Charles Kennedy: The liberal conscience

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The Independent Online

Most political leaders acquire a single distinctive personality, sharply defined for maximum appeal. Charles Kennedy is in the unique position of possessing four different, seemingly contradictory, characteristics. They have all been on display in the election campaign.

Most political leaders acquire a single distinctive personality, sharply defined for maximum appeal. Charles Kennedy is in the unique position of possessing four different, seemingly contradictory, characteristics. They have all been on display in the election campaign.

The first was wretchedly on show at the launch of the Liberal Democrats' manifesto, a pivotal moment for a party leader. Kennedy blew it spectacularly, looking awkward and getting the details wrong on his proposal to introduce a local income tax. That was more than a fortnight ago. He can be unsure of himself especially when questioned about policy detail. Now fast-forward to a rally in Cambridge at the beginning of this week and an unrecognisably more confident Kennedy was on show, speaking with mesmerising passion about his beliefs. He was an altogether different political figure.

The third persona was displayed a week before during Kennedy's interview with Jeremy Paxman on the BBC. He appeared so nervously intimidated that some viewers expected him to collapse in tears. What a contrast to other media interviews, including last Thursday's appearance on Question Time, when Kennedy demonstrated his fourth personality, confident, self-deprecating, but with a slight hint of steel.

These four characteristics have defined Kennedy's political career. He is the nervy showman, capable of performing with aplomb on TV shows in front of millions and yet shaking with fear at the prospect of a Paxman-style interrogation. Similarly, Kennedy is no master of policy detail and yet, at times, has displayed a carefully thought through political vision. His laid-back charm has been matched occasionally with some wily courage.

Although he is only in his mid-40s, Kennedy has had plenty of time to develop his repertoire of conflicting images. Oddly, it was in his early days as a politician that the self-confident oratory was most prominent. In some ways, Kennedy is less confident now that he is more experienced.

He became an SDP MP at 23 in 1983. For a long time, he was the youngest MP and a member of a small parliamentary party. Both factors helped him to stand out. By the end of his first term, he was one of the best known of the talented 1983 intake, quickly establishing himself as a witty and intelligent speaker. Kennedy had been a national school-debating champion and was swiftly in demand as a youthful star turn at SDP gatherings around the country. His sweatily passionate performance at the Cambridge rally during the current election campaign had echoes with his oratory in the 1980s when, along with David Owen, Roy Jenkins (Kennedy's political hero) and others, he sought a reinvigorated social democracy.

It was during the 1980s that the overwhelmingly confident Kennedy also established a reputation for being Chat Show Charlie. In case the wider world missed his views on the SDP's plans for a social market economy and its relationship with revisionist Keynesians, the young MP would pop up on TV to crack a joke or two. He possessed a comedian's timing and the invitations poured in.

When he became leader of the Liberal Democrats in 1999, he gave up earning a small fortune on television. Or he almost gave it up. Even as leader, Kennedy could not resist the temptation to host Have I Got News for You. The difference was that he agonised over that particular invitation and rationalised that it would be good exposure for him at a time when the Liberal Democrats were struggling to attract media attention. This was an exception. Chat Show Charlie more or less took a bow when Kennedy became party leader.

But while he was enjoying himself as a minor TV personality in the 1980s, Kennedy displayed another side, one that is often overlooked. He was brutally focused in recognising that his party, the SDP, had no future. In effect, the SDP peaked at the 1983 election. Kennedy was one of the beneficiaries, winning his seat in north-east Scotland unexpectedly. Prior to the result, he had no idea that his political career was about to begin.

He had taken a break from working on a PhD at Indiana University to contest the seat, expecting to return to the US. The PhD was never completed as Kennedy unexpectedly strode to victory. But by 1987, it was clear to Kennedy that the SDP was doomed and that a full merger with the Liberals was the only feasible course to take.

This was not the view of the SDP's leader, David Owen, nor the rest of the party's tiny band of MPs. Kennedy came under immense pressure to oppose the merger. He resisted, becoming the only SDP MP to join the newly formed Liberal Democrats. Standing up to David Owen is never easy and in the context of a political party's future must have been even more daunting. Kennedy did so and has proven to be right. The SDP collapsed in humiliating circumstances two years later.

Kennedy's next act of wilful steeliness arose in relation to another of his leaders. Paddy Ashdown moved the Liberal Democrats closer to Labour. Kennedy discreetly made clear his disapproval of this strategy in private and sometimes in coded public comments. Towards the end of the Ashdown regime Kennedy began to build up support for his candidacy in a future leadership contest, with a plan to scrap the Ashdown rapprochement with Labour. When Ashdown resigned, Kennedy was ready with a formidable campaign in a way other potential candidates were not. Sir Menzies Campbell was one of the heavyweights who decided not to contest the leadership partly because the Kennedy bandwagon was unstoppable.

Kennedy's third act of distinctive political courage is better known. Alone of the three main party leaders he opposed the war against Iraq. He agonised over this decision more than any other, and had a few wobbles before settling on a fairly consistent line. According to some of Kennedy's internal critics, he was particularly troubled by the private support for the conflict of Ashdown. Kennedy could also see the case for removing Saddam. At first he equivocated. During the conflict he said the party would "support the troops" and yet oppose the war, a slightly confused message. He is much more comfortable now with a position he took with his fingers crossed at the time.

Kennedy's less impressive characteristics have been more to the fore during his period as leader. He was always a big-picture politician, but earlier in his career he did not get caught out on policy details in the same ways as he has done occasionally as a leader. Similarly, he did not look so ill at ease in interviews in his early years as a politician compared with some of those he has undertaken as party leader.

There are times when he has looked distinctly ill at ease with the strange burdens of being leader of the third party, indifferent to policy and overwhelmed by the pressures. The two appeared to come together when Kennedy failed to turn up to make the leader's speech on Budget day last year, the biggest crisis of his career. There was speculation that Kennedy had been drinking too much, a rumour emphatically denied. It was just a bug, he has always insisted. There have been persistent rumours about Kennedy's drinking problems, but no evidence to counter his assertion that, like most people, he enjoys a drink or two.

In Kennedy's case, he enjoys a cigarette or two as well, though he insists he is cutting down with the arrival of his baby born at the start of the election campaign. Close allies say that Kennedy is calmer, relaxed and healthier since his marriage to Sarah Gurling two years ago. She is the sister of Kennedy's best friend and was an active Liberal Democrat before the marriage. They have been careful to keep their new baby Donald out of the campaign spotlight. Even so, the event will enhance Kennedy's reputation as an unspun, decent human being, his most distinctive electoral appeal and one that has been on show when he is not talking about the local income tax or being interrogated by Paxman.

Nor is the unspun image a form of spin. Kennedy is a genuinely decent chap with undemanding tastes. Like a lot of men in their 40s, he idolises the rock singer David Bowie. He enjoys reading thrillers when he has time to relax and is even known to do a bit of DIY at the weekend when taking a break from politics, either in London or his home in his vast and relatively remote constituency of Ross, Cromarty and Skye. Some of his friends suggest the two locations in Kennedy's life explain the complexity of his character. He spends much of his time in cosmopolitan London and then heads for the expansive beauty that surrounds his Scottish home. He is the sociable loner, brought up in Fort William, at ease in his distant constituency home, yet spending most weeks in London's political hurly burly.

Not all his colleagues are enamoured with Kennedy and his varying personalities. Privately, there are some in his parliamentary party who fear that Kennedy lacks the appetite and the ruthlessness to take their party on to the next stage. Some predict at best a net gain of 10 seats next week at an election marked by disillusionment with Tony Blair and the Conservatives. For them, Kennedy's weak performance at the launch of the Liberal Democrats' manifesto has more symbolic potency than his more solid campaigning since. They fear an eruption of internal wrangling after the election as the third party seeks a clearer sense of purpose.

His critics underestimate Kennedy's electoral appeal in an atmosphere where political leaders are casually dismissed as liars and untrustworthy. There is another reason why he thrives. He has never had to let voters down, to implement complicated decisions in government in the face of a media onslaught. In that limited context, he strides on, more ruthless than he seems, the nervy chat show king, the hesitantly pragmatic interviewee who can become a passionate speaker. As leader of a third political party that struggles to be heard, there are advantages in having several different personalities.

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