It’s a stunning thing to wake up to the news that Charles Kennedy, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats, has died at the relatively young age of 55.
The Inverness-born Kennedy represented Ross, Skye and Lochaber since 1997, and who represented a similar constituency in northern Scotland from 1983, until the general election just over three weeks ago. The Scottish National Party (SNP) swept away all but three of Scotland’s constituencies, including Kennedy’s, a shock result that had more to do with the dynamics of Scottish nationalism in the post-referendum era, not Kennedy, who remained widely popular. His death will deprive the Liberal Democrats of someone who could have helped the party rebuild its presence in Scotland.
As LibDem leader between 1999 and 2006, Kennedy served as a key transition between the beloved Paddy Ashdown and Nick Clegg, the latter who led the party on an economically liberal turn in the 2010 elections and ultimately brought the Liberal Democrats into government.
In May, however, the Liberal Democrats were wiped out — in England and Scotland alike — after widespread disappointment among their voters. The Liberal Democratic caucus reduced from 57 members of parliament to just eight.
Notwithstanding the Cleggmania of 2010, the high-water mark for the party was actually the 2005 election, when Kennedy’s Liberal Democrats won 62 seats.
As leader, Kennedy was one of the few opposition voices to prime minister Tony Blair’s decision to join the United States in its invasion of Iraq. Despite grumblings from some Labour MPs, including the late former foreign minister Robin Cook, Blair’s decision to join the Iraq invasion won at least begrudging support from his own party and quiet acquiescence from the Conservative Party.
It’s no exaggeration to say that, while the Tories fumbled in the electoral wilderness, shifting leaders from William Hague to Iain Duncan Smith to Michael Howard in the mid-2000s, Kennedy was often the de facto leader of the opposition, and he was certainly the undisputed leader of the anti-war movement in 2003 and beyond.
It’s true that Kennedy’s leadership ended when it became clear that he had a problem with alcohol. That he admitted it, sought treatment and remained a beloved elder statesman within the Liberal Democratic camp speaks to his strength — even Blair, in his memoirs, spoke of the pressure that drove him to problem drinking at Number 10.
Notwithstanding former Scottish first minister Alex Salmond’s comments, now being widely derided, suggesting Kennedy might have been a closet nationalist, the universal response across the country today is praise for a charismatic leader who took principled stands.
The party holds a leadership election on July 16, with the more leftist Tim Farron generally leading his opponent, the more centrist Norman Lamb. That the winner of the contest will try to restore the party’s fortunes without the talents of Charlie Kennedy, however, amounts to a tragic setback.