As nominations open for the sixth leader of the Liberal Democrats, the Liberal Democrat History Group’s meeting next Monday takes a look back at the record of its second: Charles Kennedy.
In many ways Kennedy’s period as leader, from 1999 to 2006, was a success. His opposition to the Iraq War – heavily criticised at the time by both the Labour government and the Tory opposition – proved entirely justified and in the 2005 general election he led the party to its highest vote since 1987 (22.0 per cent) and its highest number of seats since 1923 (62). He was a popular figure with the public, appreciated for his quick wit, self-deprecating manner, and careful understatement in an era when respect for mainstream politicians was rapidly eroding.
His tragically early death, less than a month after losing his seat in the SNP’s Scottish landslide of 2015, triggered an outpouring of grief and sadness seldom accorded to politicians. As Paddy Ashdown, his predecessor as leader, commented: ‘In a political age not overburdened with gaiety and good sense, he brought us wit, charm, judgment, principle and decency.’
Yet in many ways he remained an enigma. From early adulthood, as he progressed from student prodigy to precocious parliamentarian, he had been tipped as a future leader. Yet when the crown was his, he wore it uncertainly: flashes of his youthful brilliance as an orator and debater only seldom emerged. He appeared uncomfortable with the limited authority it yielded, often unhappy with the pressures it brought. Whether this was the consequence or a cause of his alcoholism – publicly admitted in January 2006 – can never be known. Although his electoral record was good, whether the party should have done even better in 2005 – against a largely unpopular government and main opposition, and in sole command of a popular issue – is, similarly, one of the great what ifs of recent Liberal politics.
The Liberal Democrat History Group invites you to discuss Charles Kennedy’s record as leader with Greg Hurst (author, Charles Kennedy: A Tragic Flaw) and Lord Dick Newby (former Chief of Staff to Charles Kennedy). Chair: Baroness Lindsay Northover. The meeting take place at 6.30pm on Monday 3 July, in the Lady Violet Room, National Liberal Club, 1 Whitehall Place, London SW1A 2HE. More details can be found here.
* Duncan Brack is the Editor of the Journal of Liberal History and Vice Chair of the Federal Policy Committee.