Friendship, addiction and Brexit: Alastair Campbell’s poignant and frank Charles Kennedy Memorial Lecture

In the last 3.5 years, so many people have wondered what Charles Kennedy would have had to say about Brexit and our fight against it. A European to his core, he would have been such a strong and credible voice for Remain in the referendum.

Our politics is so much the poorer for his absence and in this party, his loss is particularly acute. People across politics and outside politics had so much time for him.

We didn’t find out until after he died how close he was to Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s Chief spin doctor. This was a relationship that transcended the fact that Charles was the leading opponent of the  Iraq war.

Last night Alastair Campbell travelled to Fort William to give the annual Charles Kennedy Memorial Lecture.

He recalled when Charles asked him to think about running for Rector of Glasgow University when he stood down:

As his second term as Glasgow University Rector neared its end, he sounded me out as a possible successor. He said listen, your Dad was at Glasgow, your brother is the principal’s official piper, your name and your bagpipes give you a bit of Scottish cred, you get on with young people, and, you would love it.’

‘But Charles, what about Iraq?’

‘Oh, Iraq. Huh huh, yes, Iraq. I forgot you were part of all that, weren’t you? Ach well, not to worry.’

He touched on Brexit and what Charles would have made of it all:

On the day of his funeral, we were driving up to Fort William from Glasgow airport listening to the tributes across Good Morning Scotland. A constituent recalled asking him whether he intended to support or oppose the bedroom tax, and Charles saying he would oppose it. His reasoning was very simple. ‘It’s just wrong.’

And I think he would argue very strongly that it is just wrong if the government and Parliament press ahead with a course of action that they know is going to make people poorer, our country weaker, our standing in the world lower. I believe too he would have had no difficulty arguing against this notion that somehow it is anti-democratic to put the outcome of these negotiations back to the people, given the Brexit now on offer bears next to no relation to the false prospectus on which it was sold. MPs are there to lead not follow, and Charles would have led the argument that that far from it being anti-democratic to have a People’s Vote, it would be anti-democratic – just wrong– not to. So we keep fighting.

That wasn’t the main topic of his lecture though. He wanted to talk about mental health and addiction. 

His alcoholism helped to form the character that people loved and respected:

Charles was respected because of the qualities that saw him rise so young and so far; but loved because people sensed his vulnerability and, through it, his humanity.Drink, and the things going on inside him that led him down that path, was part of who Charles was and part of that humanity, his ability to connect with people in a way most politicians couldn’t, his ability to converse with anyone from Queen to cleaning lady, in the same charming, seemingly effortless way.

He recounted some of his interactions with Charles about his alcoholism, and then, poignantly, talked about his annual pilgrimage north:

I tried to be at his shoulder, or at least its mental version, whenever that feeling of being yanked towards the bottle kicked in. I think that sometimes I helped and sometimes I didn’t because nobody could. He is at my side now, along with others I have known who have fallen victim to this evil disease, and he will be urging me to push the urge aside, and also to keep coming up with the family to the most beautiful place on earth, a place he loved from birth to death, and where now he rests in peace, in the little cemetery at Clunes, where Fiona and I make an annual pilgrimage and I play on the pipes the lament that was played at his funeral.

Politicians need to realise that actively helping people with addictions is good for society and can save heartbreak and, yes, money in the long term:

Castle Craig is a place where mainly British alcoholics mingle with mainly Dutch drug addicts, the latter sent there at public expense by a government which understands not just that addiction is an illness, but that long-term savings can be made for the State if we invest in treating it as such, even for the hardest cases. Some will relapse. But many do not. And when those that don’t are able to rebuild their lives, become productive citizens again, we all gain from that.

And one big political point I feel sure Charles would be making today if he was still with us – how low down the pecking order of priorities have issues like this fallen, as Brexit takes up so much of the government bandwidth? Austerity plus Brexit is no equation, sadly, for the more enlightened, more long-term approach to the addiction and mental health crisis we face. So yes, let’s halt austerity, but let’s be honest, that challenge is harder if this miserable Brexit goes ahead, and damages our economy as even the government acknowledges it will.

The whole lecture is really worth reading and brought tears to my eyes. Alistair Campbell reminds us of the best of Charles, his wit and wisdom. I can’t imagine a time when he isn’t deeply missed.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Simply the best leader we ever had.

  • Thanks for posting this, Caron.

    Charles Kennedy’s speech during the party conference debate in 2013 on Europe is on youtube at

    It is sad that the Remain campaign was denied his passionate pro-Europeanism by his untimely death as I think as you say Caron, he would have been someone that many would have listened to – and could well have been worth a few percent for the Remain cause!

    We have unfortunately a short time on his planet and it is Alistair Campbell’s support of Charles is a timely reminder that we should use it to offer unconditional support to our family, friends and neighbours. And we should also use it to leave the world a better place and campaign for those political causes we care about whether getting a street light mended or getting the UK to remain in Europe for the sake of our NHS and prosperity!

  • Sorry, David. It has to be Jo Grimond.

    Sadly whilst one can feel affection, one also has to lament a very sad waste of talent. We are left with the wistful ‘if only’ .

  • David Warren 16th Nov '18 - 3:25pm

    I remember hearing that Charles had made it into parliament at the tender age of 25.

    I followed his career from then on and although not a Lib Dem member at the time I was delighted when he became leader.

    Charles had real charisma and led the party to winning 63 seats in the 2005 General Election the highest number for decades.

    His finest hour for me though was his opposition to the Iraq war, his speech in the commons on the subject can be found on YouTube.

    I never had the pleasure of meeting him and as others have said he is very much missed.

    As Shakespeare famously wrote ‘He was a man like no other, we shall not look upon his like again.’

  • Sean Hyland 16th Nov '18 - 9:52pm

    The day Charles Kennedy was forced to step down was the day I left the party.

  • Jane Ann Liston 17th Nov '18 - 12:53am

    ‘Wae’s me for Prince Charlie.’

  • Humphrey Hawksley 17th Nov '18 - 8:47am

    This is a great piece, Caron. Thank you for posting it. Politicians and those in positions of power and influence do need to be more open about addiction and similar illnesses. Alistair kept his secret at a time when he was central to the tragedy of David Kelly, the Hutton report and the threatening the BBC. That was wrong.

  • Sue Sutherland 17th Nov '18 - 2:05pm

    Sean, like you I was very upset when Charles was forced to step down and I trace our decline as a party to that event. I now understand that, sadly, his alcoholism was preventing him from doing his job properly but at the time no one wanted that to be made public. Unfortunately, that in turn meant that our MPs were thought to have stabbed him in the back.
    Addiction of any kind is a tragedy for the individual, their family and their friends but in Charles’ case it was also a tragedy for our party and for the country.

  • Steve Comer 17th Nov '18 - 2:48pm

    I think Sue is right to trace our decline as a party to the resignation of Charles Kennedy.
    On the day of the 2005 General Election I gained a Council seat form Labou, turning a Labour majority of 36 into a Lib Dem one of more than 600. With the election days being the same, you couldn’t avoid national issues. Charles Kennedy was well liked on the doorsteps.

    Yet after that success I was dismayed to find some in the Party saying the 2005 result was a failure and the policies we put forward were just a shopping list! These people were determined to move the party to the free market right. They partly achieved that a couple of years later, just as the collapse of Northern Rock and the financial crisis were exposing the limits of that brand of politics. I wouldn’t mind if the same people had accepted the blame for the 2015 debacle, but sadly those that are still active in the Party are still in denial about the great damage they did.

  • Sean Hyland 17th Nov '18 - 3:12pm

    Sue Sutherland i appreciate and understand your comments. Charles Kennedy had an openly known issue but it was not dealt with in the best way in my honest opinion.As an ex senior mental health professional I believe it could/should have been handled better. The overall impression I still have from the time, and reading the letter signed by his party mp’s, feels as though an “aggressive” move was made against him by people who didn’t seem to agree with the direction of the party despite his and the members success. What he needed was support from those who knew and loved him and time to address those issues. He could have temporarily stepped back and an interim leader be appointed in the same way that any other health issue would/should be addressed. I am afraid I am still left with a bad taste in my mouth when I recall this period of time.

    I am fully open to being corrected if I have made any errors in this. I would be happy to take on-board any comments and information from those that were closer to Charles and the issues and know in more detail of the behind the scenes discussions/actions etc.

    I miss an individual of his character in our present parliament.

  • It only became clear how effective Charles had been as Leader after we lost him. Let us not pretend that Charles’ problem with alcohol was a secret. I had known about it since 1985, and it was also known to quite a lot of people completely outside politics. I do, however, qualify what I have just said by noting that I and others were unaware of the seriousness of what we now know was a medical condition. As others have said, it was not managed. There was a complete failure of pastoral support on the part of his colleagues.

    I have to say that I feel conned. I was told that Charles had to go because he was no longer capable of leading the party. However, his replacement as Leader, for whom I voted, was savaged mercilessly by the media on account of his age and was gone within the year. Then the Orange Bookers took control of the party, and the rest is history. Does it make me a “conspiracy theorist” to wonder if that was the real reason why Charles was deposed?

    In his support for Europe, Charles was right. In his opposition to the coalition, Charles was right. In his insistence that the party should maintain a social democratic economic policy, Charles was right. If his illness had been managed properly, perhaps we would not be getting 4.7% in West Country towns today.

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