In Full: Willie Rennie’s Charles Kennedy Lecture on the importance of listening in a noisy world

Every year, round about Charles Kennedy’s birthday on 25th November, the Charles Kennedy Lecture takes place in his memory. Willie Rennie was invited to deliver this year’s and chose the topic “Listening in a noisy World.”

It’s worth reading the whole thing as it sets out how we as liberals have such an important role in breaking down barriers and bringing people together. He also gives examples of how really persisting with someone can help us all.

One of the things I noticed from reading his speech was that there don’t seem to have been any women giving this lecture so far. Maybe that should change next year.

Anyway, here’s Willie’s lecture in full:

Charles Kennedy was the secret ingredient that made me the new and 63rd Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament: the highest water mark, so far, of Liberal Democrat MPs at Westminster.

I was the candidate in the 2006 Dunfermline by election when the party was enduring a series of scandals.  For the party it felt like a crisis.

Charles had just stood down as Leader acknowledging, for the first time, his alcoholism.

And there seemed to be other daily revelations which bedevilled the party.

Despite all this scandal and the fact that Dunfermline had been Labour for an age and Communist before that, we still believed we had a chance, but we needed something extra to get us over the line.

Charles was persuaded to campaign for me – his first public appearance since his resignation.

As we slowly made our way down Dunfermline High Street surrounded by the press scrum, yes I said SCRUM, an elderly lady shouted loudly from the side-lines: ‘Charles, we love you.’

Charles composed himself. Then with a smile emerging across his face he replied.  “Now madame, I’m in quite enough trouble as it is without any of that kind of thing.”

Everyone laughed, it broke the tension, and we went onto to win the seat.

It was Charles at his best. Warm, engaging, humorous, self-effacing, and above all, a fully paid-up member of the human race

Through all the noise and fuss he listened and connected in an instant.

Subject and previous speakers

That’s the subject of my lecture this evening.

‘Listening in a noisy world’.

It is an honour to be here following some impressive contributors but most of all to honour Charles.  Your series of lectures is a fine one, and I want to thank you for that.  

I want to also thank Ally and Ferguson Transport & Shipping for sponsoring this evening’s event.  Without a good sponsor these occasions just would not happen.

Previous speakers have some common themes: Charles’ character is at the centre.

Jim Wallace, delivered the first lecture, covering the issue of respect. 

Alistair Campbell talked about friendship, mental health, addiction, and what Charles would have thought of Brexit.  

It spoke to the fondness that Nicola Sturgeon had for Charles that she delivered the lecture despite competing demands as First Minister.

Brian Taylor spoke of Charles’ compassion.

David Steel gave his perspective on the role of spin doctors.

And John Thurso shared Charles’ highland character.

Rebel, not rebel

When you look back over the life of Charles Kennedy you see a man who balanced the competing tensions of independence of mind and partnership with others.  

He was never branded a rebel although he did often tilt against the prevailing view.

Coalition

Charles was one of only a handful who opposed the coalition with the Conservatives.

Although he did oppose it, he did so in the most respectful way possible. 

Charles politely and intelligently expressed his difference of opinion.  

He made the argument to the MPs.  He articulated that opposition fairly in public.  He listened.

Iraq

On Iraq, he was decried as a quisling by supporters of the war.  In the commons he was surrounded by them, but he carried on making his case through the noise.  

He was careful not to be misunderstood by opponents of the war.  He was not a pacifist he told a London rally, that it was a finely balanced judgement, that the solution was a technical one involving weapons inspectors. 

He could have easily played to the noisy gallery, but he didn’t just tell them what they wanted to hear.  That would not have reflected his true position. And he preferred honesty no matter how difficult.

Charles thought long and hard about it, he listened to the mood and the words of ordinary people, he listened to expert opinion and advice, he made his arguments and listened to the response, he listened to those who disagreed and politely responded with respect. 

He was fearless but respectful.  He contributed to the change of public opinion.  

That he maintained a strong friendship with Alistair Campbell despite his central role in the war speaks to that personal characteristic.  A characteristic that must lie deep within Alistair too.

 

EU

On Europe, he made a speech to the UK Liberal Democrat Conference in Glasgow in 2013, well before the referendum was agreed, where he challenged the leadership of the party to stand up for our European DNA rather than hiding away from it.  

He warned of the pending battle that needed to be won.  

A popular, warm, humorous character making the positive and intelligent case may have swung that European referendum.  

His arguments were simple. He was a Highlander, Scot, Brit, European and saw no conflict between all those identities.

He would have listened to the people who blamed the establishment, on this occasion Europe, for their poor housing, low income, job prospects and pressurised public services in part because of significant immigration.  

He would have made the argument for change, but against the populism of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson. But he would have done so in a way that would have reached the hearts, not just the heads.

Rebels

On all those issues he wasn’t cowed by the weight of opposing noise, political or public opinion.

He politely and respectfully articulated his case without insult. 

He listened carefully and for that initially won respect before winning the argument.  

He was a rebel with the party and the wider political establishment but was never seen as a rebel.

Later I will argue that it is a distinctly liberal characteristic.    

But first, some rebels struggle with the tension that exists when challenging a position or a policy whilst remaining within the collective effort.  

They become socially awkward and distant around their party colleagues. Not Charles.

Take Ash Regan who recently left the SNP to join ALBA.  She found it almost impossible to remain socially connected once she had spoken out on gender reform.  

That’s when leadership is tested.

I found it revealing that the First Minister dismissed her defection as “no great loss” when clearly, she had something to contribute after securing the support of a good portion of the SNP membership. 

I thought it diminished the First Minister more than Ash Regan.

I had a fair few defections in my time as leader.  

However, I followed a self-imposed Rennie Rule: Be kind and respectful, phone them, thank them for their contribution and tell them they’d be welcome back if they changed their mind.  

They were always a bit surprised, some of them never returned but a few did and are still members to this day.

I have been sadly disappointed by the demonisation in politics.  It is often a feature of the far left and right as well as many in the nationalist movement that political difference manifests itself in personal animosity too.  

The reports that some on the left would never kiss a Tory epitomised that theme.  

The way that they almost spit when they say Tory is just ugly.

Equally the branding of all nationalists as unthinking and blinkered is just as untrue.

I believe that politics is an honourable profession and those within it should treat each other with honour too. No matter where you are on the political spectrum.

If we don’t have respect for our political opponents, is it any surprise that the public don’t either.

Policy not personal

A classic example of respect in politics was Charles on immigration.  He could have kept clear of such a difficult issue as immigration, but he chose to face it head on.

When he was under attack from the then Conservative Leader William Hague, he was generous personally but did not hold back politically.

“I like William personally but publicly, professionally, he is dangerous,” he said. “Voicing ever more grotesque impulses he is in danger of becoming the epitome of the saloon bar politician – over-reacting to every news headline, pandering to every passing prejudice, exploiting people’s problems for party political gain.”

It can be colourful and passionate without being personal.

Perhaps his compassion on immigration would have changed the public mood so that policies like Stop the Boats would have no traction.

Liberal tradition

Listening isn’t just a passive activity. It’s intentional, deliberate, and often we have to know what we’re listening for before we hear it.

I have an app on my phone which identifies bird song.  It recently identified a tawny owl in my back garden.  It’s one of a host of birds that populate my neighbourhood, but I hadn’t heard them before this app because I wasn’t listening.  Now I can’t get to sleep because it’s so bloody noisy!

Listening is difficult in a world of instant news, tweets, or whatever they are called now, posts, threads, instant reaction, fake news.  

It seems everyone has a view, everywhere, all at once so taking time to listen and think can leave you behind.  But working out what people really mean is essential for progress.

In that noisy, instant world, nuance and reason can get lost. But they are all the more important in that world.

As I have discussed, Charles managed it.  He was often caveated and qualified.  He was soft not siren.  

Persuading people of change with measure and reason.

Presenting challenging issues is a way that people can trust.

It’s a fine liberal tradition.  

A book about David Steel was entitled Militant for the Reasonable Man.  

David Steel’s pedigree on anti-apartheid and abortion were difficult for people to accept 50/60 years ago, especially in the rugby loving Borders, but David persuaded people in a way that didn’t insult but carried people with him.

Russell Johnston – MP for Inverness – used to say the Liberal Party was a conversation. Listening makes a conversation not a monologue. He persuaded for the benefits of economic development in the Highlands.

Jo Grimond before had that mix of challenge and reassurance on Suez and the European Community.

Paddy Ashdown on the passports for Hong Kong.

As our first liberal minister in a generation Jim Wallace delivered liberal reforms on freedom of information and section 28 with empathy and trust.

And now I would make the case for my Westminster colleague in Fife, and former police officer, Wendy Chamberlain and my newish boss Alex Cole-Hamilton. Voices who speak with compassion and reason.

How we do our politics as Liberals is equal to what our politics is for. 

Public judgement

Politicians have a responsibility not to add to the noise unnecessarily, or to exploit it to their own ends. 

I am afraid that too many of the current crop of Conservative politicians like our, now former, Home Secretary Suella Braverman see a division as something worth exploiting rather than something we must heal.

Her stoking of division on protest, the police, homelessness, Israel and Gaza was as ugly as it was self-serving, and it had consequences on Saturday.

My hope is that the arrival of David Cameron may signal an end to that kind of politics in this government.  I will forever be an optimist I suppose.

Reading anger

The biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand, we listen to reply.

Good listening skills are an important part of effective communication.

Listening to the public is hard especially in the cyber space where instant response is possible – no matter how ill informed.

For politicians, when people seem angry all the time, how is it possible to know what to prioritise? To understand what matters most in a sea of demands.

For me it is to ask questions. How does the problem affect you? Securing examples brings it to life.  

I want to establish how many it affects.  Why it is happening and what can be done about it.  

To test alternative approaches with the complainants. 

A wall of noise needs a curious mind.

Let me give you an example. The Bedroom Tax.  There was a lot of noise against the policy from politicians.  

But what was most powerful for me was when I met the Fife rent officers who told me that tenants affected had just given up. 

Those tenants had stopped paying their rent, stopped trying to pay back their housing debt.  They had moved beyond anger; they just didn’t care anymore.   

That had much deeper consequences for society, everyone’s part in it and the potential disintegration of order.  It was powerful testimony and had a profound effect on me.  

I set about reaching an agreement between Danny Alexander and John Swinney to effectively abolish it in Scotland.  

I’ve never really talked about it before as the bedroom tax was hardly something to draw virtue from, but I mention it today as an example of listening. 

Because listening can be especially difficult for ministers who have occupied government office for a long time.  

It’s wrong to simply dismiss opponents as a bunch of recalcitrant with statements like “Ach, they’ll always oppose” as one minister told me recently. Above all politicians we must have ministers who have a curious mind.

Sometimes it’s what people don’t say that is the most powerful.  Why is there no reaction? Have they not heard?  Is it not important?  Why is it not important?  And just because there is no reaction now, doesn’t mean there will never be a reaction. 

Or, like that bedroom tax example, is it because the people who are affected have given up on the democratic system, given up on society and don’t believe there is any point anymore or any point in engaging.  

For years I have conducted a summer tour covering every corner of my constituency.  It means I can reach people who would never normally approach me.

On one occasion I chased a man down the street as he was clearly angry about something but wouldn’t tell me when I first asked.  

Eventually, he revealed his daughter with his baby granddaughter lived alone in a block of flats surrounded by drug users and anti-social behaviour. I was able to intervene and did.

Zoetrope

I’m still learning about how the public decide who to listen to.  

I think it’s about building a relationship of trust and confidence. You must earn the respect to be heard.

And it’s not all about words. The public are an astute judge of people.  

They may not understand the details of policy or politics, but they can read body language and character. 

And politicians get few opportunities to shape that view and that judgement.

Nick Clegg, in his book, Between the Extremes, described moments in the life of a politician that mark you out in public opinion.  He called it a zoetrope.  

For those not followers of embryonic animation, a zoetrope produces the illusion of motion by displaying a sequence of drawings or photographs showing progressive phases of that motion broken down into a series of snapshots.

Nick’s zoetrope was those debates where Gordon Brown and David Cameron competed to agree with Nick.  It was the tuition fees debacle weeks later and finally his resignation as Leader. Those were the moments the public were watching and listening.  

For Theresa May, it would be the ‘nasty party’ speech with her tiger heals, the ‘nothing has changed’ manifesto with those waving arms followed by her battles with her party over Brexit as PM.

For Boris Johnson, stuck on a zip line, Brexit, Ukraine and those infamous Downing Street parties. In fact, he had a few more than others…

For Charles, winning his seat at such a young age, becoming leader, Iraq, Have I Got News For You, losing his seat and his battle with alcohol.

Do you know what your zoetropes would be?  The exercise gives a new perspective or as Burns would say:  ‘To see oursels as ithers see us!’

What makes us

At the age of three I used to sit on the garden wall and talk to anyone and everyone who passed by.  I was nosey.  I loved to know. (‘Nothing changes’ said a friend who looked over this speech for me before I presented it tonight…)!

At a young age I had time to take in the world around me.  I was curious.  I wasn’t in a rush.

I was shaped by the community I was raised in, in my father’s shop and at home too.

One of my father’s stories that he likes to tell me is about our church minister.  

The Reverend Cameron Wallace used to be the shipyard chaplain in Greenock before he joined us in my home village of Strathmiglo.  

Anyway, Cameron Wallace, according to my dad, would sit quietly in the church session meetings whilst everyone had their say – sometimes with great heat and at great length.  

Once everyone had exhausted what they had to say he would neatly and diplomatically sum up the situation and everyone would go home feeling good about the meeting.

In my political life I have tried follow the lead of the Rev Wallace. 

Charles was influenced by those around him.

His grandfather Donald, a highland Liberal, a great educator. 

His fellow students at Glasgow.

Roy Jenkins.  At his first parliamentary party meeting he called Roy, Mr Jenkins and then shared an office with him. 

And those from other parties.

But music was so important to Charles too – from his father on the fiddle to David Bowie on the record player.

He listened to learn.

Conclusion

Let me conclude.

It is a noisy world.  

The noisier it gets the more important it is to listen.  

Listen to those who shout and those who don’t.  

Listen to understand, not always listen to respond. 

Taking time. Taking time to listen, understand, shape your view and communicate that view.

Speaking. Speaking with respect, speaking with nuance, speaking with colour, speaking with independence of mind and spirit. 

Sometimes even staying silent.

I try to follow the lead of the great liberal voices like Charles. 

I often fail but that doesn’t stop me trying and nor should it.

Thank you for listening to me this evening.

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

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