Wednesday, June 03, 2015
My Embarrassing Charles Kennedy Fan Story
There’s one sort-of political anecdote that I’ve never written about until now. It involves a total cringe from my point of view, but it’s about someone who was an excited fan of Charles Kennedy, so this seems like the right time to tell it (if I ever should). I gave some of my own memories of Charles yesterday, and concluded by mentioning that he was a huge David Bowie fan… So I don’t know whether Charles would have appreciated this one. But here goes.
Back in the late ’80s, I was an awkward teenager coming out with the help of Gay Youth Manchester (as was), and some of the friends I made there are still close today. One of them had got in touch with me again in the early 2000s, and after he’d come round to our place to watch Doctor Who with a few mates, he invited us to a party at his and his partner’s place.
I don’t really do socialising, still less glamorous London night-life. But it seemed my friend had done quite well for himself, as his rather nice Brick Lane flat was buzzing with rather a lot of rather glamorous and fashionable people. And me.
So I did what I usually do if I awkwardly find myself pressed into a party: hover by the buffet inhaling all the food, and hold even more firmly to Richard than to the sausage rolls.
Eventually, though, someone else came up to the buffet, said “Excuse me” to the nervous man hogging it, and politely struck up a bit more of a conversation, and he was reassuringly dowdy, so I came out of my shell a bit. And as we chatted, the inevitable “And what do you do?” sort of question came up.
At the time – as usual – my health was a bit dodgy, in the early part of its long slide ever since, so I wasn’t working. But back then, I was still up to being more active in the Lib Dems, so I tentatively started off on some of my political involvement, and that I was on a party’s policy committee. With encouraging noises from the other guest, I expanded on that to say which party, and that I was then Vice-Chair of the Federal Policy Committee, where Charles was the Chair and I’d sometimes take over when he was at other meetings.
And this guy was impressed. Really impressed. It turned out he was a huge admirer of Charles Kennedy, and thrilled that I knew him, as he went on and on. Oh, just a bit, I said, self-deprecating in the way that only someone terribly flattered by reflected glory and unable to see the mortifying fall looming in front of him could be.
“And what do you do?”I asked, from my unexpected height of social superiority.
“Oh – I play bass in a band called Radiohead.”
Tuesday, June 02, 2015
I heard at 7am the news that Charles Kennedy had died. It feels so terribly unfair. He had so many gifts and should have had so much more to give with them. And just as Liberal Democrats are starting to recover from the grief of the election, and find something to celebrate in such unlooked-for growth in our numbers (from 45,000 members to 60,000 since polling day), our family is plunged into the most appalling shared grief of all. My heart goes out to Charles’ immediate family too. I knew Charles as Leader, much less since, but I’ll miss him.
Like many Lib Dems, I started the day by pouring out some of my grief on Twitter and a comment on Lib Dem Voice – then a short piece on my Tumblr, which is where, essentially, I write and publish things quickly, before there’s time for insecurity to stop me writing. But I’ve decided that Charles deserves a proper thank you and memorial from me, too, which in my typical way means much the same I said earlier, but at significantly greater length.
A Great Communicator (but not in every way)
You’ll have read a great many tributes and obituaries. Like all Leaders, he had his good and his bad points – perhaps more of both than most. Charles’ greatest strength was that he came across as genuine, and decent, and more like an ordinary bloke than other politicians: today British politics has to make do with Nigel Farage, his anti-matter duplicate. Getting to know Charles over half a dozen years or so, as I’ll come to, he always struck me as the same in private as he was in public, and in private, too, he rarely let people see his bad days.
The one thing I’ll say that contradicts most of the pieces I’ve seen about Charles today is that I don’t think he was a great orator. He was a great communicator – probably the best the Liberal Democrats have had, though I reckon we’ve been blessed with three. But his greatest gift was in speaking directly, conversationally, not reading lines from a platform. I don’t mean he couldn’t deliver a speech – he could, and I saw many of them. Some stuck in my head for his principles as a call to action; some inspired me by turning those principles into a brave challenge. But platform oratory wasn’t his best platform, and if you want to read a review of one of his speeches with a favourable view of the content and a not entirely complimentary look at some of his vocal tics, I wrote one quite some years ago and still think I was right. That doesn’t matter.
I think it may well have been on introducing Charles for the first of the three speeches I mentioned above that a Lib Dem MP said something rather indiscreet that stuck in my head as much as the speech itself. Charles was relatively new in the job of Leader, and there was a wide assumption (not necessarily a fact) that he’d been more the choice of the armchair members than the activists – but also, by this stage, a widespread feeling of pleasant surprise that he’d made himself both a more explicitly Liberal leader and more distanced from the Labour Party than anyone had expected before his election (I remember one of his initial backers telling me sourly that I was probably more pleased with his victorious candidate than he was, and happily agreeing). So when Charles was introduced for his own Leader’s Speech with “I didn’t vote for him – but I’m ever so glad he won!” there was both a huge laugh and a sense from many, myself included, that we would have said the same if we’d been daring enough.
My Memories of Charles (and the Reverse Aesop)
I got to know Charles mainly on the Lib Dem Federal Policy Committee. I was an elected member throughout his Leadership, and for four years I was a Vice-Chair to Charles as Chair. He was the same in private party meetings as he was on the telly: a big change from Paddy Ashdown’s fight to the death on every issue – bringing people together, but passionate on the issues he really cared about. The converse was also true; the chance of my taking over the Chair for an hour when Charles suddenly discovered he had another urgent Commons appointment rose in direct proportion to the time FPC members spent droning on multiplied by the lack of interest he had in the subject. His slipping out rarely helped meetings to finish on time, as he was far more skilled in finding kindly ways to shut people up when they were blathering on than I ever was.
I used to joke at the time that in choosing Charles to succeed Paddy the party had done a reverse Aesop – calling for King Log after King Stork. That was a little unfair (to Charles, at least). He may not have wanted pitched battles on every line of policy, but I remember him usually making two different sorts of crucial contribution across the board. One was in spotting when policy was getting either too impenetrable or too up itself (not that he’d use those terms). In particular, he had a keen eye for the Lib Dem habit of setting up National Institutes for Well-Meaning Interference. Nobody else on the FPC was ever so good at puncturing pompous proposals, rolling his eyes at yet another new bureaucracy: “No more capital letters, please!” Part of that was what you might call Charles ‘remembering common sense’. But there was another element in there. Whether it was being a Highlander, an outsider, his temperament or his chosen ideology, he quietly disliked people pushing other people around.
Growing Into a Liberal Leader
I didn’t know Charles well enough to be able to say whether it was out of that instinct, or his political judgement as Leader, or it simply seeming the obvious thing to do, but his other ‘big picture’ contribution was more blatantly ideological – under Charles, the Liberal Democrats started using the words “Liberal” and “Liberalism” in the headlines, not just in the small print. The Liberal Democrats never lost our Liberalism; when during the election I was searching for inspiring Liberal quotes, short and long, for my Liberal Democrats Believe Tumblr (which, like so many things, I must get back to), one of the most inspiring speeches and probably the one I quoted at greatest length was one of Paddy’s Leader’s speeches, which is as brilliant an exploration of philosophical Liberalism as you could hope to find. But you’d rarely find the word on its own on a policy paper front page or in a shorthand description of the party.
I suspect that a lot of this comes down to simple history: Paddy had been a Liberal MP, and as the Liberal Democrats’ Leader for our first decade, he was careful not to ‘unpick the merger’. And so was everyone else who’d gone through that shambles of a time. Under Charles, the party was more at ease with itself, with the passage of time and the passage of members. Quietly, we had a Leader who would say of us, “We’re a Liberal party,” without anyone being under the impression he was expelling former Social Democrats; policy papers on what we stood for started proclaiming “It’s About Freedom” or “Freedom in a Liberal Society”, rather than the party’s early years of “Our Different Vision”, which I remember reading cover to cover and still being unable to say quite what it was.
I joined the new party immediately after the merger in 1988, because I’d been a teenage supporter but didn’t see why there were two separate parties and waited until it was official to sign up. For me and my generation of Lib Dem Youth and Students, it was natural to be Liberal Democrats, happy with a party born out of a merger, not wanting to go back to the structures and strifes of a party we’d never been members of, but of course we were ideologically Liberals too. Older members found it more difficult to separate the history and the philosophy, so it was something a lot of Lib Dems were very quiet about during the ’90s. It was obvious to me that Bob Maclennan – a former Leader of the SDP – was by far our most Liberal Home Affairs Spokesperson of the time, and similarly, when Bob was Party President in the mid-’90s he was the most senior figure to speak of our Liberalism, unabashed, one of many reasons I became an unlikely fan and friend. No-one could accuse him of digging up old rivalries or a Liberal Party takeover, and the same was true when Charles, another former Social Democrat, was elected Leader. He was able to talk about what we all stood for without it being divisive. Under Charles’ Leadership, the Lib Dems started to grow our own distinct philosophical rivalries, today spoken of more along Social Liberal and Economic Liberal lines, though neither (with a few exceptions!) as sharp as between our two predecessor parties. Most Lib Dems are both Social and Economic Liberals, and those who come down much more heavily on one side than the other are just as likely to have come from the old SDP as the old Liberal Party – but, like the vast majority of Liberal Democrat members, are most likely not to have been a member of either party that voted to merge into the Lib Dems nearly three decades ago.
So every time a ‘political correspondent’ talks about the ‘fault lines in the Lib Dems’ being based on the Liberal Party vs the SDP, they are almost without exception talking bollocks – just as it would have been absurd to characterise every internal debate of the pre-1988 Liberal Party in terms of Whigs, Radicals and Peelites who merged to create the Liberals in their turn. We are not our parents, and neither are parties. Charles, in his calm and consensual but crucial way, helped the Liberal Democrats to grow up.
Charles’ Principles and Passions
The much less quiet decision that Charles took, after much internal debate and soul-searching, and which came to define his Leadership, was to oppose the Iraq War. It’s often falsely remembered as a populist move. It was nothing of the kind. It was a terrifying plunge into doing the right thing when nobody else would, and we were vilified for it. In the run-up to the War, there were mass marches in opposition, but not largely by natural Lib Dems, and the massed fire of the media was all against us. When the invasion began, our opinion poll support took a dive. It was only much later, when it became clear to people not that the principle of invading another country against international law was wrong – people knew that, and were gung-ho anyway – but that the Labour Party and the Republican Party had created such an appalling, bloody mess, that support swung back our way. Remember that the Labour Party and their Tory and press cheerleaders called Charles and the Lib Dems “Traitors” and much worse for not going along with their illegal war of aggression.
If Iraq was Charles Kennedy’s defining issue by circumstance and brave decision in a hard place, perhaps his greatest passion was Europe. A committed and persuasive European, internationalist, democrat and reformer, while Liberal Democrats and many others who simply liked and agreed with him will miss Charles for too many reasons to count, over the next couple of years our loss will be a huge loss in the coming referendum. As well as the personal loss for his family and our wider Lib Dem family, both bereaved, it’s tragic to lose his voice when he’s so needed.
“I am a Highlander, a Scot, proudly British, and European. I’m proud of all four of these things, and I don’t see why I should have to choose between them or delete any of them.”You may well have seen today a letter from Charles replying to a voter with his judgement that, even though he’s blue, Gonzo’s a nice guy and his favourite Muppet. I can reveal that he rather liked Doctor Who, too, and that his favourite Doctor was always Patrick Troughton, so I’ve had the Mighty Trout’s most Liberal story on this afternoon. If you really want to celebrate one of Charles’ passions, though, put on some David Bowie to remember him by. There, he was a real fan.