2 Jun 2015

Charles Kennedy: a man of ‘wit, charm, and humanity’

Former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy has died at the age of 55. Lord Ashdown called him a man of “wit, charm, judgment, principle and decency”, while David Cameron praised his humanity.

Mr Kennedy had served as an MP for 32 years, but was ousted from his Ross, Skye and Lochaber constituency last month as the SNP swept the board north of the border in the general election.

His family confirmed his death in a statement, saying: “We are obviously devastated at the loss. Charles was a fine man, a talented politician, and a loving father to his young son.”

‘Brains and talent’

Prime Minister David Cameron added: “It’s not that often in politics that someone comes along with brains, talent, wit and bags of humanity and Charles had all of those things.”

Paddy Ashdown, who Mr Kennedy replaced as Liberal Democrat leader, said: “In a political age not overburdened with gaiety and good sense, he brought us wit, charm, judgment, principle and decency.”

Labour former deputy prime minister Lord Prescott said: “He proved to be right on Iraq. History will be as kind to him as he was to others. A great loss.”

Former Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg said Kennedy’s death “robs Britain of one of the most gifted politicians of his generation”, while acting Labour leader Harriet Harman said he “brought courage, wit and humour to everything he did”.

The SNP’s Alex Salmond said Mr Kennedy’s leadership had been tested when he opposed the Iraq war, and he had passed the test with “flying colours”. “When it came to a decision where the establishment was facing one way and the people were facing another way, he took the side of the people,” Mr Salmond said.

Mr Kennedy is survived by his former wife, Sarah, and their son, Donald.

Youngest MP

When he was first elected as the Social Democratic Party (SDP) MP for the area, Mr Kennedy was the youngest member in the Commons at that time. Political life was very different then.

“When I was first an MP in 1983, most Members of Parliament at the House of Commons did not possess a fax machine,” he recalled.

“There was no 24-hour television news, breakfast-time television scarcely existed.”

The SDP went on to merge with the Liberal Democrats, and Mr Kennedy eventually became the party leader.

Born in Inverness, Mr Kennedy was educated at Lochaber High School in Fort William before going on to Glasgow University – and was later elected by students there to be their Rector.

Following his graduation from university in 1982, he worked as a journalist and broadcaster with BBC Highland in Inverness.

Iraq war

The following year he was working towards a PhD at Indiana when he had the chance to put himself forward as the SDP candidate for the Ross, Cromarty and Skye seat in the general election.

The student made a flying visit home, won the ballot and less than six weeks later was elected to the House of Commons.

His sharp Commons performances, coupled with his deft handling of the demise of the SDP, won him the presidency of the Liberal Democrats in 1990, and a prominent post as the party’s trade and industry spokesman.

In 1999 he took over as Liberal Democrat leader, with his period in the job marked by his opposition to the war in Iraq.

In the 2005 general election he led his party to one of its best results, increasing the number of Lib Dem MPs to 62. It seemed to most people to be the successful culmination to an energetic and skilful campaign.

But within weeks of this, some of his senior colleagues were privately and publicly criticising his leadership, saying the party had failed to win many of its specially targeted seats.

That unpleasant whispering campaign reared up again in the final weeks of 2005 and the early days of 2006, largely, it is thought, because the Liberal Democrats feared they were likely to be overshadowed by new Tory leader David Cameron.

But in January 2006 – following months of rumours about his drinking – Mr Kennedy dramatically admitted he had been receiving treatment for an alcohol problem and said he was calling a leadership contest.

While he declared that he wanted to carry on, he was forced to stand down in the face of the threat of mass resignations by senior colleagues.

After stepping down as leader, he continued to play a high-profile role in the Scottish politics, campaigning against independence in the run-up to last year’s referendum.

He was ousted from the House of Commons after 32 years in May, one of many in politicians north of the border to be beaten by the SNP as the nationalists won an unprecedented 56 of the 59 Scottish constituencies.

Rather than being a night of the long knives, Mr Kennedy described it as being the “the night of long skean dhus”, referring to the ceremonial daggers worn as part of traditional highland dress

While he said his problem with alcohol had been “resolved”, rumours about his drinking continued – most recently with some questioning his condition when he appeared on the BBC’s Question Time programme in March this year.