CHARLES Kennedy’s untimely death gives us a chance to rethink our hatred of politicians, writes Joyce McMillan
Call no man happy, until he is dead. It was the ancient Greek poet and lawmaker Solon who first formulated the thought, 2,500 years ago; and something about the phrase began to haunt me, this week, as I listened to the great wave of heartfelt tributes – from friends, colleagues, constituents, and political opponents alike – that swept across the British political scene, following the sudden and much-mourned death of the former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy, at the age of only 55.
For when it comes to politicians, it seems that we can call no man – or woman – either beloved, or even much respected, until he or she is suddenly no longer with us. Death always transfigures reputations, of course; but with politicians the transition seems exceptionally stark. In life, they belong to one of the most reviled of all professions, widely abused for everything from chronic bad faith to naked self-interest, and believed by millions of voters to be entirely “in it for themselves”. And if you add to that general sense of disillusion with politicians the sheer venom of day-to-day political debate – with politicians on all sides bitterly attacking not only the policies but the character and motives of their opponents – then the idea that most politicians are actually, in themselves, quite decent and normal human beings begins to seem downright far-fetched.
If Alex Salmond is Scotland’s Mussolini, after all, Nicola Sturgeon a cross between Miley Cyrus and Rosa Klebb, Ed Miliband some kind of weird alien who can’t eat a sandwich, Jim Murphy a sinister representative of the undead, and David Cameron a beetroot-faced child of extreme privilege bent on driving Britain back to Dickensian levels of poverty and inequality, then by definition they are not normal human beings. From day to day, we increasingly think of our politicians – or at any rate the ones we don’t support – as psychopaths and criminals, bent on destroying all that normal people hold dear.
Except when they die; and then suddenly – with the speed of a fast theatrical lighting-shift – we once again see them whole, as complex human beings with huge talents, deep flaws, genuine ideals, and a mixture of good and bad judgments. In Charles Kennedy’s case, of course, both the talents and the flaws were always supremely obvious. Even at the height of his career, when he led the Liberal Democrats to their best-ever electoral performance in 2005, he was more loved, and less hated, than most high-profile politicians; and his principled decision to stand against the Iraq War, in 2003, attracted much admiration even in his lifetime.
Yet still, it would have been difficult to imagine the sheer passion of the tributes that have been paid to Charles Kennedy since his death on Monday, the evident love for the man felt by so many, or the exquisite, heartfelt lyricism of Steve Bell’s now famous Guardian cartoon, showing Charlie Kennedy’s spirit as a glowing version of the Liberal Democrat’s yellow bird symbol, hovering over the coastline of his much-loved constituency. Of course he was imperfect, as a politician and a man; he was famously slapdash about the detail of policy, his problem with alcohol was well-known, and – perhaps most seriously – he stuck to his party long after it had gone into a right-wing coalition he detested, destroying his lifelong dream of a UK-wide centre-left alliance genuinely committed to democracy and reform.
None of that meant, though, that he was not loved, appreciated and admired; and just for a moment, last week, I wondered whether his untimely death might not mark a moment when we could pause to reconsider the ugly, personalised vehemence of our day-to-day political language, and perhaps start hating individual politicians a little less, and debating ideas and policy a little more. It is a forlorn hope, I suppose, and for good reasons as well as bad; sometimes, the issues that arise in politics are just too important to be debated without strong personal feeling.
When Nye Bevan, back in 1948, called the Tories “lower than vermin” for what they had inflicted on working-class people in Britain during the 1930s, it is hard to argue that he was insulting people unnecessarily; in the end, politicians are responsible for the harsh human consequences of their decisions, however they justify them to themselves. When Margaret Thatcher died in 2013, I found – like millions of others across Britain – that I could feel no sorrow; she and her allies had simply done too much damage to the Britain I grew up in and loved, for me to feel anything but hatred for the politics, and a indifference to the woman herself. And in the last analysis, there are a few politicians who truly are psychopaths; war-mongers and self-aggrandisers who do untold damage to others, and who fully deserve every insult unleashed against them.
Yet even when all that is taken into account, there is something to be said for a little kindness and courtesy, even to those whose actions and views we most detest; last week no less a Tory than the preposterously patrician Jacob Rees-Mogg was to be seen in the Commons chamber glowing with comradely affection towards the new SNP contingent, as he congratulated them on their impressive maiden speeches. Loving your enemy can be a trap and a seduction, of course; Nye Bevan’s steely spirit is more necessary today than ever, in the long battle against inequality and unearned privilege. Yet there is also wisdom to be gained in the never-ending struggle to hate what seems to us like a sin, while still loving the sinner. And although many memorials to Charlie Kennedy will begin to spring up in the coming months – to his humour, his intelligence, his gentleness, and his passion for true Liberal politics – perhaps one of the finest would be a new resolve, from all those involved in the daily game of political detraction and insult, to take an occasional pause to imagine how those phrases and images would look, if that person were suddenly taken from us; to check that our judgment could survive that harsh test, and that most sudden change of perspective, before we finally dip our pens and keyboards in vitriol, and begin to write.