Charles Kennedy: I miss being Rector of Glasgow University more than I missed being Leader of the Liberal Democrats

Charles KennedyLast week, Charles Kennedy spoke in Liverpool as part of the Liverpool John Moore University’s Roscoe series of lectures. His subject was the ongoing debate on Scottish independence and his comments were, as you would expect,  enlightening, in fact one of the most enlightening moments of the debate so far. The bar isn’t that high, but Charles’ lecture is actually very good. Here are some of the highlights.

He started off by referring to his 6 years as Rector of Glasgow University, saying that he misses it more than he missed being leader of the Liberal Democrats. He also remembered being told off by a Professor in his own university days for that typical student politico offence of not actually going to any lectures. Discussing career options, the academic said to Charles:

If all else fails you can always go into politics.

Charles wasn’t in the mood to sweat the small stuff. He said that people were sick fed up of that sort of  being told they would be £50 better or worse off:

l’ll spare you the minutiae. Any sensible member of the Scottish electorate will say “They’re all bloody liars, I’ll make m own mind up.”

The Tay and Clyde and Forth are thinking of divorcing themselves from the Mersey, he said:

Anyone who knows their UK history knows the association between the two and in a metaphoric microcosm there’s an awful lot that is summed up in that thought alone about what that debate is about.

He dismissed the idea that somehow you weren’t a patriotic Scot is you didn’t back independence, saying he was as patriotic a Scot as any Yes voter.

He added that on his gravestone he wanted it to say that he was a Highlander, Scottish, British and EU citizen in that order. He says there’s no problem with being all of these things, adding:

You can deploy each identity when it would be most effective.

Reflecting on the furore over Obama’s comments on independence, Charles joked: “I can’t wait until someone asks Putin what he thinks of Scottish independence.” You can, Charles, you really can.

He was struck by the similarities between Glasgow and Liverpool, two cities whose civil buildings had been built on the prosperity of the 18th and 19th centuries which benefited both parties to the union .

He wasn’t impressed with the arguments advanced by the Better Together campaign. He said that sometimes it seems as if the Yes camp believes that a vote to remain in the union is  a vote for “subordination to Westminster and every hate figure from Thatcher to Edward 1” while the No Camp says that a Yes vote would be economic Armageddon and international isolation.

If Scotland voted for independence he said, If we wanted to do it we would do it and we would make it happen. We might not be as well off as we are now but that isn’t the issue.

My argument is that when yo look at movement and migrations of people and capital over the centuries that that in this day and age is a redundant sense of the way forward for a modern company such as Scotland in an evolving UK.


Any good liberal gets very exercised about centralisation of power and Charles is nothing if not a good liberal:

When I went to Westminster, UK was centralised at our expense. SNP Government can be judged by their actions. Highlands has suffered with consequences of increased centralism since Alex Salmond came to power and it’s been politically conscious on his part.

He talked about how Highlands and Islands Enterprise, the Crofters’ Commission, Police and Fire services were being run more and more from Edinburgh. I loved the way he described a croft of the benefit of those in the audience not familiar with Scotland’s small farms:

A croft is an area of ground surrounded by legislation.

I didn’t argue against centralisation at Westminster to replace it with centralisation in Edinburgh. That is the legacy of the SNP in power. They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with the idea that everything is London’s fault.

He said that people in highlands have less control over services in their area than they had before the SNP came to power.

Argument won’t go away

Some of us have been worrying that even if there is a no vote, the Nationalists will want a “neverendum”, to keep asking the question till they get the “right” answer. Charles was perfectly relaxed about it, saying that if he wasn’t going to give up arguing for a change to the voting system, the Nationalists aren’t going to suddenly stop believing in an independent Scotland after a no vote. That has its dangers.

When you win or lose votes, it’s not just winning or losing, it’s the nature by which you win or lose that is so important. Mrs Thatcher won a lot of arguments but look at the residual bitterness  she’s left in so many communities along the way. I worry about a Scotland becoming more divided almost irrespective of the outcome of the vote.

But what to do about it? Actually, devolve more powers and make sure SNP are involved in that debate.

I hope SNP will join in discussion because they represent a very significant body of opinion whatever the precise figures on the night and that sentiment has to be built into the future equation.

Salmond’s conundrum

He finished by outlining what he thought was Salmond’s conundrum. He had been pretty complimentary about Salmond throughout;

Alex Salmond puts up a very persuasive case but I believe it’s wanting. but he is asking Scotland to think big and vote small. That’s a curious way to conduct our internal politics far less the politics with its ramifications of the wider United Kingdom.

You can read more about Charles’ lecture here, but I’d recommend you download the podcast. It’s worth devoting 20 minutes of your life to.


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

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This entry was posted in News.


  • Jonathan Pile 21st Jun '14 - 5:39pm

    There’s no doubting Charlie Kennedy is a real authentic liberal democrat who like David Penhaligon has made a significant contribution to the party.

  • Helen Tedcastle 21st Jun '14 - 6:41pm

    Charles Kennedy speaks common sense as ever and his style communicates with ‘ordinary’ people effectively. This comes through loud and clear in Caron’s report.

    On identity, he knocks the UKIP/SNP insular arguments out of the park with his classic line quoted here:

    ” He added that on his gravestone he wanted it to say that he was a Highlander, Scottish, British and EU citizen in that order. He says there’s no problem with being all of these things, adding:

    You can deploy each identity when it would be most effective.”


  • I agree with Helen Tedcastle 21st Jun ’14 – 6:41pm
    Charles Kennedy speaks common sense as ever and his style communicates with ‘ordinary’ people effectively. This comes through loud and clear in Caron’s report.

    Well done Charles Kennedy. Good to see you deploying your skills and experience in this way.

  • CK on his game still strikes me as the person on whom most Lib Dems can agree. If only he missed being leader more….

  • Proud to say I was CK’s leadership campaign co-ordinator for Bedfordshire.

    As an attendee, also proud he spoke at the 1m march against the Iraq war

  • Shaun Cunningham 22nd Jun '14 - 10:50am

    Ref ” When you win or lose votes, it’s not just winning or losing, it’s the nature by which you win or lose that is so important”

    Charles… are so right? May was a disaster for the party and the way in which our leadership seems to believe the results were a mere political hiccup is deeply troublesome. Could you please have a word with Nick and example the seriousness of our present plight. Oh, any chance you want your old job back?

  • Charles Rothwell 22nd Jun '14 - 12:53pm

    Still has got it takes to inspire and enthuse and I look forward to whenever he pops up on “This week in politics” etc. to liven up the discussions. The man who really put the LDs on the political map and showed it WAS* fully possible to unite idealism/passion/having firm views with political success! (*STILL is, of course; factors like these go some way to counting for the Kippers’ success in May (although their “ideals, passions and firm views” are most assuredly not mine). Instead of floundering around in what Norman Tebbit called the “soggy morass of the middle ground”, there is in my view huge potential for uniting these qualities as the total counter-movement to the Kippers and this was precisely what I had very much hoped the “IN” campaign would be all about (forlornly as it turned out; mainly due to the lack of a convincing vision beyond droning on about “3 million jobs” (which may or may not be true) (hell of a gamble to take, though!) . Cameron has set his course and who knows what Milliband thinks (beyond waiting for another policy review to report) so I still think there is room for a party to score by offering a fresh alternative (and one geared up for the 21st century, not one looking back wistfully to the pre-Rock and Roll era of Janet and John books and ‘Watch with Mother”!)

  • Good to note that Charles hasn’t lost his practical, realistic and common-sense approach . More please.

  • Can’t we have Charles Kennedy back as leader?

    Despite his well-publicised personal problems, we had 62 MPs under his leadership, a total that is likely to be halved next year on current trends, and that’s if we’re lucky.

    “Will ye no’ come back again?
    Better lo’ed ye canna be”

  • John Tilley 22nd Jun '14 - 4:40pm

    I agree with RC.

  • Halved? 8% in latest You/Gov.
    When are the Lib Dems in Westminster going to get a grip.

  • We need Charlie K back on the front line!

  • Kennedy 1 day a week would be more effective than 7 days of Clegg.

  • Peter Watson 22nd Jun '14 - 11:10pm

    @RC “Can’t we have Charles Kennedy back as leader?”
    I suspect this quote will come up every time you ask those who would like to see the back of Nick Clegg who could replace him? 😉

  • I marched alongside Charles and Sarah Kennedy and Donnachadh McCarthy at the front of that Lib Dem contingent on the Iraq War march – a Lib Dem contingent which would have been ten times as large had the decision of the Federal Executive to back the march not been opposed and sabotaged by powerful forces within within HQ and .the Leaders office both before and after the Federal Executive decision. I saw a number of prominent Lib Dems on that March. Perhaps because no one much had heard of him at that time, I did not recognise him but I cannot remember seeing Nick Cleff there.

  • @RC : as a party, we certainly need to make more of Charlie Kennedy’s charm and common-sense, his sheer common touch with the electorate. Whether our current leaders could stand the comparison is the key question . of course, and whether he could be coaxed back into a centre -stage position. It was, after all, his courage over Iraq that got a lot of us elected in 2006, and that gave us our present total of MPs. But I think his clinical problem was very roughly , poorly handled by the party. As LBJ said:”If you want a friend in politics -buy a dog.” Personally, I would have bought him another crate of malt, on the basis that his comments when drunk made more sense than the rest of them when sober. Charlie as leader is not a bad idea -if he’d have us back.

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