DAVID Cameron led tributes to former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy in the House of Commons yesterday, calling him the “most human of politicians” and, at his best, “the best that politics can be”.
MPs from across the political spectrum shared their memories of the former MP for Ross, Skye and Lochaber’s “courageous” opposition to the Iraq war, his compassion, his humour and his ability to connect with people of all backgrounds.
Mr Kennedy died suddenly at his home in Fort William on Monday at the age of 55.
His former wife, Sarah, and son, Donald, looked on from one of the side galleries, prompting several members to direct their words to the ten-year-old.
Lib Dem leadership contender Tim Farron, who put Mr Kennedy’s success down to being himself, said: “You should be really proud of your daddy, I am proud of your daddy. I loved him to bits and I am proud to call him my friend. God rest you, Charlie.”
Labour’s Tom Watson also spoke directly to Donald, who sat through most of the hour-and-a-half special sitting.
At his best, he was the best that politics can beDavid Cameron
He said: “Your father was a very great man, he stood up for what he believed in, he led a party of the centre-left with dignity and compassion and when you are older you will know your mum and dad believed in a cause greater than themselves and you will be proud.”
Rival Lib Dem leadership candidate Norman Lamb described Mr Kennedy as an “immense talent” who had the “extraordinary ability to reach out beyond the narrow confines of his own party”.
He said he had an affinity with people outside politics because he spoke in a language they understood and was “never ceasing” in his courtesy.
Outgoing leader Nick Clegg called his predecessor a “formidable parliamentarian” but said Mr Kennedy had been much more than his politics.
He spoke of the “enduring humanity” in Mr Kennedy, adding that he was the “polar opposite of a cardboard cut-out, point-scoring party politician”.
While acknowledging he was “very funny”, the former deputy prime minister insisted: “His good humour must not obscure the fact that there was a steely courage about him, most memorably on display when he took the principled decision to oppose the Iraq war.
“Charles was often a lone voice in this House, standing up against a consensus in favour of war on all sides.
“The fact that he was proved so spectacularly right is a tribute to his judgment and his intuitive common sense.”
The tributes, initiated by Speaker John Bercow, who described Mr Kennedy as “the boy next-door of British public life”, came from all corners of the House.
Acting Labour leader Harriet Harman described Mr Kennedy as “the golden boy from the Highlands” who could stand tall among an exceptional generation of Scottish politicians including the likes of Gordon Brown and John Smith.
Angus Robertson, leader of the SNP’s Westminster group, said he and his colleagues had been “genuinely saddened” that Mr Kennedy would no longer be in Parliament, despite being pleased at taking the Ross, Skye and Lochaber seat.
He added: “It’s a mark of the man that, when I got in touch with him after the general election, he readily agreed to meet up and share his experience of his leadership of the Liberal Democrats when that was the third party in the House of Commons.
“People across politics will attest to the generosity of spirit that Charles Kennedy showed to people on all sides of the party divide.”
The SNP’s Ian Blackford, who beat Mr Kennedy, said it had been an “absolute privilege” to campaign against him, adding that it was the national surge that lost the constituency rather than the man.
Mr Cameron, who remained in the Commons to listen to all the tributes after delivering his own, praised Mr Kennedy’s opposition to the Iraq war, saying it is easy to forget “just what a stand that was”.
He added: “Charles Kennedy will be remembered for his success, for his principle and intellect, and above all for his incredible warmth and good humour.
“He had a way of connecting with people, even those who didn’t know him well or even at all.
“He was the most human of politicians.
“In the words of Charles Kennedy himself: the vast majority of people think there is a hell of a lot more to life than just politics and you have got to bear that in mind because you are actually trying to represent them.
“At his best, he was the best that politics can be and that is how we should remember him.”
Mr Kennedy began his political career in the Social Democratic Party, winning the Ross, Cromarty and Skye seat in 1983 to become the youngest MP of the time at the age of 23.
His leadership of the Lib Dems from 1999-2006 was marked by his staunch opposition to the war in Iraq, which helped the party achieve its greatest electoral success, winning 62 seats in 2005.
But just months after the election, Mr Kennedy’s leadership was brought to an abrupt end when he dramatically admitted that he had been receiving treatment for an alcohol problem. Although he initially declared his intention to stand in a leadership contest, he was forced to stand down in the face of the threat of resignations by senior colleagues.
He never returned to the Lib Dem frontbenches, but remained a popular figure in Westminster, and was one of only a handful of the party’s MPs not to vote in favour of coalition with the Conservatives in 2010.
Mr Kennedy had been serving as an MP for 32 years when he was ousted last month as the SNP swept the board north of the Border in the general election.
The loss of his Westminster seat came after an election campaign during which Mr Kennedy was forced to take a break following the death of his 88-year-old father, Ian, in April.