Given the number of tributes there have been to Charles it seems unnecessary to do one of my own, but as I woke up to hear about his sad death yesterday there were a few things I wanted to set down in writing.
I didn’t know him personally but he was leader for eight of the 19 years I’ve been a party member and so has in many ways been a leading figure in my life. Back in the very late 1990s I was on the executive of the Liberal Democrat Youth and Students (LDYS) and my first job after being elected as its Youth Development Officer was collecting Charles Kennedy from the local railway station and walking him to Staffordshire University nearby where we were holding our conference. He had yet to be elected leader but it was at a time when I’d still get quite starstruck about meeting well known political figures. The only thing I remember of our conversation on that walk however was him telling me about the importance of the current Countryside Alliance march and how it wasn’t all about hunting but protecting the rural way of life. Something that was undoubtedly important to him.
I was unusual amongst the group of friends I had in the party at the time that I voted for Charles to be leader. I think most people felt he was too much the establishment choice, were slightly suspicious of his SDP roots, and didn’t seem enough as being either a grassroots campaigner or political thinker. That may have been true, but then (as it has been at every leadership election) my choice was about who I thought would be the best figurehead that could get our message across to the public. I do remember however chatting to a lobbyist at the subsequent federal conference who told me “He won’t be a great leader, but it’ll be fun as a member having him as your leader.” In hindsight, although without really answering the question, I suppose it’s how you judge a great leader. One thing I certainly loved was Charles’ conference speeches which always appeared fresh and passionate in a way that I think no leader before or since has quite managed, and made me leave conference enthused.
My only other personal connection with Charles was shortly after he became our leader. One of his first acts – and one that we were impressed by as we weren’t aware that anyone else had done it – was to invite the LDYS executive round to his flat in Victoria to discuss LDYS issues. We were all a bit nervous about impressing him but his quip when someone accidentally kicked his coffee table “don’t worry about it, it’s only a family heirloom” relaxed us all. He certainly knew the way to student hearts and gave us all a beer and then asked us lots about what he could do to help us. It certainly improved his reputation with those who didn’t vote for him.
Obviously what most people loved about Charles was his reputation as someone normal and unvarnished. Whilst this can be over exaggerated and many leaders with that reputation have actively cultivated it, with Charles it never really seemed an act. Everyone knew he didn’t live the healthiest of lifestyles (in a bizarre appointment he was for a time the party’s health spokesman during which he was once overheard outside a healthy eating event saying “well that’s enough health for one day, I need a fag”) although the issue of his drinking was downplayed by many until his notorious Paxman interview and his subsequent admission when his leadership was challenged. Personally, I think it was right for Charles to retire when he did even if the way it was done seemed brutal. Although he still seemed on top form to the public; party staff and MPs found him difficult to work with. But despite this it felt a shame that he never had time as a minister in the last government to show what else he could do.
For me, Charles embodied something that I feel other people have struggled to convey. The sense that you can be equally passionate about your local roots, your national pride and your Europeanism and internationalism. In Charles’ case it was as a Highlander, a Scotsman, being British, European and wanting to be significant on the international stage. Whilst it is true that Charles had to be persuaded in to opposing the war in Iraq, it fits absolutely with him wanting the party he led to be seen as positively internationalist rather than his country ignoring international law and reverting to the British warlike jingoism of the past. His pro-Europeanism is something that people outside of politics don’t readily associate with Charles, but for me it was one of his greatest attributes. To me, his greatest victory was not achieving the highest number of seats the party had won since merger (many at the time believed we should have done far better in 2005) but leading us to victory in the 2003 Brent East by-election. It is a by-election in which I played a very active role and that I absolutely loved being a part of. It was the perfect embodiment of Charles in his leading role in the anti-war movement and as a positive down to earth figure that people could relate to and whose cause they could rally to in a constituency that was not at all natural territory for us.
I believed that at the recent General Election, Charles was one of the few MPs in Scotland who could resist the SNP tide. He couldn’t, and so who knows what role he would have continued to play in the future? Instead he will now join the ranks of those popular charismatic political figures such as Robin Cook, Mo Mowlam and John Smith, who were taken too early and never quite fulfilled their potential. I didn’t shed a tear yesterday, but I did have a wee dram to remember him by.