Charles Kennedy R.I.P.
There is something slightly disturbing about being woken by your clock radio with the news that someone you knew has died.
I knew Charles Kennedy many years ago when we were both students. As a leading light of the Glasgow University Union he used to visit other Unions (debating societies) including my own and he was much in demand as a visiting speaker.
His political contemporaries and commentators have made much of his wit and his charisma. He was certainly witty, but I would say he was more authentic than charismatic. But to remember him as a witty man does him an injustice – both as the politician who was willing to argue against the Iraq war and as the student debater.
You knew if Charles was speaking that you would be entertained but you would also be challenged to consider an issue more deeply. Unlike many other visiting student speakers from the “leading Unions”, the wit was not the key element of his speeches. He had a case to make and the wit was a support to his arguments not a substitute for a lack of argument.
Notice the wit was used to support his argument and occasionally to counter his opponent’s arguments; if it was ever used “against” someone it was used in a good-natured mutual joust with an opponent he respected. And he would take as good as he gave – on the rare occasions when an opponent could match his sharp but gentle humour.
He preferred to make an argument look foolish rather than make a speaker look foolish – if a speaker was ever left feeling foolish it was because they at least had the redeeming feature of self-awareness.
His unexpected elevation from University Debating Unions to the House of Commons did not seem to significantly change him. As the Speaker said today:
In an age of pervasive cynicism about politics and politicians, Charles had that rare and uncanny capacity to cut through to large numbers of voters of all political persuasions and of none right across the country. He was doubtless assisted in that by his obvious sincerity, his relaxed style and his geniality.
I am cynical about the whole political process but in Charles Kennedy I had a reminder that not all politicians were on the make, and that some were principled and value driven. I saw that in the student debater and from a distance I could see it in the political leader.
Just as hearing the news this morning that someone I knew had died was saddening, hearing the news in 1983 that someone I knew and respected had become an MP was uplifting. More than 30 years later, I have not become disillusioned about the very sincere individual that was Charles Kennedy.
I am sure his son will grow up to be proud of his father.