Tribute to Charles Kennedy

On Monday evening I spoke in tribute to Charles Kennedy in a memorial service in Dingwall. This is what I said:


It is only when you read and hear the range and depth of remarks made about Charles’ in the days after his sad death that you fully understand what he meant to this world.

From locals to international leaders so many have expressed their grief and their affection for Charles Kennedy.

It wasn’t just the personal grief, although that was bad enough, but the political grief too. The loss of one of the greats. And the loss of what was yet to come.

In the House of Commons the face of his son Donald went red when his name was mentioned by the Prime Minister in the Commons. He’s his father’s son. A special son with a special father.

Charles’ face would be a shade of beetroot by now with all the appreciation. Let me share with you what others have said.
Winning from 4th place against the government’s energy minister at the height of the oil boom to become the youngest MP was quite some achievement. And he had not even started.

He often told a story that his university tutor called him and said 'Now, young Kennedy, you are bright. What is going to happen with it? Charles went through a few things, possibly academia, and said: 'If all else fails I could try politics'.

Not long after his election the tutor wrote to him saying: 'Dear Charles, it appears that all else failed'.

When he arrived as an MP it was only his third trip to London, he didn’t know how to get to Westminster from his new flat in Hammersmith and he didn’t know that a salary came with the job.

But he was no fool. He quickly impressed.

Veteran MPs from that vintage remember him well.

Ken Clarke: "He made a very startling impression. He was very young. He was a student. He looked like a schoolboy. And rapidly people realised that in addition to all these striking attributes he combined it with being very intelligent, very articulate."

The father of the house Sir Gerald Kaufman: "I went into the members' dining room and saw this young man looking forlorn and lost wandering round and wondering what to do.

But quickly Gerald discovered his sense of purpose "He was in the Commons to stand up for certain principles about which he felt strongly. And he stood for those principles from that first day right to the end.”

Another Tory MP remarked "It was one of the most brilliant maiden speeches of that intake."

Jim Wallace, also from the 83 intake, corroborates. “His maiden speech, delivered fluently, without reference to notes, was hailed from all sides. And he observed the Commons tradition of maiden speeches by referring to his predecessor, the defeated Hamish Gray, who, in the meantime had been ennobled and given a Scottish Office job:

Charles said this: “I am optimistic and encouraged by what happened to Lord Gray, and I hope it sets a trend by the government. 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.”

As Gerald Kaufman observed “He had very, very strong views but he was never vindictive. He was never malevolent."

That was a feature of his character - his generosity.

His finest moment came on Iraq. 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. It was the mark of a man of principle.

In spite of this he was never vindictive about opponents.

Harriet Harman: “He stood against the Iraq war - but he never felt the need to denigrate those of us who got it wrong."

He opposed the coalition but, as Nick Clegg said: "There was never a hint of reproach or 'I told you so' in the advice he gave to me. He remained unstintingly loyal... no matter how strong the temptation must have been to blow his own trumpet."

And one new Nationalist MP said that he was on a TV results programme after a particularly poor election for the SNP. The MP said: "I was getting a hard time in debate and I can remember Charles turning to me and consoling me. Instead of putting the boot in, he realised the kind of evening we were having.”

How different would the political climate be in Scotland today if everyone could emulate Charles Kennedy and respect the sincerely held views of others.

Our new party leader Tim Farron: “He had - and still has - that rare gift for someone in public life that when people think of him, they smile.”

It would often be difficult to walk anywhere in a hurry as he would be greeted from the elderly lady to the man in the white van.

Nick Clegg "He was the polar opposite of a cardboard cut-out, point-scoring politician. Brave yet vulnerable. Brilliant yet flawed."

Alistair Campbell who was such a good friend to him has eloquently spoken about his battle with alcohol. And I thank him for that.

It is my hope that Charles’ passing will shine a spotlight on the condition and the support that people need to address it.

Alistair Campbell is an ace communicator and this is what he said about Charles' communication skills. “He spoke fluent human.”

Speaker John Bercow: "He was a good talker but an even better listener.

Tim Farron: "If you ever get invited to go on Have I Got News For You, say no unless you want to be made out to be a prat, or unless you're Charles Kennedy".

If you have not watched the programme’s tribute to him you are missing something special.

Labour MP Tom Watson: "We used to joke about how we shared the same private investigator from the News of the World.

Nicola Sturgeon talked of the two of them skiving off one day to watch Trainspotting in a Melbourne cinema whilst on an international business trip together. They sniggered at all the jokes only Scots could understand.

The humour and the mischievous spirit were evident throughout his life.

So let's look at some of his greatest hits.

They included

"The Government may have spun us into war, but it must not be allowed to spin and smear its way out."

"A croft is a piece of land surrounded by legislation."

"The point never to lose sight of is to be guided by the correct thing, as you see it. It's the only way to approach such profound matters and retain your integrity."

"I am enjoying the Loch Ness monster exhibition with my nine-year-old son. I told him it's the world's most famous floating voter."

"Paddy Ashdown is the only party leader who's a trained killer. Although, to be fair, Mrs Thatcher was self-taught."

And "Politics is much too serious to be taken too seriously; equally, there are many aspects of it so laughable as to be lamentable."

He never lost his touch. On losing he seat just a few months ago he made one of his trademark speeches:

“I am very fond of political history. Tonight, if nothing else, we can all reflect on and perhaps tell our grandchildren that we were there on "The night of long sgian dubhs!"

The memorial service kindly organised by Glasgow University was a wonderful tribute.

First Minister and Secretary of State for Scotland sat together. Each did a reading.

Jim Wallace gave a superb tribute.

What was so clear was the enormous love and affection that senior management, students and academics alike had for Charles. The students clearly felt that he had their backs.

Yet at the core, Charles was a product of his Highland roots. There is a verse from the Book of the prophet Isaiah which says, “Look unto the rock from which you are hewn.”

His father Ian was a renowned fiddler and very much part of the Highland music scene, and his mother Mary played piano at the local church.

Charles lived in the croft he grew up in. With Ben Nevis looming large in the background where, as far as Charles was concerned, where it should stay. To be admired but never climbed.

Broadcaster Hugh Dan MacLennan and Charles both attended Lochaber High School. "At lunchtime we would all go out and play football and shinty, and Charles Kennedy would go to the school hall and practice oration."

Veteran journalist Iain MacDonald recruited Charles for a summer job at BBC Highland. "He came to us with an irrepressible enthusiasm and people took to him immediately.”

All the group leaders on Highland council spoke of their grief on Charles death. Uniting people in death as in life.
Violet Smith, head teacher at Lochyside School said from an early age he had stood out from the other schoolchildren. "He was always singing on the way to school.”

My tribute has reflected the many tributes of others. If I may just choose a couple of reflections of my own.

Charles was on outstanding form through to the end of his life. If I am honest he was not consistently good but when he was on form he outshone all comers.

During the referendum he made the positive, compelling case for the United Kingdom.

On one particular TV debate he embraced aggressive questioning with his characteristic politeness. Whilst most others would have snatched he cuddled the question, turned it around and passed it back without his opponents even noticing.

Responding to the SNP threat of debt default he said:

"If you did not do that, on day one of an independent Scotland, never mind London and the terrible people down there, the international markets would have you for breakfast, lunch and dinner."

He encapsulated a complicated issue in one crystal clear comment.

But my favourite is this.

On his first public appearance, after he stood down as Leader, he was mobbed in the streets of Dunfermline, campaigning for me in my 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.”

Charles had a unique combination of political talent and public affection.

With that cheeky smile, Highland voice and a few simple words, Charles Kennedy captured the political hearts of the nation.

Family, the Highlands, Glasgow University, the House of Commons. Generosity, kindness, wit, talking human, listening and highly tuned political instincts.

Donald, Sarah, Isabelle, Ian, Carole and the wider family you will know that the Dunfermline lady speaks for us all.
Today we all love you Charles.

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