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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