, the genesis was in 2001, with the September attacks, but by 2003, Tony Blair and George Bush were certainly wanting war with Iraq for those weapons of mass destruction. You know, the ones that could be used to harm the West within 45 minutes...

There was massive public outcry against the move to war, as seen by how disagreeable it is as a topic even now. However, in the commons, Blair wanted war, and the Leader of the Opposition, Iain Duncan-Smith agreed with him. Despite misgivings, Gordon Brown backed Blair for fear of splitting the Labour party. Robin Cook resigned from the government and went to the back benches, but Clare Short had U-turned too many times to be a credible opposition, and George Galloway was widely seen by most as too much of a demagogue. 

This is where Charles Kennedy stepped into the breach. 

He was against action which did not have evidence to support it, or international backing, and felt that Blair's case for war was based more on rhetoric than evidence or threat. He also felt diving headfirst into battle against the obvious wishes of the British public was a betrayal of Blair's electoral promises.

And so, he denoted the anti-war aspect of the debate in each singular detail in the House of Commons, while barracked on both sides by the right wing of the two major parties. 

As more and more right wing Tories demanded Kennedy gave way, he turned on them:

"If Conservatives speak about the need for consistency on the international stage with respect to humanitarianism, as several have over many months, why did they not support the humanitarian intervention in Sierra Leone or the use of ground troops in Kosovo? Why did they veto eleven United Nations resolutions relating to apartheid South Africa when they were in government? We do not need moral lessons from the Conservative party!"
Charles Kennedy, House of Commons 18 March 2003, recorded in Hansard.

At that point, the TV cameras caught Iain Duncan Smith shooting Kennedy the most blatant glare of contempt and hatred as he demanded Kennedy sit down.

"There is huge public anxiety in Britain. That is the mark of a fundamentally decent society. All of us, whatever our views, whatever our parties, know that the kind of people contacting us are very different from many of those with whom we deal regularly. They are the kind of people who say, "I have never contacted a Member of Parliament before," or "I've never been politically active before." They are the kind of people who have never gone on a march or attended a vigil before. Another significant point is that, whether or not they agree with the Prime Minister, only a tiny fraction ever call into question his sincerity in this matter. I have never done so and I do not do so today. But much as they detest Saddam's brutality, they are not persuaded that the case for war has been adequately made at this point, they are worried about the new doctrine of regime change, they are wary of the Bush Administration's motives, and they do not like to see Britain separated from its natural international allies."
Charles Kennedy, House of Commons, 18 March 2003, recorded in Hansard

Shouts of "what a disgrace" from the Tory benches, and further speakers all told the nation how obviously there was weapons of destruction in Iraq. 

Kennedy and the anti-war movement in the house lost the vote, but the subsequent events in Iraq failed to find any such weapons. 

Having broken an unwritten rule of conduct that opposition leaders back Prime Ministers moves for war, Charles Kennedy had marked himself as courageous, and brave, in the Yes Minister sense,  but it was a courage that resonated with the general public. The Liberal Democrats were able to use their opposition to the Iraq War to make gains in 2005 and 2010. 

However, right as the Kennedy bandwagon was gaining momentum, it was being punctured.

There is the elephant in the room when discussing Charles Kennedy of pointing out his alcoholism. It isn't so much an elephant as a gaping chasm, in the manner of which he leaves British and Scottish society, and which would still be filled if he had been able to conquer those demons. Flaws overcome to achieve greatness, however brief, makes those great moments stand out. However, it is fair to say that they also prevented Kennedy reaching his zenith. [What that was, I don't know - maybe the Liberals wouldn't have suffered the post-Kennedy comedown in 2010, and so, with 80 plus MPs in a hung parliament, when the Tories or Labour came to offer a deal, Charlie could say: "So, fancy the Deputy PM spot, Mr Cameron/Mr Brown?" I am, of course, using exaggeration to prove the point here.]

Despite the gains of 2005, the right of his party was gaining traction, rumours of Kennedy's ill health kept being leaked to the press.

In January 2006, Kennedy admitted he had a drink problem, and was receiving medical treatment. He called a leadership election, in which he would stand, to end all discussion over the role. A petition from fellow Liberal MPs soon followed:

" I and my colleagues believe we need to make our personal positions clear. Everyone wishes to give Charles the weekend to reflect, and have expressed their sympathy and support for him in his battle with his serious medical condition. However, we felt we had to indicate what our personal intentions would be next week, given his statement yesterday. We have indicated to Charles Kennedy that we would no longer be prepared to serve under his leadership after this weekend."
Ed Davey, the letter, recorded in The Scotsman, 7 January 2006

The letter was signed by future Lib Dem leaders Nick Clegg and Tim Farron, and had the signatures of 25 of the 62 Liberal Democrat MPs.  It was more noteable who wouldn't sign it: Lembit Opik and Mark Oaten were no surprises, but Vince Cable, despite misgivings, was unwilling to sign a "death warrant". Menzies Campbell and Simon Hughes also did not put their names to the document.

Nevertheless, despite having original put himself forward for the leadership election he called the day before, Kennedy refused to split his own party over one MP, and so resigned immediately from his role. There was not immediately the belief that this was the end, perhaps Kennedy would get better, and return to front line politics before long. 

His absence, however, let the right of the party take full command, and Nick Clegg wound up leader after his allies successfully undermined Kennedy's successor, Menzies Campbell, as well as they had himself. Lembit Opik is on record as believing that if the party had stood by Kennedy, then the man, the party and thousands of fellow addiction sufferers in the country would all have been better off. That true or not, the removal of Kennedy had a stench of political opportunism which stuck to the Liberal Democrats during the time. [Though not as bad as the stench of coalition, one might guess!]

Kennedy refused to rule out returning as party leader one day ("unlikely" he conceded), presumably being willing to play the long game on that one. He continued to speak from the backbenches on all his usual subjects of interest, presumably with Michael Forsyth breathing a sigh of relief that he was in the Lords now.

"It seems to me that this is a reflection of the increasing tendency in British politics to play down the big, divisive issues - particularly at election time. Several issues will cast a long shadow across the lifetime of the current parliament and beyond: Trident, for example, the future role of civil nuclear power and the recurrent reality of Britain's place within Europe. These are all real issues of strategic substance that cut across conventional party political lines, but as they're not considered "vote winners" they were barely raised during the last election. At election time politicians from all parties knew that these were key issues and yet they were not actively debated. Why? Because they weren't important? No. It was because the debate wouldn't have helped win votes. As someone who has led his party through two general elections I have not always been immune from feeling the pressure of electioneering tactics. I have not always fully exploited the opportunity to influence public debate. I did not dwell on the issue of Europe during either the 2001 or the 2005 campaigns - despite it being a pivotal personal concern and despite seeing it as something of a litmus test for liberal democracy. I was persuaded away from such rash behaviour because it would carry too many downsides electorally."Charles Kennedy, How We Lost People's Trust, The Guardian 4 August 2006

In 2010, when the hung parliament resulted in the Liberal Democrats forming a coalition with the Tories, the adamantly centre-left Charles Kennedy voted against the coalition formation. He voted against tuition fees, he voted against VAT rises, he voted for welfare spending rises, and other issues.

His appearances in the House were limited due to deep depression issues at his party, whom he had been pivotal in helping create, were linked to the Tory party in government.

Arguments will rage about what exactly was the event horizon for the Liberals - if it was merely entering into coalition in the first place, or the tuition fees debacle (Kennedy's vote was noted above as, despite it being party policy to abolish them, Clegg and most of the party voted FOR tuition fee rises!), or the feeling that they were lapdogs to the Tories.

Whichever it was, Kennedy's personal appeal was such that he might well have survived the Lib Dem collapse itself. Indeed, he wound up polling nearly 30% higher than his own party.

The SNP surge, however, was another matter. Even with the second highest Liberal share of the vote in the country (only Orkney and Shetland were higher), and having the 5th highest vote of any pro-Union candidate (three of the other four were elected), it wasn't enough to avoid the tsunami.

Well, these things happen. Even Tony Benn lost an election once. There was always tomorrow. The upcoming EU referendum for example, would see him as an important voice, no doubt. His health, after so long a time in the doldrums, was finally recovering. He'd lost his seat, sure, but the future looked bright after so long in exile.

And then, the side effects of personal demons returned in early June, when no one was expecting them. 

And he died.

“Possessing the warmest and most engaging of Scottish highland personalities, coupled with a natural charm that made him popular among even those who disagreed with him, he will be remembered as one of the most gifted and personable leaders of our time. The first time I met Charles in 1983 I had recognised his ability and asked him to join the Labour Party. He politely declined. The last time I was in touch with him was to pass on condolences when his father, with whom he remained very close, sadly died just before the 2015 election. No one will forget the skills Charles demonstrated - with his undoubted ability to debate, lead and persuade - in bringing the Liberal Democrats to life, in arguing against the Iraq War and in putting the case for Scotland in the UK and Britain in Europe.”
Gordon Brown

Charlie Kennedy appearing on this memorial list of the lost now is like some cruel practical joke played on us mortals. You keep waiting for the “April Fools!” which never arrives. You think of the great joy to be experienced from the moment in years to come, when there’s a EU referendum debate, and UKIP’s Nigel Farage tries to debate Kennedy on the matter, only to be utterly trounced, and how much Kennedy himself would have enjoyed it. And then you realise that’s never going to happen.

We’ve been robbed of it.

And then you think about his young child, sans father, and realise that no matter the great loss to the British public, the domestic loss was far greater.

“Succeeding Paddy Ashdown as leader in 1999, whose closeness to Labour he had consistently criticised, Kennedy repositioned the Lib Dems as the radical alternative to a struggling Tory opposition. The strategy Kennedy and his election co-ordinator Lord Rennard followed, of “targeting” seats, paid off with further gains, mainly from Labour as Tony Blair’s policies alienated the Left; attempts to “decapitate” leading Tories proved a failure.Kennedy scented power in February 2003, as George W Bush prepared to invade Iraq. Blair moved to commit British forces, claiming Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that could be deployed against Britain at 45 minutes’ notice. Kennedy spoke strongly against an invasion, and, with many Labour MPs just as opposed, there was a chance that Blair would suffer a moral, if not numerical, defeat in the crucial debate – leading to a dissolution, or a government headed by opponents of war On February 26, 122 Labour MPs joined 77 from Opposition parties to support the motion that “This House finds the case for military action against Iraq as yet unproven”. Rebellion on this scale was unprecedented, but the margin was just enough for Blair to go ahead. It did, however, put Kennedy at the head of a body of opinion in the country which grew as the overthrow of Saddam – and failure to find the weapons – was followed by ongoing carnage.”
Telegraph obit

“I am very fond of political history. Tonight, if nothing else, we can all reflect on and perhaps tell our grandchildren that we were there on "The night of long sgian dubhs!"
Charlie Kennedy, on losing his seat, 7th May 2015

“I think Charles would be the first to admit, cheerily, that he was not exactly a details man when it came to policy. 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: something to be admired from afar, but a trial to be endured by others. One of his earliest decisions when he became leader of the Liberal Democrats was to end the long-held convention that the leader of the party should attend all the regular and invariably lengthy meetings of the Liberal Democrat federal policy committee. It was a characteristically wise decision, for which I was for ever grateful during my time as leader. Again, however, his disregard for the undergrowth of policy making should not obscure his unusually instinctive and deadly serious appreciation of the bigger picture in politics. Whether on Europe, constitutional reform, his arguments against nationalism and the politics of identity, or his lifelong belief in social justice, Charles had a gut instinct about the big challenges and the big choices we faced, not the daily twists and turns and sleights of hand that dominate so much of Westminster politics. He understood, above all, that politics is at its best when it speaks to people’s values in their hearts, and is not just the dry policy debates of the head.”
Nick Clegg, former Lib Dem leader, Hansard 3rd June 2015

We can laugh at Ian Hislop's dark humoured tribute that Charlie "had spirit, though alas, too much" as we all know, deep down, that had he been around to see it, the man laughing hardest and longest at it would have been Charlie Kennedy himself.

The greatest tribute one can give to Charlie Kennedy is to think of modern Scotland.

A Scotland which recoils in the face of incrimination against refugees and the vulnerable, which is staunchly anti-war for the sake of war, which mostly supports the EU (though not unquestioningly),and with a great conscientious streak.

More than any other politician (Blair, Salmond et all), modern Scotland is shaped in the face of Charles Kennedy.

And while he’s now destined to be remembered as one of Scotland's tragic political greats, as time passes, there will be less focus on the tragic, and more focus on the greatness.

After all, we're all Charles Kennedy nowadays.