Tuesday 2 June 2015

Charles Kennedy, a true Highland Liberal

Charles Kennedy campaigning with Willie Rennie on Byres Road, Glasgow, Sept 2014

Sad news from Lochaber this morning.

The death of Charles Kennedy at the young age of 55 will touch a far wider circle than his grieving family and the Westminster political village.

He was a decent human being, flawed like us all, who managed to combine his talent for political oratory with wit and warmth.

There are not many politicians who most voters in the country recognised and responded to with affection. Kennedy, the former leader of the Lib Dems and until last month MP for Ross, Skye and Lochaber for 32 years, was that rare kind of politician.

Nick Clegg described him today as one of the most gifted politicians of his generation. In fact Charles Kennedy was one of the most influential politicians of his generation.

Under his leadership the Lib Dems increased their seats in the Commons from 46 to 62, the highest number of MPs they had since the 1920s.

Kennedy managed this by carving out a space to the left of Tony Blair’s Labour Party and by leading the opposition to the Iraq War.

More than any other leader Kennedy connected with the uneasy mood of the public in 2003 and translated it into skillful parliamentary opposition.

His was no mere political calculation, Kennedy’s arguments were principled and recognised by the public as such.

It was the same in 2010 when he opposed Nick Clegg’s move to take the Lib Dems in with David Cameron. Once again, on principle.

Kennedy got it right on the Iraq War and later he got it right on the coalition. How the Lib Dems will miss his wisdom.

Like almost every other Scottish Lib Dem Charles Kennedy was blown away by the SNP earthquake on May 7th of this year.

But Kennedy had caused a political earthquake of his own a generation earlier when he abandoned his post-graduate studies in America and stood for the new SDP in the  Highlands.

A week before the 1983 general election journalists at the West Highland Free Press on Isle of Skye took a phone call from the enthusiastic candidate.

The 23-year-old insisted that he was going to win the seat from Hamish Gray, the Tory Energy Minister and MP for Ross, Cromarty and Skye.

He was politely told his claim didn’t merit as news, and as someone who’d spent summers at BBC Radio Highland under the tutelage of the late Kenny McIntyre and Iain MacDonald he should have known better.

He didn’t get a hearing that week. He did the next week and for 32 years afterwards in Commons chamber, in television and radio studios and homes across the land with his consummate skills as a communicator.

Charles Kennedy cut his political teeth as a debater in Glasgow University, where he was President of the Student Union and won the Observer Mace in student world debating championship.

He would later return to Glasgow for two terms as University rector. The last time I met him was on a walk up Byres Road in Glasgow during the 2014 referendum campaign. On his old stomping ground Kennedy’s instinct, he joked, was to turn right up University Avenue and over the hill to the Union beer bar.

It was one of many self-deprecating references to his alcoholism, which blighted his career, tragically cost him the leadership of the Lib Dems in 2006 and later his marriage to Sarah Gurling.

Glasgow has a fine tradition of producing able political orators but Kennedy came from an older tradition of Highland Liberal radicalism.

Since organised crofting began in the 19th century, the Kennedys have been on the croft across the River Lochy from Inverlochy Castle with Ben Nevis towering in the background.

Local tradition holds that Charles’s forebears were about to emigrate to Canada, when the landowner Cameron of Lochiel intervened and gave them the croft, near Fort William.

Schooled nearby in Lochaber High, Kennedy was the modern day embodiment of independent minded Highland Liberalism which had its roots in the 19th century land struggle and the formation of the Crofter Party.

A bit like the SDP a century later, the Crofter MPs merged with the Liberal Party having achieved security of tenure in the 1886 Crofting Act.

Dogged ill-health meant that Kenendy could not play a leading role in the independence referendum last year. But as one of the most eloquent defenders of the European ideal, a nod there to Russell Johnston MP, he would have been back for the European campaign, you could be sure of that.

In recent times Charles Kennedy had a number of personal setbacks.

His mother died last year and Ian Kennedy, his father and a famous Highland musician, died in April just as the election campaign was gearing up.

In earlier campaigns Ian Kennedy would accompany his son on the hustings circuit from village hall to village hall, sometimes cutting short the oratory  to play another tune.

For his BBC’s Desert Island Discs Charles chose The Cameron Highlanders by Ian Kennedy as the one track he would rescue for life on the island.

He is survived by his sister Isobel, who lives in Canada,  his brother Ian in Caol, his former wife Sarah Gurling and his son Donald.

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