Charles Kennedy: The only mainstream political leader who spoke sense

The courage it took to oppose the Iraq war was monumental

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The Independent Online

I am utterly heartbroken about the news of Charles passing. He was a colleague, friend and mentor to me personally. It has been difficult to write this article amid the raw shock – the right words simply cannot do him justice.

The outpourings of grief, respect and shock from across the political spectrum bear witness to a man who was head and shoulders above the rest. I’ve been moved to tears by the descriptions of his wit, his charm, his geniality. There is nothing hollow or inevitable about these condolences – they are the real, authentic response to the loss of a political giant who always stuck to his principles.

But what might be overlooked is that Charles was also right – about almost everything. His political nous was unparalleled. His judgement was spot on again and again. The courage it took to oppose the Iraq war does not seem so monumental now, looking back from 2015. At the time it was a move mocked and unsupported by the Conservatives, Labour and the media. And he was right – the only mainstream political leader who spoke sense and gave voice to the millions who agreed. As a result, a whole generation put their weight, heart and soul behind his leadership and they trusted him.

It is no exaggeration to say that the Liberal Democrats wouldn’t have existed without Charles Kennedy. His exceptional oratory brought people who weren’t sure about merging the SDP and the Liberals together and make it happen. He brought the Party to our most successful Parliamentary presence ever.

The grief at his passing will extend far beyond Westminster and the Liberal Democrats because Charles had a unique ability to connect beyond the world of politics. He treated people as people, not as units to poll or votes to squeeze. It was never an act, never a technique. His gentle good humour combined with real courage left you feeling respected, and treated as a human being whatever your position or politics. He taught the rest of us what real representation looks like – speaking with warmth, an open mind and a total absence of judgement, while never hiding or bending his convictions.

Charles treated other people as real human beings, and he treated himself as one too – a hugely attractive quality. He had a life outside of politics. As Rector of Glasgow University, I know he enjoyed his work there and was immensely proud of his students. He understood that politics is not the be all and end all to most people and held not a hint of bitterness towards those who did not share his views or passions. That he should have borne both his inner struggles and heavy outer criticism with such grace is truly remarkable.

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