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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.


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.


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.

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Recent Comments

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    @ Paul Fox. Some good and interesting points, Paul, and of course Paddy had charisma, an interesting hinterland, and could make an inspiring speech....