A Man of Principle and the End of an Era of Liberal Radicalism

Gerry Hassan

Sunday Mail, June 7th 2015

Politics and public life in Britain caught its breath this week with the tragic death of Charles Kennedy.

MP for Ross, Skye and Lochaber for the past 32 years; leader of the Lib Dems from 1999-2006; the youngest MP elected to the Commons in 1983 at the age of 23 – none of these do justice to the talents, principles and wit of Kennedy.

He got, as many people have said, many big things right. He was the most successful Lib Dem leader electorally since 1923; the most prominent political leader against the Iraq war disaster; the only Lib Dem MP who voiced his opposition to the Tory-Lib Dem coalition in 2010.

Kennedy represented a long and historic tradition in Scottish and Liberal life: that of Highland radicalism: a lineage which gave us Jo Grimond and contributed to maintaining the Liberal presence in British life in the 1950s.

This added to the Liberals at their Gladstonian peak, in their support for temperance, land reform, crofter rights and Scottish home rule. These causes were enormously influential with Keir Hardie, when he broke from the Liberals and set up the first Scottish Labour Party.

In the New Labour era of control freakery and identikit politicians, Kennedy was a very different kind of politician. It wasn’t an accident that his leadership of the Lib Dems came as the Blairite project unraveled – first in the killing fields of Iraq and second in its embracing of the ‘seriously rich’.

The last week saw fulsome tributes, including many from colleagues in the House of Commons in a special session, but the most moving and insightful words came from former Blair spin-doctor Alastair Campbell. In a touching piece, Campbell wrote that ‘our shared friendship was also built on a shared enemy … alcohol.’

Kennedy’s politics found their first expression in Glasgow University and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) which had originally broken away from Labour in the early 1980s. My friend Denis Robertson Sullivan recruited Kennedy to the SDP, with a common thread for both being revulsion at Labour centralism and illiberalism.

Kennedy’s principled politics saw him uneasy with the negative tone of ‘Better Together’ in the independence referendum. Most of these reservations remained private, but he eventually went public talking of its ‘stupid’ tactics allowing the campaign to be posed as ‘Salmond versus Scotland’ in a way which could only help the then SNP leader.

Post-2015, and the loss of his constituency as a result of the SNP surge, he saw some things more clearly than others. In the immediate aftermath of the election of a Tory Government he stated, ‘The next few years in politics will come down to a tale of two Unions – the UK and the EU.’

In the very different political environment of Scotland after the election he texted Campbell saying – ‘Fancy starting a new Scottish left-leaning party? I joke not.’

These are the main challenges facing centre-left politics in the UK and Scotland – the awkward status of Britain in the European Union and, irrespective of the referendum result, the slow detachment of Britain from its European friends and the continental project.

Kennedy saw clearly that the debate of the two unions was intimately interlinked. The European question has huge ramifications for the Scottish independence debate, with the possibility of it raising issues which in the future could force Labour and Lib Dem supporters to reconsider their position on the latter.

Related to this is what non-SNP Scotland does. Kennedy understood this better than most, having previously resisted the charms and recognising the limits of Labour Scotland.

This is a question with a timeframe beyond the immediate – but how does Scotland find a left-leaning force which isn’t the SNP, and maybe isn’t Labour, which can transcend their obvious shortcomings?

Charles Kennedy was, in an age where people universally pour scorn on the political classes, human. He lived, acted and spoke in a way which wasn’t part of the clichés and discombobulated language most politicians use. It is true that he didn’t do detail and policy, seeing the latter in the words of Nick Clegg as similar to Ben Nevis, ‘something to be admired from afar.’

For someone of principle he didn’t take himself and even politics completely seriously. He could see the funny side in many situations, stand outside consensus and challenge hypocrisy, yet took pleasure in being called ‘Chatshow Charlie’ – such was his gift for appearing on non-political TV shows.

His death is the end of an era. The coalition which he opposed in 2010 saw the Lib Dems reduced to a mere 8% of the national vote and 8 MPs – figures not seen since 1970. In Scotland every mainland seat was lost leaving just Orkney and Shetland – a situation not seen since 1959.

The dream of ‘third party politics’ as Liberal are over. But the search for a human, liberal, non-controlling politics go on. It has lost a rare champion in Charles Kennedy.