Charles Kennedy (1959- 2015)

DURING my 28 years in journalism I lost count of the number of MPs and other political animals that I interviewed or met.

As a breed, politicians are a disparate and often unsavoury lot of people. While some are true ‘public servants’, many more are egocentric single-minded careerists lining their own pockets and those of their politically like-minded friends.

There have been a few I have admired for their honesty and political integrity… Tony Benn, Alan Simpson, Dennis Skinner, Caroline Lucas, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon all spring to mind.

But there are even fewer that I have warmed to as human beings – the sort that in another lifetime you might regard as close friends. One was the late and lovely SNP MP Margaret Ewing, another her husband and MSP Fergus, and the third the wholly wonderful Charles Kennedy MP.

This morning I woke at 7am to read the news of Charles’s sudden death, less than four weeks after he lost his parliamentary seat in Ross, Skye and Lochaber – a seat he had held since 1983 – during Scotland’s SNP landslide, or the ‘Night of the Long Sgian Duhbs’ as he called it.

His political legacy is immense.

Mr Kennedy led his party the Liberal Democrats to its best-ever election result in 2005, on the back of his opposition to the Iraq War two years earlier, but he resigned early in 2006 after revealing he had been receiving treatment for a long-standing alcohol problem.

In 2010 he was the only leading Lib Dem MP to openly oppose his party’s coalition with David Cameron’s right wing Tories.

Yet he was admired right across the political spectrum for his honesty, friendliness and integrity.

So this morning I was left numb and cast about on the internet for news of his death.

Among many tributes I found one which touched me immediately. It was written by Charles’ long-time friend and soul mate, Tony Blair’s former strategist Alastair Campbell.

I am no fan of Mr Campbell or his New Labour politics, but his words have a resonance at this time: “Charles Kennedy was a lovely man, and a highly talented politician. These are the kind of words that always flow when public figures die, often because people feel they have to say those things, and rightly they are flowing thick and fast today as we mourn an important public figure, and a little bit of hypocrisy from political foes is allowed. But when I say that Charles was a lovely man and a talented politician, I mean it with all my heart.”

Mr Campbell goes on to outline his close and enduring friendship with Charles Kennedy.

He finishes by saying: “He was great company, sober or drinking. He had a fine political mind and a real commitment to public service. He was not bitter about his ousting as leader and nor, though he disagreed often with what his Party did in coalition with the Tories, did he ever wander down the rentaquote oppositionitis route. He was a man of real talent and real principle.

“Despite the occasional blip when the drink interfered, he was a terrific communicator and a fine orator. He spoke fluent human, because he had humanity in every vein and every cell.”

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I had no such close friendship, but like most Scottish journalists always regarded Charles – or Charlie as we called him – as a ‘good chum’ and someone you could trust.

I first met Charles at a Highland Press ball in Inverness in January 1992. He was a young and dynamic MP who was steeped in Scottish journalism. With a glass of whisky in one hand and obligatory cigarette in the other, he exuded warmth, humour and conviviality – first impressions, and I warmed to him.

There followed a two year hiatus before our paths crossed again.

Then over a period of about six years he was a first port of call whenever I needed a chat or quote on any Scottish political issue. He always obliged, often returning my call late at night, with a chuckle, a whisky soaked slur and a “How are things, Nic?”

Charles was always warm, took time to listen and gave compassion, insight and humour at almost every turn.

I recall bumping into him almost daily during the campaign for the first Scottish parliament in 1999. On one occasion we literally did collide outside a hotel toilet in Edinburgh… he was exiting with lit cigarette in hand, puffing smoke and chortled: “Hello Nic, where are the other guys?”

He gave a cheeky wink, patted me on the back and hurried up to the waiting news conference.

Our final conversation was via telephone in 1999. I was working for the Press and Journal in Aberdeen, had called his London flat for a comment on a story I was writing and left a message on his answerphone. Sometime around 10pm he returned my call and finished with: “Get down to London Nic and we can share a few beers and chat over what’s happening up there.”

Sadly we never did.

Others knew him much better.

His predecessor as Lib Dem Leader Paddy Ashdown said: “In a political age not overburdened with gaiety and good sense, he brought us wit, charm, judgement, principle and decency.”

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “It’s a dreadfully sad day for Scottish and UK politics. The news about Charles Kennedy is stunning and absolutely tragic. Charles was one of these rare things in British politics, he was a brilliant and effective politician, perhaps one of the most talented politicians of his generation. And yet somehow he managed to be universally liked.”

Former First Minister Alex Salmond added: “Charles Kennedy was by far the most generous person I have ever met in politics. Sad loss of a great politician and, above all, a great man.”

David Mundell, the new Secretary of State for Scotland, said: “I have known Charles for over 30 years. He was an outstanding Scottish and British politician who was deeply committed to the Highlands and held in high esteem across the political spectrum for his judgement and principles. He was a genuinely nice man and his sense of humour and fun will be hugely missed.”

Former Lib Dem MP Lembit Opik says he was “not surprised” by Mr Kennedy’s death, saying politics was “his life” and losing his seat last month would have been a major blow.

“He had a hunger to serve people – 32 years of it,” he says. “I thought that he needed to get into the House of Lords quickly because that institution was enormously supportive.”

Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy said the UK has lost a “political giant”, adding: “Although we came from different political traditions, Charles was a man I was proud to call a friend.

“When I was first elected to the House of Commons back in 1997 as a young 29-year old, Charles was one of the first people to offer me support and guidance. He didn’t have to, but he did. That’s just the kind of man he was. Despite the sadness, those of us who knew him will remember the good times. We will look back at Charles’ wit and good humour. In years to come we will remember with a smile the delight in knowing him, his huge contribution to politics and a life lost too soon.”

And former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg summed him up: “Charles Kennedy on form, on a good day when he was feeling strong and happy, had more political talent in his little finger than the rest of us put together and that’s why everyone just felt, and still of course feels today, that it was just so tragic to see someone with such huge gifts also struggle as many people do with the demons that clearly beset him and the problems that he acknowledged he had with alcohol.”

I will close this piece with timeless comments from Professor James Raven from Cambridge who says he was honoured to call Charles Kennedy a friend: “The death of Charles Kennedy is a devastating loss for British politics. It’s a tremendous shock. A man of the greatest integrity, he advanced the cause of social justice and liberalism with immense thoughtfulness and determination.

“He combined enormous personal charm with huge and self-deprecating abilities. He was so effective because he was so passionate and warm. I first knew him as a very young MP in 1983 and we campaigned together through the 90s and three general elections.

“I was honoured to call him my friend and have treasured memories of his personal and generous support. He was an immensely gifted leader. I suggested he took a sabbatical to overcome his problems. I think the party would have accepted that. I regret he stood down.

“In private he was quite a shy man. He was a good friend to people. He was a very proud highlander. He will be missed by everyone who cared for the future of this country.”

Rest in Peace Charlie.

There ain’t no going back when your foot of pride comes down

ashdownI HAVE always been a political animal and am proud to be labelled a socialist and a pacifist.

But as a journalist I have tried to maintain a political neutrality and treat politicians from all parties just the same.

I was close personal friends with the late Tory politician Bill Hodgson and the SNP’s Margaret and Fergus Ewing. I also class as friends former Labour Defence Secretary Des Browne, SNP Leader Alex Salmond and the Lib Dem MP Charles Kennedy.

Among politicians, as in life, there are good and bad, and in my opinion these were some of the good guys.

But “proud and smug” are just two words I would use to describe the former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown.

It is probably wrong to feel so strongly about one man after just two short intercessions, but Ashdown pressed the wrong button for me, and now when I see his face on TV or hear his voice on the radio… I turn off!

I will take you back to early 1992.

I was in my first editor’s chair overseeing The Argyllshire Advertiser, a wonderful small weekly paper in the west of Scotland.

Our paper happened to sit in the middle of the marginal Westminster constituency of Argyll and Bute.

It was a General Election year. The seat was held by likeable Lib Dem MP Ray Michie, but under threat from the Tories and the Scottish National Party (SNP). Indeed after the Tories committed electoral suicide by deselecting their own candidate, the SNP’s Neil MacCormick was coming up fast on the ropes as an unlikely favourite to take the seat.

Meanwhile, nationally it appeared that John Major’s Tory Government could be defeated by the narrow swing in just a handful of seats.

Argyll and Bute was one of them.

So in March 1992 I decided to commission a public opinion poll on the streets of our principal towns to gauge which way the votes might fall. We polled 450 people (about half that of a typical Mori or Gallup opinion poll) and were amazed to find that Prof MacCormick was ahead of the sitting Mrs Michie by about 3%.

The ramifications of this poll were bigger than anything I imagined at the time.

Within 24 hours of my paper publishing the poll results, both BBC and ITV were reporting on it. They wheeled out each of the party leaders for comment and each in turn gave their own turn or spin on the result.

Except for a clearly rattled Paddy Ashdown who in an obvious fury branded our poll as: “A Mickey Mouse poll taken by a Mickey Mouse newspaper”. Quite amusing in hindsight as my paper had been known locally for almost 100 years as “The Squeak”!

I was angered by Mr Ashdown’s outburst and sought to get a response for the following week’s edition of my paper. Each party obliged by giving us good reactive comments. But Mr Ashdown refused to even speak to me and the Scottish Lib Dems moved into dirty tricks territory to discredit our poll and our paper.

As it turned out the Mrs Michie held the seat at the General Election that year with a 2,600 majority.

She later privately told me that she often found Mr Ashdown: ‘quite pompous’ and she apologised for the way he had treated us.

But it wasn’t quite the end of my affair with Mr Ashdown.

Some years later while I was a reporter with Scotland’s national broadsheet The Scotsman I had to attend a question and answer event with the Lib Dem leader.

I sat at the front of the audience of about 200 people with my carefully prepared questions.

When it came to my turn to ask a question, I gave my name and publication. Ashdown looked down at me from his podium and as if he did not hear me, moved on to the next questioner!

This was Paddy’s cold shoulder.