I knew Charles Kennedy and I let him down

He was three years older than me and president of the Union, way beyond my social circles

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The Independent Online

No death of a public figure has ever saddened me more than that of Charlie Kennedy. In some still not fully formed way, I believe the reason is a latent sense of shame. He was three years older than me – a lifetime! – and in his pomp when I arrived at Glasgow University. He was president of the Union, way beyond my social circles.

He seemed far from a liberal sort then. Yes, when he was GUU president, women were allowed to join for the first time. But this was less the crusading work of a male feminist than a reluctant surrender because of a law change and a campus in uproar.

He was, as has been reported, famously nicknamed “Taxi”. True, this was partly because of his fondness for a fast cab, but the full picture is less flattering. While running up hefty taxi bills – payable by the Union – he was refusing its striking workers a paltry pay rise.

All of us considered him a ligger. We thought it vaguely amusing when he flew back from a scholarship he had blagged in the States to contest the SDP nomination for Ross, Cromarty and Skye just before the 1983 election. Chutzpah, we’d have called it, had we known then what that  was. I can still recall exactly where I was when news came through that he had secured it.

A year after he was elected, I, too, was in London. On my first night there, I was travelling home: there, slumped opposite me, was the honourable member, whose easy debating skills were so impressive to a young student.

Even today, when faced with those the worse for wear on public transport, I wake them up to help them out at the right stop. I know from experience how miserable it is to awake woozy at 3am at the end of the Northern Line, and would want someone to do the same for me.

Something, this time, stopped me: embarrassment, mine and his. When Stephen Pound – like Kennedy, “a fully paid-up member of the human race” – wondered during the Commons tributes whether each of us could have done more for him, my mind wandered back to that trivial incident, and my callow unkindness.

His Lib Dem colleagues? Did they do enough for him? Were they embarrassed, too? Did they hold back? Or can anyone do what’s really needed without the individual facing the issue?

One man did do him justice. Alastair Campbell’s crusade across the airwaves all of Tuesday to ensure that Charlie was remembered in the right way – as a lovely, clever bloke, with an illness which, crucially, they often talked about – was the act of a true friend.

Over the years, I’ve had lunch with loads of politicians, but never Charlie. On the few occasions I was in his company, I enjoyed it and felt a sham. It sounds over-egging it, but I could never look at him without thinking how I had failed him. Perhaps that Underground encounter 30 years ago was just too close to home.

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