Charles Kennedy death: Why MPs are still in denial over their drinking culture

Kennedy's passing highlights how easily politicians succumb to alcohol

Andy McSmith@andymcsmith
Saturday 06 June 2015 01:05
MP for Doncaster North Kevin Hughes (left) and Geoff Brown owner of Glentworth brewery enjoy a pint of Glentworth Brewery's Danum Goldon on the terrace at The House of Commons
MP for Doncaster North Kevin Hughes (left) and Geoff Brown owner of Glentworth brewery enjoy a pint of Glentworth Brewery's Danum Goldon on the terrace at The House of Commons

The early death of Charles Kennedy from a haemorrhage that was “a consequence of his battle with alcoholism” – according to an announcement from his family – has focused attention on whether the House of Commons is like a slow death trap for anyone with the illness that blighted Kennedy’s life.

The question was answered bluntly by Alex Salmond, who first entered Parliament in 1987. “The Commons is probably the worst place in the world for somebody with an alcohol problem,” he said, “particularly in the 1980s and 1990s when Charles went into the House. You are talking about being far, far away from home, in convivial company, with easily available cheap alcohol, in that time virtually on a 24-hour basis.”

As his words suggest, it does not take very much research to come upon other examples of MPs brought down by drink. They are easy to find despite an iron rule that forbids any MP to accuse a rival or colleague publicly of being the worse for wear. The former Labour MP Clare Short fell foul of that rule early in her time in the Commons, when the late Alan Clark, then a junior employment minister, was delivering a statement on European regulations on equal pay for women at 10.30pm in 1983. Clark’s attitude to women and to Europe made him just about the worst person to be called upon to explain the government’s position, even if he had been sober.

The late Alan Clark, a Tory minister in the 1980s

As it was, he came to the chamber direct from a wine tasting ceremony, and was in no fit condition to say anything. Eventually, Short protested: “I have read in the newspapers that one is not allowed to accuse an Honourable Member of not being sober. However, I seriously put it to you that the minister is incapable.”

In the resulting uproar, the presiding Deputy Speaker, a Labour MP, insisted on an apology – not from the minister who was drunk at the Dispatch Box, but from the MP who had pointed it out.

The first trap for heavy drinking MPs, therefore, is that they live in a culture of denial. Kennedy’s friend Alastair Campbell, who successfully overcame his alcohol addiction in his 20s, said that no alcoholic could begin to recover until they reached a “point of understanding” that they have the illness and need to face up to it. For MPs, it is more or less enshrined in the official record that they are not alcoholics because it is forbidden to say that they are.

Old hands agree that the problem is less bad than it was in the 1980s. Televised debates mean that anyone who is drunk in the chamber risks exposure. More family friendly hours, and the presence of more women MPs have also had a calming effect on the drinking culture. But even now, in an age when MPs can be open about other mental issues such as depression, it would be a brave MP who owned up to alcoholism. When Kennedy bravely admitted in January 2006 that he had been “battling a serious drink problem” – the first admission of its kind from a practising politician in many years – it was too late to save his career: he was ousted from the leadership of the Liberal Democrat party within days. Before he steeled himself to make that admission, his staff had persistently lied to cover for him.

Being an MP is a lonely profession. Newcomers may think they are going to be part of a team, but most of the time, they are on their own. Those whose constituencies and families are a long way from London will often arrive in Westminster on a Monday and stay until Friday, with nowhere to go in those evenings but an empty flat – or the bars and clubs of the Palace of Westminster. It is an ideal environment for the functioning alcoholic. Winston Churchill, for example, drank so much that the novelist CP Snow remarked: “Churchill cannot be an alcoholic because no alcoholic could drink that much.”

Others did not cope so well. The Labour MP Eric Joyce was the last Parliament’s most notable casualty of the drinking culture, when he went berserk in Strangers’ Bar, and assaulted three Tories and a Labour colleague who tried to restrain him. That killed any political future he may have had. In his public apology, he said that he had “a number of personal issues to address”.

Nick Scott was a Tory minister in the 1970s, so well regarded by his peers that he was at the centre of a club called Nick’s Diners, formed by young MPs like Ken Clarke on a vain mission to stop the party drifting to the right. But it was rumoured that if you wanted a decision from Nick Scott, you should approach him before lunch. In 1995, he was arrested for drink driving. Then he was photographed face down on the pavement during a Conservative conference. The Kensington and Chelsea Conservative Association deselected him and chose in his place – of all people – Alan Clark.

Former Labour MP Eric Joyce

Others have lost more than their careers. In January 1997, the Conservative whips office had trouble contacting one of their MPs, Iain Mills, so a whip went to look for him at his flat. He had been dead for two days. His body contained what the coroner called an “astonishingly high” level of alcohol.

Fiona Jones, who was elected Labour MP Newark in 1997, suffered a miserable start to parliamentary life when she was accused of falsifying her election expenses. Though she was cleared of the charge, she never seemed to recover, politically or emotionally. She lost her seat in 2001, and was later found dead, surrounded by 15 empty vodka bottles.

We do not know why some individuals fall prey to alcoholism. A great many MPs complete long careers without developing a drink problem. Campbell believes that this is not a problem peculiar to Parliament. “People say Parliament is an essay place to drink: the whole of Britain is an easy place to drink. We have a very, very dangerous drink culture,” he warned.

That observation is borne out by the Office for National Statistics, which calculated that during 2013, drink killed 8,416 people in the UK – or one person every hour of every day.

Tackling this problem is a task for legislators – but the House of Commons remains a place where MPs can drink themselves to death without anyone mentioning it.

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