Charles Kennedy RIP

De mortuis nil nisi bonum and all that, but of Charles Kennedy I get the impression that today’s encomiums are meant. He was a thoroughly decent politician, perhaps the most human of his generation.

The most successful modern Liberal Democrat leader,  whose success in building the party was betrayed by Nick Clegg.

The only party leader to vote against the Iraq war. The only Liberal Democrat MP to vote against the Coalition.

We do not yet know the cause of his death, but we do know the cause of his political failure and it was probably the same. Thanks to boundary changes, Charles ended his political career as MP for his home town at the foot of Ben Nevis, Fort William, where he died. He had first been elected, in 1983, for a constituency somewhat further to the North, while the late Sir Russell Johnston represented the town in which he grew up. He was a star pupil at Lochaber High School, and a classmate of my sister’s (with whom he had a very brief school-age fling..). And like many Highlanders, he had a problem with the drink.

An ambivalent relationship with alcohol is common to all Northern peoples – Scots, Scandinavians, Siberians. Long dark winters and summers where nights are hardly noticeable probably have something to do with it.  Abstinence is common – for the few, it is for religious reasons, pushed by puritanical churches such as the Scottish Wee Frees, but for many it is because they are – until they next fall off it – on the wagon. Drying out, perhaps after a spell in “Craigie” – Craigmore, Inverness’ mental hospital.  A culture that loves its dram also has space for those who don’t, won’t, or can’t.

But drink is a two-faced demon. Charles’ bonhomie and humour, his personality and his drive were lubricated by drink. A dried-out alcoholic is never as much fun as the drinker before he becomes a drunk (but always an improvement on the drunkard).  To ride the demon is like walking the Cuillin ridge in Charles’ constituency – breathtaking but always with the risk that you will stumble.

I don’t know if Charles fell off the wagon recently and it is not really seemly to speculate. His previous drinking is likely to have contributed to his death in any case. But I do know that he had every reason to be depressed about the state of British politics. As I have written earlier, the Lib Dem collapse was the most significant factor in giving the Tories a majority in England.  Charles led a party with 62 seats; ten years later it has 9, and the Tories – who he had always opposed – are in power again. That is as much Nick Clegg’s fault as it is Nicola Sturgeon’s.


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