Magazine article The Spectator

The Charles Kennedy I Knew

Magazine article The Spectator

The Charles Kennedy I Knew

Article excerpt

Charles Kennedy remembered


Charles Kennedy's eloquence, intelligence and humour were famous in the Highlands long before his election to the Commons at the age of 23. When I started at Lochaber High School, the prizes he had won as a school debater adorned the walls; as pupils knew, at university he had gone on to win the national championship for Glasgow. It was clear that he was a phenomenon.

Charles knew, perhaps better than anyone in British politics today, that how you say something is critical to being understood. Politics is the art of making and winning arguments. He was a master of it, as he showed when shaping the debate on the Maastricht Treaty. To say he had the gift of the gab is nowhere near enough. His eloquence was accompanied by first-rate political judgment -- as I came to see for myself.

The first time I spoke to him was as a young press officer for the Scottish Lib Dems, nervously recommending that we cancel a press conference because the material was not quite ready. I expected the hairdryer treatment, but he was pleased. 'When you have nothing to say,' he replied, 'best say nothing at all.' He followed his own advice -- which meant that, as party leader, he did not imitate the frenetic pace of Paddy Ashdown. This earned him criticism, but his style was to pick battles carefully, and fight them well.

During the clamour to go to war in Iraq, it fell to Charles to articulate the reservations shared by so many -- which have since been amply vindicated. It was not an easy decision. It was courageous and right. He made his case calmly: he was no pacifist, he said, nor would he have any truck with anti-Americanism. He was simply not convinced by the case for war. His stance earned the respect of millions, and led Lib Dems into our best-ever election result in 2005: 62 MPs. I was one of them.

When I was selected to contest the Highland constituency next to his, then held by Labour, I expected to see little of him. …

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