"Tragic" is a word that can often lazily be applied to "bad stuff that happens". That is certainly also true in this case. But the tragedy of former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy really was a full-on, Greek style tragedy. His is a story about potential squandered. It's about someone with gifts that made him peerless, making a few bad decisions – the finest political orator of his day, effortlessly charismatic, decent and principled, being laid terribly low by one aspect of his character.
On TV this morning, Nick Clegg mourned that paradox that raged so fiercely within the man who led the Lib Dems from 1999 to 2006:
"In my view, Charles Kennedy on form, on a good day when he was feeling strong and happy, had more political talent in his little finger than the rest of us put together and that's why everyone felt and still, of course, feels today, it was just so tragic to see someone with such huge gifts also struggle."
Post-mortems will reveal the cause of his death. But it is hard to avoid the sense that darkness was visiting Charles Kennedy en masse in early 2015. He lived alone, having divorced his wife Sarah Gurling in 2010. He had already become his elderly father's main carer. He suspended his campaign when his father died in April, and put in a rambling, slurring appearance on Question Time that re-opened talk about his drink problem. Few people are reported to have seen him in the period after a defeat that overturned his enormous 23,000 vote majority.
Sadly, it feels already like the tragic side of Charlie Kennedy is being written into his epitaph more than his personal talents or achievements. Let's hope, in the rush to shake our fists at the demon drink, we don't forget the details that made this most human of politicians as warm-blooded as he was.
What follows are a random scattering of incidents and accidents from the Toby-faced highlander's personal history that aim to give a flavour of the man rather than present any definitive picture.
HE WAS NEVER THE MOST HARD-WORKING SOUL
His father Ian once said his son's school philosophy was: "Do enough to get by without knocking your pan in."
At university, he picked up the nickname "Taxi Kennedy", for his habit of hiring a minicab for the quarter-mile journeys from the student union to his lectures.
"A marked contrast with Paddy Ashdown," was how remaining Lib Dem MP Tom Brake saw it this morning. "When Paddy interviewed me for a job, he told me the interview would last three minutes and begin at 14:02. And sure enough, at 14:05, we were done. Charles had… a more laid-back style".
"Why is Kennedy so idle?" Blair is supposed to have once asked.
YET DESPITE THIS HE WAS STILL SPECTACULARLY GOOD AT THE ACADEMIC STUFF
He became not only President of the Glasgow Students Union, but British Debating Champion, and a Fulbright Scholar.
HE WAS AN ACCIDENTAL POLITICIAN
Perhaps the reason he never came across as a brushed aluminium cyberprick modern politician was that he never meant to be one in the first place. A Politics scholar who was working on a post-graduate thesis about SDP founder Roy Jenkins at an American University, he had been inveigled upon by the then-Social Democrats to fight the then-hopeless seat of Ross, Cromarty and Skye at the 1983 election. So confident of his own imminent defeat was he that he'd jumped on a plane once the polls closed – his duty discharged. But he won, and became the youngest sitting MP at the age of 23. "Do MPs get paid?" he asked upon becoming one.
A couple of years earlier, one of his professors had asked him what he intended to do with his life. He was unsure: "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".
HE WAS OF COURSE RIGHT ABOUT IRAQ
And it wasn't just Tony Blair he was arguing against. Let us not forget that Ian Duncan Smith lead the Tories through the lobbies in favour of the conflict.
He also was one of the few figures predicted the disorganised chaos that would ensue when the war was won. Before the war started, with great foresight, he wrote: "We need to know, if there is such a campaign, who will police the peace. The UN? This American administration – witness Afghanistan – has displayed noticeably less enthusiasm for dealing with the aftermath of conflict than for starting one."
The Lib Dems united with 122 rebel Labour MPs to try and force through a motion about the case to war being "unproven". An unprecedented level of opposition, but not quite enough for Blair to be fatally wounded.
HE WAS THE ONLY LIB DEM TO VOTE AGAINST COALITION WITH THE TORIES
That fatally undermined any chances he might've had of finally becoming a minister, but with similar skill at the crystal ball that he showed over Iraq, he argued that the lesson of history was that smaller parties – and especially those that espouse liberalism – tend to get swallowed or steamrollered by their larger coalition partners. Besides, ideologically, unlike Clegg's clique, he'd always been on the left of the party, arguing that long-term the Lib Dems' ultimate prize should be a "realignment of the centre-left" in their favour.
GORDON BROWN ONCE ASKED HIM TO JOIN THE LABOUR PARTY
The pair were both rookie Scottish MPs entering the house after the 1983 election, a time when the break between the Social Democrats and Labour was still fresh. They struck up an easy friendship, but Kennedy declined the offer. Years later, Blair would attempt to co-opt him back into Labour. Alistair Campbell recalls that this was an almost annual offer.
HE WAS A GEORGE BEST FIGURE. OR IF YOU PREFER, AMY WINEHOUSE
Alex Salmond remarked upon how the House Of Commons nurtures the sorts of problems Kennedy had: "It is the worst place in the world for somebody with an alcohol problem – particularly in the 1980s and 90s when Charles went into the House of Commons."
"You're talking about being far, far away from home, in convivial company and easily available cheap alcohol – at that time virtually on a 24 hour basis. It must be just about the worst place on the planet with Charles' illness."
The sad truth of the matter is that, post-leadership, Charles Kennedy's remaining political career was dominated by his recurring alcohol problems. And while he still commanded astonishing respect across the house, it was the respect accorded to a prize-fighter past fighting age. His political relevance dwindled to nothing.
During the Scottish referendum he was sidelined from the Better Together pro-Union campaign because organisers didn't think his appetite for booze would stand up to the effort.
HIS DRINKING SERIOUSLY AFFECTED HIS LEADERSHIP RIGHT FROM THE OFF
In 2008, Ming Campbell, his successor, published an article describing the moment, in 2001, when he and Kennedy had been booked to see PLO President Yasser Arafat. Kennedy asked them to bring "a can of Lilt and a box of cigarettes" to his flat. Then he was late. Then he "nipped off to the loo" moments before Arafat arrived.
"Charles asked one question and then fell silent for the rest of the meeting, leaving his Press secretary Jackie Rowley and me to keep the conversation going… After 30 minutes, as we were saying our farewells to Arafat, Charles said he had a 'call of nature' and left us standing there as he disappeared once more to the loo."
Later, when Gordon Brown was giving a vital statement about whether Britain would join the Euro, Kennedy was again absent from Parliament. Ming went down to talk to his Parliamentary Private Secretary.
"Why the hell didn't you just send him down to the Chamber to sit there? He didn't have to say anything, but surely he could sit there?" I said.
Mark replied: "He wasn't capable of it."
On Budget Day 2004, Ming was bounced into deputising for Kennedy at PMQs, because the leader had "a stomach complaint".
And so it went on, remarkably, for seven years.
BUT HE WAS STILL THE MOST SUCCESSFUL LIB DEM LEADER
The 62 seats the Lib Dems won in 2005 with Charlie at the helm was a record for the modern party – more than his predecessor Paddy Ashdown or Nick Clegg, the next party leader at an election, could manage.
HE WAS DEPOSED BY ITV
It was a January 2006 phone call to his office from Deborah Turness, the ITV News editor, that finally called time on his career as leader. The station had dug up a dossier on the full extent of his drinking, and were planning to splash it on the 10PM news. It included details of a secret meeting in March 2004 in which Lib Dem MPs gave their leader an ultimatum: seek treatment, or resign. He issued a statement saying he would be seeking treatment, but in fact, he had already been receiving home visits from agents of celeb rehab The Priory at his London home.
Nevertheless, MPs who'd negotiated his problem for years had had enough. 25 of his 62 Lib Dems had soon declared they wouldn't serve under him, and he was bounced into humiliating resignation. He had already cancelled a planned admission of his alcohol issues in 2003.
A CONSTITUENT ONCE WROTE TO HIM TO ASK WHO HIS FAVOURITE MUPPET WAS
And he replied. He said it was "the Great Gonzo", because "even though he's blue, he is a nice guy." Sadface, sadface, winky-face, sadface.
HE NEVER REACHED THE SUMMIT OF BEN NEVIS
Despite the country's most famous mountain being right by his constituency, Kennedy had a lifelong phobia of exercise. Alistair Campbell recorded, in a blog on the death of his friend, how this admission had caused much laughter when he went to visit the former Lib Dem leader. For two men who stood at opposite ends of the Iraq debacle, the pair seemed remarkably close, often spending the New Year together. They shared a bond of alcoholism: "Health remains fine" was the secret code they'd share to tell each other they'd not been drinking.
HE WAS ONCE BUSTED FOR SMOKING ON A TRAIN
Charles demonstrated his commitment to Liberalism by sticking his head out of the window on the 11:05 London To Plymouth, and enjoying a crafty fag. When train attendants told him to stop, he argued that it was not illegal if it was outside the main body of the train. Police were called but no further action was taken. Kennedy claimed to have "radically cut down" in recent years, but had once been renowned as a man with a 40-a-day habit.
DESPITE ALL OF HIS "TROUBLES", NO ONE EVER SEEMS TO HAVE HAD AN ANGRY WORD TO SAY ABOUT HIM
This morning's kind words have risen way above mere tributes. People across the political spectrum saw a warmth in him, a kindness, an utter absence of malice or cynicism, that they want to broadcast back at the world today.
"Everyone liked him – always amusing and never with a bad word for anyone else." – Alan Duncan (Conservative MP)
"One of the friendliest and most dedicated people I knew in politics" – Grant Shapps (Minister for International Development)
"Decency, humanity and warmth shone out of him… a gentle spirit. – Ruth Davidson (Leader of the Scottish Conservatives)
"Witty, clever kind and thoughtful, without the tiniest shard of mendacity" – Muriel Gray (Author, broadcaster and journalist)
"By far the most generous person I have ever met in politics" – Alex Salmond (Former SNP leader)
"A lovely, genuine and deeply committed public servant" – Tony Blair (Former Prime Minster)
"He proved to be right on Iraq. History will be as kind to him as he was to others." – John Prescott (former deputy leader of the Labour Party)
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