Charles Kennedy RIP

by Stephen Tall on June 2, 2015

Charles_kennedyI joined the Lib Dems in 1999, a few months before Charles Kennedy was elected leader. So, just as some folk identify with a particular Dr Who, so do I identify my party membership with him.

Politics was his life; and yet his appeal was in particular to those who felt life wasn’t just about politics. It was a paradox he implicitly acknowledged in one of my favourite of his quotes: “Politics is much too serious to be taken too seriously; equally, there are many aspects of it so laughable as to be lamentable.”

Paddy Ashdown, who had his reservations about Charles succeeding him, said today: “On form and on song, he was the best of us by a mile.” That’s true enough. I remember the BBC1 Question Time leaders’ special in 2005, a week before the election, when, suddenly, after a stumbling campaign, it all came together for him: witty, passionate, down-to-earth, full of integrity.

Even as he led the Lib Dems to the party’s best ever election result – 62 MPs – there was a sense as a party we’d missed our moment: the combination of the Lib Dems having been right on the defining political issue of our generation (Iraq) while the other two major parties were tarnished made it seem like we (and he) had not quite reached our full potential, that we were coasting. From where the party is now, of course, it looks like a golden period.

But if Charles benefited from leading the party in a benign climate, what shouldn’t be underestimated for a single moment is his rare gift for calling the big decisions right.

To lead the Lib Dems in voting against the Iraq war was a huge political risk, vindicated only with hindsight. To stand up amid the angry, braying shouts of ‘Traitor’ and ‘Quisling’ from the Labour and Tory benches took very real courage.

And he was the lone MP who voted against the Coalition, a view I (like many others) disregarded as a short-sighted, anti-Tory knee-jerk that would condemn the party to years in the wilderness. It wouldn’t have been risk-free — some voters might well have turned away thinking we’d flunked our big opportunity — but it’s hard to claim the party, liberalism, wouldn’t now be in a stronger position had we followed Charles’s lead.

Flawed, yes — and we shouldn’t lose sight of those flaws even at this sad time because his evident, self-confessed, all-too-human vulnerability was a major part of his popular appeal — but also a supreme talent whose very under-statedness inspired so many within and beyond the party he loved.

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