Charles Kennedy: A brilliant man whose talents were badly needed

The tragedy for the UK is that it has lost a far-sighted, magnanimous and wonderful politician when such people are rare indeed

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The early death of Charles Kennedy deprives British politics not just of a much-loved and brilliant politician, but also of a man who might have played a key part in the difficult and divisive choices now facing the country, on whether the United Kingdom will survive in the face of the drive for Scottish independence, and whether it will decide to remain a member of the European Union. On both issues, Charles’s views were clear, courageous and brilliantly deployed. 

A conspicuous student political leader at the University of Glasgow, Charles’s  prominence had already marked him out.  He joined the new party formed in 1981 by the Gang of Four  – Roy Jenkins, David Owen William Rodgers and me – following the Labour Party’s decision to leave the European Community at its annual conference. 

Charles was someone with a charm and modesty that immediately appealed to public and colleagues alike.  He never exploited being “the baby of the House” after his election in 1983, but worked tirelessly on issues of concern to his Highland constituency. He was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state. He believed deeply in the judgement and wisdom of ordinary men and women, whom he never thought of as “ordinary”.

In 1999, when Paddy Ashdown stood down after controversy about his increasingly close links with Tony Blair and suspicion that he may have had a coalition in mind, Charles became the leader of what were now the Liberal Democrats. His leadership was immensely popular and led to a dramatic general election result in 2001, and an even more dramatic outcome in 2005, when his party captured 62 seats, the most remarkable victory for Liberals since 1923.

In the two years before the 2005 election, Charles had led his party in challenging Tony Blair’s decision to join George Bush, the US Republican President, in the invasion of Iraq. 

During this heroic time, rumours were widespread about Charles’s drink problem. Sometimes he simply failed to show up at crucial moments. The party did its best to cover up for him, and on occasion Charles could still be staggeringly eloquent and brilliant. Some of us suggested to him that he should take a sabbatical from Parliament and try to conquer his addiction, an addiction he had originally denied. His marriage to Sarah Gurling, a gifted and able young woman in her own right, and the birth of his son, Donald, raised hopes that he might be overcoming his demons. But it was not to be.

He lost his beloved mother several years ago, his beloved father in April during the last election he would ever fight. The loss of his constituency was the last in a series of personal tragedies. The tragedy for the UK is that it has lost a far-sighted, magnanimous and wonderful politician when such people are rare indeed – and when they are badly needed.

Baroness Williams of Crosby is the former leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords