Charles Kennedy Memorial Lecture

In keeping with many public lectures in the Highlands, albeit of a somewhat different nature, I start with a text: from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, chapter 51, verse 1 –
“Look unto the rock from which you are hewn.”

It is an enormous privilege to have been asked this evening to deliver the inaugural Charles Kennedy memorial lecture; to speak about one of my closest friends in politics, Charles, and how his politics were shaped by his roots in this Highland community, and the Highland Liberal tradition.


It is fitting that this lecture should come at the end of Lochaber Ideas Week, which has provided a forum to discuss new initiatives, provide networking opportunities and generally stimulate ideas to promote the social, economic and community development of the area.

These are goals which Charles would have readily endorsed; and, I know he has, in times past, been a supporter and contributor to the Week’s activities. Indeed, he was an honorary member of the Fort William Chamber of Commerce, which, along with Outdoor Capital of the UK merged last year to become the Lochaber Chamber. His membership certificate hung on the wall of his Fort William office.

I assume Charles approved of the merger; for as the broadcaster Hugh Dan Maclennan said in a tribute to Charles, after his death.
“He was a Lochaber man rather than a Fort William man. (Fort William was set up as a garrison town to quell the Highlanders.) Lochaber was bandit country.”

On June 10th 1983. I was giving an interview as the newly elected MP for Orkney and Shetland in the BBC’s Kirkwall studio, when the interviewer told me that my Alliance colleague had won in Ross, Cromarty & Skye. I had barely heard of Charles Kennedy, let alone know him. We met in the Members’ Lobby of the House of Commons the following week. I remember seeing this red haired young man, and saying, “You must be Charles Kennedy,” to which he replied, “And you must be Jim Wallace.”

Elected on the same day, each an MP for a Highlands & Islands constituency and each the youngest MP of our respective Alliance parties, we swiftly formed a close political friendship. It was a friendship which endured.

I last saw Charles on the Saturday before polling day, when we did a walkabout in Inverness with Danny Alexander and Willie Rennie. Earlier in the week, I had spent a day campaigning with him in Easter Ross, visiting Dingwall auction mart, power hosing a car at a small business specialising in car valeting, and doing public meetings with him in Beauly and Muir of Ord. In introducing me to the audience at these meetings, he mischievously told the audience that in 32 years, he’d never before had a UK Government minister on an election platform, supporting him. It’s for others to judge, given the outcome, whether or not there was a causal effect.

There is one other incident from the meeting at Muir of Ord, which I vividly recall. In spite of having been warned by his campaign team, to get the phrase out of his head, Charles still started his speech by welcoming the audience and saying ‘The West is Best’. I reckon I can safely tell that story in Lochaber!

In the near 32 years between our first and last meetings, there was much camaraderie, mush political discussion and analysis, even intrigue – and much fun.

Among some of the richest memories are the Highlands & Islands tours, which we undertook with Bob Maclennan, Russell Johnston and later Ray Michie. We travelled from Shetland to Oban and even once made a memorable foray to Stornoway (the details of which are for another day). The comradeship and conviviality were exceptional; but so too was the purpose of finding out more about what was happening in different parts of the Highlands & Islands, not least so we could give mutual support in our constituency endeavours.

The pace of such tours could be quite demanding. On one occasion in a meeting with the Shetland Fishermen’s Association, I noted that Charles was nodding off, as Bob Maclennan and the Association Secretary discussed the finer points of regional fisheries management. Bob then said, “But isn’t regional management a bit of an uncatchable chimera.” Hearing the last two words, and wishing to re-engage, Charles asked, “And is there a total allowable catch for chimera?”

Charles was so much in his element on those tours and in the campaigns which we undertook together. One particular campaign, which I recall Charles particularly relished was the one to fight threats to the Highlands rail services, including the Fort William sleeper. He absolutely threw himself into it, understanding and recognising just how fundamental proper transport links are to communities in the Highlands. He arranged meetings, raised the issue with Ministers and in Parliament, and planned a campaign climax with a protest rally in a packed Inverness Town Hall. Prior to the rally, he travelled on the train from Kyle of Lochalsh, whilst Bob Maclennan and I journeyed down on the train from Thurso. We all engaged passengers en route and travelled together for the last part of the journey from Dingwall. You know you’re having some success when the train conductor came on the intercom, thanked us for our efforts and encouraged all passengers to sign our petition! And of course, trains continue to run on these lines, and the sleeper still goes between Fort William and London. I’m told that in a most moving tribute after his death, a wreath was affixed to the front of the sleeper on the day of his funeral; put there by the friends of the west highland line of which he was honorary president.

And thanks to Caledonian Sleepers for the sponsorship of this evening’s dinner.

But I’m possibly getting ahead of myself. Let’s return to the rock from which Charles Peter Kennedy was hewn. I’m conscious that there are people in this community who knew the young Charles and his family far, far better than me.

Born in November 1959, to Ian and Mary Kennedy, Charles was rooted in the Highlands. Even although Mary was originally from Glasgow, Charles’ maternal grandfather was from Arisaig and both maternal grandparents spoke Gaelic. On his father’s side, his grandfather, Donald, was a renowned Highland athlete and worked the croft which I’m told, had been tilled by generations of Kennedys since 1801. Charles’ affinity to the land from where he was nurtured was evidenced by his renovation of his grandfather’s crofter’s home, turning it into his own constituency home. And his final resting place in that Highland glade at Clunes is beside his Kennedy forebears.

Given the historic link between the crofters and the Liberal Party, it is perhaps surprising that the 15 year old Kennedy, a pupil at Lochaber High School, joined the Labour Party, rather than the Liberal Party. I never had the conversation with him, so I can only speculate why. Was it the young radical’s instinctive wish to be different and not join what he might have seen as the local political establishment; or maybe his Catholic upbringing made him wary of a party whose historic association was more with Free Presbyterianism. Whatever, there is no doubting his later huge respect and affection for the sitting Liberal MP, Russell Johnston.

His faith in Labour politics didn’t really stand the test of early days at university. He was totally turned off by what he described as Labour activists ‘fighting a dogmatic class war’. But if Russell Johnston was a later mentor, Charles was wholly captivated by Roy Jenkins’ Dimbleby Lecture in 1979, ‘Home Thoughts From Abroad’, about which Charles said,
“Every so often in life, you hear someone articulate your own thoughts – and they do so with an eloquence and elegance which make you wish you had been able to say it yourself.”

Oddly enough, that was very much my reaction some years earlier when I read Russell Johnston’s pamphlet, To Be a Liberal – and promptly joined the Scottish Liberal Party. And not surprisingly, given his admiration for Jenkins, when the SDP was launched in 1981, Charles was an early member.

Again, it may be thought a little odd that someone born and brought up in a Liberal voting community should be a member of the SDP side of what became the SDP-Liberal Alliance. But as John Campbell’s excellent biography of Roy Jenkins makes clear there was always a tension in the SDP between Roy and those who fostered good links with the Liberals in the hope of creating a new centre party, on the one hand, and on the other, those who wanted to inherit the mantle of the Labour Party.

Roy Jenkins was a sufficient hero of Charles’ that he went on a Fulbright Scholarship to the University of Indiana to study the rhetoric of Roy Jenkins. Given this background, it is maybe not such a surprise that when the merger between the SDP and Liberal Party was mooted after the 1987 election, Charles opted for merger.

Almost exactly 100 years earlier, there had been another merger or at least a coming together involving the Liberal Party. On that occasion it was with the Crofters’ Party. The party was the parliamentary wing of the Highland Land League, which in the 1885 general election had won five seats, some with Liberal backing. Their demands on behalf the crofters lead to the establishment of the Napier Commission and in 1886, Gladstone’s Liberal government passed the Crofters’ Holdings (Scotland) Act, which, among other things, gave crofters security of tenure and reduced rents. With many of their demands met, the Crofters’ party faded away, many of their members joining the Liberal Party.

In these days the Liberal Party held sway across Scotland, the Highlands & Islands being no exception. But it is arguable that the passionate campaigns for crofting reform left the Liberal Party better entrenched in the Highlands & Islands and made it the base camp of the fightback in the second half of the twentieth century. I recall in my first election as Liberal candidate for Orkney & Shetland in 1983 – ninety-seven years after Gladstone’s reforming legislation - the crew of one of the Shetland ferries invited me for a cup of tea in the crew’s room and took pride in showing me that they’d put up my photo with the words ‘The Crofters’ Candidate’ underneath. And on another occasion, an elderly woman assured me of her family’s votes, because Mr Gladstone had given her grandfather security of tenure of his croft.

I’m a Lowland Scot by birth and upbringing, but if the crofters’ zeal for radical reform can impact on me, how much more so on someone like Charles Kennedy, born of crofting stock!

It’s not simply the historic legacy, but more importantly, the attitudes and perspectives on life which the crofting life has given rise to, which influenced the political thinking of Charles Kennedy, and which, in my view, has gone with the grain of Highlands & Islands Liberalism.

Trying to subsist on a small piece of land coupled possibly with some other employment leads to resilience, individualism and the fierce independence of mind which one so often associates the radical Highlander and which was a mark of Charles Kennedy’s approach to politics. But it’s not a selfish individualism. It’s not the ‘Me, Myself, I culture’ of the Thatcher years, which Charles castigates in his book, ‘The Future of Politics’.

Rather, as he later goes on to describe, with reference to his Highland upbringing,
“My upbringing.. imbued me with a strong sense of the importance of equality. A person’s identity and their worth rest upon what they contribute to the community around them…To some extent, geography is responsible for this. The Highlands are both a beautiful and harsh environment. It makes sense, in a region where communities are separated from one another by huge distances, to co-operate with one’s neighbours, rather than waste time trying to stay one rung ahead on the social ladder. In my grandfather’s day, one bull, common grazing land and one grinding mill were shared between several families. In a region where severe weather conditions can make daily life a struggle against the elements, co-operation is far more important than striving for status.”

The value and dignity of the individual, co-operation for the benefit of the community and a healthy scepticism, even mistrust, for the centralised State are all Liberal Democrat traits. They were traits of Charles Kennedy’s politics and manifested themselves in various policies and actions.

His commitment to individual liberty not only embraced a traditional liberal espousal of human rights, but recognised that if individual freedom is fully to flourish, freedom from ignorance, freedom from want and freedom from disease are also of crucial importance. These inspired a very deep commitment to social justice; to policies, particularly in the fields of education and health, which allow each individual the opportunity to achieve his or her potential.

Likewise, he recognised how potential and well-being can be undermined by unemployment. In his maiden speech in July 1983, he reflected on what had happened to his defeated Tory opponent in the previous month’s general election. Noting that he’d been given a peerage and a job as Minister of State at the Scottish Office by Mrs Thatcher, he went on to say,
“I hope three million people, many of whom lost their jobs largely as a result of government policies, will shortly be placed, as a result of Prime Ministerial decision, in much better jobs.”

That maiden speech was, appropriately, on the subject of the younger generation, and reflected on the challenge which his constituency, like so many others in further flung rural areas, finds in keeping young people. As his Parliamentary contributions and questions show, he was a candid friend of the Highlands & Islands Development Board, a concept which had been promoted by Russell Johnston in his pamphlet, Highland Development, before the 1964 general election and which was given effect fifty years ago in 1965, by the incoming Labour Government. Charles was also a supporter of the University of the Highlands & Islands, recognising what it could do to allow people, young and old, to pursue higher education closer to home.

His belief in the dignity of the individual also marked him out from the political pack, when, during his leadership of the party, the Tories cynically tried to play the immigration card in the Romsey by-election. Reading about it, in the Preface to ‘The Future of Politics’, you can almost hear his anger rising, as he slams the Tories’ “populist, saloon-bar rhetoric on asylum seekers”. He also notes that the successful by-election result was only the third time in almost ninety years that the Conservatives, in opposition, had lost a by-election to the party in the Liberal tradition; the two previous occasions being 1913 in Londonderry, and in 1965 when someone called David Steel had won Roxburgh, Selkirk & Peebles.

I am in little doubt that his fearlessness in standing up for what he thought was right was part of his Highland DNA. And of course, it was to burn at its brightest in March 2003, when he opposed the imminent intervention of British armed forces in Iraq. His position wasn’t an opportunistic knee-jerk response, but one carefully thought through.

By that time I had left the House of Commons, but I have watched recordings of the debate and Charles speech. Charles showed great courage and mastery of the House in the face of huge opposition. He was hounded, harangued and heckled from both government and opposition benches. He was accused of being an appeaser, but he stuck to his principled stance. It’s easy with the benefit of hindsight to see the strength and rightness of his position; but it was a very different story in March 2003.

That was the mark of a man of principle. And whilst it would be facile and wrong to suggest only a Highlander would have adopted that position, I cannot help but think that it was his innate doggedness and preparedness to stand out against the mob or what was then conventional opinion, which emboldened him and helped him articulate his view with clarity and such passionate and transparent honesty.

That episode also illustrates another facet of Charles’ character. In spite of his fundamental disagreement with Tony Blair over Iraq, and in spite of the hostility to which he’d been subjected, he was never vindictive about opponents. Even in private, I never heard him speak ill about those with whom he disagreed – frustration, yes, but malice no.

Perhaps that was a feature of what I’ve already quoted:

“co-operation is far more important than striving for status.”
Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If’ has the following lines –
“If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch”

You could almost believe that these lines had been written with Charles in mind. As party leader he met Queens, Princes, Presidents, but he certainly never lost the common touch, nor let his popularity turn his head.

Arguably one his greatest political strengths was his outstanding ability to communicate. His debating skills and wit, honed in the Union debating chamber of Glasgow University were used to considerable effect in the House of Commons. But he was just as effective talking with ordinary people. He understood their concerns; he spurned spin and told it straight, as he saw it.
In a phrase which he used about others, “He was a paid up member of the human race.”

But he maintained the Highlander’s scepticism for status. Again, there was no malice towards the landed and the lairds. But he did enjoy regaling friends with the story of how, on one occasion, he visited constituents whom he’d helped. As he was leaving, they offered him the gift of a salmon. Charles’ antennae made him somewhat circumspect. “Is it ok for me to have this in my possession?” he asked. Recognising his concern, the constituent said, “Of course it is. We have an arrangement with Lord Burton.” “That’s OK then,” said Charles. To which the constituent added, “It’s just that Lord Burton hasn’t yet been told of the arrangement.”

One occasion when there was a collective Highlands & Islands Liberal Democrat challenge to the establishment was a lunch with the then First Crown Estate Commissioner, the Earl of Mansfield. Together with our Labour colleague from the Western Isles, Calum MacDonald, Charles, Russell Johnston, Bob MacLennan, Ray Michie and I had a somewhat combative session with the Earl and his Crown Estate colleagues regarding their aloof management of their assets in our respective constituencies.

It has to be said that the lunch got off to a bad start when we inquired why the Earl was so obviously limping. He told us that he’d fallen and damaged his leg whilst hastening to a Lords’ division to support the Conservatives on the poll tax legislation. I asked if he’d actually made it to the division lobby. When he said he hadn’t, I probably shouldn’t have said that at least there was a silver lining to the accident. It was downhill from then on, and we later learned that he’d complained to colleagues that he’d never before encountered such a bunch of radical lefties! We all took it as a compliment.

Another facet of Charles disdain for status, was his own self-deprecating humour. I recall that when I was Chief Whip, I had to suggest to him that quips at the expense of himself or the party were funny up to a point, but when they were providing ammunition for our opponents, they had maybe gone too far.

However, after he stood down as party leader in January 2006 in the glare of publicity about his personal life, it would have been easy to have been bitter or become reclusive. Not at all.

On his first public appearance, after he stood down, he was mobbed in the streets of Dunfermline, campaigning for Willie Rennie in the by-election. Supporters, journalists and camera crews made progress slow. As we passed a shop doorway, a lady of some years called out, “We love you Charles.” Quick as flash, he replied, “Thanks, but keep it quiet. The party’s in enough bother as it is.”
Reflecting that he’d stood down after six years as leader and sixteen years of being a lead party spokesman covering numerous portfolios, and that I had shortly before, stood down after six years as deputy First Minister and a similar period of sixteen years as a party spokesman, he said to me one day, “It’s an odd party we belong to, when it’s taken us both 22 years to become backbenchers.”

There are another two areas of policy and outlook I want to reflect on, where I think that Charles was influenced by his Highland roots and the values of Liberal Democracy: his concern for the environment and his internationalism.
In the tributes, following his death, Charles’ green credentials have not been much remarked upon. And yet he devoted a whole chapter of his book and political manifesto to the subject. Entitled “Freedom to Breathe”, he ranged over policies for sustainable housing, proper stewardship of natural resources, cleaner transport (he was advocating city cycling initiatives long before Boris’ bikes appeared on the scene) and greener energy. He emphasised the need for a green approach to pervade the whole of government policy, but equally saw the need for a green culture to become part and parcel of household living.

In pursuing these environmental goals, he saw it as part of the fight for social justice. He cited studies which indicated that the most polluting factories were in areas with lower household incomes, whilst the Global Environmental Change programme found that children needing special education and those with mental difficulties were more highly concentrated in urban polluted areas. It is clear that he was also influenced by his Highland background. Indeed he claimed an embryonic green conscience when, as part of a school project, he interviewed the personnel manager of the paper mill in Fort William about possible causes of pollution in the loch.

But, crucially, he also saw environmental concern through the prism of his Highland crofting heritage. He wrote,
“Many crofters see the environment – or at least their own small part of it – as a precious inheritance, which is all they have to pass on to their children. That attitude made me realise that the environment is not merely something you inherit from your parents. It is something that you preserve for your children and grandchildren. This is as important for an urban population as for a rural one.”

This clearly echoes the preamble to the Liberal Democrat party constitution which states:
“We believe that each generation is responsible for the fate of our planet and, by safeguarding the balance of nature and the environment”

And whilst this has shaped policy throughout the party’s 27 years, during Charles’ leadership, much flesh was put on the bones, which not only led to the green thread which, as Scottish Liberal Democrats, we negotiated in the 2003 coalition partnership agreement, but also laid the foundations for much of the green agenda which we were able to advance in government after 2010.

And just as Charles Kennedy recognised and believed that our responsibilities to each other and the quest for individual freedom in its fullness transcended generational boundaries, so too did he fervently believe that they crossed national boundaries.

Charles was an internationalist to the core. His studies in the United States led him to value our close links with the USA. And he remained a wholly committed European and supporter of our membership of the EU. In the last text message I received from him, he expressed enthusiasm for participation in the EU referendum campaign.

He was latterly a member of the Parliamentary delegation to the Council of Europe and was UK President of the European Movement, a body by which he set much store in promoting ‘ever closer understanding’ among the peoples of Europe. And in one Commons speech in the last Parliament, he reflected how important it was, particularly in the face of negative publicity, to remind people of the founding principles of the EU: human rights, the rule of law and democracy. Values which spring from the Enlightenment, in which Scotland played such a notable part. And values which, historically, were at the core of the Liberal philosophical tradition.

He often referred to his multi-layered identity: "European, British, Scottish, a Highlander and a crofter". In many ways it’s a key to understanding who he was.

And so he saw no contradiction between being passionate about European engagement and about Scottish Home Rule. That was very much in the tradition of our late colleague and great Highland Liberal, Russell Johnston. In fact, my own experience of having represented islands communities is that islanders are far from being insular. Many people from the Highlands & Islands were obliged, through economic circumstance, to travel well beyond their native parts. Many were seafarers in the Royal Navy, the merchant navy, on whalers in the South Atlantic. Charles, himself, was named after his uncle who served in the merchant navy and lost his life in World War II.

And those who did return came home to communities which eagerly wanted to know about these faraway places. As Charles, himself, put it,

“My Scottish background makes it comparatively easy for me to see myself as a European. Scotland not only has a long tradition of close relations with the Continent (sometimes, in the case of the Auld Alliance with France, to England’s chagrin!), but Scots are comfortable with the concept of layered nationality.”

And the values which shaped him and gave rise to his internationalism, set him apart from the cause of nationalism.

The Liberal Democrat and the Highlander have had a healthy scepticism about the role of the State. Of course the State is there to defend and protect, and to intervene to secure economic and social justice. But as Liberal Democrats, we believe that the state exists to serve the individual and not individuals to serve the state. The state or nation is not, for us, the defining political entity. It is the individual who is our defining entity and that is what distinguishes us from being nationalists.

And this has implications too for both policy and the practice of politics. To those who see the nation as being the focus of their political creed, the centralising tendency comes much more easily, be it police, fire, colleges or the need for every child to have a state guardian. That approach is the antithesis of the Liberal approach, which places faith in individuals and local communities. And the practice of politics is scarred by those who are so bound to the idea of the nation above all else, that all who disagree must be beyond redemption and deserve to have their views trashed.

Sadly, Charles experienced some of that in his final campaign. As I said earlier, that was certainly not his way. He was both robust in putting forward his position and respectful in acknowledging the position of others. His concession speech in the early hours of 8th May was testament to that. I can’t help but think how much healthier would be the political climate in Scotland today if people, and overly zealous activists, in particular, could emulate Charles Kennedy and respect the sincerely held views of others.

So whither the Highlands & islands Liberal Democrat tradition when we lost all but one seat on May 7th, and following the death of one of its most articulate exponents less than one month later?

Let us remember that Charles had a keen sense of history. As he said his memorable concession speech in May,
“I am very fond of political history. If nothing else, we can all reflect on and perhaps tell our grandchildren that we were there on “The night of long sgian dubhs!””

So those who would either write off the cause of Highland Liberalism or who may be painfully discouraged by the election outcome, should try to get some historic perspective.

For five years between 1945 and 1950, there were no Liberal MPs in the Highlands & Islands, and in the fourteen years after 1950, there was only one. That observation is not to encourage complacency and the thought that the tide will flow as surely as it ebbed.
No. It will require hard work and a fresh articulation of those old values in a twenty-first century context. After all, the renaissance in 1964 was built on dedicated campaigning over time, not least by Johnny Bannerman; by a group of high quality candidates and by the policy impetus given by Russell Johnston’s Highland Development proposals.

Maybe the party needs its equivalent of Ideas Week. For in spite of the hugely damaging result across Great Britain, there has not really been any real discussion of ideas and policy renewal. And in all honesty, whilst Charles was a brilliant advocate of our party position, the nitty-gritty of policy making never quite grabbed him.

In his House of Commons tribute to Charles Nick Clegg said:

“He was not exactly a details man when it came to policy. He treated the necessary but often tedious detail of policy discussions within the Liberal Democrats with the same attitude he viewed Ben Nevis in his own constituency: something to be admired from afar, but a trial to be endured by others.”

But Nick continued,

“He understood, above all, that politics is at its best when it speaks to people’s values in their hearts, and is not just the dry policy debates of the head."

I very much believe that Liberal Democrats must start thinking fresh thoughts about policy to address the real challenges of life in the first quarter of the 21st century – tackling religious fundamentalism; mass migration of peoples whether they be fleeing from war, oppressive regimes, or as a result of displacement due to climate change; the very issue of climate change and environmental justice; harnessing new information technologies for human benefit; education in an era of mass information; civic and community values in a mass media age; the dignity of the individual amidst rampant consumerism, and so on.

In all of these, the legacy of Charles Kennedy should be a call to refresh our radicalism; to be passionate, as he was, in challenging the things Highlanders should not be prepared to put up with – the state of the A82 was an issue he never ceased to campaign on; but above all his legacy should remind us that the underlying objective is to speak to people’s values in their hearts; the values on which he was nurtured in his Highland upbringing and which sustained him during his political lifetime, cut short all too soon – liberty, social justice, rich individuality going hand-in-hand with community co-operation, determination to do the right, diligent stewardship of earth’s resources, a burning internationalism and a celebration of individual and community diversity free from the centralising hand of the State.

But I leave the last word to Charles. In the concluding chapter of The Future of Politics, he sums up his political credo and its origins;
“I have tried to show why I believe the things I do. I hope it will now be apparent that my background, growing up on a croft in the Highlands, and my subsequent experiences in Glasgow, America and Westminster have, above all else, committed me to one principle. I want everyone to be free. To experience that, they must have equal opportunities, equal life chances. And that’s why I’m a Liberal Democrat.”

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