Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Charles Kennedy 1959 - 2015

Just over 10 years ago on the 4th May 2005 I was standing in the ground of the Presontonfield House Hotel in Edinburgh in my suit and tie, just inside a fenced off area it was nearing 6:30pm. I wasn't alone so were all the other Liberal Democrat candidates in the Lothian region, although Marilyn McLaren the candidate for Edinburgh South was the sole one of us not wearing a tie.

Charles surrounded by those 2005 MPs
The reason was we were waiting for the leader of the party to finish his eve of poll press engagements before he, his wife Sarah and newly born son Donald boarded a helicopter to fly to Inverness ready for polling day the following day. We were saying amongst ourselves that as we walked the family to the helicopter that we should try our best not to look like that scene from Reservoir Dogs.
Sadly at about 7:15am the following morning I learnt from one of our supporters outside a polling station that her husband thought that is what we looked like anyway. Something I then had to explain to Fiona Hyslop MSP who was standing beside me at the time. But by the end of that day we had news MPs Tim Farron in Westmorland and Lonsdale, Mark Williams in Ceredigion and Greg Mulholland in Leeds North West; also Nick Clegg had taken over in Sheffield Hallam from Richard Allen. In other words half of the current parliamentary party was first elected into that total of 62 MPs ten years ago.

Me and Charles from 2005
When I joined the party in 1988 Charles had already been an MP for five years for the former sear of Ross, Cromarty and Skye. He had in 1983 been the shock winner for the SDP against the Conservative Hamish Gray who had held the seat of Ross and Cromarty since 1970, by 1,704 votes. The majority of the seat had been the former Conservatives with only a part of Russell Johnston's seat of Inverness coming into it. He became the baby of the house upon his election and never completed the PhD he was studying for at the time at Indiana University on a Fulbright Scholarship.

From 1997-2005 it would become Ross, Skye and Inverness West, before then becoming the seat of Ross, Skye and Lochaber which he was to hold through 7 Parliaments before losing it to Ian Blackford of the SNP earlier this month.

In the run up to the 2005 election he had led the party's opposition to the war in Iraq, challenging Tony Blair on his dodgy dossier numerous times during PMQs

From 1991-94 he served as President of the Liberal Democrats, before in 1999 taking over as leader when Paddy Ashdown stepped down. He led us through the 2001 and 2005 elections  but there was growing speculation that he had an alcohol problem from missing key speeches in the commons to looking considerably sweaty and confused at other speeches and public appearances. It came to a hear in early January 2006 when ITN told him they were going to report that he had been receiving treatment for alcoholism. On the Saturday evening a letter was circulating around his MPs calling for him to resign immediately and my initial support of the man and his problem led me to write this when I returned home in the small hours. Though this didn't stop BBC Scotland calling me on the Sunday morning to see if I would speak in support of Charles the following morning, but that was superseded by news that he himself would be holding a press conference. It was there that he announced his resignation and that, unlike he had said earlier in the week, he would not be seeking the support of the party in the leadership election he had called.

He returned to the back benches and apparently was the lone voice in the Parliamentary meeting in 2010 that voted against entering the Coalition. But made appearances on game shows including both as a regular guest and occasional guest host on Have I Got News for You.

It was already going to seem strange not seeing him on the Green Benches for the first time in my political life, but now that I will not even ever run into him around party conference or any other political event seems to be the cruellest, most final outcome from the collapse of Liberal Democrat support in last month's election.

My thoughts and prayers are with his young son Donald, who has lost his father and grandfather in the space of two months, as well as his and my wider Liberal Democrat family who have lost someone we all respected for the way he grew the strength of the party in those 7 years he was leader.

To conclude here he is at Lib Dem Conference two years ago on the subject of Europe, a speech where he was back at his best as I and many others who witnessed this in the hall agreed. We'll also like Duncan Brack did in the chair ignore the red light indicating his time was up.

Charles Peter Kennedy 25 November 1959 - 1 Jun 2015

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