Charles Kennedy embodied a decency all too rare in politics

You will be hearing the word ‘decent’ a lot today.

That is to be expected. How else to describe a man so essentially good. A politician who stood on principle and reminded a cynical public that politicians still could.

Charles Kennedy, who has died aged 55, led the Liberal Democrats for just over six years and at the party’s electoral high point, for which he was largely responsible. As MP for the constituency latterly known as Ross, Skye and Lochaber from 1983 until May 2015, he championed the Highlands and islands as well as the interests of crofters, farmers, and fishermen. Along the way he became one of the most liked and trusted politicians in Britain, an achievement in a climate of disenchantment and even hostility towards MPs.

A down-to-earth manner of address and appearances on Have I Got News for You boosted his stature, where his critics had warned of the opposite effect. It was said of Neil Kinnock that he could never become Prime Minister because he looked too much like an ordinary person; voters saw in him themselves but not necessarily a leader of the nation. At the helm of the third party, Kennedy was unburdened by expectations of Downing Street and so his regular-bloke persona was a help rather than a hindrance.

He led the Liberal Democrats to their strongest performance in the 2005 General Election, the 62 seats won outshining every electoral effort of the old Liberal Party going back until 1923. Mere months later, that success was loyally rewarded by his Commons colleagues who briefed him into resignation over his personal problems. If he was treated shabbily by the parliamentary party, Kennedy always enjoyed the confidence of the grassroots.

His warmth and wit endeared him to the British public but a principled and unyielding opposition to military intervention in Iraq sealed an alliance between disaffected Labour voters and the Liberal Democrats. Even advocates of a democratic Iraq regarded Kennedy for his conscientious stance, which contrasted with the electoral calculations and noisy rhetoric of so many demagogues.

But he was no innocent and had a wily and strategic mind to rival the best and in different times and better circumstances could perhaps have overseen a more significant realignment of the centre-left vote. He was elected in 1983 for the Social Democratic Party and when the SDP merged with the Liberals in 1988, Kennedy remained on the left of the new party.

In concert with the Liberal tradition, he was a passionate supporter of Home Rule for Scotland but grew disquieted by the SNP’s centralisation of power in Edinburgh. He told the Commons last May:

The Highlands and islands have lost power from Highlands and Islands Enterprise to Edinburgh, from the Crofting Commission to Edinburgh, and over regional and local control of our emergency services. That is not what those of us who were arguing for devolution before some Scottish National Party members were members of this House had in mind.

He was a proud Highlander, Scot, Brit, and European. In an age marked by meanness of identity his was generous and expansive, tendering loyalty to people and ideals near and far from his wee bit hill and glen. His social philosophy was just as broad, combining a belief in community and egalitarianism with a commitment to individual liberty and a humble, compassionate state. He battled an alcohol problem and was divorced from his wife in 2010. He leaves behind a son, Donald, who was born during the 2005 General Election campaign.

When he was elected to the Commons in 1983, aged just 23, he became Baby of the House and his maiden speech explored the causes of young people’s self-exclusion from the democratic process:

Those who will contribute most to British democracy in the future are extricating themselves from the system already because they believe that it is no longer relevant. Part of the solution to that is electoral reform, but even more urgent is the need for a more tolerant, caring and compassionate government. Sadly, we do not have that at the moment.

Kennedy could have delivered much of his address verbatim after the 2015 General Election, in which young voters agreed on the need for a more compassionate government but not enough to turn out and vote for it.

In his own constituency, he could not resist the twin factors of public anger towards the Lib Dems for their coalition with the Tories (a decision which he opposed) and the surge of nationalist sentiment in the wake of the independence referendum. In the cause of opposing austerity and securing more powers for Scotland, the good people of Ross, Skye and Lochaber tossed out one of the most authentic left-wingers and home rulers in Scottish politics.

Kennedy went down along with nine other Scottish Liberal Democrats in a rout he pithily dubbed “the night of long sgian dubhs”. His reflections on that defeat were dominated by concern for suddenly unemployed parliamentary staff. Even in personal turmoil, his first thoughts were for others.

Some will conclude that with his passing the Liberal Democrats have lost their soul, those forgiving enough to allow that the party might still have one. An ebullient spirit like Kennedy’s is not easily mislaid. He joins Jo Grimond in the history of Scottish radical liberalism; another vindication of that grand tradition, another rebuke to doubters of the political potential of the dynamic centre. He wasn’t a great intellectual or a particularly impactful parliamentarian; his gift lay in embodying the very ordinariness voters complain is missing in political life. The Liberal Democrats have lost a man but gained an icon.

And we too are losing more than a man today, even those of us who still feel betrayed by the Liberal Democrats or who disagreed with Kennedy’s position on the constitution. His death coincides with larger changes. The brand of politics he practised – civil, social democratic, internationalist – is ebbing away in Scotland.

Now our politics is forever on a hair-trigger. Insult given, offence taken, motives questioned – all in a flash of anger. If Charles Kennedy’s spirit remains with us, the respectful dignity that was his hallmark feels distant, perhaps unrecoverable.

That is why the grief is twofold today. Scotland has lost one of her sons and he has taken part of the old country with him.

Originally published on STV News. Feature image © Lynne Featherstone by Creative Commons 2.0.

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