Charles Kennedy had many favourite jokes but when, as he often did, he returned to the Glasgow University Union, he was particularly fond of regaling his audience with the story of how his career had developed. As more than one old GUU hand has remembered this morning, it went something like this:
‘I received a letter from my careers adviser about halfway through my final year telling me that I needed to come in for a chat, so off I trooped to University Gardens. When I arrived, my Professor sat me down and said, ‘Charles, you’ve done so well at University: President of the Union, British debating champion, you’ve been awarded a Fulbright scholarship… but you don’t seem to be taking your studies very seriously, what is it that you’re going to do in life?’
‘And so I thought to myself, ‘well I’m not really sure’, but went on to say ‘I quite like reading and people so I could be a teacher, or perhaps I could become a journalist, I’m a good writer’ and he said, “Hmm, well, we’ll see…but if all else fails, I suppose there’s always politics”.
‘And so when, a year later, I was elected to the House of Commons at the age of 23, I received a lovely letter from my old careers adviser, which read: “Dear Charles, I was most delighted to hear the news of your election to the House of Commons. I can only presume all else failed”.’
It worked every time. He loved the University of Glasgow and it loved him. Sometimes warm reflections on the death of a politician are wrapped in cant but the tributes paid to Charlie Kennedy today are of a different order, reflecting something rather different. There is a deep sadness abroad and it is felt across the political spectrum.
For those of us whose undergraduate days, whether we attended Glasgow University or not, were wrapped up in debating, Kennedy always felt like the last member of a golden era that began with John Smith and Donald Dewar. His death draws a curtain on that age.
And yet it already seems ancient history. It is startling to think that just a few weeks ago Charlie Kennedy was still an MP and that even his SNP opponent, Ian Blackford, thought it probable Kennedy would be returned as member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber just as he had been re-elected at every election since 1983. That age has gone the way of all flesh too. Rural Scotland has swapped Liberal primrose for SNP yellow and only a brave punter would wager the old ways will return any time soon.
In truth, Kennedy’s final years were a sad business as, beset by drink, he shambled into pitiable irrelevance. The Better Together campaign dearly wished Charlie Kennedy could have played a leading role in last year’s referendum campaign, if only to present a more human, more charming, more relaxed kind of Unionism. Alas, it was not to be. Not because Kennedy was soft on the national question – no matter what Alex Salmond, rather contemptibly, says today – but because he was in no state to play that part. This too occasioned profound sadness.
In retrospect, Kennedy’s political achievements proved ephemeral. The 2005 general election did not herald a new era, far less the realignment of British politics of which he once allowed himself to dream. He may have led the Liberal Democrats to the best result achieved by any third party since the 1920s but it was an achievement built on sand, not rock. Tony Blair’s popularity was compromised by his Mesopotamian misadventure; Michael Howard’s by being Michael Howard. Conditions were ripe for a nationwide protest vote.
It is easier to “do human” from the opposition benches when there’s little realistic prospect of your entering office, of course. Nevertheless, Charlie Kennedy did human very well. People liked him because he was easy to like and because he liked people. The Chat Show Charlie jibe was supposed to suggest he lacked seriousness but, in fact, simply confirmed he was comfortable in settings that would discomfort most politicians. Moreover, he recognised that a third party must take advantage of whatever vehicles for exposure it could and if said vehicles demonstrated it was a different kind of party then so much the better.
And yet there remains a sense of waste, of rich talent under-exploited. This too is a feature of a political life permanently consigned to the opposition benches and yet it also, I think, speaks to a general yearning for a different kind of political animal. Charlie Kennedy was a career politician who did not seem to be a career politician. That was, at least in part, because he had a hinterland that helped place mere politics in some kind of sensible perspective. It mattered but it was far from everything. (He was a loyal former leader too; though he disapproved of Nick Clegg’s decision to enter government, he resisted any temptation to knife his successor.)
Most of all, you could disagree with Kennedy — and he with you — and neither party would be left feeling the other suffered from some kind of moral failing. That, alas, is also all too rare in politics. But Charlie Kennedy was a good and decent man and his long, slow and now desperately sudden and final departure from public life reminds us that perhaps we never properly appreciated his merits until it was all too late.