Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Charles Kennedy: a loss for us all, not least in the Labour Party

There have been a great many tributes paid to Charles Kennedy since his death, as there are when any leading political figures die. But, and many people have commented on this fact, in his case more of them seem to be sincere than for most others.

Charles Kennedy:
witty, fun and right on at least two great questions...
This owes a great deal, no doubt, to the fact that he was a lot more likeable than most. He could be funny, and entertain on TV comedy shows, as effectively as he could outline an argument on more serious ones. He conjured up smiles, in others as well as himself, despite having much to cry about: a long, painful battle with alcohol in the course of which he lost the leadership of his party, the Liberal Democrats, as well as terrible family losses, the most recent the death of his father just weeks before the 7 May General Election.

And at the election, he lost the parliamentary seat he’d held for 32 years.

An appealing character, beset by tragedy. No wonder his death has attracted widespread, genuine sorrow.

To me, though, there are two particular aspects of his life that are most to be regretted. Two major issues on which he proved himself right, when so many others around him, were wrong.

The most significant was the Iraq War, which he consistently, outspokenly opposed. At a 2003 rally in Hyde Park following a great demonstration against the war he said:

It's no wonder that people are scared and confused. I say this to you quite seriously as somebody who personally happens not to be a pacifist but has the utter respect for anyone for grounds of conscience who is. As somebody who is not actually anti-American but is deeply worried by this Bush administration. And as someone who is under no illusions about the brutal dictatorship and the appalling regime which is Saddam Hussein.

The event has proven him entirely right. What we were scared and confused about has been more than verified, as ISIS runs amok across Iraq and Syria. George Bush and Tony Blair may well have rid us of the “appalling regime” Saddam Hussein led, but they have allowed it to be replaced by something far worse still. Of the major parties in the UK, only Charles Kennedy’s Lib Dems stood out against the pressure for war.

He subsequently led his party to its best ever election results, taking 62 seats in 2005. But then the difficulties with alcohol caught up with him, and he was forced out. In 2010, it was Nick Clegg who led his party and, though he took fewer seats, he nonetheless won enough to force the Conservatives into dependence on him.

And again he got things right. The Lib Dems were, alongside Labour, an anti-Tory party. A coalition with Labour was conceivable; a coalition with the Conservatives was a betrayal of everything that a large number of the party’s supporters believed, and for which they had given it their support. Charles Kennedy was the leading voice inside the parliamentary party to oppose entering that coalition. But Nick Clegg took the party into it, and the results were as catastrophic as expected: it has been reduced to just eight MPs at this year’s election. Kennedy was not one of the small number to hold on to their seats.

It will take a generation for the party to crawl back from that debacle. Though I’m in the Labour Party, I regret that: under Kennedy, the Lib Dems were often able to prick Labour’s conscience, and not just over the Iraq War, even on our constantly eroding civil liberties. The loss of that spur will be felt by us all.

Charles Kennedy embodied the Lib Dem voice at its best. Witty, likeable, intelligent, and right on at least two great matters, his death is a heavy blow. We’re all the poorer for it.

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