“The brightest and the best of men”

WHFP DEBATE - 1

Charles with the other speakers at last year’s WHFP referendum debate in Dornie

We have been privileged to watch at close quarters the career of Charles Kennedy. We are now sorrowfully obliged to mourn the premature death of a titan of Highland politics.

Charles Kennedy described himself first and foremost as a Highlander. He was keen to add that he was “a Highlander, a Scot, a Briton and a European”, in that order.

If we were to focus more keenly, he was as close to being a West Highlander incarnate as we are likely see at the top of the political tree. Like his late friend and sometime mentor John Farquhar Munro, Charles’s gentle accent, his dry humour, his effortless articulacy, his tolerance and his boundless kindness spoke of, for and to the people of the hills, glens and shoreline of the north-west of Scotland.

Even at the peak of his career, when he was leading the Liberal Democrat Party to their best electoral results in modern times, he repeatedly insisted that the baseline of his ambitions was to represent the constituency which, despite several boundary changes, always included Skye and Lochalsh.

In most other ambitious politicians that modest claim would have sounded false. From the lips of Charles Kennedy it was undeniably true.

Until last month he had been our Member of Parliament for 32 years. If he was swept away by the landslide of another party, it is worth recalling that he first won this seat almost solely on his own appeal and against the national trend.

Following a flirtation with the Labour Party at Glasgow University, he joined the breakaway Social Democratic Party upon its formation in 1981, along with the Caithness and Sutherland former Labour MP Bob MacLennan.

Charles Kennedy was 23 years old when the SDP-Liberal Alliance chose him to fight the new constituency of Ross, Cromarty and Skye in the General Election of 1983.

It was an unpromising assignment. The sitting member in the bulk of Ross and Cromarty was Hamish Gray, a personable old-school Conservative who had become Margaret Thatcher’s energy minister. In the previous election of 1979 Hamish Gray had polled twice as many votes as his SNP runner-up, Willie MacRae, and three times as many as the fourth-placed Liberal candidate.

The young Charles was helped by the addition to the constituency of Skye’s Liberal tradition, which had been assiduously cultivated by Russell Johnston. The few thousand voters of Skye alone would never have been enough to win the seat, however.

So he swept through the region like a warm summer wind. His energy and optimism, his charm and youthful charisma captivated everybody who opened their door to this previously-unknown candidate.

Famously in media circles, three days before the election Charles Kennedy telephoned journalists throughout the Highlands to offer us the scoop of the decade: “I am going to win this seat.”

Without exception, we journalists looked at the national opinion polls, sighed cynically and replied, “All the candidates say that, Charles.”

When the votes were counted, Charles Kennedy had collected 13,500 of them in Ross, Cromarty and Skye. Hamish Gray managed just 11,800. It was the only Conservative defeat in what was otherwise a Thatcher tsunami throughout the UK. In Scotland the Tories established themselves comfortably as the second party. Charles Kennedy became the youngest member of the House of Commons.

Some this week have retrospectively questioned the wisdom of throwing a 23-year-old into the maelstrom of Westminster. They should not forget that Charles threw himself in there, and threw himself wholeheartedly. He did not regret his career, and nor should we.

What, in the long view, is there to regret? Beneath that warm and welcoming personality was a steely resolve. His mettle ensured that Westminster did not change Charles Kennedy. He retained his Highland qualities throughout his life, and until this year his constituents rewarded him with an apparently-unassailable majority.

In another party, Charles Kennedy might have changed Westminster and the course of UK government. But whatever the temptations — and they were many once the Labour Party had joined him in the left-centre ground and the LibDems went into coalition with the Conservatives — his virtues included loyalty, and he remained faithful to what had become the Liberal Democrat Party.

He was its shining light. Party president at the age of 31, he became party leader in 1999. In that position he fought two General Elections and delivered his colleagues 22 per cent of the vote and 62 seats in 2005.

It was their best performance since the 1920s, and it looks now to be unchallenged in the near future. It was due in large part to Charles Kennedy’s finest hour in the chamber of the house, when he spoke from the heart against UK involvement in the invasion of Iraq.

One of the most poignant of tributes this week came from another decent man at the top of politics, when John Prescott admitted that Charles Kennedy had been “right about Iraq”.

His party’s reward to a successful leader whose integrity impressed the nation was to dismiss him less than a year after that 2005 result. Charles Kennedy was usually remarkably discreet in his drinking, preferring to pull out of events rather than appear the worse for wear.

As a result, many experienced Westminster hands — let alone voters — did not realise that the leader of the Liberal Democrats had a problem with alcohol. But his party colleagues did, and many of them were already anxious to replace him.

We will restrict our comment on what followed to the observation that Charles Kennedy tipsy was a better man in every respect than Nick Clegg sober.

The light was dimmed when he lost his seat on 7th May, and now it has gone out.

There are many fields in which this 55-year-old could yet have excelled. He was planning to work on behalf of European Union membership in the forthcoming referendum. There would have been books to write and newspaper pages to adorn.

Instead, we are left to express our deepest condolences to his close friends and family. They now carry the heaviest burden. The rest of us are lucky. We have known, and many of us have been represented by, the brightest and the best of men.