Book review: Charles Kennedy: A Tragic Flaw by Greg Hurst

I had a chance to read this recently updated book while on holiday in West Africa. It is a remarkably fine volume. Painstakingly researched and impeccably sourced, it offers a skillfully balanced portrait of a remarkable and inspiring man. As the title suggests, the author does not hold back on the human frailties of its subject but these are, nevertheless, presented as part of a rounded, fair and endearing commentary. I feel this book helps us to inch forward a little further in understanding the rather enigmatic Charles Kennedy, while deconstructing a few myths along the way.

I’ll pick out a few parts of the book which particularly caught my attention:

The Liberal Democrat party has often been portrayed as having “done a dirty” on Charles Kennedy – unceremoniously dropping him as leader and not supporting him through his illness. The book makes clear that this is simply wrong. There are many examples given of those around Charles Kennedy making strenuous efforts to help him over years.

Far from the party “hounding” Kennedy, Greg Hurst suggests the opposite; that because Kennedy was so respected, and out of sensitivity for him, the party held off and hesitated in its deliberations concerning him.

The book also makes clear the great efforts which Kennedy himself made to try to deal with his alcoholism, including sincere attendance of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in Glasgow. There is also some insight into this area offered via Alistair Campbell.

It is easy to assume that the “Tragic Flaw” referred toTragic flaw Charles Kennedy
in the book’s title is alcoholism. In fact, the author goes a little deeper:

The most arresting change in Charles Kennedy as he progressed from star student debater to contender for party leader was in his self-confidence.

The author says that in the mid-1990s a serious lack of self-esteem became apparent to some of those around him, concluding:

Alcohol may have been a symptom rather than a cause.

There is much in the book about Charles’ time in the SDP, and how he played a leading role in nudging that party towards merger and the formation of the Liberal Democrats. There is one tale of Charkles Kennedy taking dear old Bob Maclennan, somewhat distraught at an impasse in the inter-party negotiations, aside to gently console and encourage him.

It is worth reading the book to understand better the history of the Liberal Democrats during the Labour government 1997-2010. The story of the 2001 general election was particularly interesting given the close liaison between the Liberal Democrats and Labour. Our campaign leader was phoning Labour virtually everyday to check that we were co-ordinating our “grids” with them. That is quite remarkable in retrospect.

There is some very good detail of Charles Kennedy on the campaign trail during the 2001 general election. The appendices contain a very humble note from him, on what went well and what didn’t go so well during the campaign. It is clear that Charles liked to have old friends or relatives with him in the campaign bus.

Also in the appendices there is an hilarious Glasgow University Union debate order paper from 1980. There are very interesting extracts from a memo from Tim Razzall, general election campaign director, after the 2005 general election. We won 62 seats but somehow the ensuing media spin turned this into a near-disaster – “they should have done so much better”. Nowadays we look back at those 62 seats with great reverence – and it is clear they were won largely because of the public’s trust in Charles Kennedy and because of his stance on Iraq. The disintegration of the Conservative party also helped.

Greg Hurst details Kennedy’s bid to become Rector of Glasgow University, after his leadership years, and his subsequent holding of the post. He really did throw himself into the role, spending a great amount of time on it.

There is also much about Charles Kennedy’s original student days in Glasgow – particularly his debating. He excelled in “mid-evening and, particularly, government pre-question time rounds”. Another member of the debating club, John Morrison, himself sadly taken from us far too young, said that Charles’ “conversational conference speech style” could be traced back to those Glasgow sessions.

Both for his great service as Rector and his notable contributions as a student, it is no wonder that Charles Kennedy has been posthumously honoured so much by the great Glaswegian institution.

It is also very cheering to read of Charles Kennedy’s campaigning style in the Highlands. He didn’t do doorstepping. He spoke at loads of public meetings accompanied by his father on the fiddle. This seemed to strike a real chord with locals – and seems to have been one of the main reasons behind Charles’ original meteoric election as an MP.

One thing this book does is to outline the enormous family pressure Charles Kennedy was under in his final years. Due to an accident his brother had become quadriplegic and his father was ailing – and this was only shortly after losing his mother. Kennedy had a great deal of responsibility on his shoulders as a family carer, as well as being expected to play a key role in the “No” campaign for the Scottish referendum.

All in all, this is a great book. If you haven’t read it already, I urge you to do so.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist and member of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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  • Ruth Bright 5th Apr '16 - 12:28pm

    My impression was that he loved people and politics but found fame intrinsically absurd. When he came to help us here (in East Hants) the reception he received was quite Princess Diana-like. People really identified with him and had great affection for him; but that was a burden.

  • Watching Nick Clegg going into coalition with the Tories must have broke his heart. The best Liberal or Lib Dem leader ever – with all his faults – by a country mile. The public loved him, not many other politicians you can say that about.

  • Tony Greaves 6th Apr '16 - 12:19am

    In the election for leader after Paddy resigned I was an ABC “Anyone But Charles.” How wrong I was.

    Tony Greaves

  • Alex Macfie 6th Apr '16 - 7:53am

    I didn’t vote for Charles but I was happy with his leadership and it’s clear that his deposition was the start of the rot for the party that culminated in the 2015 electoral disaster. At the time I was irritated about one leadership contest then another that I did not want and that the party was clearly not ready for.

  • Chris Rennard 6th Apr '16 - 5:12pm

    It is a good book and a fair analysis in my view, but then I was a major source for it, so I am bound to say that! The book shows how many of us tried to help Charles in a proper and professional way to deal with his alcoholism by acknowledging it. An appendix to the book contains my briefing note on the situation shortly before he resigned.
    Charles put me in charge of the professional organisation of our election campaigns throughout his period as Leader and chaired the panel of FE members that recommended that I become Chief Executive in 2003.
    In his last conference speech as Leader, he left his hotel room (where Ann was minding the young Donald Kennedy) saying that I am going off to “defend those dreadful election results for which your husband and I were responsible” in a typical but somewhat sarcastic reference to the way in which we had only won 62 seats in that election. The book explains some of the difficulties which we faced during that period, and with his health in particular. Wholly unrealistic assumptions about what might have been possible for us in the 2005 campaign contributed to the internal dissent that followed that election and which should never have been public.
    I got Charles to return to the political frontline just two weeks after his resignation in order to make a dramatic intervention in the Dunfermline & West Fife by-election that elected Willie Rennie and restored our fortunes after a very turbulent period in the party’s history. Most of the party ‘hierarchy’ were very doubtful about the wisdom of bringing Charles back in this way, but the warmth of the welcome that he received in Dunfermline High Street that day, and the favourable coverage that helped to secure our victory, reflected the great public regard which people always had for him.

  • The real problem about Charles’ removal was how it was handled. There may well have been attempts to get him to address his problems behind the scenes, and while it was right that these were not disclosed to the ordinary member at the time there was no attempt to fully explain the problems afterwards. As a result, to many of us it seemed as if the MPs were organising a coup against the leader chosen, respected and liked by the party as a whole. There was no apparent offer of, say, 6 months leave (as other employers may have given) to seek help, which would have been accepted by both the party and Parliament. It would have been interesting if Charles had kept to his original decision to stand; I suspect he would have won well.

    Indirectly, I also believe it led the party to the position we are now in. That disconnect between party and parliamentary group remained until 2010, and widened during the coalition years. One advantage of the smaller PP is that it may well be easier to mend the rift.

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