The untimely death of an under-estimated politician

It was shocking to hear of Charles Kennedy’s death this morning.  There was no warning, no expectation, and the man was only 55.  How could he suddenly not be here?  If we who merely know him from the outside think that,  how so much more shocking must it be for his family.  A suddenly bereaved wife, and a young son who also lost a grandfather not very long ago.  It is a sign of the affection in which Kennedy was held, and the largeness of the man’s presence in our political consciousness, that so many have leapt to record their shock, sadness and regard for him.

Reflecting on his life and career, I suspect we have all been guilty of under-estimating him as a politician and leader.  Yes, he was widely liked.  Yes, we all knew that he could carry a chat show as well as anyone, especially if it was “Have I Got News For You?”  But were we really fully aware of his sharp political mind and the impressive principle which made him so effective at articulating a vision for modern liberalism.  Did we look beneath that “chat show” veneer, that likeability, and note that here truly was a politician who could do things differently, speak to us all with a fresh voice, without ever sacrificing his keen and principled political judgement?  Strange thing is, despite his regular media appearances, he never came across as a gimic merchant, a slightly fraudulent politician seeking cheap celebrity.  He was always authentic.  A politician to his fingertips who enjoyed communicating with people, and could do so naturally and easily.

I was struck when reading a 2002 interview that Peter Oborne did with him, republished on the Spectator blog today, at how unwilling he was to spin things.  He was after those soft Tory seats, but had no intention of either reducing the volume of his support for Europe, or backing off from identifying closely with public sector workers and unions.  And he won those seats.  Perhaps not as game-changingly as Oborne suggested in the article then, but certainly on a larger scale than the Liberals had managed in nearly a century.  What would they give for that sort of success now.

Kennedy as a leader was undone by drink, the curse of many men and one perhaps exacerbated by the hot-house atmosphere of Westminster, where he worked and lived from a really very young age.  The plotting against him then was unseemly, and maybe he railed against it in private but I never remember anything other than a quiet, sad dignity when he spoke in public.

Do all political careers end in failure?  Kennedy’s was certainly cut short at a singularly inopportune moment.  He had just lost his seat in the SNP landslide, after a term when he was at odds with his party’s decision to go into coalition with the Conservatives.  On that, as well as on his opposition to the Iraq war, history will judge him to have been on the right side of the argument.  But even he couldn’t withstand the shocking tremors of the SNP win. If anyone could have had an incumbency strength it must surely have been him.  And yet his colleague Malcolm Bruce commented this morning that Kennedy had been bemused by the reaction in his constituency.  He would be greeted by voters who said they liked him, wished him well and believed he would win, but were going to vote for the SNP.   Go figure.

Charles Kennedy showed that you could certainly do politics differently, but perhaps also showed that if you do there is a danger that you may well be sold short in terms of political weight.  The most electorally successful Liberal leader in a century was never actually regarded as a political superstar in his lifetime.  Tragically it’s taken his early death for that to start being fully understood.