Saturday 16 December 2017

Obituary: Charles Kennedy, Former leader of Britain's Liberal Democrats

Born November 25, 1959, died June 1, 2015

Charles Kennedy: The Liberal Democrat opposed Britain's war in Iraq but was undone by rumours of heavy drinking
Charles Kennedy: The Liberal Democrat opposed Britain's war in Iraq but was undone by rumours of heavy drinking

Charles Kennedy, who has died aged 55, led the British Liberal Democrats in the elections of 2001 and 2005 to their highest number of seats since 1923, and on the eve of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 momentarily seemed in with a chance of forming a government; yet his six years as leader were overshadowed by criticism of his work rate, and rumours of a drink problem which - when confirmed - forced him out in January 2006.

A sandy-haired Highlander whose sense of humour went down well on television programmes like Have I Got News For You?, Kennedy was first elected to parliament (for the SDP) as a 23-year-old student, and proved his mettle as president of the Liberal Democrats from 1990 to 1994.

Succeeding Paddy Ashdown, whose closeness to Labour he had consistently criticised, in 1999, Kennedy repositioned the Lib Dems as the radical alternative to a struggling Tory opposition.

Kennedy scented power in February 2003 as George W Bush prepared to invade Iraq. With Tony Blair to commit British forces, claiming Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that could be deployed against Britain at 45 minutes' notice, Kennedy spoke strongly against an invasion, and with many Labour MPs opposed, there was a chance Blair would suffer a moral, if not numerical, defeat in the crucial debate.

Rebellion on this scale was unprecedented, but the margin was just enough for Blair to go ahead. It did, however, put Kennedy at the head of a body of opinion in the country which grew as the overthrow of Saddam - and failure to find the weapons - was followed by ongoing carnage.

When, after the inconclusive election of 2010, Nick Clegg led the party into coalition with David Cameron's Conservatives, Kennedy was the most vocal critic of the deal; and when Vince Cable announced that October that Lib Dem ministers had abandoned the party's pledge not to increase university tuition fees, he led rebels into the No lobby.

Blair may have enjoyed his tennis and William Hague his workouts, but Kennedy, a 40-a-day smoker, was averse to exercise; at university his nickname was 'Taxi'. His one recreation, until his immersion in politics, was playing the fiddle. While no one doubted his ambition, his laid-back style aroused consistent criticism from hyperactive Liberals.

Charles Peter Kennedy was born in Inverness on November 25, 1959, the younger son of Ian Kennedy, a crofter who became an engineer, and the former Mary MacEachen. Educated at Lochaber High School, Fort William, his instruction as a Catholic came from Roderick Wright, who would became Bishop of Argyll before eloping with a local divorcee.

Kennedy read philosophy and politics at Glasgow University, where he was president of the union in 1980-81; Britain's last all-male university union, it began admitting women during Kennedy's term. In 1982 he won the Observer mace for debating.

He worked briefly for the BBC in Inverness before taking up a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Indiana. While there, the then Social Demorcatic Party selected him for Ross, Cromarty and Skye - the 1983 election ensuing before his course was finished.

He flew home and defeated the Conservative energy minister Hamish Gray by 1,704 votes to become "baby of the House".

When Liberal Party leader David Steel proposed a merger with the SDP, Kennedy was the only SDP MP to back him. At an SDP conference, his motion advocating a single party was carried on a show of hands and the Liberal Democrats were born.

Kennedy adopted a campaigning role, telling the next year's conference that while Labour was the party of dire straits and the Tories of simple minds, "we are the new kids on the block".

The 1992 election put a floor under the Lib Dems, Ashdown delivering 20 seats, an improvement despite the intervening dramas which had alienated much support.

Kennedy presented Radio 2's Jimmy Young Show for a week, then chaired Carlton Television's A Kick in the Ballots. But it was his appearances on Have I Got News For You? - which he would become the first party leader to host - that made him a household name.

His party's fortunes were improving, too - winning by-elections and making heavy gains from the Conservatives in the 1994 council elections. But a week later the Labour leader John Smith died, and the initiative passed to his successor Tony Blair.

At the start of 1999, Ashdown announced his impending retirement. A lengthy leadership contest ensued, during which Kennedy cast New Labour as "bossy and authoritarian" and Simon Hughes' supporters claimed their man would be more energetic. On August 9, 1999 Kennedy defeated Hughes.

After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, he urged a "cautionary hand" on America in its quest to defeat al-Qaeda. Between then and the invasion of Iraq, he positioned the Lib Dems as the only major party opposed to Bush's attempts to identify as enemies a wide range of forces in the Islamic world, some unconnected with terrorism.

In the run-up to the war, concerns over Kennedy's drinking first surfaced. Jeremy Paxman sparked a storm of protest by asserting on the air that the Lib Dem leader was often drunk and asking him if he drank "a bottle of whisky, late at night". Kennedy denied it, but the rumours persisted; he missed a debate on Iraq and one Budget through "ill-health", and stumbled through the launch of his party's 2005 election manifesto (though this could be explained by lack of sleep following the birth of his son, Donald).

Kennedy's stand on Iraq led the Lib Dems to further gains. They won 62 seats and 22.1pc of the vote, scoring some remarkable wins over Labour, notably in inner north London, as angry Labour voters changed allegiance. The much-publicised aim of "decapitating" the Tories claimed only one shadow minister.

Nevertheless, dissatisfaction continued over Kennedy's performance. Sensing trouble, he called an immediate leadership vote and was re-elected unopposed. However, later in 2005 a petition was circulated, and 23 MPs signed a letter rejecting his leadership.

Informed that ITN would report that he had received treatment for a problem with alcohol, Kennedy admitted that for 18 months he had been coming to terms with a drinking habit - but insisted he had been dry for two months. He called a further ballot, declaring himself a candidate, but after an ultimatum from 19 frontbenchers with even some supporters saying he should go, he resigned on January 7, 2006.

Charles Kennedy married Sarah Gurling in 2002; the marriage was dissolved and he is survived by their son.

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