Bonnie Charlie’s noo awa

Tragic as such an early death is, it would be wrong to remember Charlie Kennedy’s as a sad story. Touched with human frailty for sure, his life is really a metaphor for a changing Britain emerging from two-party domination by public schoolboys on the one hand and union-controlled placemen on the other. He arrived flushed with improbable youth, a cheeky smile and a beguiling line in self-deprecation while armed with a wordsmith’s gift for common sense analysis.


His tone in debate, fashioned in the hothouse of Glasgow University, allowed him to play the ordinary man among the dissemblers, cutting through the bluster with Highland logic. To an audience leery of slippery politicians, his accent combined with an amused aspect, allowed him to reach out beyond the Westminster bubble and make him highly believable.

He had a gift that for the public figure is gold dust – he was likeable. He came across as easy-going, dealing with complex subjects with casual ease and frequently squeezing a smile from the listener.

He went to Westminster as a flag-bearer for a new political entity, the SDP, which was to get within grasping reach of breakthrough and which would light the path eventually followed by New Labour. There was excitement in the air at the possibilities presented by smashing the two-party duopoly and Kennedy’s air of anti-establishment precocity encapsulated the times.

He was part of a radical tradition in Highland politics and, for many in the vast constituency, he was their boy. In the years before the Edinburgh Parliament he shone as a successful Scot on the Westminster stage, extending his wit and lust for life to the TV studio. His success in leading the new combined party to its largest haul of seats in 2005 didn’t please those unconvinced by his leadership abilities and the rumblings of discontent would never go away thereafter. To some of us, the high point had been his passionate and rational opposition to the cheer-led war in Iraq in which he was conclusively proved right. In a constituency with a guaranteed Labour winner, I broke with habit and voted Lib Dem as a way of thanking him for his stand. His may look a logical decision now in the light of experience but at the time with the weight of establishment opinion and Washington against him, it took courage to gamble on a radical position.

Good politicians don’t necessarily make good leaders. The history of politics is lined with the names of those convinced leadership was their destiny only to find it was their dustbin. A drink issue can be managed from relative obscurity but it can’t escape the scrutiny of leadership and, as he struggled with the demons, he lost sight of his duty and tried to carry on, leading to the inevitable denouement. The cost to him of alcohol was costly on both public and private life and a lack of visibility on the ground was noted in the run-up to the May election. He was swept into parliament by the SDP surge and swept out again by the SNP’s.

His death comes as Britain enters a period when the potential for his objective of federalism has never been greater – the case has been made by events more than by the parties. He would have played a statesman’s role. Like many, I will smile when I remember him – pint in hand and a twinkle in his eye.

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8 thoughts on “Bonnie Charlie’s noo awa

  1. smilingvulture

    He could of made new start Scottish Parliament


  2. Well said Derek. So sad. Charlie Kennedy always came across as that very rare thing, an honest politician.


  3. De mortuis, nil nisi bonum. And yet. Wasn’t he the ‘honest politician’ who justified lying as ‘electoral rhetoric’? No flowers from me.

  4. Poor man. His Dad Ian (to whom he was close) died during the election campaign, just a short while before he lost his seat. Too much for any man to bear, not just his own defeat but his party’s and all he had ever worked for. Gone. I was at Glasgow University with him and knew him slightly. I remember those times. You are right to point out he was carried forth by the SDP wave of optimism in the 1980s in reaction to Thatcher and the pit Labour seemed to be in at the time, which was once so hopeful, a third force, a reforming force, in British politics, only to end so ignominiously and disastrously in a deal with the toxic Tories. If he did not have his drink problem the UK would now be so different. Funny that one man’s illness should be so pivotal. Because if he didn’t have a drink problem, he would still be leader, the LDs would never have gone into coalition with the Tories, would not have lost so many seats, and we wouldn’t have a Tory majority government right now laying waste to the land on only 24% UK support. So sad.

  5. Sad to see.Maybe the death of his Father was a body blow at such a time.

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