Review: Charles Kennedy: A good man speaking

As Paul highlighted earlier, a major new documentary on the life and career of Charles Kennedy will be broadcast tonight on BBC Alba.

There is much to love in this programme. I have to say it brought a fair few of my emotions out to play – from the joy of hearing about his tactics at psyching out the opposition in school debating competitions and the fun of his election campaigns, to the anger at his treatment in his later years and the sadness of losing him way too soon.

Friends from school, university, family and politics recall the events that shaped him and the reasoning behind his key decisions. Among the interviewees are his brother-in-law and  friend James Gurling, Catherine MacLeod, a colleague at BBC Highland who was later Alastair Darling’s Special Adviser when he was Chancellor, Jim Wallace and Celia Munro, one of the stalwarts of the Liberal Democrats in Ross-shire and wife of Charles’ mentor John Farquhar Munro. Enjoy this trailer.

The programme has some rarely seen gems, like a clip of him broadcasting during his short BBC Radio Highland internship in the early 80s.

Charles always thought of himself as a Highlander first. The programme shows the influence of the Highlands on his actions and thinking throughout his life, including  opposing the war in Iraq, on which he was ultimately proven right.

But just 8 months after an election in which we won our highest ever number of MPs, Charles was ousted as leader. It was not an edifying moment in our history and I am sure that many of us have wondered what might have been if another way through the challenges of that time could have been found.

I was particularly struck by Celia Munro’s description of the support she and others had offered him with his alcoholism. It was obviously painful for her to talk about it.

We reported at the time that the 2015 campaign in Ross, Skye and Lochaber had turned nasty but we discover that the angry visit to Charles’ office by Ian Blackford was the tip of the iceberg. It wasn’t just social media, either. Anonymous notes on his car window or through his letterbox brought the abuse into his personal space.

An hour is never going to be enough to capture everything but I would have liked to have seen more about his early leadership of the Liberal Democrats when he really stood up against the Tories led by William Hague as they lurched to the right. And I think one of his finest times came during the independence referendum in 2014 where he was respected and admired by people on both sides, no mean feat in that toxic atmosphere. Yet his role in helping save the union is barely mentioned.

It’s a great watch, though and gives a balanced account of his life, contribution and service and reminds us all of Charles’ warmth and humour. How we miss him.

Let us know what you think in the comments below.

And here is the beautiful, haunting, highland version of Heroes, by David Bowie, recorded specially for the programme by Lauren MacColl and Ewan MacPherson.

Charles Kennedy, a good man speaking, will be broadcast tonight at 9pm on BBC Alba

Sky 141 (Scotland) / Sky 169 (rest of UK)
Freeview / You View 7 (Scotland only)
Virgin Media 120 (Scotland), Virgin Media 161 (rest of UK)
Freesat 109
and will be available afterwards on BBC iPlayer

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

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • I had only met Charles Kennedy once at the SDP conference in Sheffield in 1988. He was smoking at the time which amused me as he was our health spokesman at the time. I cannot say for certain how bad his drinking issues were but I have always felt that his early removal was a bad catalyst that led to the catastrophic Clegg years.

  • Tony Greaves 23rd Feb '21 - 8:34pm

    I love “Teàrlach Ceannadach”. Really suits him!

  • Heartbreakingly sad. RIP.

  • Jane Ann Liston 24th Feb '21 - 12:11am

    ‘He is gone on the mountain,
    He is lost to the forest,
    Like a summer-dried fountain,
    When our need was the sorest.’

    (Coronach – Sir Walter Scott)

  • Joseph Bourke 24th Feb '21 - 12:59am

    A sensitively presented documentary. I was particularly impressed with Charles father ‘Ian the Fiddler’. Alistair Campbell made a good contribution to the program.
    I hadn’t realised just how much his stance in the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum had impacted on his reelection campaign in 2015.

  • What a lovely film, though hard to watch the bits on the end of his life.

    Everyone rightly talks of Charlie’s kindness and his wit, and his apparent brilliance when it comes to being right on the tricky issues of the day. He was undoubtedly a very intelligent man, but the documentary reminded me that his clarity of thought wasn’t just a fluke, or a sign of a well educated man, but the product of learning how to debate.

    He was willing to listen, properly, to those with other points of view, always played the ball, not the man, and didn’t rely on lazy arguments to make his case. Knowing the tricks of public speaking, combined with his natural charisma definitely helped, but he wouldn’t confuse a snappy slogan for a genuine argument. He could pin-point why something was wrong without relying on calling it “Tory” or “Trumpian” or “commie” or “unpatriotic” or whatever blanket term of abuse is temporarily convenient.

    That kind of attack works … up to a point. But we’re all the poorer for it, and it catches up on us in the end.

    Alastair Campbell was right when he said that Charlie stood out as a politician worth listening to, because he had interesting ideas, which is sadly too rare in politicians.

  • John Marriott 24th Feb '21 - 9:32am

    @tim rogers
    Like you I only met Charles Kennedy once. It was at a Regional Conference at Leicester in the early 1990s and he was busting for a fag during one of the breaks; but we had a nice chat between the puffs. I seem to recall that Paddy Ashdown used to ration himself to three cigs a day. Didn’t Nick Clegg have the odd puff now and again?

    Talking about practising what you preach as far as health is concerned, I seem to recall that Barbara Castle, as Minister for Transport, couldn’t drive a car. Come to think of it, how many Education Secretaries have ever stood as teachers in front of a class? I can think of two in my lifetime and both were Labour.

    Charles Kennedy did many honourable things; but he really had to go when his demons got the better of him. So sad in so many ways.

  • A wonderful man and great leader. His stance on Iraq the reason why I joined.
    His death in 2015 utterly tragic. Not just for the sad loss of a good man and the family he left behind; but because it also in a way represented the death of decent politics and a political tradition that emphasised respect. The era that followed, our current times of eternal brexit/eternal indyref/eternal division, was a world away from what Kennedy stood for

  • @John. I think knowing what we know now about mental health, addiction and alcoholism, it was right that Charlie stood down as leader to take the pressure off and to give him the opportunity to confront and work through his problems. I an unable to comment on whether or not the situation was handled well by the party. I suspect that there are many who have since reflected on whether they could have done it more sympathetically, but I don’t think anyone can seriously doubt it was necessary.

    I like to think society as a whole has come a long way with how we support people with addiction issues, but not yet far enough.

    By contrast, poor behaviour in political campaigning, and abuse levied at those with different political views seems to be getting worse. No political party can be held responsible for all actions of all supporters. However, Blackford’s behaviour in this issue and others is well known, and yet he has been rewarded with a very senior position. I can’t stand to listen to him when he stands up in Parliament, claiming to speak for Scotland. And not just because his speeches are all far too long and say nothing new.

  • John Marriott 24th Feb '21 - 1:47pm

    While I have some respect for the SNP in their professional approach. After all, they have already proved the critics of PR wrong in actually getting an overall majority a few years ago in the Scottish Parliament – and could do again unless the Salmond/Sturgeon Show gets in the way.

    However, many of their representatives seem to lack a human dimension in that they seem incapable of ever admitting that they might be wrong occasionally. However, they must be doing something right north of the border. How else could they keep topping opinion polls?

    I always thought that Ian Blackford was a harmless little soul. I’m not so sure now, following the revelations from the 2015 GE campaign in Charles Kennedy’s old seat. I thought that his predecessor as SNP Commons Leader (Douglas Robertson?) appeared more civil; but he lost his seat. I think he’s now involved in Holyrood unless I am mistaken.

  • @John. The Tories are topping the Westminster opinion polls. They too must be doing something right, but that thing is mainly PR and spin.

    As far as I can tell, the SNP rate their policies based on how they’ll come across in the press. Whether or not there’s a photo opportunity, and are very often what I describe as “middle-class progressive policies”. That’s policies designed to appeal to middle-class, sold as progressive, but not really when you consider the bigger picture. For example, ‘free tuition fees’ sounds great, until you realise that in order to afford that, they’ve cut grants for living expenses for the students from the poorest families, and cut the budgets of further education colleges and schools. Inadequate funding is provided to the universities, so spaces available to Scottish students have been capped.
    Fee paying students from the rest of the UK and international students are prioritised to balance the books.

    Another example is “free prescriptions for all”. It sounds good, and like “free tuition fees” it’s something I theoretically like. However, prescriptions were already free for children, pensioners, pregnant women and those on low income etc. So the budget for the rest of the NHS was cut to the tune of approx £75 million (if I remember correctly) just so that people like me could save a few pounds.

    Meanwhile, the number of beds available to support drug addicts was cut to save money. And we have the highest number of drug deaths in the world. But why worry about the welfare of problem drug users when you can give middle-class people free stuff they don’t need?

    Angus Robertson is standing for a safe SNP seat at the Holyrood election. That’s a whole new story of bitter SNP infighting, with Joanna Cherry blocked from standing and the assumption the winner would be in prime position to take over from Sturgeon, who may need to resign if it’s shown she misled Parliament.

  • I thought at the time the appropriate course of action was to let Charles step aside for 6 months (or longer, if necessary) to properly address his demons – but even so, even with those, he still towered above many in the party and in politics.

    And even if Blackford wasn’t directly involved in all the abuse (aside from shouting in Charles’ constituency office) he could be said to be complicit in it, by not calling out his members and stopping it.

  • Andrew Southgate 27th Feb '21 - 12:22am

    At the time of the 2005 election, I wasn’t and neither was my family a big fan of Kennedy. I supported the Tories at the time, but I was only 14, so a bit foolish ([perhaps still am)
    Over time, I have grown to appreciate his wit, down to earth approach and his sharp intellect. It would have been nice to meet him
    However, I have doubts about what Carol says about what would have happened if he had not been forced out in 2006. Charles played brilliantly in Lib-Lab seats, but even in 2005, we lost places like Newbury, Guildford and failed in seats like Dorset West .
    Personally, the ‘ousting’ that I still rankles was the shafting of Ming Campbell in 2007. If he had been retained, who knows how well he would have performed in a leader’s debate circa April 2010. Ironically, at the time of his resignation, he was TWO years younger than Joe Biden who has the most difficult job in the world.
    The dead hand of Rennard , the fact that Vince missed his chance in 2007 and the fact that Clegg got the leadership sowed the seeds of disaster in 2015.

    Now it is a question of if we can ever return to relevancy (i.e. 30 and more seats) is in question.

  • David Evans 27th Feb '21 - 6:05pm

    An inspirational, but also profoundly moving reprise of a wonderful life.

    However, the part that inspired me way back when, was when Charles said “We’re breaking the mould of British politics” and we were.

    Now it just reminds me of a sketch by Flanders and Swann which went something like this. “Satire – whose purpose is to strip off the veneer of comforting illusion and cosy half truth, … and I look on it as our job to put it back again”. Thank you so much Nick.

  • Alex Macfie 1st Mar '21 - 8:33am

    Andrew Southgate: Winning seats from the Tories was always going to be more difficult under a Labour government, and it was all swings & roundabouts in all 3 elections 2001, 2005 and 2010. We gained Guildford in 2001 (Charles’ first election), then lost it again in 2005, but regained Taunton which had been lost in 2001. We also gained Solihull and Westmorland & Lonsdale from the Tories, but lost Weston-super-Mare and Ludlow. The fact that we were still able to win seats from the Tories at all when Labour was in power shows that Charles’ leadership approach was popular among soft Tories as well as soft Labour people.
    What was unforgiveable was losing seats to Labour in 2010 (Rochdale and Chesterfield) under Nick Clegg.

  • @ Alex Macfie It should have come as no surprise to lose Rochdale in 2010.

  • Paul Holmes 1st Mar '21 - 11:27am

    @Andrew Southgate. Just in the interests of historical accuracy:

    1. The elections that Chris Rennard ran saw us achieve our ‘best in a century’ results, cumulatively getting better and better from the record breaking 1997 GE to the record breaking 2001 GE, to the record breaking (best since 1922) result in 2005. Not to mention his run of astonishing By election victories.

    2. The ones that Clegg’s team ran saw us achieve the biggest net loss since 1970 in the 2010 GE followed by near annhilation in 2015.

  • @ Paul : 6 December, 1923, 158 seats, 29.7%.

  • Such a lovely man, so kind and humane and – unlike those who helped depose him really – so able a communicator. So many what ifs – in my mind, what if he’d been here for the eu referendum. My family background would suggest that his liking for a dram probably wasn’t that much of an issue in his constituency and he could so easily have been furloughed instead of deposed.
    And then, with what happened to Ming Campbell … dark times for liberal Britain

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