Jim Wallace on Charles Kennedy: We loved you, we miss you, will we ever see your like again

I was expecting last night’s memorial service for Charles Kennedy at Glasgow University to be a fitting tribute to the man, to be dignified and formal. It was all of those things, but I didn’t expect it to have such a strong under-current of emotion and affection. A series of heartfelt tributes were punctuated with beautiful music and poignant poetry and the whole thing was woven together perfectly by the University Chaplain, Rev Stuart MacQuarrie. At each stage, he talked very personally about the aspect of Charles’ life that the next item would reflect.

What was so clear was the enormous love and affection that senior management, students and academics alike had for Charles. The students clearly felt that he had their backs. The Presidents of the Glasgow University Union and the Students’ Representative Council both spoke about his approachability and his work on their behalf.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Secretary of State for Scotland David Mundell sat together. Each did a reading. Willie Rennie read a poem. Jim Wallace gave a superb tribute to Charles, talking about their experiences as Highland MPs and how they all travelled to each others’ constituencies to get a shared understanding of the challenges faced by each area. He also spoke about the example Charles in his manner towards others and how we could all learn from him:

His stance on the Iraq war and its aftermath shed another light on Charles’ character. In spite of his fundamental disagreement with the Prime Minister, and in spite of the hostility to which he’d been subjected, he was never vindictive about opponents. Even in private, I never heard him speak ill about those with whom he disagreed – frustration, yes, but malice no. I can’t help but think how much healthier would be the political climate in Scotland today if people, and overly zealous activists, in particular, could emulate Charles Kennedy and respect the sincerely held views of others.

Jim has kindly sent us his whole tribute which you can read below. Certainly on my row, everyone seemed to get something in their eye as he concluded his remarks.

It was June 10th 1983. I was giving an interview as the newly elected MP for Orkney and Shetland in the BBC’s Kirkwall studio, when the interviewer told me that my colleague had won in Ross, Cromarty & Skye. I had barely heard of Charles Kennedy, let alone know him; but elected on the same day as MPs for a Highlands & Islands constituency and as the youngest MPs of our respective Alliance parties, we swiftly formed a close political friendship. It was a friendship which endured. I campaigned with him in the recent election and spoke at two election meetings with him, where he mischievously told the audience that in 32 years, he’d never before had a UK Government minister on an election platform, supporting him. It’s for others to judge, given the outcome, whether there was a causal effect.

But back in 1983, it must all have been a whirlwind experience for Charles, returning from Indiana, fighting a campaign and defeating a serving government minister. So much so, that having been duly elected, he was whisked off by car to Aberdeen to do TV broadcasts and asked an accompanying journalist, “Do MPs get paid?”

Having located the Houses of Parliament, (not without some difficulty), he quickly made his mark. His maiden speech, delivered fluently, without reference to notes, was hailed from all sides. It was a debate –appropriately – on the younger generation. And he observed the Commons tradition of maiden speeches by referring to his predecessor, the defeated Hamish Gray, who, in the meantime had been ennobled and given a Scottish Office job:

I am optimistic and encouraged by what happened to Lord Gray, and I hope it sets a trend by the government. I hope three million people, many of whom lost their jobs largely as a result of government policies, will shortly be placed, as a result of Prime Ministerial decision, in much better jobs.”

But there were times when the young SDP spokesman on Health, Social Security, Northern Ireland and Scotland (yes, when your party has only single figure MPs these burdens can be necessary)found his youth a disadvantage. Scheduled to speak on a debate on local government rates, Charles came up to me and asked for a bit of help with the debate. “What are rates?” he asked, “How do they work? I’ve never paid them.” 

Suffice to say that the ensuing speech was pertinent and effective.

Elected at 23, it was evident to many of us that we had a rising star in our midst. But a simple recital of Charles’ achievements – the youngest MP in the 1983 Parliament; MP for 32 years; a pivotal role in the merger which brought about the Liberal Democrats; the Leader who took the principled stance against the Iraq invasion, the Leader who took us to our high watermark of 62 seats in 2005; – they do not start to do justice to what he really achieved in his all too short a life. For it is impossible to divorce the political achievements from the man, and his exceptional character and talent.

His debating skills, wit and humour, honed in the debating chamber of Glasgow University, had a natural outlet in the House of Commons. We live in an age when many people, MPs included, are cynical about Parliamentary debate. Charles recognised the shortcomings of the Westminster club, but also valued the Chamber of the House of Commons as a place for serious debate on the serious issues of our day. He was a natural.

And when it came to the debate on intervention in Iraq in 2003, Charles showed great courage and mastery of the House in the face of huge opposition. He was hounded, harangued and heckled from both government and opposition benches. He was accused of being an appeaser, but he stuck to his principled stance. It’s easy with the benefit of hindsight to see the strength and rightness of his position; but it was a very different story in March 2003. It was the mark of a man of principle.

In spite of his bonhomie and wit, Charles took his politics seriously. He analysed. He tried to work out consequences of any political action. His position on the British involvement in Iraq wasn’t an opportunistic knee-jerk response, but one carefully thought through and then articulated with clarity and a passionate and transparent honesty.

But in his book, ‘The Future of Politics’, he said, “Politics is much too serious to be taken too seriously.”

His sense of fun was infectious and his wit could be razor sharp, often self-deprecating of himself or the party.

On his first public appearance, after he stood down as Leader, he was mobbed in the streets of Dunfermline, campaigning for Willie Rennie in the by-election. Supporters, journalists and camera crews made progress slow. As we passed a shop doorway, a lady of some years called out, “We love you Charles.” Quick as flash, he replied, “Thanks, but keep it quiet. The party’s in enough bother as it is.”

It could be a pointed humour, but never with any malice. I recall sitting with Charles on the steps of the fountain in New Palace Yard on the night before votes were due in, in the party leadership election between Alan Beith and Paddy Ashdown. Neither of us had declared for a candidate, and we each still had to vote. We weighed up the pros and cons of both candidates; then Charles turned to me and said, “You know, this isn’t so much a choice; it’s more a dilemma.” Whereupon, we agreed to pair.

His stance on the Iraq war and its aftermath shed another light on Charles’ character. In spite of his fundamental disagreement with the Prime Minister, and in spite of the hostility to which he’d been subjected, he was never vindictive about opponents. Even in private, I never heard him speak ill about those with whom he disagreed – frustration, yes, but malice no. I can’t help but think how much healthier would be the political climate in Scotland today if people, and overly zealous activists, in particular, could emulate Charles Kennedy and respect the sincerely held views of others.

But at the core, Charles was a product of his Highland roots. There is a verse from the Book of the prophet Isaiah which says, “Look unto the rock from which you are hewn.”

Charles proclaimed his Scottishness, his commitment to the family of nations which is our United Kingdom and his fervent belief in the intrinsic value and benefit of belonging to a wider European family of nations; but it was the values of his Highland upbringing and not least his commitment to social and community justice which, I believe, inspired and sustained him most.

Some of the most memorable times I enjoyed with Charles were the Highlands & Islands tours which we undertook with Bob Maclennan, Russell Johnston and then Ray Michie. We travelled from Shetland to Oban and even once made a memorable foray to Stornoway (the details of which are for another day). The comradeship and conviviality were exceptional; but so too was the purpose of finding out more about what was happening in different parts of the Highlands & Islands, not least so we could give mutual support in our constituency endeavours. Our campaigns on saving the West Highland sleeper service, on trying to make the Crown estate more accountable locally’ on achieving a fuel tax rebate for remote Highlands & Islands communities may all have seemed forlorn at one stage, but all have happened or are happening.

In the concluding chapter of ‘The Future of Politics’, Charles said,

I have tried to show why I believe the things I do….growing up on a croft in the Highlands, and my subsequent experiences in Glasgow, America and Westminster have, above all else, committed me to one principle. I want everyone to be free. To experience that, they must have equal opportunities, equal life chances. And that’s why I’m a Liberal Democrat.”

He was the man who could ‘Walk with Kings, nor lose the common touch”; who would eschew spin, and simply tell it straight – as he perceived it.; who might once have been puzzled by rates, but grew to know what mattered most to people and not just politicians.  In a phrase which he used about others, “He was a paid up member of the human race.”

On learning of Charles’ death, a friend from Orkney, not a party member, emailed me and recounted an evening following a constituency dinner, when we had all gone back to their house for a nightcap. He said,

“What has always struck me ever since is that the person you see on the media and the person you met privately were exactly the same – you got what you saw with no airs and graces – a very rare gift.”

A very rare gift indeed. A gift that has been taken away from us much too soon.

But we shall draw inspiration from his cherished memory.

Charles, like the lady in the Dunfermline shop doorway, we, your family, friends and colleagues, and many many more beyond this Hall, loved you very much.

We will miss you.

Will we ever see your like again.

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

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3 Comments

  • Jane Ann Liston 19th Jun '15 - 12:12pm

    I watched the Periscope stream; thanks, Glasgow University, for making it available. The Coronach from Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Lady of the Lake’ kept running through my head. It begins, ‘He is gone on the mountain, he is lost to the forest. Like a summer-dried fountain, when our need was the sorest,’ and also ‘But our flower was in flushing when blighting was nearest.’ Appropriate, I thought.

    The whole Coronach can be found at:

    http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/coronach/

  • Richard Underhill 19th Jun '15 - 3:11pm

    Charles Kennedy used to joke about voters who thought he was one of several other Kennedys.

    An American vice-presidential candidate said to his Republican rival “I knew John Kennedy. You are no John Kennedy”.
    Many people knew Charles Kennedy, all of whom are different from him.

  • John Tilley 20th Jun '15 - 6:58am

    “I am optimistic and encouraged by what happened to Lord Gray, and I hope it sets a trend by the government. I hope three million people, many of whom lost their jobs largely as a result of government policies, will shortly be placed, as a result of Prime Ministerial decision, in much better jobs.”

    This quote from the maiden speech of Charles Kennedy was a great choice by Jim Wallace. It sums up 1983 and the Conservatives’ attitude to Scotland, the unemployed and defeated Tory MPs perfectly in just a couple of sentences.

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