By Gwynoro Jones
In this second contribution to Cambria Nostra I was going to consider the validity of the proposed 18% pay increase for AMs together with today’s announcement of a 10% increase in MPs’ salary. But the sudden, untimely and sad death of Charles Kennedy has overtaken all that and indeed puts much in life into perspective.
Both my parents passed away suddenly and without warning – one in her late 50s and the other in his mid 80s. Such sudden happenings can be overwhelming and makes one reflect on many things. When I hear of similar occurrences, I always turn to two passages from the Good Book –‘in the midst of life we are in death’ and then ‘in the hour you least expect the Son of Man shall come calling ….’
So it was for Charles – no one expected this news and indeed, according to reports from people who were close to him, he was looking forward to the European referendum campaign, possibly standing for the next Scottish Parliamentary elections and – would you believe – thinking of starting a new left of centre party in Scotland. ‘I’m not joking!’ he said to someone.
Sadly, I woke just before six o’clock on Tuesday morning to be told the unbelievable news. Staggered, my mind went into overdrive, the memories came flooding back of the 1980s and early 1990s. I first heard of the young Scotsman Charles in 1982 when he was only 23 years of age. At the time I was Chair of the SDP in Wales, Parliamentary candidate for Gower and, with Winston Roddick (now Sir), joint Chair of the Alliance Committee for Wales. Then just before the General Election of 1983 Charles was chosen as the SDP/Alliance candidate for Ross, Skye and Lochaber. He was still studying at Indiana University, USA when chosen as candidate but belonged to a well-known local family. So just a few short weeks before the election he returned home to campaign and won the seat.
We enjoyed each other’s company frequently at conferences, national executive meetings in Cowley Street – the SDP headquarters – and other events. This red haired and amiable young person was mature for his age. Both of us could visualise the future direction of the SDP and Alliance clearly – in a nutshell, to be a radical movement for reform and change. I coined a slogan, very much liked by Charles, that our role was ‘to replace Labour, defeat the Tories and be in Government’. We were also close allies of Roy Jenkins in the ever increasing struggle within the SDP between Roy and David Owen regarding the SDP’s future direction, especially its relationship with the Liberals. So during the merger debate after the 1987 General Election both of us were strongly in favour of the parties coming together, speaking passionately at the decision making conference in Sheffield 1988. Even in those days Charles was a good communicator and an impressive conference orator.
Now, by this time, Charles’s career was set on an inevitable course and in the early 1990s he became the Lib Dems party president and then the party leader after Paddy Ashdown. He was a success at both roles. The two General Elections of 2001 and 2005 were the best results in some 80 years for the third party. People warmed to Charles, he was personable, warm, genuine and principled. Often unassuming and to some extent gentle with a large amount of humanity – in fact one could say quite unlike the traditional persona of a politician. The nearest comparison to which I can think is the young David Steel when leading the Liberal Party.
My last serious involvement with politics was in 1992 when standing for the Liberal Democrats in Hereford, so some year or so afterwards my contact with Charles lessened though I followed his developing career with great interest.
Inevitably these days, much will be written about his contributions to politics, the Liberal Democrats and the wider world. As too frequently happens, many of the plaudits come after a person’s death. The uplifting and generous things said of him today would have been of great comfort to Charles in the last few years when he was apparently desperately struggling with a powerful demon. He seemed to me a lonely figure after resigning as leader in 2006. ITN news threatened to expose the extent of his so called addiction. He faced his Parliamentary party immediately, lost their confidence and resigned. So often in politics there is nothing worse than being the ‘former’ anything and I have a feeling that even amongst his colleagues the drink issue overrode all else. Pity because it was at that time he needed their friendship and support the most – but in politics and probably as in other spheres of life, if one is no longer of use or benefit then one’s soon cast aside. Often it is a cruel environment to survive in.
So what is my considered judgement of Charles Kennedy? What will be my abiding memories as we bid him farewell? Well, as already mentioned, he was a principled, humble, gentle and fair person. But he was more, a man of the people, he understood the mood of the moment and never possessed a feeling of self-importance. More importantly, because he had a feel for the mood of the time, he was a visionary and was right on three key events.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing but Charles judged political reality correctly. The first was the merger between the SDP and Liberals and the internal struggles with David Owen. Secondly, was his opposition to the Iraq war despite facing strong opposition in Parliament too. This gentle man showed he had the backbone and mettle to defend the causes he believed in. Seasoned observers recall today the speech he delivered against the War at a rally in Hyde Park as his finest moment – which says a lot! Earlier today I reflected upon how principled, strong and brave he was at that time. His conviction pulled him through. I then contrasted that with Michael Foot’s woeful capitulation to Maggie’s tune that Saturday morning in Parliament before the start of the invasion of that needless Falklands war. Neither the great left-winger and life long peace campaigner nor his party had the bottle, I am afraid to say.
Then finally there was his lone Parliamentary opposition to the Lib Dems going into coalition with the Tories. I don’t know, but I suspect that the slogan we held together in the mid 80’s still stayed with him as it does with me today.
Now it is not possible to end without a word or two about his wit and humour. Many thought it unbecoming of a political leader to go on chat shows and ‘Have I Got News for You’. Many politicians have tried it and failed lamentably – I could name a few but won’t! Charles however often proved funnier than the comedians!
Anyway just one or two quotes:-
‘Paddy Ashdown is the only party leader who’s a trained killer. Although to be fair, Mrs Thatcher was self-taught’.
Then someone sent him a letter in 2004 when he was party leader asking which Muppet character was his favourite? Answer – ‘Gonzo – even though he is blue he is a nice guy’.
Bearing in mind my description of him earlier there was a very revealing quote of his ‘Courage is a peculiar kind of fear’.
Over the last 3 years he had faced great adversity which must have intensified the struggle with his demon – the loss of his mother, then his older brother being paralysed and the death of his father just before the election this May. I am sure he has left us as he promised, going ‘out of this world feet first with my Lib Dem membership card in my pocket’. Farewell Charles Kennedy you were in your own words ‘a fully paid up member of the human race’. Your legacy will live on across the country and within the party despite its present difficulties – fighting for social/human justice, political reform and Europe.
Gwynoro Jones is a former MP for Carmarthen. He was a Member of the Council of Europe and PPS to Roy Jenkins. He was Chair of the SDP and Alliance in Wales in the 1980’s, Chair of National Committee SDP 1982-87 and National Committee Liberal Democrats 1989-92. Between 1994-2012 he worked as a Schools’ Inspector. He is currently a Consultant, and is a campaigner for both PR and Home Rule.