It’s a measure of how much affection Charles Kennedy was held in by his fellow parliamentarians that many of the tributes from his peers since his death was announced this morning have actually come across as genuine rather than token; no mean feat for the theatre of the insincere. Even those in his own party who formed an orderly queue with daggers in hand when his drinking became enough of an issue to threaten his leadership of the Liberal Democrats have waxed lyrically on his considerable political gifts; perhaps they have belatedly realised that under Kennedy’s stewardship, their party was popular in a way it never will be again. But then, Charles Kennedy was a bit of an aberration where contemporary politics are concerned.
One of the longest-serving MPs who initially arrived at Westminster representing the SDP, Kennedy entered the Commons aged just 23 after winning the newly created constituency of Ross, Cromarty and Skye in 1983 and for four years held the unenviable title of ‘Baby of the House’. A prime motivator in the official merger of the SDP and Liberals in the late 80s, Kennedy was eventually elected president of the party and quickly became one of the most recognisable Lib Dems due to his genial persona coming across well on TV, especially on that graveyard of many a politician, ‘Have I Got News for You’.
When he succeeded Paddy Ashdown as Lib Dem leader in 1999, Kennedy’s party held 46 seats, the best third party seats tally since 1929. Although that tally in itself was a massive improvement on what the old Liberal Party had been accustomed to in the 1970s and 80s, Tony Blair’s copybook remained un-blotted at this stage and the huge Labour majority seemed too great for any third party to have much impact upon. However, Kennedy’s leadership, while unspectacular, was certainly steady and at the 2001 General Election, the Lib Dems gained six more seats to take them up to 52. Two years later, an event occurred that was to sully Blair’s reputation forevermore and would raise Charles Kennedy’s profile to an unprecedented level for a third party leader, the invasion of Iraq.
A cynic might say that someone in Charles Kennedy’s position could afford to oppose the Iraq War; after all, Nick Clegg had the freedom to boast about what he would do if in government on the 2010 televised Leaders’ Debates, little knowing he would live to rue his boasts come polling day. But this was one of those rare occasions in which a politician was in synch with public opinion without courting it for popularity. It was evident that, like the majority of the electorate, Charles Kennedy genuinely felt that the invasion was illegal as well as morally wrong, and he didn’t hesitate from stating his belief with conviction in Parliament. The electorate recognised authenticity when they saw it and this was reflected at the 2005 General Election when the Lib Dems won their best-ever tally of 62 seats, the greatest third party performance in over 80 years.
The Lib Dems had collected many votes from disenchanted Labour voters as well as those of all political persuasions who were opposed to the Iraq War, but they had also captured the attention of those who were becoming disillusioned with Westminster politics as a whole. When Michael Howard was succeeded as Tory leader by David Cameron, a man cut from essentially the same cloth as Blair, Charles Kennedy seemed uniquely ‘human’ for a party leader. However, despite one notable befuddled moment during the 2005 Election campaign (one attributed to exhaustion from his new role as a first-time father), few outside of Westminster realised just how human he was.
As we have come to learn, predictions of a particular party’s performance on the eve of a General Election are often overly optimistic. Despite the undoubted success of the Lib Dems in 2005, many had expected a higher seats tally than 62 and some within the party began to sniff blood surrounding the leader they held responsible. When the media caught wind of the story, Kennedy was forced to come clean at a press conference and confess he had received treatment for alcoholism. The following day, he announced he would be resigning as Lib Dem leader, citing a lack of support from the Parliamentary party as to his continued leadership. It seemed a shoddy way to treat a man who had guided his party to greater heights than anyone since Lloyd George, but was perhaps confirmation that Parliament is no place for nice guys.
When the Liberal Democrats entered into their civil partnership with the Conservative Party, Charles Kennedy’s was one of the loudest dissenting voices over the marriage; he could foresee the long-term damage to his party and was proven right when the Lib Dems were annihilated at the 2011 Local Elections. Their share of the popular vote dropped to 11%, their lowest placing in thirty years. Local councils had been the foundation stone upon which the party had built their improving electoral performances since the 90s, but the Lib Dems lost control of Sheffield, Hull, Liverpool and Stockport in an early premonition of what was to come at the 2015 General Election. Over the next four years, losing deposits was to become a hard habit to break for a party who had seemed to be on the cusp of graduating to full opposition status with Kennedy at the helm.
The so-called common touch is something of a Holy Grail for politicians – ironic considering they’re supposed to be public servants; but it only seems to have any pressing importance when they’re canvassing for votes; it doesn’t appear to register once they are elected to office. Most probably know their route to Westminster has precluded much contact with those they serve and are aware they can’t convince as men or women of the people so don’t even try. Career politicians whose PR teams persuade them to try, from William Hague at the Notting Hill Festival in a baseball-cap or David Cameron hugging a hoodie, just make the electorate wince. These blatantly desperate measures can also cast their ideological convictions in a similarly facile light. How can you trust their judgement on anything of substance when they’ve been willing participants in such cheap publicity stunts?
Of the current crop, perhaps only Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and George Galloway have come close to a common touch, even if all three are in possession of characteristics that make them loved and loathed in equal measure. Bo Jo alone has held a position of power, largely charming the voters of London by playing the affable clown; but for all his popularity, it’s hard to imagine someone whose appeal rests on resembling a character from The Beano holding high office, let alone the keys to No.10.
Charles Kennedy did have the common touch, with even committed Labour or Tory voters warming to his unvarnished gregariousness. His battles with the bottle, something that may well have played a part in his premature death at just 55, was a further sign that he had human flaws and frailties that most politicians do their best to airbrush from their CVs. The loss of his seat at the recent General Election was one of the most unjust casualties of the SNP landslide, and his untimely passing has robbed British politics of one of its most genuinely likeable public servants. In a Parliament of automatons, androids and (pardon my French) arseholes, there aren’t many of his ilk left. Nor, it seems, will we see any again.