Lord Wallace: Charles Kennedy spoke while others spun

I WAS giving a BBC interview as the newly elected MP for Orkney and Shetland, when the interviewer told me my colleague had won in Ross, Cromarty and Skye.

Charles Kennedy and his bride Sarah Gurling after their wedding. Picture: PA

I had barely heard of Charles Kennedy, let alone knew him; but elected on the same day as MPs for a Highlands and Islands constituency and as the youngest MPs of our respective Alliance parties, we swiftly formed a close political friendship which endured.

I spent a day campaigning with him in the recent election and it was vintage Charles. I don’t know whether he knew he was losing, but he was giving it his all – engaging with people and people engaging with him with evident warmth and respect for all he had contributed as their MP of 32 years standing.

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His youthful inexperience did have some drawbacks but he readily gained the ear of the House as a serious and formidable contributor to debates.

The milestones in Charles’s political career can be readily recounted – the “Baby of the House” in 1983; a pivotal figure in securing the merger of the SDP and Liberal Party in 1988; party leadership in succession to Paddy Ashdown in 1999; increasing Lib Dem representation in the Commons against expectations in 2001; his principled stand against the Iraq war in 2003; and in the 2005 general election, leading the Liberal Democrats to become the strongest third party force in British politics since the 1920s. These were all achieved because of his instinctive humanity and commitment to his principles. He spoke in human terms when others spun and that was why people warmed to him.

Even when he had to battle demons in the public glare, people generally saw the human being and were understanding.

And public warmth was matched by conviviality in private. Even in darker moments, Charles could find something to lighten the mood. But he still took his politics seriously. His judgments were reached after much thought. The stand he took on the 2003 Iraq invasion was not kneejerk political opportunism, but taken after proper consideration. He followed in the Liberal Democrat tradition of supporting a Scottish Parliament whilst retaining the integrity of the United Kingdom. On Europe, he was passionately committed to UK membership.

But it was in the Highlands where he had his roots, and where his simple but profound values were anchored and nourished. On a number of occasions, the Liberal/SDP Alliance members for the Highlands and Islands, Charles, Bob Maclennan, Russell Johnston, Ray Michie and myself, would undertake a tour from Shetland to Oban. That it was convivial goes without saying. But there was a serious side to it, as we met stakeholders from all walks of Highlands and Island life. Charles was so much in his element there, and campaigns we undertook together were as purposeful as they could be spirited.

Condolences go to his family, particularly Donald, who has lost a proud father and of whom he can be proud.

The question remains: “When will we see his like again?”