A personal tragedy

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Kenneth Roy

When it was reported last Saturday that Charles Kennedy was on the brink of defecting to the Labour Party, and there was no immediate denial from the subject of this rumour, I forgot that it was still officially the silly season and assumed the story to be true. Whether Mr Kennedy experienced a long dark night of the soul it is impossible to say, but by Sunday he was dismissing the speculation as ‘absolute rubbish’ and pledging to remain a Liberal Democrat until his dying day.

Kenneth Roy

When it was reported last Saturday that Charles Kennedy was on the brink of defecting to the Labour Party, and there was no immediate denial from the subject of this rumour, I forgot that it was still officially the silly season and assumed the story to be true. Whether Mr Kennedy experienced a long dark night of the soul it is impossible to say, but by Sunday he was dismissing the speculation as ‘absolute rubbish’ and pledging to remain a Liberal Democrat until his dying day.
     Since he is only 50, there is a sporting chance that he may outlive his own party, at least in its present shaky form. But ‘absolute’ rubbish? Rubbish, perhaps, but the meaningful overnight silence suggests that it was far from absolute. Young Ed (Miliband) may simply have over-estimated the degree of interest, or the timing was wrong, or there was an element of mischief-making, or a bit of all three.
     Where on earth does Charles Kennedy go from here? How humiliating must it be for him to be one of the more prominent supporters of a government which has as one of its ministers (admittedly only running the buses) a man who suspects that Robin Cook was murdered, yet has no place for himself? Would he not have been happier as a member of the Labour Party, his original home, posssibly renewed under the leadership of Young Ed? The force of his Sunday denial effectively means that he can never be the horse that bolted. Instead he has chosen to lock himself in the stable with the Liberal Democrats – until death do them part, no less.
     Charles Kennedy’s is a personal political tragedy. Not, of course, in the same class as the tragedy of John Smith, whose fatal heart attack made him Britain’s (as well as Labour’s) lost leader. Nor of Donald Dewar, whose tenure as Scotland’s first first minister was cut cruelly short. But for someone so able and likeable as Charles Kennedy to end up a marginalised middle-aged backbencher afflicted by a heap of well-documented personal problems is more than deeply sad. It is a waste.
     I was probably the first journalist to interview the promising young man. Around lunchtime on the Friday of the 1983 general election, I was mopping up the late results in a BBC studio in Glasgow when an excited reporter burst into the studio and announced that there had been a major upset in Ross, Cromarty and Skye, one of the last seats to declare. ‘Charlie who?’ I asked. Charlie Who, all of 23 years old, was put on the line and explained that he had recently returned from the United States where he had been a Fulbright scholar. It was clear that he had not expected to win (‘I thought I’d come a magnificent second’, he admitted to me years later). It was clear also that he was articulate, bright, generally a cut-above.


When he was a student he wanted to be a journalist. He would have been a superb journalist. He missed his vocation; or perhaps there is still time.


     Charles Kennedy entered the House of Commons with the poisoned chalice automatically borne by anyone doomed to be the youngest MP. When I met him in Westminster face-to-face for the first time, I asked him if it was easy to become overwhelmed by the place. He replied that it could be.
     He took me to the Strangers Bar, later to the terrace, where he smoked a lot and told me of his admiration for Tam Dalyell (‘a great force for good here’), John Smith, Malcolm Rifkind, Frank Field. He seemed, even then, a little disenchanted. He was not liking the House as much as he had anticipated. ‘I thought it would be the bee’s knees, you know? The ultimate. But it wasn’t at all. It surprised me that I wasn’t nearly as fond of the chamber as I thought I’d be.’
     At the time I was concerned for the welfare of a young Scottish journalist who seemed to be drinking himself to death in the bars of the Commons (in the end he succeeded: he was dead by the age of 40). I asked Charles Kennedy how many bars there were in the building. ‘Nineteen,’ he said. ‘But I’ve only managed to track down 12.’ We laughed into our pints. I thought then, as I thought always, that it must take an iron will to resist the blandishments and the intoxicating atmosphere of the Commons, particularly if you were a long way from home, as the young Scottish journalist was, as Charles Kennedy was. By the time I got around to meeting him in the House, he had been there for years and yet he was still only in his late twenties.
     He talked much more animatedly of home than he did of his life as an MP. His family had been crofting in Lochaber for centuries. His grandfather had campaigned in the Gaelic-speaking counties for Johnny Bannerman, one of the great men of Scottish Liberalism. His father was then still running the family croft, although like most crofters he also had a full-time job. He remembered vigorous political discussion in the home. He told me he had joined the Labour Party at the age of 15 when he was one of the star debaters at Lochaber High School. He went on to win the Observer mace for debating at Glasgow University, as John Smith and Donald Dewar had done before him. When he was a student he wanted to be a journalist. He would have been a superb journalist. He missed his vocation; or perhaps there is still time.
     I warmed to him. I liked him a lot. I told him that I expected him to transfer his allegiance to the new Scottish parliament (if we got one) and predicted that, by the age of 50, he would be the prime minister of Scotland. Instead, this morning he wakes, like the rest of us, to the report of the Institute for Fiscal Studies that his government’s economic policies are hitting the poorest hardest. If that is not a personal political tragedy for Charles Kennedy, I don’t know what is.

This article was reproduced with the kind permission of Kenneth Roy.

Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.