EDITORIAL: Kennedy commitment would be a fitting cause for political unity

Charles Kennedy was an MP for 32 years. Pic Willie Urquhart/WHFP

When voters go to the polls on Thursday it will be exactly 11 years to the day since Charles Kennedy last celebrated an election victory.

It was his seventh in a row as a Highland member of parliament and with a majority of more than 13,000 in Ross, Skye and Lochaber it seemed then that his seat was secure for as long as he wanted it.

Yet if a week is a long time in politics, the last decade has proved aeonic.

The General Election of May 2010 brought an end to the UK’s 13 years of centre-left dominance, and it was to prove the first in a series of seismic polls which tore up the psephologist’s rule book.

The 2010 election gave the Liberal Democrats a taste of power in an unlikely coalition with the Tories, but it has been electoral oblivion for them ever since – including in their former Highland heartlands.

A year later the SNP romped to a majority in a Scottish parliament that had been designed to prevent any one party having overall control. In so doing the path was paved toward an independence referendum which eventually maintained the 300-year-old Union, but still served to elevate the question to become the defining Scottish issue of our times.

By 2015 the Tories had secured a surprise majority in the UK, and the Labour Party were reduced to a single Scottish MP after the SNP won 56 of 59 seats. Among them – after a campaign marred by personal abuse – was Charles Kennedy’s.

A few weeks later the affable Abrach was dead, aged just 59.

The turbulent, and increasingly polarised times continued as a Brexit referendum was granted, and the UK – in spite of all major parties backing remain – voted to leave the EU in 2016. There followed four years of painful negotiation; Theresa May was anointed, became a lame duck, and departed as PM to be replaced by Boris Johnson.

Johnson saw off Jeremy Corbyn and ‘got Brexit done’ as he said he would, but post-Covid he might yet be done for himself. As rumours rage that in preference to lockdown he said he would tolerate a virus – from which he almost died – spreading so severely that bodies could “pile high on the streets”, there is a growing sense that the public reckoning he has long escaped may finally be in sight.

Meanwhile in Scotland, having survived the ugly fall-out from of an investigation into the handling of sexual harassment complaints against her predecessor and political mentor Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon remains odds-on to become First Minister again in 2021 – perhaps even with the overall majority she was unable to secure in 2016.

Whether victory leads to a second referendum depends not only on next week’s result but on whose ‘rights’ will take precedence in the eyes of the UK government who by law would need to sanction another vote.

Because inescapably it is Covid-19, how it is tackled and treated, and how we can recover as a country from it, that is the major issue facing all of us.

It seems lamentable that, amid the constitutional flux and an increasing entrenchment of views, that there has been so little sign of a consensual approach – between both governments and parties – to steer the country away from the crisis.

And that brings us back to the original point about the late Charles Kennedy.

The landscape which he occupied has altered beyond recognition, but has changed politics meant better politics or brought improved outcomes? The jury is out, and it is a question voters should consider as they head for the booths.

In the run up to the poll, however, at least this week’s cross-party agreement on a ‘Kennedy Commitment’ brought some encouraging news.

Having seen the treatment Mr Kennedy received back in 2015, the LibDems have called for a “a zero-tolerance approach to abuse and to lead a respectful campaign”.

Their pledge calls for derogatory, untrue, or hateful messages on social media to be publicly denounced and challenged; to treat political opponents and journalists with respect, and to run an honest campaign.

The SNP, Tories, Labour and Greens – all of whom have members who have experienced threats and abuse in various forms – have all signed up.

It would be a fitting tribute to Charles Kennedy if this is one electoral promise they can work together and fulfil.