Remembering that cheeky chappy Charles Kennedy

The late former Liberal Democrats leader would have turned 60 this week.

Charles Kennedy’s death more than four years ago had an eerie echo in the passing 21 years previously of the late Labour leader John Smith.

Both men were Highlanders, Glasgow University debaters, MPs, party leaders and both died at 55. The parallels were as shocking as they were striking.

As a student, Kennedy honed his politics and debating skills in the unforgiving world of the university union. He enjoyed a reputation as a speaker who was both articulate and charming, rarely descending to personal abuse and all practised with a dedicated bon homie that would carry on post debate in the university bars.

Glasgow Hillhead 1982, dubbed the by-election of the century following the death of the sitting Conservative MP, T G D Galbraith. Roy Jenkins won it for the newly created SDP. By then the young Kennedy had become a disciple of those seeking to break the mould of politics. He did just that a year later, winning Ross and Cromarty from the Tories. He was an MP at 23.

His early contributions gave the political world characteristics with which they were to become familiar. Kennedy framed arguments in a common sense, non-doctrinaire way. He diffused argument with a use of humour and all done with a cheeky chappy twinkle in the eye.

He was the man who broke rank with David Owen to back a merger of the SDP and Liberals in 1988, eventually succeeding Paddy Ashdown as leader of the Liberal Democrats in 1999.

His politics were left of centre, his commitment to social justice absolute, his Europeanism heartfelt and his liberalism rooted in the Highland tradition. He was popular, an elected figure who almost appeared too normal and unaffected to be a politician.

This view was buttressed with his media profile. ‘Chat show Charlie’ was to be found on programmes a world away from the dry debates of the political classes.

He married Sarah Gurling in 2002 and became a father in 2005, but the marriage was dissolved in 2010.

He led for two general elections, hitting a high of 62 seats in 2005. But by then there was talk of a drink problem after a series of late and sometimes no-shows for key party and parliamentary events. The private demons could no longer be masked by the public face. He resigned the leadership in 2006 to seek help.

The eventual honesty and palpable vulnerability of this classless man didn’t finish him. There was no public resentment towards someone who connected in a way few could. Kennedy was judged differently, it was the mark of the affection in which he was held.

His party entered government in 2010 with the Conservatives. He was a coalition sceptic as much of the policy sat uneasily with his social democratic values.

Although still relatively young he took on the mantle of elder statesman, campaigning in the independence referendum and fighting the 2015 general election when he too was swept overboard by the SNP tidal wave.

Charles Peter Kennedy, social and liberal democrat, public servant, wit, Scot, Highlander, and as the world of politics and beyond has been recalling in the week of what would have been his 60th birthday, a good man whose many attributes defined his fundamental decency.