Gareth Roberts looks back the life of one of British politics’ most popular figures, Charles Kennedy.
Charles Kennedy, the widely-popular former leader of the Liberal Democrats was a perplexing figure for many in politics. Widely considered a brilliant politician, he was known for his easy-going manner and laid-back style, which made him popular with the public. Whilst the most electorally successful leader of the Liberal Democrats, he was a figure of controversy within the party, and his alcoholism cost him the leadership.
Born in Inverness in 1960, he was educated at the University of Glasgow and then at the University of Indiana as a Fulbright Scholar. He was still a student when he was selected MP for Ross, Cromarty and Skye, as the candidate of the Social Democratic Party (SDP). At the age of 23 he was, at that time, the youngest MP in Parliament. He was to hold the seat, and the two seats that replaced it, for 32 years until the 2015 General Election.
He became the SDP spokesman on Social Security, and after the parties merger with the Liberals in 1988, where he played a prominent part in the negotiations, he served in a variety of similar positions for the newly formed Liberal Democrats. Throughout the 1990’s he began to build up a considerable media profile, appearing on Have I Got News For You and radio talk shows, earning the nickname “Chatshow Charlie”, which he loathed.
He was elected leader of the Liberal Democrats in 1999 after the resignation of Paddy Ashdown, who he had criticised for his closeness to Labour. He led the party into the 2001 election, gaining some 18% of the vote and 52 seats. His staunch opposition to the Iraq War endeared him to certain political sections, but it was his casual style that was his real gift. Often running late and attending press briefings seemingly unprepared, members of the public saw him as a genuine human being, which made him deeply popular.
He increased the Liberal Democrats share of the vote to 22% of the vote and 62 seats in 2005, its largest share of the vote since 1923. However, the cracks were already beginning to appear. He slurred his way through a number of press briefings, and was unpopular in the party for having failed to achieve an expected breakthrough in Conservative marginals. In 2006 he announced his resignation due to alcoholism.
Charles Kennedy died on 2nd June 2015 in Fort William Scotland. He was 55 years and is survived by his son Duncan.
R.I.P. Charles Kennedy, 1959 – 2015