The accidental politician: Charles Kennedy remembered

“If all else fails, I suppose there’s always politics”. If there were any words to hear from their career advisor that would wholly dissuade a young, politically-aspiring student it was these. Quite how this led to one of the most widely revered careers in UK politics is anyone’s guess. But somehow, in spite of this discouraging encouragement, it did.

Charles Kennedy never appeared to exhibit any great political ambition. When questioned by the same career advisor as to his career aspirations, Kennedy recalled “I thought to myself, ‘well I’m not really sure’, but went on to say ‘I quite like reading and people so I could be a teacher, or perhaps I could become a journalist”. Yet however uncertain Kennedy felt as to his future, the beginnings of a political career were there from the start.

For a student with little interest in a political career, he led a very politically involved life at Glasgow, joining the Social Democratic Party as a student – a party whom he was later to lead after their merger with the Liberal Party in the formation of the Liberal Democrats.

Kennedy was always a presence at the university. Elected President of the GUU in 1980 whilst completing his politics and philosophy degree, the formerly all-male union allowed the first admittance of women under his presidency. Kennedy had his first minor brush with scandal in the position, caused by the alleged use of union expenses to pay taxi fares to early morning lectures, a habit which earned him the nickname of ‘Taxi Kennedy’. This was to be a minuscule prologue to the level of critical exposure Kennedy would later be subject to by his opponents and the press during his time in the House of Commons.

Yet Kennedy was prepared. His time at debating in the university’s Dialectic Society had furnished him with the skillset required to fend off such criticism, and had seen him rise to the level of British debating champion, winning the Observer Mace. But as much as this experience made him a formidable figure within the field, Kennedy remained a reachable, relatable figure in the public eye, never losing his everyman charm amid the artificial personas of other career politicians.

Perhaps this was due to his initial reluctance to enter into the political sphere, a disinclination which set him apart from the business’s ambition-fuelled, seat-seeking missiles. After his time at Glasgow, Kennedy left to study stateside at Indiana University on a Fulbright Scholarship. This move towards an academic career was interrupted by Kennedy’s victory as a candidate for the SDP in the seemingly unwinnable constituency of Ross, Skye and Lochaber. A victory he was so apparently uncertain of that he had already returned across the pond before the votes had been counted. Kennedy recounted to The Spectator the reaction of his career’s advisor to this news: “I received a lovely letter from my old careers adviser, which read: ‘Dear Charles, I was most delighted to hear the news of your election to the House of Commons. I can only presume all else failed’”.

This was to be the unexpected beginning of a political career which saw Kennedy champion public outcry against the Iraq war and vote consistently and outspokenly against rising tuition fees. This career reached its peak in the 2005 general election, which saw the Lib Dems win their greatest seat numbers to date, and ended in the public scandal surrounding the exposure of his battle with alcoholism, resulting in his resignation. Even after his resignation Kennedy remained as involved and as steadfast in his principles as he had been during his time in the role, advising Nick Clegg and voting against the party’s notorious ‘Con-dem’ coalition with the Tories.

Kennedy made his return to campus in his election as rector of the university in 2008 – a position which Kennedy once admitted to missing more than his time as Lib Dem leader – replacing the Israeli whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu in the role. His time as rector garnered such popularity in fact that, in an unprecedented turn since the re-election of Benjamin Disraeli in the 1870s, the students of Glasgow granted Kennedy a second term as rector. Kennedy served for a full six years until just last year, in the election of another exiled whistleblower, Edward Snowden, to the position.

Regardless of his flaws, so often the focus of his opponents and the media, Kennedy remained aware throughout his career of the central truth of the job, one for so long in denial by the system entire: “You have to put the people first, even if it means putting the party second”. Facing both systematic and social change, Kennedy maintained from his political beginnings to his final days the “highland values” seeded in his youth and nurtured in his years at Glasgow. Even in the clutches of his hamartia, Kennedy remained a solid, tangible figure as so many others in the business dodged the public’s grasp. Our thoughts are with his family and all who knew him.

[Ronan Duff]

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