On Charlie Kennedy

There’s lots of talk about Charlie Kennedy’s talents and his ‘flaws’, often a euphemistic way of talking about his alcoholism. Alistair Campbell has blogged movingly and directly about their shared illness. It was never exactly a secret.

I remember canvassing a man in the 2004 European election campaign, a rather grand chap in a very wealthy street just north of Kensington Gardens. “Oh, the Liberals”, he sneered, “Couldn’t possibly vote for a party led by an alcoholic.” “I take it then, Sir”, I replied, “You wouldn’t have voted for Churchill?” “Not the same thing at all”, he shouted, slamming the door.

Every time I re-tell the anecdote, someone points out that he had a point: Charles Kennedy wasn’t exactly Winston Churchill. Undoubtedly, but he was a first-class politician and, until recently, his flaws would have been less relevant and his gifts more valued. In the 1970s, The Times famously opined that George Brown drunk was a better man than Harold Wilson sober. That was a questionable statement, but when it came to leading his party and giving it direction, Charles Kennedy was unquestionably a better man than either of his decidedly sober successors.

Today’s politician is expected to be an executive rather than a visionary, which hardly suited him. Worse yet, today’s politician is expected to be a machine with no so-called ‘character flaws’ who never strays off message. Charlie was anything but, and thank the Lord.

His gifts were real, occasionally great. He wasn’t just clever, his intelligence was preternaturally fast. That’s what lay at the root of his greatest gift, his ability to put complex political ideas into language that made sense to most people, on the hoof and in the studio. Not for him talk of post-neoclassical endogenous growth theory. The unwillingness or inability to focus on the detail of internal party management would once have been seen less a weakness and more a sensible strategy of letting decisions be made at their most appropriate levels.

And when the chips were down, he had both vision and principle in spades. The Iraq War looked from its conception like a disastrous idea to most of the British population, but it was one almost the entire political and media class was convinced to buy into. It was far from clear at the time that opposing it wouldn’t hurt the Liberal Democrats badly – Britain has a long history of punishing parties perceived as insufficiently supportive of the military even during unpopular wars. But he spoke for the millions for whom the war was morally wrong even before it started going practically wrong, including a fair swathe of serving and ex-service opinion. He was the reason why I got involved in politics again across the water having drifted away from activism, and for others, he was the reason why they didn’t simply give up on democracy entirely.

I met him a couple of times. I felt like he knew me, when I could at most have been a dimly remembered face, because he was absolutely brilliant. A born politician. He genuinely loved people: there was the vain side of that, of course, the need to be in the limelight, cracking jokes on Have I Got News For You. But it wasn’t all that – he genuinely cared about people, real people who were human beings and not just the abstract ends of progressive politics.

I think I met him four times, one long after he had ceased being leader, at Naomi Long’s Inaugural Dinner as Lord Mayor. At one point I slipped into the car park with him for a smoke, improbably he remembered my name, and we swapped jokes and talked shop until the next smoker joined him to do the same.

And perhaps, like many seemingly born showmen, being everyone’s friend and everyone’s property was more exhausting than he let on. Maybe that’s part of why he liked the drink too much, because he could only switch off alone at home with a bottle, when he didn’t have to be the image he had created for everybody else. It’s not an unusual syndrome.

It was said that in private he was extraordinarily bitter about his ousting, and later gobsmacked by Nick Clegg’s decision not only to go into coalition, but to give away so much in it for so little. To his credit, he didn’t take the opportunity of being the media’s Clegg-bashing rentaquote, though they must have constantly goaded him to do it.

It is also said that he saw the political tidal wave that would wash him away coming before the constituency polls told him that Ross and Skye was no longer a safe seat, not even for him. He will have remembered, as few others did any more, how improbable his 1983 defeat of Hamish Gray then seemed, and how dominant the long-retreated Highland Tory tradition Gray represented once was. Change is as much a fact of politics as of life.

There could have been an interesting future for him in all sorts of ways, perhaps even in the Scottish Parliament where a more credible opposition is desperately needed. But it’s hard to imagine that: Westminster was in his blood. And it’s hard not to imagine that, having hardly held another job, that a large part of him died last month when the Returning Officer spoke.

It’s said that all political careers end in failure. Charlie’s had its fair share of that, but that isn’t what he’ll be remembered for. Perhaps in another era he might have been more than a short-lived, if principled, leader of a third party. But his was a time of on-message machine men whose character flaws were well hidden, who micromanaged all the better to find a minor bureaucrat to blame for their own mistakes. We are not better governed for their replacement of the political world’s Charlie Kennedys.

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  • WindowLean

    Very sad.

  • Mirrorballman

    He was that rare thing in Politics. A person who genuinely tried to do good, for all the people. RIP

  • the rich get richer

    Very able and likeable politician.

    I think he was wasted in the Liberal Party.

    Say for example if he had been a labour politician and taken over from John Smith instead of the odious Blair.

    Its a pity that he did not reach the heights that his talent deserved.

  • Starviking

    A great piece about a great man. Cheers Gerry!

    We are not better governed for their replacement of the political world’s Charlie Kennedys.

    Indeed. We desperately need more politicians like Charlie, not less.

  • Dan

    He was spectacularly wrong on the euro though, and the EU.

  • Am Ghobsmacht


    How much of an ‘alcoholic’ was he really?

    It’s a great label to throw at political opponents and the PC culture demonises it ever more.

    Surely it’s a question of how much it affects a person’s capacity to work and function?
    I know people who can put the bevvy away and function fine, others would have a bottle of Leffe and be crook.

    Sod it, in terms of hampering productivity, which is more of a hindrance: a nightly commitment to a bottle of wine or 3 hours of soap operas and trashy TV?

    I know little of the man’s habits and maybe he was an alcho, but knowing what I know about society, the media and politics I suspect he was just a merry individual who just enjoyed a drink or two and perhaps had the drinking capacity to accompany this appreciation.


    (No, the irony of the above statement in the shadow of my Irish misanthropic alcoholic avatar is not lost on me)

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Great piece Gerry. Charles Kennedy was just so right on some many things, I was a huge fan. That kind of judgment comes from something more than just being clever, it’s about something deeper and rarer – wisdom.

    His sidelining may have been self-induced – I think when people are failing to show up for events, they have an alcohol problem; it was clearly more than just the odd bottle of wine of an evening – but I do feel the Lib Dems let him down also.

    In the move to Coalition, Clegg wrote off most of the ‘big beasts’ of the party, apart from Ashdown. You had not just Kennedy against the move but Ming Campbell and David Steel, and extreme reluctance from the likes of Vince Cable, Simon Hughes, Tim Farron. It must have been galling for Kennedy to see the small cadre of Orange Book liberals around the leadership throwing themselves so enthusiastically into the folly of the Coalition.

  • He was surrounded by enablers, his alcoholism was tolerated for too long and not enough people told him to stop. Your enemies will never tell you to stop. Your friends should.

  • OpenGoal

    Seems a strange line to take. Probably worth reading Alistair Campbell’s thoughts – they bonded over their ‘enemy’, alcohol.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Hardly strange, just ignorant.

    I don’t know much about the man and certainly didn’t know he regarded it as an enemy.

    So when you put it like that, it gives it more context.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    I know what you mean by your point.

    I had always assumed that alcoholism was a very precisely defined condition. I’d guessed that an alcoholic was the sort of person who needed a drink after waking up in the morning to “take the edge off” etc, and a person who would try to disguise their drinking. It would be a person physically addicted to alcohol.

    These days I understand the definition to be wider than this; anyone whose drinking has some kind of negative effect on their relationships, responsibilities at work or at home, etc can be said to be an alcoholic. I think Charles fitted into this wider definition. I don’t think he had a drink as soon as he woke up in the mornings. But I’m sure he would regularly round up friends/colleagues and head to the nearest bar for an all-nighter (and in the House of Commons there are several such bars – often full of MPs staying overnight away from home). Very much a social drinker, I would guess.

    Personally I love a good pint. I can never have just one. But I never drink alone, always with friends, and I seldom have drink in the house, and I never go to the pub when I’ve got work or an engagement the next day. If one day I said “feck it” and abandoned those rules, I think I’d be well along the road to alcoholism.

  • ted hagan

    How do you know this? I get the impression he was given advice by many people, but often that’s not enough.

  • ted hagan

    I’m afraid there were all too many in Britain supported the Iraq war. Most are deniers now of course. But Blair was elected in twice afterwards.