Amid Alex Salmond inquiry furore, we should remember Charles Kennedy, a good man, cruelly treated, and listen to his like again – Kirsty Strickland

BBC Alba’s profoundly affecting documentary on the life of Charles Kennedy ended with a reference to early Latin texts about debate and rhetoric which assert that the ultimate aim of any orator is simply to be a good man, speaking.
Charles Kennedy, pictured when he launched his campaign to become Liberal Democrat party leader, was an extraordinarily talented, but flawed, human being, says Kirsty Strickland (Picture: David Moir)Charles Kennedy, pictured when he launched his campaign to become Liberal Democrat party leader, was an extraordinarily talented, but flawed, human being, says Kirsty Strickland (Picture: David Moir)
Charles Kennedy, pictured when he launched his campaign to become Liberal Democrat party leader, was an extraordinarily talented, but flawed, human being, says Kirsty Strickland (Picture: David Moir)

“Debate is a good man speaking. Such a good man.”

When the subject of a documentary is somebody who was so well-liked, it would have been easy to produce an hour-long eulogy that relied on sentimentality over substance.

Charles Kennedy: A Good Man Speaking was all the more powerful for how it largely avoided that and instead presented a well-rounded reflection of the life of an extraordinarily talented and flawed human being.

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That we knew the documentary would conclude with a discussion of the premature death of the former Liberal Democrat leader didn’t make the moment any less poignant when it came.

That was in no small part down to the sobering recollections from friends and colleagues of Charles Kennedy on the disgraceful way he was treated in the weeks leading up to his death.

It was striking that their memories of that time and how it affected him were recounted more with a sense of sadness than anger.

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“Cruel beyond words” was how one described the campaign fought against him which saw a small but vicious group target him for personal abuse, including leaving notes on his car and in his letterbox. Social media played its inglorious part too and much of the vitriol focused on Kennedy’s personal life and struggles with alcoholism.

Since the documentary aired, there has been renewed criticism of the now SNP Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, and how he conducted himself during the bitter contest.

Blackford has previously claimed that his use of a “Where’s Charlie?” hashtag during the campaign merely sought to highlight Kennedy’s poor attendance in the House of Commons. He denied he was making reference to his opponent’s well-known battle with alcohol addiction.

Even the most charitable interpretation of that defence would compel its proponent to acknowledge that Blackford surely must have known how a slogan as charged as that would be weaponised by some of his supporters.

If you watch the documentary, and I implore you to do so, it is impossible not to dwell on what a sizeable political intellect we have lost from both Scottish and UK politics.

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Kennedy would have been a much-needed voice of reason during the tumultuous events of the last five years, if only life had dealt him a different hand.

It is perhaps fitting that this piece exploring the life of one of the “good men” of politics should come in a week where Scottish politics seemed to reach new lows. Those attributes that are so readily ascribed to Kennedy by both his friends and his opponents – of sincerity, humour and reasoned argument – are in short supply today.

The ongoing committee investigation into the Scottish government’s mishandling of complaints against Alex Salmond has brought to the surface an ugliness that the newly minted ‘’progressive’’ Scotland would prefer to believe it had long left behind.

The women who made complaints against Alex Salmond have been smeared, demeaned and the subject of increasingly nasty and personal attacks online. Their anonymity has been steadily chipped away at as those who believe they are righteously fighting the good fight risk contempt of court orders to not-so-subtly reference the complainers identities in tweets. This week, a man was jailed for six months for naming women who gave evidence against Salmond.

Responsibility for that ultimately lies with the man who flouted the law but some blame must also be placed at the feet of those who have spent the last few years whipping up tensions and utilising bad-faith actors for their own ends.

While this week has felt particularly gruesome, it is not an anomaly.

It’s easy to look to the angry, increasingly tribal nature of our politics and blame it on one political ideology or one news story. In truth, this toxicity can be found everywhere and no party or cause is free from it.

For many years, we’ve misdiagnosed the sickness as “trolling” when in reality it is something far more pervasive. Social media might be a reflection of us but its very design rewards discord and aggression.

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You need only look back on old, comparatively sedate, episodes of Question Time to see how much has changed in how we conduct ourselves towards those we disagree with.

We now live in the age of the shareable ‘gotcha’ clip, where political parties selectively edit out anything their opponent said that might have aided understanding or – god forbid – given the public the chance to hear both sides of the argument.

That shift away from the long slog of persuasion towards hits and clicks is symptomatic of a gradual lowering of standards.

If you look back on what are deemed to be the great moments and speeches from Charles Kennedy’s long career you will find very little shouting. He wasn’t dialled up to 100 for the sake of it and his arguments relied on more than how brutally he could attack the other ‘side’.

Somewhere along the line, we have been conditioned to think that there’s a sense of nobility to be found in outward displays of blind hatred: where the strength of your conviction is measured by the ferocity with which you disparage those who don’t agree with you.

We’ve lost that lightness of touch that Charles Kennedy had in abundance. For a country that seems to spend a lot of time arguing with itself, there are also signs that we have become fearful of genuine disagreement.

Private Eye’s poetic obituary of Charles Kennedy went like this:

“So Farewell

Then Charles Kennedy

Decent likeable

Principled funny

And yet somehow a


We will see his like again and we will hear good men and women speaking again. If only we stop shouting long enough to listen.

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