Charles Kennedy was the charismatic and articulate MP who led the Liberal Democrats from 1999 to 2006. He led the party to a position of strength and to its greatest post-war electoral success. Kennedy was one of the few British politicians who had the courage to oppose the 2003 Iraq war and defiantly opposed the Conservative/Liberal coalition of 2010.
He was a man of high principles blessed with a keen sense of humanity and honour, serving his constituents (firstly Ross, Cromarty and Skye and after boundary changes Ross, Skye and Inverness West) with dedication. He was popular throughout the far-flung constituency and known to everyone simply as “Charles”.
Kennedy will be remembered as a devoted Scot. When he won Ross, Cromarty and Skye in 1983 he was the youngest MP in the Commons and his father composed a piece of music on the fiddle to celebrate his achievement.
Music had played a large part in Kennedy’s youth, as had the culture and traditions of the Highlands. Both his parents were fine fiddlers and when he first fought that 1983 election father and son would canvas the far-spread community together, Peter playing the fiddle for half an hour and Charles “doing some politics” for ten minutes. They then moved off to the next hall.
It was an area that shaped Kennedy as a man and as a politician. Throughout his life he preserved a dram of Highland glamour.
His fellow Liberal MP, Sir Menzies Campbell, spoke warmly of his colleague to The Scotsman yesterday: “Charles was a hugely talented man. Not a nationalist but a believer in a United Britain who preserved a wider view of Europe.
“When I became the leader it was a difficult time for both of us. In time bridges were built and we regularly lunched at the National Liberal Club and gradually our friendship was restored, as I think were relations within the party. Time put into perspective his many contributions and successes to the Lib Dems and his achievements were widely recognised.”
Charles Peter Kennedy was the son of a crofter and educated at Lochaber High School in Fort William. He took a degree in Politics and Philosophy at Glasgow University, where he was active in the Social Democrat Party and the Dialectic Society – a literary debating society. In 1982, Kennedy won The Observer’s Mace debating competition and on graduating worked for BBC Radio Scotland. Later that year he was granted a Fulbright Fellowship at Indiana University.
While there, Kennedy received the SDP nomination for Ross, Skye and Inverness, which he contested and won at the 1983 general election. At just 23 he was welcomed as a fresh voice in liberal politics and talked of as a future party leader.
Kennedy was not optimistic of victory at that first campaign as he returned to continue his studies in America – not even waiting for the announcement of the result. He retained the seat at five subsequent general elections.
Kennedy was an enthusiastic supporter of the move to merge the SDP and Liberal parties in the 1980s and held various front-bench posts. In 1999 he succeeded Paddy Ashdown as leader and gave the party a more relaxed, Europe-orientated stance. Kennedy made the party a radical voice at the left-of-centre.
Voters warmed to this less aggressive approach to politics and at the 2001 general election the party won 52 seats. This resurgence in the Lib Dems’ fortunes was endorsed when Kennedy led the party in the 2005 election, increasing the number of MPs to 62 – their greatest number since the 1920s.
It was a remarkable personal triumph for Kennedy and he heralded the Liberal Democrats as the “national party of the future”.
He proved his political courage when he confronted the Blair government over the Iraq war. Kennedy was a conviction politician who spoke out – in the Commons and at the Anti-War rally in Hyde Park – against any British involvement. “There is,” Kennedy said with obvious passion, “a small clique in this country driving us into war.”
Despite this upsurge the party was facing internal turmoil. Some felt Kennedy confined the party’s appeal to minority voters and should be concentrating its armoury on the Blair government.
By 2005 there was speculation about Kennedy continuing as leader. The journalist Andrew Neil claimed he had it “on good authority” that Kennedy would resign as leader the following spring. A letter signed by 23 Liberal Democrat MPs rejecting his leadership highlighted these internal frustrations. The unrest was exacerbated when stories began to emerge that Kennedy had a drink problem. He was informed in 2006 that ITN was about to break the story that he was receiving treatment for alcoholism. With great courage and dignity he called an immediate press conference and admitted that he was “coming to terms with a drinking problem”.
With a keen eye on his responsibilities to the party he announced he would be calling a leadership contest to resolve the issue.
Kennedy faced a dilemma. The grassroots of the party supported him totally but the MPs were voicing dissatisfaction. They had lost confidence in their leader when he had not been present at the Budget debate for, it was alleged, excessive drinking. Kennedy, most honourably, felt he could not continue as leader in such a climate and withdrew his name as a candidate. Sir Menzies Campbell was appointed an interim leader.
Ironically, Kennedy’s first public appearance was campaigning on behalf of Willie Rennie at the Dunfermline by-election, which the Lib Dems captured from Labour.
Kennedy remained in the limelight. He played an active role in last year’s Better Together campaign and served as Rector of Glasgow University for six years.
He was also much seen on television where his genial manner and relaxed affability proved a winning combination. Unfairly, he was criticised and earned the nickname Chatshow Charlie but on such programmes as Question Time and Have I Got News For You Kennedy proved hugely entertaining. He chaired the latter show and introduced himself: “I am Charles Kennedy and tonight I am in charge.”
Sir Menzies also spoke warmly of Kennedy, the politician. “Charles had integrity and the ability to explain the most complex political issue. In an era when politicians are not held in high esteem by the public Charles was direct, loyal and genuine.”
Kennedy had to contend with his own personal demons but he was a much liked and respected politician – especially by his constituents. His loss at the recent general election was undoubtedly a savage blow to him.
He preserved a sense of humour when he said at the count: “I am very fond of political history. If nothing else, we can all reflect on and perhaps tell our grandchildren that we were there on the night of long sgian dubhs!”
Kennedy married Sarah Gurling in 2002. They divorced in 2010. She survives him along with their son Donald.