Yesterday’s news was not good. The former leader of Britain’s Liberal Democrats, Charles Kennedy, died at the age of 55. “Chatshow Charlie” brought a new style of politics to Westminster, he resisted Tony Blair’s march to war in Iraq, and he managed to lead his party to its greatest electoral success. He was the only LibDem MP to vote against the coalition deal with the Conservatives. More often than not, he was right where others, often the majority, were egregiously wrong. He lost his seat in Scotland to the huge Scottish National Party wave last month. At 55, there was much more he could do for his country and the world, but at 55, he had already done more than most.
Mr. Kennedy joined the Social Democratic Party, which had just split off from Labour, while studying at the University of Glasgow in the early 1980s. He was active in the party to the point where he was nominated to stand for the seat of Ross, Cromarty and Skye in the 1983 general election while he was studying at Indiana University on a Fulbright Scholarship. In that constituency, he was a local lad with ties to the Highlands centuries deep. He won.
The SDP and the Liberals fought the 1983 election as an alliance, and Mr. Kennedy was one of the first SDP members to push for a full merger. In 1988, the two groups formed the Liberal Democrats, and from 1990 to 1994, Mr. Kennedy was party president. When Paddy Ashdown resigned as leader of the LibDems, Mr. Kennedy succeeded him.
The electoral success of the party during Mr. Kennedy’s leadership stems from at least thee different factors. First, Mr. Kennedy understood organization at the grassroots level. The LibDems, and the Liberals before, always had a decent ground game; its Get Out The Vote (GOTV) efforts were always effective. Mr. Kennedy moved that up a few notches. Second, Labour under Tony Blair became a right wing party in the eyes of many, and the LibDems capitalized on that feeling of betrayal. Third, Mr. Kennedy led his party against the war in Iraq while the Labour Party and Conservatives backed Mr. Bush’s ugly war. This allowed the LibDems to stand in the 2005 general election as the party of “we bloody told you so.” The result was 22.1% of the vote and 62 seats, the party’s best result since the 1920s. It also appears to be the high water mark for the LibDems, who now have 8 seats.
Mr. Kennedy was not afraid of standing up to the folly of Labour and of Tory, nor was he afraid of standing up to his own party. After the 2010 election resulted in a hung parliament, the Conservatives offered the Liberal Democrats a full-blown coalition deal. The party constitution required a vote by MPs. Mr. Kennedy was the lone member to vote against the coalition. Judging by the record of the coalition and the esteem in which the LibDems were held by the electorate in last month’s election, Mr. Kennedy was right.
As with most people, Mr. Kennedy had his problems. An addiction to alcohol ended his years as leader. However, one would point out that no matter how drunk, Mr. Kennedy showed better judgment in most things than Mr. Blair did stone-cold sober.
At 55, he had spend more than 20 years in service to his nation, and he could easily have served another 20. Still, his legacy is an enduring one. Mr. Kennedy was among the first British politicians who adopted a relaxed, chap-down-the-road style. Until the 1980s, a British politician tended to be aloof, cold and unapproachable. Television, and later the Internet, forced a cultural change. Mr. Kennedy demonstrated that adapting to the new communications technologies offered Britain a better democracy, one in which the people were more engaged if they chose to be.
As this is posted, the House of Commons is paying tribute to Mr. Kennedy following Prime Minister’s Question Time. His former wife and his son are in the chamber. Prime Minister Cameron has said, “He made friends, even with those who disagreed with him. And it is this warmth and good humour that he will be remembered most fondly.” The PM added “he was the most human of politicians” and the “best that politics can be.
On this occasion, this journal has no qualms about agreeing with Mr. Cameron. Hear, hear.