One of us, but the best of us

Dewi Knight pays tribute to Charles Kennedy

In 2005, we’d never had it so good. At least not since 1945, when a fifth of Wales’s seats were still held by the Liberals.

But in 2005 the Welsh Lib Dems become the nation’s second party in the old imperial parliament, winning Cardiff Central for the first time, and recapturing Ceredigion. Ahead of the campaign, Charles Kennedy was due to visit both constituencies on March 11th to coincide with the party conference in the capital.

Charles never made it. Whilst we party workers tried to keep members, lobbyists and the media happy with shifting promises of the leader’s arrival, Charles was elsewhere. And he was doing what he did best. Correcting wrongs that needed attention, and advocating for what was right despite populist prejudice.

He was in Parliament, standing up to what he saw as the arrogance and authoritarianism of the Labour government on the Prevention of Terrorism Act.  As Martin Kettle so neatly put it earlier this week, despite Charles being avowedly a man of the centre-left, these attitudes were no surprise to someone who “was a lifetime witness to Scottish Labour’s authoritarian and now ultimately self-destructive ways.”

We’ve heard much in the last couple of days since the sad, shockingly desperate news, about Charles the humble, generous and sharp-witted Highlander. He was all those things, and more. Those qualities made him a great bloke, but also a great politician.

He was a Fulbright Scholar in Indiana before returning to fight the by-election in 1983. That unexpected success meant that Charles became a parliamentarian and participant rather than a student of politics. But his approach to the profession followed J William Fulbright’s founding ideals for his programme: “to bring a little more knowledge, a little more reason, and a little more compassion into world affairs”.

Many of the tributes have almost apologised for Charles being a politician. It may say more about their own self-identity and approach to what Bobby Kennedy described as the “most honourable profession”.

From national debating champion, to President of the Glasgow University Union, to MP for thirty-two years and the best and most successful leader of the Lib Dems, he indisputably loved this honourable profession with a passion.

And he was passionate about the big questions of our time – delivering social justice in a new fiscal and societal context; the relationship between the nations of these islands; Britain’s place in Europe; and of course the war in Iraq. And he was right, not just about those questions, but on most things.

Even as he was right, he was modest and reflective with it. And when he disagreed, or could see both sides of the argument, his liberalism meant that he would carefully consider the competing positions. That was a strength, not a weakness.

Charles came back to Wales many times later during that 2005 campaign. During Parliament’s tribute on Wednesday, Mark Williams even attributed the victory in Ceredigion to Charles as a person and as a leader. That is characteristic of Mark’s generosity, but it is also very near to the truth.

Even after standing down from the leadership, this fiddler’s son was still the rock star for election campaign visits.

I remember accompanying him on a market day walkabout in Abertillery during the Blaenau Gwent by-election(s). Not natural Lib Dem territory perhaps, but it made no difference to Charles.

As he chatted and shook hands from shop door to stall to school gate, there was genuine warmth in the welcome and conversation for the west Highlander in the eastern Valleys. It was not always easy for him – all politicians are performers in some way or other. Charles could be shy, self-doubting and happiest in his own company.

Those closest to him have spoken and written eloquently about the most important roles in life – of being a father, son and friend. The personal loss suffered this week is the biggest heartbreak and the most enduring tragedy. Parliament was at its best in speaking directly to Charles’s family on Wednesday.

The Liberal Democrats, especially those that know and share the old enemy of vested interest and Torysim across the Highlands, Powys and Cornwall, are also a family. Charles Kennedy was one of us, but he was the best of us.

Dewi Knight is Director of Policy at the University of Bedfordshire, and worked in policy and communications for the Welsh Liberal Democrats during Charles Kennedy’s leadership.

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