The leadership of Charles Kennedy

As nominations open for the sixth leader of the Liberal Democrats, the Liberal Democrat History Group’s meeting next Monday takes a look back at the record of its second: Charles Kennedy.

In many ways Kennedy’s period as leader, from 1999 to 2006, was a success. His opposition to the Iraq War – heavily criticised at the time by both the Labour government and the Tory opposition – proved entirely justified and in the 2005 general election he led the party to its highest vote since 1987 (22.0 per cent) and its highest number of seats since 1923 (62). He was a popular figure with the public, appreciated for his quick wit, self-deprecating manner, and careful understatement in an era when respect for mainstream politicians was rapidly eroding.

His tragically early death, less than a month after losing his seat in the SNP’s Scottish landslide of 2015, triggered an outpouring of grief and sadness seldom accorded to politicians. As Paddy Ashdown, his predecessor as leader, commented: ‘In a political age not overburdened with gaiety and good sense, he brought us wit, charm, judgment, principle and decency.’

Yet in many ways he remained an enigma. From early adulthood, as he progressed from student prodigy to precocious parliamentarian, he had been tipped as a future leader. Yet when the crown was his, he wore it uncertainly: flashes of his youthful brilliance as an orator and debater only seldom emerged. He appeared uncomfortable with the limited authority it yielded, often unhappy with the pressures it brought. Whether this was the consequence or a cause of his alcoholism – publicly admitted in January 2006 – can never be known. Although his electoral record was good, whether the party should have done even better in 2005 – against a largely unpopular government and main opposition, and in sole command of a popular issue – is, similarly, one of the great what ifs of recent Liberal politics.

The Liberal Democrat History Group invites you to discuss Charles Kennedy’s record as leader with Greg Hurst (author, Charles Kennedy: A Tragic Flaw) and Lord Dick Newby (former Chief of Staff to Charles Kennedy). Chair: Baroness Lindsay Northover. The meeting take place at 6.30pm on Monday 3 July, in the Lady Violet Room, National Liberal Club, 1 Whitehall Place, London SW1A 2HE. More details can be found here.

* Duncan Brack is a member of the Federal Policy Committee and chaired the FPC’s working group that wrote Rebuilding Trade and Cooperation with Europe.

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  • Still miss him greatly. Only MP I would have asked Tim to stand down as Leader for.

  • Richard Underhill 30th Jun '17 - 9:01am

    Gentlemen should wear a jacket and tie. The Speaker’s ruling on ties does not apply to the NLC.

  • Katerina Porter 30th Jun '17 - 3:05pm

    I always felt that his ideas and judgement were right.

  • Duncan Brack 30th Jun '17 - 4:37pm

    No jackets or ties required! For the meeting, at least – if you go anywhere else in the Club, they are.

  • Chris Rennard 30th Jun '17 - 6:34pm

    Charles asked me to head up the professional organisation for all elections when he was Leader, so of course I am more likely to defend our levels of electoral success in that period. I find it slightly ironic now that people still point back to criticism of our lack of success in his last campaign as Leader in the 2005 General Election. In that election, we won 62 seats, lost only one deposit, and secured 22% of the vote. It was our best result in the Lib/Alliance/LibDem tradition since before 1922. But expectations had been unrealistically high, based on our earlier parliamentary by-election successs and a belief that the stance we took on the Iraq War would pay further electoral dividends in the General Election. Our market research in that campaign showed that people who felt strongly about the Iraq War had actually made up their minds about voting for us, or not voting for us, prior to the campaign. We knew therefore that we could not make further traction on the issue during the campaign and Charles himself told me of his concern at the outset of it for us not to be seen as ‘a one trick pony’. The ’10 good reasons for voting Lib Dem campaign’ attracted criticism in the party, but was thoroughly tested in market research with individual undecided voters in our target seats and undoubtedly helped us to win more of those seats and more votes across the country. Charles was, however, struggling with his demon in that campaign and those of us most closely involved were all struggling to cope with the consequences of it. History will, however, be kind to Charles.

  • Chris Burden 30th Jun '17 - 6:40pm

    I am ashamed to say that, at the time, I thought CK was unremarkable. I simply couldn’t imagine him as Prime Minister, or in the Cabinet, or at least only at MAFF (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food). He didn’t have the vaulting ambition which I then deemed necessary to be taken seriously in UK politics.
    Since then, as I have seen various clips of him in action, not least from ‘Have I Got News for You, and frankly, as I’ve grown up, my view of him has changed, radically. His strength was that the public identified him as a real human being, one of us. Priceless.

  • Stan Collins 30th Jun '17 - 8:13pm

    Charles’ greatest strength was that he could tell the difference between the spectacular and the important and concentrated on the important. This greatly annoyed shallow, non-strategic thinkers.

    He was respected by the people as a real human being and an honest politician. In this time of disillusion and sullen rage, had he been leading us in the last election our results would have been stunning .

  • I do think he is not given the recognition he deserves in politics and the party. His style and approach along with positioning the party to a distinctive centre left helped the party grow. He deserves a lot of credit. I miss him but also feel sad that his battle with alcohol cut his career short. I think he would have played an important role in the EU referendum and helped shaped the renewal of the party.

    I felt at times he was forgotten. I remember him once campaigning in the Midlands and he was approaching a hall to meet activists and journalists. However he did not turn up. We all wondered what happened to him. We went outside and noticed a crowd of students across the road outside a youth club. In the middle was charles laughing and chatting with them. He was always a pleasure to talk to and be around.

  • nick cotter 1st Jul '17 - 10:52pm

    I had the pleasure of meeting Charles on perhaps half a dozen occasions, he was brilliant with the public, and was a human being first, and a politician second. He was a remarkable man, much missed.
    Lord Rennard comments above – very Interesting – ONE Lost deposit ? WOW ….

    Nick Cotter

  • Charles brought a fresh approach to leading a national party. His straightforward manner and good humour provoked a very positive response from voters. I had the privilege and pleasure of escorting Charles on his several visits to the West Country while area agent and press officer. His visits were invariably well-covered by the regional and local media who held him in high regard as a real person as opposed to a run-of-the-mill politician. A great loss to British politics.
    Les Farris

  • Richard Underhill 12th Jul '17 - 7:10am

    He also came to the Eastleigh by-election, humbly queueing up, but then taking on the BBC’s chief political correspondent Nick Robinson, now on radio 4 at Today.

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