I WAS station-surfing on my car radio on Tuesday morning when I caught the tail-end of a report that appeared to be telling me Charles Kennedy had died.
Like many people, my first reaction was one of unadulterated sorrow at the loss of this man I’d never met, but whose talent, wit and decency had for so long acted as an antidote to the sneering cynicism of British politics. It wasn’t long, however, before that sorrow was contaminated by another less worthy emotion: an irritation with the sanctimony of some of the tributes and a contempt for the double standards of those who were making them.
Why do we find it so hard to confront the issue like adults? Does turning it into a joke make it more palatable?
I’m not talking about the touching eulogies from those who knew him best. Kennedy was a man who inspired much loyalty, and the affection long-standing friends had for him was plain in every word they spoke or wrote. I’m referring, rather, to the white noise of MSM and online commentary that kept implying the former Liberal Democrat leader had been universally revered for his principles as opposed to denigrated for his alcoholism.
I was watching Question Time the last time Kennedy was on, in March, when his sometimes stuttering performance was the source of controversy, and following the reaction on Twitter. Since his death, friends have suggested his occasional befuddlement was caused by his discovery that his elderly father had been rushed into hospital, but the consensus at the time was that he was back on the booze. And my, how some people seemed to enjoy that possibility. Those tweeters were split into two groups – the mockers who made jokes about tipples in the Green Room, and the pitiers, who expressed faux dismay at the scale of his decline – but the effect was the same, reducing him in the public consciousness from a statesman to a deadbeat. This despite the fact he was still sharper and more insightful than Anna Soubry and more coherent than Natalie Bennett. Someone on my timeline posted a horrible joke, and I un-followed him in disgust. But the truth is, though many ordinary people continued to admire Kennedy, he’d long ago become a figure of fun for others.
When he appeared on Have I Got News For You in 2008, host Jeremy Clarkson introduced him as a man with a “glass half full” approach to politics. Though the former Top Gear star is scarcely a barometer for good taste, if Kennedy had suffered from, say, Parkinson’s Disease, I doubt his opening gambit would have been a joke about the spilling of his water.
But the response to Kennedy pretty much mirrors the British attitude to alcohol: we egg people on to consume it; we treat them as boring if they abstain and talk up their exploits when they have one too many. We laugh if they dress up as traffic cones or board a train to Pollokshields West and end up in Preston or can’t remember what happened the night before. We treat them as legends, right up to the point when we decide they’re losers. Just look at Gazza. When he was trashing hotel rooms with Jimmy Five Bellies at the height of his fame, the tabloids glorified his antics; now they take pleasure in capturing him at his most gaunt and justify their intrusion with fake concern.
It’s odd, this apparent lack of empathy. Most of us have come into contact with alcoholics. We know the pain the disease causes, the struggle to beat it, the misery when someone who has been sober falls off the wagon. Why do we find it so hard to confront the issue like adults? Does turning it into a joke make it more palatable?
It is demoralising that it took Kennedy’s death for us to publicly acknowledge what a gifted man he was. In the past few days, his political flair, his sense of humour and his stance over Iraq and the coalition have once again been honoured; his witticisms have been repeated and his dignity been restored, even if some of the coverage has smacked of hypocrisy.
But there have been other positive developments too. Alistair Campbell’s account of a friendship “built on a shared enemy” gave an insight into the way Kennedy’s addiction coursed through his life, without defining him. “The drink was a part of who he was, and the life he had,” Campbell wrote. “The struggles came and went, and went and came, but the great qualities that made Charles who and what he was were always there.”
Other pieces followed; Celia Munro told how she and her late husband John Farquhar Munro, a former Lib Dem MSP and member of Alcoholics Anonymous, had tried to help. She said she had painful conversations with Kennedy, who had become “virtually part of the family”, about his drinking. “I spoke to him very explicitly about it on many occasions. It was hard, like having your own child in front of you, and trying to reason with them,” she wrote.
As time went on, the debate broadened: to the drinking culture in Westminster and in city centres, and to the need for more frankness and support on alcoholism generally.
On Question Time last week, one audience member asked the panel what Kennedy’s legacy would be. There was talk of the power of his oratory and the civilised way he did politics. Also of his generosity and his commitment to his family. All of those will have left their mark. But it would be fitting if Kennedy’s greatest legacy was an inadvertent one: the opening up of a new, more mature discussion on alcohol and a deeper understanding of those who wage a lifelong battle against their addiction. «