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September 19, 2006

"To write an entire book about Charles Kennedy is heroic - given that this is a perfectly readable book, the achievement is all the more remarkable": Charles Kennedy: A Tragic Flaw - Greg Hurst

Posted by Harry Phibbs

Charles Kennedy: A Tragic Flaw
by Greg Hurst
London: Politico's, 2006
Hardback, 18.99

Keep politics out of politics.
That was one of the spoof slogans when the SDP was founded in the 1980s. Another was:
If you're a don't know, vote for a Party that doesn't know either.
In the heady days of ideological clashes in the 1980s these criticisms came naturally to the two main parties. These days the tone has changed. Charles Kennedy, as a minor celebrity whose interviewing technique is to suck up desperately to the interviewer, was the archetypal non-political politician. He could burble away about policy and might, or might not, remember the details of his Party's programme. But there was no impression that he really believed in anything.

I suppose those who would portray Kennedy as a man of principle would cite the Iraq War. They recall how his opposition never wavered. They recall wrong. It is true that Charles Kennedy turned up to a Stop the War Coalition demo but before going he told Sir David Frost, on 9th February 2003:

I would want to make the Liberal Democrat case, which is the pro-United Nations case. It is not anti-war, come what may.

He then added, explaining his willingness to go on the anti-war demo:

You think of the Countryside Alliance for example, I was quite happy to participate in that, despite being somebody who has, in parliamentary terms over the years, voted to ban fox hunting.
As far as I could gather the Lib Dems were against the war because they didn't feel there was proper UN authorisation. So if we had cut a deal with the French to get them to support it, then would that have made it all right? How very principled.

In this non-judgemental age often some flaw, such as alcoholism, can be turned into an advantage when the person with the affliction is commended for coping with it. But the problem for Kennedy was that he kept on failing to cope with it and when asked about it he kept on lying.

The Liberal Democrats are still small enough as a political party for much of this account to read like a soap opera. His early success is explained. At Glasgow University, the young Kennedy switched from the Labour Party to the SDP. As President of the Union he ran a successful campaign for the newsreader Reggie Bosanquet to be elected Rector. Kennedy became known as Taxi Kennedy due to his practice of taking a taxi for even the shortest distance using chits charged to the Union's account. Debating boosted his confidence by practising public speaking and affording the chance to meet distinguished visiting dignitaries.

At the age of only 23, never having had a proper job, he was elected as the SDP MP for Ross, Cromarty and Skye in 1983. As well as speaking confidently he was able to get away with his youth by wearing sober pinstriped suits. Given the great distances, keeping to schedule at his meetings was a challenge - and Kennedy's disregard for punctuality came to infuriate Paddy Ashdown in later years. However, during the 1983 election campaign he managed to get away with it by sending his father on ahead to play the violin while they waited for the young Kennedy to turn up.

Kennedy was unprepared for his election. The first question he asked was:

Do MPs get paid?
During his early years as an MP he split with David Owen to join in the merger with the Liberal Party. But he did not exactly prosper under Paddy Ashdown's leadership of the Social and Liberal Democrats, or the Liberal Democrats, as the Party became known. In this age of celebrity worship some might see his success during the Ashdown leadership - securing an income from after dinner speaking or slots on Countdown and Through the Keyhole - as achievements placing him ahead of duller colleagues. Hurst, correctly, says they "filled a void." Hurst says:
There was a sense in this period in which Charles Kennedy, out of favour with the Party leader and still a bachelor, cast around for a sense of purpose. He cultivated friendships with political reporters in bars at the House of Commons.
Again this is perfectly explicable behaviour. Someone who didn't believe in anything found congenial company with others who didn't believe in anything.

I know there is this lazy assumption that all politicians lie. But Kennedy is prone to lie more than most and I think his lack of belief contributes to this. It's not just that he used to lie about drink. There was also the comment he made to Paddy Ashdown after being hauled in over disloyal comments. Kennedy told Ashdown:

I do not want your job.
There would also be confusing lurches of opinion. Where did Kennedy stand on collusion with New Labour? Part of the narrative has him plotting away to stitch up the Tories - then denouncing Ashdown for doing the same.

Once Kennedy is leader, Blair rings him up to attempt to forestall a motion of censure against Alun Michael - then leader of the devolved Welsh government. Blair also used Paddy Ashdown and Roy Jenkins to help the lobbying drive. Hurst portrays Kennedy as terribly brave for resisting. But he is supposed to have been the leader of a rival Party. What is going on? Why is he even dithering when Blair attempts to give him orders? Why didn't he just tell Blair to get lost straight away? In many ways the presentation of the Lib Dems as an opposition party was, and perhaps still is, a con.

Lib Dem MP Mark Oaten emerges as a Kennedy loyalist. This extended to an important role at Prime Minister's Question Time. Kennedy's performances were hesitant but his team:

became aware that the somnolent posture of Edward Heath beside him made the visual impression still worse. Each week thereafter Mark Oaten made a point of squeezing onto the bench next to Edward Heath and giving the former Prime Minister a vigorous nudge just before Charles Kennedy rose to speak.
Naturally the dreary alcoholism and the long cover up surrounding it provides elements of farce as well as tragedy. The technophobia of corporate lawyer Philip Goldenberg almost scuppered the plot to oust Charles Kennedy as Lib Dem leader. Goldenberg was used by Lib Dem MP Ed Davey to make tentative sounds to another Lib Dem MP Mark Oaten. The response from Oaten was firmly supportive of Kennedy.

Later, meaning to ring Davey on the "dialled numbers" button of his mobile, Goldenberg rang Oaten by mistake and blurted out plans for the coup before getting the response:

No, no, no, this is Mark, not Ed.
Kennedy was duly alerted and able to make an attempt to fight off the plotters which looked at one stage as though it would work. In the end all his manoeuvrings to remain were not enough.

At one stage in this volume Hurst writes, almost in passing, of Kennedy:

He was never much interested in the detail of policy, nor driven by obvious passion.
For Hurst to nonetheless manage to write an entire book about such a person is heroic. Given that it is a perfectly readable book, the achievement is all the more remarkable.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.

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