2 Jun 2015 at 08:19
Charles Kennedy was a man beset by grief on two counts. He died grieving for the loss of his father who died in early April, at the start of the general election campaign, but he was also grieving over the loss of his seat after a parliamentary career lasting thirty-two years. For all we know he also continued to grieve over the loss of the leadership of his party back in 2006. Whatever the truth behind his untimely and unbelievably sad death, Charles Kennedy is a huge loss to the body politic.
I don’t pretend to have known Charles Kennedy well, but we were acquainted. He would attend book launches at my bookshop, Politico’s, and was invariably the life and soul of the party. He was also great company. “Ah, Mr Dale, what scurrilous things are you writing about me today?” he’d greet me with, with a larger than life twinkle in his eye. He was rarely without a smile, even in times of great personal adversity. It was his greatest asset, and it enabled him to connect with the public in a way few politicians could – or can. If he was Jewish he’d be called a ‘mensch’ – a character who people could relate to.
And therein lies the tragedy. Had he not had to contend with the demon drink, Charles Kennedy could have gone down in history as one of the greatest Liberal politicians ever. He led the LibDems to their greatest electoral triumph in 2005, when the party won 62 MPs. This was in part to his courageous leadership opposing the Blair government over Iraq. Some accused him of political expediency, but it was unfair – Kennedy believed what he was doing and took on both Paddy Ashdown and Sir Menzies Campbell whose initial inclinations were to support Blair’s strategy. It was an act of political leadership and courage, and he took much of the country with him. In many ways, this single issue ought to define his leadership, but sadly it is likely to be overshadowed by the manner of his defenestration as leader.
I have no idea how long Charles Kennedy had been battling with alcohol, but during the 2005 general election campaign it became apparent how serious the problem was when he appeared drunk at the LibDem campaign launch. Never a brilliantly organised individual or timekeeper, he repeatedly failed to turn up to events or media engagements, including missing appearances on BBC Question Time and Prime Minister’s Questions. His staff tried to cover up what was really going on but it became increasingly difficult. Eventually, his PPS Norman Lamb confronted him and told him enough was enough. This led to a difficult meeting with LibDem MPs in which it was clear support for him was ebbing away. Eventually he was forced out, and he resigned with as much dignity as he could muster. What might have been.
He found happiness in his marriage to Sarah Gurling and they had a son, Donald, now aged 10, who now has to face life without his loving father. The marriage eventually ended in divorce, and Kennedy became more and more lonely, again seeking solace in the bottle. An appearance on Question Time in the run-up to the election on 13 March should never have been allowed to go ahead, and the show’s producers should hang their heads in shame for permitting him to take to the stage. It was apparent to all that all was not well.
Charles Kennedy’s death is said not to be suspicious, but it is not known if he took his own life or whether he, in that time old phrase, succumbed to the demon drink. Either way, everyone in politics will mourn the death of a man who was devoid of political enemies – and there aren’t many of them around. During his three decades in the House of Commons it is fair to say that he was one of – if not the most popular politicians in the country. He was a man of principle, of achievement and stature.
I hesitate to draw on that overused Billy Joel lyric, but to say of Charles Kennedy that he is proof that ‘only the good die young’ would not be an understatement. He may have had his flaws, but he was a good man. A very good man.
As I finish writing this short tribute I think of his family, and especially Sarah. Twenty years ago I interviewed her for a job with my lobbying company. Ever since, we’ve always had a few pleasant words whenever we’ve encountered each other at LibDem conferences or other events. I cannot imagine what she and her son are going through today, but she will have her brother James, a close supporter of and adviser to Charles, to comfort and console her.
What an utter, utter tragedy.