Just as Tony Blair’s reputation will always be overshadowed by his illegal and disastrous invasion of Iraq, so too will Charles Kennedy always be remembered with respect for speaking out against it. This was a braver stand to take than it appears now, for in the spring of 2003 we did not know what we know now. Public opinion was not as hostile to the action, and all the signs were that it would follow the post-Vietnam form book – a short conflict in which overwhelming American force rapidly delivered victory and “regime change” for the better.
The Conservative Party willingly aligned itself with the Bush-Blair axis, and internal Labour opposition was limited to a few ministerial resignations, notably those of Robin Cook and, in due course, Clare Short, plus the usual dissidents on the back benches. It was not Parliament’s finest hour, and it is to the eternal credit of Mr Kennedy that he got that judgement right. This newspaper was pleased to find itself in Mr Kennedy’s political company. With Mr Cook, Mr Kennedy led the movement against the war. Our reporting from the region since, notably Patrick Cockburn’s warnings about the emergence of Isis last year, more than bears out the grim predictions made by the Liberal Democrats at the time.
Elsewhere, Charles Kennedy’s contribution to our political life and indeed the gaiety of the nation have also been well chronicled. He had a ready wit, as apparent in public as in private, a surprisingly rare quality in top politicians. He was pragmatic on most issues, and not unduly troubled by the detail of policy, which occasionally landed him in trouble. He disliked philosophising, and he preferred tactics to grand strategy. This was because he understood very well that leading the centre party essentially means reacting to what the other two parties do, and taking each opportunity as it comes. His approach, successfully executed with the aid of some gifted advisers, was simply to pile up the votes and the seats, and see what happened. Hence the record-breaking representation in the Commons achieved in 2005, not least because the Liberal Democrats began to make inroads into Labour’s urban and northern heartlands.
Despite this success, there were criticisms that he lacked the energy of his predecessor, Paddy Ashdown, and these soon transmuted into fears about what his drinking was doing to him and to his party. Had he been able to deal with his alcoholism he might still be leader this year, and especially so because he would have avoided formal coalition with the Conservatives in 2010.
He would have found managing the position difficult, but at least he might have avoided the tuition fees fiasco and been able to pose, however bogusly, as leading an anti-austerity party. He might have won yet more Commons seats this May, and certainly more than the eight the party wound up with.
Still, Mr Kennedy was wrong to oppose Nick Clegg in 2010. The Coalition reflected the will of the people; it was the sort of cross-party government the Lib Dems are supposed to be in favour of. It was formed to manage a crisis, and the government was much more stable for having a majority in the Commons.
As with his political mentor and fellow social democrat, the equally convivial Roy Jenkins, the single cause that Mr Kennedy worked hardest for through his life was Europe. A sober Charles Kennedy would have been a fine asset, even a leader, for the Britain in Europe campaign (as did Jenkins in the 1975 referendum). Mr Kennedy had much left to offer his party, his country and Europe itself. His tragically early death deprives us all.