The BadgerHarry Howard believes Charles Kennedy, the former Liberal Democrat leader who died yesterday, was a ‘brilliant politician and decent human being’. 

Tributes were pouring in throughout yesterday after the sudden death of former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy, aged just 55.

Kennedy was first elected as an MP at the age of just 23, representing his home constituency of Ross, Skye and Lochaber in the Scottish Highlands.

Notwithstanding the hugely impressive feat of becoming an MP at such a tender age, Kennedy was an extremely talented politician.

He led his party to their greatest ever result at the 2005 general election, gaining 62 seats and nearly six million votes. This feat is all the more impressive if it is compared to the party’s 2010 result, where they actually lost five seats, despite their leader Nick Clegg riding a wave of unprecedented popularity in the run-up to the election.

Amongst Kennedy’s best features was his principled leadership of the Liberal Democrats. He distanced himself and his party from Tony Blair’s New Labour despite previous leader Paddy Ashdown’s close relationship with Blair.

Perhaps most striking was when he refused to support the commencement of the Iraq War, arguing that evidence to go to war was sparse at best. He was, as we now know, proven right; but despite the situation in the Middle East getting decidedly worse in later years, he showed his good nature by refusing to play the dirty game of saying “I told you so”.

The Iraq saga wasn’t the only time that Kennedy refused to bend in the face of the political consensus. He spoke in favour of the legalisation of cannabis and put his words into action by pledging to look seriously at the issue if he ended up in government.

He was also one of only a handful of Liberal Democrats to refuse to support the 2010 coalition with the Conservatives, seeing it as driving a “coach and horses through the long-nurtured re-alignment of the centre-left.” His opposition was immediately made clear when he objected to the raising of tuition fees, leading a number of rebels to vote against the policy.

Indeed, for a party that had done so well positioning itself to the left of New Labour, Kennedy was right to spot the damage that a coalition with the Tories would do to his party, and it was unfortunate that he himself was a victim of this damage.

Perhaps most presciently, Kennedy spoke out in favour of electoral reform in 2011, referring to the “grotesque distortions” of first-past-the-post. His point was highlighted aptly by UKIP getting four million votes but only one seat in last month’s election.

More evidence of Kennedy’s talent was made clear by a number of appearances on the BBC’s satirical news programme Have I Got News for You in which he was shown to be easily capable of holding his own amidst humorous attacks from the likes of Jeremy Clarkson and Ian Hislop.

Yet Kennedy stood out most for his humanity, with his faults as obvious as his virtues. He fought a career-long battle with alcoholism, and despite repeated refusals to admit to having a problem, it was this issue that forced him out as party leader in 2005.

His alcohol troubles even provoked a vicious joke from Ian Duncan Smith during the latter’s pathetic tenure as leader of the Conservative Party. Speaking on the issue of tax rises at his party’s conference just days before resigning, Duncan Smith said, “Charlie Kennedy wants to raise them [taxes] even further, except of course on wines and spirits”.

This low blow did little to save one of the worst party leaders in British political history, and Kennedy – with the phenomenal 2005 election result ahead of him – was to last another two years.

The Scot was one of the many inevitable Liberal Democrat victims of both the rise of the SNP and his party’s decision to stick to the Coalition, as he lost his seat at last month’s election. It was certainly sad given his principled and prescient stance on many issues that have since become part of popular opinion.

Certainly, it was the tributes that came in from all sides of politics after news of his death emerged that made clear his popularity and decency. Perhaps most touching was the contribution from New Labour veteran Alastair Campbell who said that Kennedy “was a terrific communicator and a fine orator. He spoke fluent human, because he had humanity in every vein and every cell.”

Harry Howard

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