I informed the House yesterday that there would be an opportunity today for Members to pay tribute to the right hon. Charles Kennedy. I shall—I hope with the House’s understanding—deploy the Chair’s prerogative to begin that process.
Charles Kennedy spent almost his entire adult life as a Member of Parliament. He was assuredly at home in this place, yet perhaps happiest beyond it. He was a man of deep progressive principle, but a man also blessed with the popular touch. He was a good talker, but an even better listener. Above all and perhaps most strikingly, Charles had the rare ability to reach out to millions of people of all political persuasions and of none across the country who were untouched by, and in many cases actively hostile to, politics. In this seminal sense, therefore, Charles was the “boy next door” of British public life. We salute him; we honour his memory; and we send today our sincere, heartfelt, and deepest condolences to his family and his friends.
The whole House will have been shocked, and so deeply saddened, by the sudden news yesterday morning of the death of Charles Kennedy. As you said, Mr Speaker, it is a tragic loss for his family, not least his son Donald, who is just 10 years old, and I know that the thoughts and prayers of the whole House are with his family and his friends at this time.
It is right that the House should come together and pay tribute to a man whose character and courage inspired us all, and who served his constituents so well for almost 32 years. There was something very special about Charles. As his good friend Alastair Campbell put it yesterday,
“He spoke fluent human, because he had humanity in every vein and every cell.”
Charles Kennedy will be remembered for his success, for his principle and intellect, and above all for his incredible warmth and good humour. I will say a word about each. Charles was elected as the youngest Member of Parliament in 1983, at just 23 years old. It was a remarkable victory. Standing for a new party while studying in America at the time, he went from fourth place to first, defeating an established Conservative who had been in the House of Commons for 13 years. From there, his political career took off. Just a year earlier, he had been asked by his careers adviser what he was going to do in his life. He had replied that he could be a teacher or a journalist, but if all else failed, there was always politics. On his election, his old careers adviser wrote to congratulate him, saying, “I can only presume that all else failed.”
The new Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye, as he then was, faced a number of challenges at the beginning of his parliamentary career. His arrival at Westminster was only the third time that he had been to London in his life. Arranging to stay in a friend’s spare room in Hammersmith, he remarked that he did not know how to get from Hammersmith to Westminster. In fact, it was worse than that: he did not even know how to get from Heathrow to Hammersmith.
Charles Kennedy played a pivotal role in bringing together two parties, the Social Democratic party and the Liberals, becoming president of the Liberal Democrats in 1990 and party leader from 1999 to 2006. As leader, he took the Liberal Democrats to the best election result for a third party in British politics for nearly 100 years. Back in 2003, he told Sue Lawley on “Desert Island Discs” that his ambition for his party was for it to find itself part of the government of the country. His achievements laid the foundations for that to happen, and, while he was never the greatest fan of the coalition and, indeed, voted against its formation, he never spoke out against the Liberal Democrat participation in it; for, as much as he was a man of strong views, he was also a man of great loyalty. He equally resisted any overtures from the Labour party, dismissing rumours that he would rejoin it by saying:
“I will go out of this world feet first with my Lib Dem membership card in my pocket.”
As ever with Charles Kennedy, he was a man of his word.
Charles Kennedy was also a man of great principle and great intellect. At the heart of his political views was a deep commitment to social justice. He passionately believed in Europe as a way of bringing people together, but his most outspoken contribution in recent years was the principled stand that he took against the Iraq war. Looking back, it is easy to forget just what a stand that was. He was taking abuse from the major parties on both sides of the House, and adopting a position that was not even supported by the previous leader of his own party. But there was something about the deeply respectful way in which he would conduct an argument: he did not believe in making enemies out of opponents, and he did not, as he put it,
“waste time just rubbishing everybody else.”
He made friends, even with those who disagreed with him, and I think that that was one of the reasons he was so liked and so widely supported in taking on the personal challenges that he faced. I had the privilege of getting to know him a little bit when I was a new MP back in 2001. We both frequented the Smoking Room, and, while we disagreed about many things, we both mourned its passing.
I find myself thinking today about just what an extraordinary talent Charles Kennedy was. All the while that he was battling his demons, he could make amazing speeches, delight a television audience, inspire his followers, take out his opponents with his brilliance in debate, and crack jokes—all at the same time. Above all, it is his warmth and good humour for which Charles will be remembered most fondly. He had a way of connecting with people—even those who did not know him well or even at all. In the tributes to Nelson Mandela in this House 18 months ago, Charles told us the story of their first meeting. He said he was introduced by his friend Lord Redesdale as a colleague from the House of Commons called Nigel Kennedy. As Charles remarked at the time:
“The President’s characteristically firm handshake and jovial welcome confirmed two things for me there and then. First of all, he had never heard of Nigel Kennedy, but far more distressingly, he sure as hell had not heard of me either.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 572, c. 20.]
He was the most human of politicians.
In the words of Charles Kennedy himself:
“The vast majority of people think there’s a hell of a lot more to life than just politics. And you’ve got to bear that in mind—because you’re actually trying to represent them.”
At his best he was the best that politics can be, and that is how we should remember him.
We all felt so saddened to wake up to the news yesterday of the death of Charles Kennedy, and the Prime Minister expressed the feelings of the whole House in his generous tribute, as did you in your comments, Mr Speaker.
As we come together to mourn his death and to pay tribute to his extraordinary qualities, there is much that all of us in political life can learn from Charles Kennedy. He was an outstanding parliamentarian and dedicated his whole life to politics. That is a powerful reminder to all of us that giving your life to politics, being a career politician, can be an honourable not an ignoble thing.
He took a philosophical approach to the ups and downs of political life. Despite the adversity that he faced, he never became bitter, because he cared more about his political cause than he did about his personal career. He had a deep seriousness of purpose and great intellect, but he wore it lightly. He could be the most intelligent person in the room but still be warm, funny and generous, which made him convincing and engaging in equal measure. He showed that there could be profound disagreement on matters of serious political judgment while still accepting the good faith of those who take a different view. He disagreed with the decision to go to war in Iraq, and he was right, but he never felt the need to denigrate those of us who got it wrong. He was strongly committed to his own party, but that did not stop him having friendships across party lines. He was partisan, but he was still generous enough to admire people in other parties.
History will show that he was one of a great generation of Scottish MPs, at a time when Scotland gave this House some of the finest politicians of the era. Exceptional politicians such as John Smith, Donald Dewar, Gordon Brown, Menzies Campbell, Robin Cook—he stands tall in a Scottish generation who were head and shoulders above their peers.
I remember when he first came to this House, aged only 23—the golden boy from the highlands. He shone in this Chamber. He was elected so young, and it is a tragedy that he has died so young. All our thoughts are with his family.
A few days ago I got in touch with Charles because I was looking for a telephone number of someone we both knew. His friends will not be surprised to learn that we were texting each other. He was notoriously bad at actually answering his phone, but famously fluent in SMS. He said he did not have the number on him but he would get back to me this week, because he was spending time with his beloved son, Donald, during his half-term break.
While we all remember Charles as a formidable parliamentarian and a much loved politician, it is worth remembering that he retained his greatest pride and devotion for his family. He lived next door to his parents and, latterly, his brother in his grandfather’s croft house near Fort William, and cared for them through sickness and old age. Much though he was wedded to politics all his life, I think Charles would have wanted to be remembered first as a kind and loving father, brother and son, and as an accomplished politician second. My thoughts and condolences are with all his family—especially Donald—and friends today.
That enduring humanity—people always came before politics for Charles—is reflected in the heartfelt tributes over the past 24 hours paid by so many from outside the world of politics who did not know him directly but somehow still felt that they did know him and could relate to him. He had—and still has—that rare gift for someone in public life: when people think of him, they smile. He saw good in people, even his staunchest political foes, and that always brought out the best in people in return. He was the polar opposite of a cardboard cut-out, points-scoring party politician: brave, yet vulnerable; brilliant, yet flawed. As he would often say about people he admired most, he was a fully signed-up member of the human race.
And he was funny—he was very funny. But his good humour must not obscure the fact that there was a steely courage about him, most memorably on display when he took the principled decision to oppose the Iraq war. Just because that might seem now an obvious thing to have done, it most certainly was not at the time. Charles was often a lone voice in this House, standing up against a consensus on all sides in favour of war. The fact that he was proved so spectacularly right is a tribute to his judgment and his intuitive common sense.
I think Charles would be the first to admit, cheerily, that he was not exactly a details man when it came to policy. He treated the necessary but often tedious detail of policy discussions within the Liberal Democrats with the same attitude he viewed Ben Nevis in his own constituency: something to be admired from afar, but a trial to be endured by others. One of his earliest decisions when he became leader of the Liberal Democrats was to end the long-held convention that the leader of the party should attend all the regular and invariably lengthy meetings of the Liberal Democrat federal policy committee. It was a characteristically wise decision, for which I was for ever grateful during my time as leader.
Again, however, his disregard for the undergrowth of policy making should not obscure his unusually instinctive and deadly serious appreciation of the bigger picture in politics. Whether on Europe, constitutional reform, his arguments against nationalism and the politics of identity, or his lifelong belief in social justice, Charles had a gut instinct about the big challenges and the big choices we faced, not the daily twists and turns and sleights of hand that dominate so much of Westminster politics. He understood, above all, that politics is at its best when it speaks to people’s values in their hearts, and is not just the dry policy debates of the head.
There is so much that I will miss about Charles—his wit, his warmth, his modesty—but I suspect many of us will feel his absence most keenly when our country decides in the next year or two whether we belong, or not, in the European Union, because, of all his convictions, his internationalism endured most strongly. He was a proud highlander, a proud Scot and a man who believed in our community of nations within the United Kingdom, but he was also a lifelong believer that our outward-facing character as a country is best secured by remaining at the heart of Europe rather than retreating elsewhere. As the debate becomes dominated, as it no doubt will, by the noise of statistical claim and counter-claim, I will miss the lyrical clarity of Charles’s belief that our future as an open-hearted and generous-spirited country is at stake and must be defended at all costs.
A couple of years ago, Charles and I found ourselves cowering under the shelter of a parasol on the terrace of the National Liberal Club in the pouring rain, for what he called, “A wee bit of fresh air”—a wonderfully inappropriate euphemism for a quick smoke. We talked at length about the difficulties that the Liberal Democrats were facing within the then coalition Government. It is a measure of the man that, even though he was almost alone in our party in not supporting the decision to enter into coalition in May 2010, there was never a hint of reproach or “I told you so” in the advice he gave to me both then and in other conversations. He remained unstintingly loyal, no matter what the circumstances and no matter how strong the temptation must have been to blow his own trumpet and say that events had proved him right. He was far too subtle for that. He had made his views clear at the outset, but respected in good faith what his party colleagues were seeking to achieve in government and provided support and advice every step of the way, which is why it was no surprise when he said, after being challenged about his loyalties after the 2010 election, and as the Prime Minister has already cited:
“I will go out of this world feet first with my Lib Dem membership card in my pocket.”
I am just devastated that it has happened so soon.
Our Liberal political family has lost one of its most admired advocates; British politics has lost one of its best storytellers; this House has lost one of its warmest wits and most loyal parliamentarians. If we could all carry ourselves with a little more of the honesty, wisdom and humility of Charles Kennedy, politics would be held in much higher esteem than it is today.
I am grateful for this opportunity to make a very brief addition to the tributes already paid by the party leaders, with which I wholly agree.
I too am one of those who remember Charlie Kennedy first arriving in the House of Commons in 1983, when he made a startling impression. He was very young—he was a student; he looked like a schoolboy—but people rapidly realised that in addition to all those striking attributes he was highly intelligent, very articulate, very self-confident, and capable of addressing this House in a very fluent and eloquent way, with that jokey, relaxed charm which was his distinctive style and which I do not recall anybody else quite achieving in that way. As he was such an unexpected and unique figure, he rapidly became very prominent not only in Parliament, but nationally, and he looked as though he would have been destined for a brilliant national career but for the limited expectations of the Social Democrats and the Liberal party with which he then associated himself. Well, he did achieve a good national career, and he eventually took his party to electoral heights that would have been unimaginable when he first arrived. I believe that his own distinct personality made a very great contribution to that.
People have said that his great moment was the Iraq war, and I agree, but he took many other strong, principled positions. On Europe, he was wrong sometimes, as he was on the coalition, but he always expressed his views with candid sincerity and always came to clear and principled conclusions for which he was prepared to argue.
We will all miss him. His personal attributes we all know; but they never made him unpleasant, if sometimes they made it a little difficult; it made him a more rounded character. He was one of the last of that great tradition that said we should best address political problems in the atmosphere of a smoke-filled room, which has been lost today. If I may, I will agree with Ms Harman: my main memories of Charles, apart from the pleasure of always being on good terms with him, demonstrate that in making a life in politics one can meet some remarkably decent, honest, very highly principled people. People such as Charlie Kennedy will leave their mark on this House for many years to come. My sympathies also go out to his family and friends.
I first met Charles Kennedy on his first day in the House of Commons, when I entered the Members’ Dining Room and saw a young man looking forlorn and lost, wandering around and wondering what to do. I asked him to join me for lunch and I found out who he was. As the youngest Member of the House of Commons, he was not going to assert himself at that stage, but he knew why he was here: to stand up for certain principles about which he felt strongly. He stood up for those principles in the House and outside it from that first day right through to the end. He had strong views, but he was never vindictive and never malevolent in expounding them. He knew where he stood, he worked out where he should stand, and you knew that when Charles Kennedy spoke he had thought it out and thought it through, and that he would not budge unless you could argue him out of a position—and his positions were pretty strong.
It has rightly been mentioned again and again that he opposed the Iraq war, which at that time was not an easy thing to do, and it was not the view of the overwhelming majority of the House of Commons, but if Charles had worked out a position and he believed that position to be right, he would not budge.
He was always genial, always fun, and it was good to be in his company. You rarely saw him without a smile on his face, but that smile was not a smile of appeasement; it was a smile of geniality and it was a smile of good will. I knew him over the years and always valued his company and his opinions. I join with the rest of the House in expressing my profound sympathy to his family. We shall miss him.
Most people in the political village knew he had been unwell for quite some time. During the last Parliament our offices were just around the corner from one another on the third floor of Portcullis House and we would bump into each other regularly coming to the Chamber or returning from Committees. It was clear that he was still having to battle his challenges, but not in my worst dreams did I ever imagine he would be taken from us at the young age of 55.
Politics is a hard business and while I and my colleagues were delighted that the SNP won Ross, Skye and Lochaber, I was saddened that Charles Kennedy would no longer be in Parliament. It is a mark of the man that when I got in touch with him after the general election, he readily agreed to meet up and share his experience of his leadership of the Liberal Democrats when it was the third party in the House of Commons.
People across politics will attest to the generosity of spirit that Charles Kennedy showed to people on all sides of the party divides, and I strongly urge those who have not yet had the opportunity to do so to read the blog by Alastair Campbell, illustrating their friendship. My predecessor as Member of Parliament for Moray, Margaret Ewing, and Charles Kennedy were also very good friends, and I know that others in this House and elsewhere enjoyed such friendship and mutual respect tremendously.
We all know that Charles Kennedy was a formidable and witty debater, and his skills were honed long before he came to this Chamber at the age—unbelievably—of 23. His skills were honed at his beloved Glasgow University. As anyone who has ever debated against anybody from Glasgow University will attest, the prodigious talent that has come through the Glasgow University Union and the Dialectic Society is in a league of its own, and has won more world championships than Oxford and Cambridge combined. In the Observer Mace, Glasgow has won 15 times—significantly more than any other university. Charles Kennedy was one of the top-drawer debaters. He won the Observer Mace, an accolade that he shares with the former leader of the Labour party, John Smith, the former Secretary of State for Scotland and First Minister Donald Dewar and my hon. Friend John Nicolson.
My abiding memory of Charles Kennedy in this Chamber is his powerful condemnation of the Iraq war—a position that was shared by the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National party. Charles Kennedy forensically and repeatedly questioned the Prime Minister of the time on the case for war, the lack of evidence for weapons of mass destruction and the role of the United Nations and international law. His speeches and questions at that time have stood the test of time and underline that his convictions were right while others trooped through the Lobby in support of what was an illegal war.
Charles Kennedy was a giant in Scottish and UK politics. He was a lad o’pairts from Lochaber, an area of Scotland of which he was very proud. He led his party to historic successes while remaining rooted in the real world. He was liked by people of all political persuasions—there are few people in politics who can live up to that. It is such a tragedy that he died so young. Our condolences go to his family, his friends, his son Donald and all his party colleagues in the Liberal Democrats.
I had the honour and pleasure of knowing Charles for some 37 years. When I first went to Glasgow University Union, he was already the star of the debating chamber there—in fact, he was the pre-eminent debater of his generation. He was terrifying to speak against, but a positive joy to compete alongside. He had tremendous debating skills, with which he regularly enriched the Chamber and it is a pity that those Members who were elected just last month will never have the joy of seeing how enriching he could be to the House of Commons.
Charles was a man of considerable wit, as has been mentioned, and of great charm and phenomenal intelligence. He was absolutely passionate about his politics and he had deep-seated views, but however passionate he was, there was never a hint of malice or threatening behaviour from him. He was one of those great politicians who would absolutely love to have a blazing row with you in the House of Commons and a chirpy pint with you in the Strangers Bar half an hour later. He was a man of great authenticity. In an era when the public feel that politicians are moulded to be as colourless as possible, he was a man of great integrity who spoke from the heart about the issues he cared so much about.
Charles loved this place from the minute he came here, and I remember coming to see him a few weeks after his election. He absolutely loved the House of Commons, but however important he became in this place, he was never self-important. I will remember him for integrity, humanity and decency, and I wonder how many of us in this House will have that accolade. I am very sad for his family for their untimely loss, but I am sad for us all, because our entire public life is poorer for his passing.
I reiterate the words of the previous speakers: it is a sad day for all of us in this House. I feel privileged to have the opportunity to express my condolences and those of my party, the Social Democratic and Labour party, to the family and friends of our good friend and colleague, the late Charles Kennedy.
From a distance, I first became aware of Charles when, as something of a boy wonder, he stormed to election as a Member of this House way back in the early 1980s. Later, I had occasion to meet him at various events, and he was always generous, warm, humble and humorous. In a word, he was very human, and that has been reflected by the comments of others here today. Charles reached out to everyone, listening as much as talking, as has been remarked.
When I was elected to this House, I got to know Charles better, and he was always kind, considerate and helpful—he was a genuine, great human being—and I am heartened to hear so many warm comments from Members from all parts of the House today. Honourable colleagues have referred to his wisdom on Iraq and the perils that would follow that decision. He was a formidable politician and a great colleague, not only on Iraq, but across a whole range of issues, including Europe, which was a great passion of his. Today, we are all much the lesser for his going. He has gone to his eternal reward much, much too soon, and I extend my deep sympathies to his family and friends. I pray that God in his mercy will look kindly on Charlie’s gentle soul.
If I may, I would like just to say a few words. I walked into this House for the first time as a Member with Charles almost 32 years ago to the day, and among our new intake he was already quite a celebrity. We were just another large Tory intake—you know, Mr Speaker, they come and they go—but he had fought and won his highland seat. For all the 32 years that I served with him in this House and on the Council of Europe, although I was always a political opponent, in a way I always felt we were soulmates. Sometimes he had to go against the groove and I had to, but there was something powerful there. I think his faith was very powerful, and I like to think that in some previous life he and I might have marched together in some hopeless highland cause, perhaps as Jacobites—I do not know.
Charles’s causes were never hopeless, and his legacy will live on. Let me talk for a brief moment about that. For instance, it has been said on the Iraq war that he wanted to place his party as a radical alternative to Labour, but I think it went much deeper than that and was more powerful. My right hon. and learned Friend Mr Clarke and I would not have listened to his arguments and followed him into the Lobby if we had not been convinced by what he was saying—that there were limits to liberal imperialism, and that he was a true Liberal and understood those limits and understood what a difficult part of the world that is. He understood the difficulties that we have met ever since, and so he has been proved right on that.
If Charles was still here, or if he was in the other place shortly, he would have been a powerful advocate for our Union, because his was a gentle patriotism, not some narrow-minded nationalism. He would also have been generous in terms of the participation of the Scottish National party in this place, which is important. We must welcome that participation and recognise that those Members must take part in all our debates. He would have been a powerful voice in that, too. He would also have been a powerful voice and influence in other areas, for instance his opposition to the coalition—I rather agreed with him on that. I thought it would be disastrous for our party, but I was proved wrong—it was disastrous for his own. But his opposition was principled. It was not just that he recognised that it is difficult for a party of protest to become a party of power; as on Iraq, there was something much more principled than that. I think he instinctively believed that politics is not just about the pursuit of power; it is also about the pursuit of truth. He was always a powerful advocate for that.
Lastly, when I saw him operate in the Council of Europe, I felt that was Charles’s true métier. Let us not be too serious: Strasbourg is a convivial place. But there was more to it than that. He was determined to extend freedom and democracy to eastern Europe, and he played a powerful part in that body. All those years I admired him and it is truly said that when we die, we can only take with us what we have given away. This man gave everything to our House. There never was a braver and a truer spirit.
I thank you, Mr Speaker, for the opportunity to speak today as we pay tribute to the previous Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber. Charles was a man who was clearly loved by many in this House, but he was also deeply loved by many in his constituency. The Prime Minister spoke about Charles winning the seat in 1983, when he came from fourth place to first. I suspect that many of his then colleagues in the Social Democratic party did not expect that Mr Kennedy would win that seat. There are legendary stories around Ross, Skye and Lochaber on the campaigning that took place back in 1983. Charles travelled around the constituency with his father, with his father playing the fiddle. What truly happened in that election campaign is that Charles charmed the constituents, just as he charmed others when he came into this House, when he burst on to the political scene and when he became a big figure, not only in Scotland, but on the world stage, as leader of the Liberal Democrats.
Charles loved campaigning. We saw in the recent general election campaign his desire to appear in front of the electorate at both his own public meetings and at hustings, where we saw that debating style that has been referred to by so many. It was an absolute privilege to campaign against him. When I look at the strength of the Scottish National party in the Chamber today—56 SNP members were elected—I see that truly the national tide meant Charles lost the seat of Ross, Skye and Lochaber.
Many have referred to Charles as that cheeky chappie, as we would call it in highland terms—they refer to that highland bravado that was demonstrated in his debating style—but we should also reflect that highland characters tend to be complex. While Charles had that exterior of wanting to engage in debate and to be jovial, there was also the private Charles, a man who had many traditional highland characteristics—he was a rather shy character as well, so there was a contrast between the two faces.
Much has been said about the humanity and the humility of the man himself. He was robust in debate, but had respect for those of all opinions, whether on the Iraq war or anything else. My abiding memory of Charles is not from the recent period, but from the first election to the Scottish Parliament in 1999. I can recall that evening that Charles and I were in the television studios. Unlike the recent election, it was not a wonderful night for the SNP—it was not as great as we had hoped on that occasion. There were a number of seats that we would have liked to have won but did not. I was getting a hard time in debate. I remember Charles turning to me and consoling me. Rather than putting the boot in—if I may put it that way—he recognised the kind of evening we were having. That was the mark of the man: a decent, human man, who saw the struggles that others were going through.
I deeply regret, as my constituents will, the passing of this supremely talented man. Rest in peace.
I want to pay a short, personal tribute to a remarkable man. Like my hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh, I came into the House on that very hot day in June ’83 with Charles Kennedy. In those days, there was no induction programme, the Whips Office did not do HR, and Members were not given offices for many months, so we got to know all the other new MPs.
We spent a lot of time finding our level in the House, mainly on the Terrace. I went to many all-party groups with Charles Kennedy during those months. After yet another brilliant, incisive performance of his, I remember saying to him, “Charles, I think we have just seen a future party leader.” He said, “Don’t be so ridiculous, Henry. My only ambition is to represent my constituents—and have a good time.”
He did have a very good time in those early weeks, because it was not until
Charles had that extraordinary quality, whenever he met people, of making them feel that much better about themselves. I last met him about four days before the House dissolved. He asked me how things were going in Norfolk, and about Norman Lamb. We talked about the highlands and I wished him well. He had that amazing ability to make everyone feel better about the day, better about their lives.
His four passions were obviously his family, above all else, and Donald; the highlands; Glasgow University; and Europe. I will miss him no end. A quite remarkable person has left our lives. All the people who knew him well will be the poorer for it, but many others will as well.
On an occasion like this, our thoughts are first and foremost with the family of Charles Kennedy, and especially with his young son, Donald. On behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Democratic Unionist party, we offer them all our sincerest condolences. Their loss is immeasurable, but I hope they find some comfort in the depth, the extent and the tone of the tributes offered in the House today to the man they loved dearly, and whom the country as a whole now mourns.
Charles Kennedy was that rare thing. He was a professional politician from almost the start of his career—he was a politician to his fingertips—but he was one who the public saw as one of their own. They did not see him as someone apart from them or distant from them, but as someone who embodied the very point of why people vote and campaign, and why they become passionate about causes, and why they believe in politics.
Others have charted Charles’s wit and skills as a public speaker from early youth, but the man I saw in this place stood out most of all for his sincerity and his honesty. Following the loss of the leadership of his party, there was nothing but public, professional loyalty to his successors. The party he handed on to them—the party he led to its greatest electoral heights in almost a century—was in enviably good political health.
Charles’s personal tragedy was to be the victim of a terrible disease, the effects of which are intermittent and especially cruel, in that it momentarily robs the sufferer of the ability to be himself. The real Charles Kennedy was the man we remember today and admire, and mourn. He believed utterly in the causes he stood for, without hating anyone else for believing in theirs. He approached each day—I remember meeting him on many mornings—with good-natured relish, free from any contempt for his political foes but absolute in his convictions. From his youth in the House to a far-too-premature passing, the greatest memories he leaves with me and, I suspect, with most of us, are his immense warm heartedness, his tremendous likability and his great good humour.
May God bless all his loved ones and comfort them at this tragic time of bereavement.
Many colleagues have spoken today of Charles’s great talents in this place and his great ability as a parliamentarian, but I rise to speak very briefly because, in common with Ian Blackford, I had the good fortune to spend a year in Ross, Cromarty and Skye, as the constituency was then known, as did Mary Macleod, our much lamented colleague, the former Member for Brentford and Isleworth, on whose behalf I also speak.
My experience of campaigning against Charles during the 1982 general election resounds well with the warm speech that his successor made a few moments ago. Charles could easily have very much resented this English-looking and English-sounding Scot that I am, turning up in his beloved highlands, trampling all over them and turning up at every single event. I remember taking part in a sponsored walk. A very good photograph appeared in the Aberdeen Press and Journal, with the magnificent headline: “The Tory is miles ahead”. I saw Charles that evening. I said, “I’m awfully sorry, Charles.” He said, “Don’t worry, James. The Aberdeen Press and Journal gets everything wrong.” I am extremely glad that, on that occasion, the Aberdeen Press and Journal did get that wrong.
Charles was warm and magnanimous in every single dealing I had with him. During the election campaign itself, we met at church hustings and public meetings. He was always kindness personified. He used to turn to me and say, “I can’t remember what the Liberal Democrat policy is on this, James. Can you just remind me?” and I would fill him in on a few details.
Five years later, when I arrived in the House to represent what is perhaps my more natural home of North Wiltshire, Charles was the first to welcome me with open arms. He remained a close and good parliamentary friend ever since. His warmth and magnanimity of personality spoke for him. He was a highlander through and through: he had a highland warmth and a highland welcome; a highland lack of interest in party politics; and a highland friendship for people of every kind.
Every time he spoke, he spoke for ordinary people. Ordinary people understood and sympathised with him. Even the true blue Tories, of whom at that time there were still a few in the north of Scotland, none the less liked Charles enormously. The people of Ross, Cromarty and Skye absolutely loved their Charlie. He will be greatly missed in this place. He was a fine parliamentarian and a true friend.
I knew Charles through Sarah Gurling and got to see beyond the public figure and party leader. He was shy, but always polite. He was kind, engaging and a good dad. I enjoyed his wry humour. He used to joke about how we shared the same private investigator from the News of the World. He had an ability to bring levity to the dark corners of British political life that made the bad days at the office easier to cope with, yet as many Members all too painfully know, politics often takes a toll on the lives of our loved ones in a way that we never properly know or understand. Through you, Mr Speaker, I would like to direct my words at Donald, son of Charles and Sarah.
Your father was a very great man; he stood up for what he believed in. He led a party of the centre-left with dignity and compassion. When you are older, you will know that your mum and dad believed in a cause greater than themselves and you will be proud.
Charles Kennedy was an immense talent, and it says so much about the man that so many Members in this House have spoken about him with such complete genuine warmth. He had the extraordinary ability to reach out beyond the narrow confines of his own party to make genuine friendships with people of other political persuasions and to achieve an extraordinary affinity with people beyond this place, speaking in a language that people understood—not in the language of the Westminster village. That was a remarkable talent not shared by very many people here. I guess, overall, we probably all share this overwhelming emotion, and our hearts go out to young Donald and his family on this day, and that is the most important thing. Our thoughts are very much with them.
I had the privilege of working as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Charles in my first Parliament here, between 2003 and 2005. I saw at close quarters his extraordinary ability, his compassion and his never ceasing courtesy to people. He never lost his temper in dealing with people; he was always polite. He used the power of argument to win his case.
Tragically, he suffered from an illness that afflicts too many people in our country. There is still a stigma attached to mental ill health and addiction, and all of us here and beyond still have a lot to learn about how we combat that stigma and treat the condition as a genuine illness and try to offer help to the individual as much as we possibly can.
There are three things in particular for which I remember Charles. The first one, which defined him among many members of the public, was his courageous stand on the war in Iraq. The Prime Minister was absolutely right to reflect on the strain that he must have been under when he spoke in this House with the massed ranks of the Labour Government and the Conservative Benches against him, but he was steadfast. He knew what he believed. He articulated the case very strongly and effectively and he reached out to our country at a very critical moment in our history.
The second thing that defines him for me was his internationalism. His total commitment to the European cause came not from any narrow economic case but from a belief in the real power of the European Union in bringing countries together, turning its back, as a continent, on conflict, working together, trading together and bringing people together. His politics was about uniting people, not dividing people; that is what made his commitment to the European Union so strong.
Finally, there was his complete commitment to social justice. He challenged injustice wherever he saw it. Everyone will know that the Liberal voice in our country has been diminished as a result of the general election result, but I and the rest of my party must unite together to do everything we can to ensure Charles’s legacy and to rebuild the Liberal voice in our country. I am sure that everyone in this House, whatever their political persuasion, will recognise the force of liberalism and its importance in these Houses of Parliament.
I am grateful for this opportunity to pay tribute to Charles Kennedy on behalf of the current Plaid Cymru group and also on behalf of my former colleagues from the 2001 Parliament: Simon Thomas, Adam Price and particularly Elfyn Llwyd, who was Charles Kennedy’s friend and who worked alongside him to oppose the war in Iraq.
We opposed the war from the very start, and for us it was very straightforward; we were united in our opposition. For Charles Kennedy, though, it was a bigger challenge. He took the brave decision to lead his party against the war, against prevailing opinion here and in the media, and he had to fight to get some of his leading colleagues to follow.
Standing against the war was not easy for any of us. It was not a comfortable place to be. But we have come to this place not to be comfortable but to do what we think is right. Charles Kennedy took that path and it is a fitting tribute to him that he prevailed.
Today, our thoughts are with his family. As for his legacy, the well known couplet from the Welsh poet Hiraethog inevitably comes to mind:
“Segurdod yw clod y cledd,
A rhwd yw ei anrhydedd”— idleness is the glory of the sword, and rust is its distinction.
Charles Kennedy achieved many things, but his opposition to the war in Iraq will prove to be his distinction. Heddwch i’w lwch.
I was elected to this House on
I won my seat at that election by 267 votes. When a candidate wins by that small amount, everything counts. I am quite sure that the additional publicity of Donald’s birth contributed to the capturing of Westmorland after 96 years of Tory rule.
As the months went by, I did not get a phone call. There were a good number of us and many were appointed to positions in junior shadow ministries and junior junior shadow ministries. Then in September I got the phone call from Charles. He said, “I’m sorry I haven’t given you a job. I just completely forgot about you.” He asked me whether I would like to be the youth affairs spokesperson, which was obviously an entirely natural fit. That was the only time I ever felt forgotten by Charles. A year before that, I lost my mother—she was a year younger than Charles at his passing—after a long and pretty horrific illness. I remember seeing him when I was among dozens of other candidates, and he knew exactly about the situation that I and my family were going through, and he showed immense compassion. He never stopped asking me about the situation. When she passed away, he asked me how I was. That was the measure of the man. He went through some very difficult things in terms of his personal health, but he was always primarily concerned about the wellbeing of others.
Charles was a persuader; he was able to reach people in their gut. People make up their minds on the basis of all sorts of things, but generally speaking we can only move people if we can get them in the gut. He was the only Social Democratic party MP ever to gain his seat in a general election. Four years later, when the SDP and the Liberals merged, he argued on the conference floor against his own leader, David Owen. We could see the faces of people in that hall as they changed their minds. Charles Kennedy had reached into their hearts and turned them.
To my mind, what Charles was so good at was his ability to communicate and get to people, and it was not contrived. People say that Charles Kennedy was human. Yes, he was, but he was not contrived. The first time that I went on, I think, “Any Questions” a few years ago, he gave me a piece of advice. He just said, “Be yourself.” Charles was successful because he was himself. If any hon. Member is ever invited on to “Have I Got News For You”, my advice is, “Say no, unless you want to be made out to be a prat or unless you are Charles Kennedy.”
Charles had a natural ability to communicate with people, because he was absolutely himself. That humanity is one thing; his principle has been spoken of several times, but it cannot be said enough that his stance against the Iraq war seems like the populist and right thing to do today. Twelve years ago, it was not. He was surrounded by people baying at him as though he was somehow Chamberlain or an appeaser of Saddam Hussein, and The Sun had a front-page picture of Charles Kennedy the anti-patriotic rattlesnake. By golly, someone must be doing something right when that happens!
Charles Kennedy was principled and he changed people’s minds, and he was right. He was human; he was principled; and he was effective. He led our party to the largest number of Members of Parliament since Lloyd George’s day. I suggest that that humanity, that principle and that effectiveness—those three things—are connected. If we want to understand why Charles Kennedy was great, we should realise that it was because he was himself. People say that politicians should have a life outside politics before they become Members of Parliament. Maybe. Charlie was elected at 23. It is hard to argue that he did. The reality is that it is not what you have done, it is who you are, and Charles Kennedy was a very, very special man. Donald, you should be really proud of your daddy. I am proud of your daddy. I loved him to bits. I am proud to call him my friend. God rest you, Charlie.
Charles Kennedy was an associate editor of the House magazine, of which I am the editor, and we would have meetings every Tuesday morning for an hour to discuss what happened during the week and where we would go the following week. Charles made some of the meetings and he did not make others, but it was always very clear that we had extraordinary, indiscreet exchanges of opinion that never, ever left the room. For something like 15 years, what was said in that room stayed in that room, and the discussions were always enlightening, because Charles would come up with points of view that simply had not occurred to me. It shows his extraordinary generosity that, even when people were not just stabbing him in the back—it was quite clear that they were stabbing him from the front—he would nevertheless always be generous towards them.
I want to say something very briefly, given that people outside here will hear this as well. I think that Donald should read a book “The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, where the Little Prince explains why he is about to die and says, “I will be a star, and every time you look up in the skies you will see that star, and it is me smiling and you will end up being glad to have known me.” I think that we will all end up saying that we were glad to have known Charles. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]
Charles Kennedy was one of those people everyone remembers meeting for the first time: his distinctive look, his very attractive highland accent, his unusual and warm manner as a politician. I remember meeting him very excitedly as a new prospective parliamentary candidate, and I was touched at how genuine this great figure of liberalism who I was finally getting to meet actually was. He wanted to know how I was and how things were going in Leeds.
I was very lucky during the 2005 election campaign to have not one but two visits from Charles. The first was to an older people’s residence, Teal Beck Court and Teal Beck House in Otley. The second was a rally at Headingley stadium towards the end of the campaign, when it appeared that I might make the breakthrough for the Liberal Democrats in Leeds. On both occasions, Charles lit up the room when he walked in. At the rally, he inspired people to go out and do that bit more over the last 24 hours to win the seat. But it was the ordinary people, not the party activists, who were particularly touched by Charles and his natural style and the way that he engaged so humbly with the older residents, the hard-working care staff at the home and people at the rugby and cricket ground. Everyone commented, “Isn’t he such a nice bloke?” and they were surprised that a party leader could be such.
I am very proud that I was elected in 2005, with Charles Kennedy as a great leader of my party, in what was the best ever result for the Liberal Democrats—something that we will not forget. I was doubly overjoyed when Charles became a new father, with the joyous news, albeit rather inconveniently timed, of Donald’s birth in the general election campaign. A few months later, I had my first child, my daughter Isabel. Charles and I would meet and chat and, sometimes a little tired from having been up, would talk new-father talk about how we were getting on, and Charles always asked and always cared.
Charles was a truly genuine, warm and humble man, and he always asked how people were and how their family was before he got on to politics. My sincere condolences go to his family and his friends and all who knew him. They are in our thoughts and our prayers, and as has already been expressed, I hope that the genuine outflowing of tributes to Charles is some comfort at this very difficult time. As one of the eight Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament, rather than 62 in 2005, I want to say that we now have the job of restoring the Liberal Democrats to where Charles took us in 2005. That is what Charles would have wanted, and it is what we will work and strive to do.
Many hearts broke yesterday morning when we heard the news; it came as such a dreadful shock. It is equally heartbreaking that Charles Kennedy, our friend and fellow parliamentarian, cannot be aware of this great outpouring of affection that has swept across the whole nation and, in fact, wider than the shores of these islands. Perhaps we could have done more to help and support Charles and to let him know how loved he was, because it may be too late now, but it will be comfort to the family to know that this was a man who was loved and adored right the way across the political spectrum, across the national spectrum and across the world. Certainly, all those who came into contact with him grew to love him and to hold him in great affection. We should perhaps cherish those who are with us now and never forget that we owe that support and friendship.
Charles Kennedy set the industry standard for humour and wit in politics, and I have to say that that was rather distressing to some people who aspired to the foothills of that great Ben Nevis of wit that was Charles Kennedy. For many years, he and Austin Mitchell and Julian Critchley enlivened the airwaves with a three-way commentary on current affairs. They were known as “Critch, Mitch and Titch”, which was unfair. Mitch was obviously for Austin Mitchell, Critch for Julian Critchley, but Titch for Charles Kennedy—no! He was a fine figure of a man in every sense, and my memories are not just of him absolutely creasing the sides of the nation until our ribs ached with the humour, not just on the radio or on television. To comment on the earlier remark made about “Have I Got News for You” that you either had to be prepared to be a prat or Charles Kennedy, I appeared on “Have I Got News for You”. Demonstrably, I am not Charles Kennedy. [Laughter.]
There was another side to Charles. He was a man of very great and deep faith, who drew great strength from the well of that faith. Some people in the Chamber today will know that on Wednesday evenings, when we celebrate mass here in the Undercroft, he would be there, very quietly, very much in the background. I appreciate that it is a Roman Catholic tradition to stand at the back of the church in case there is a collection, but Charles would be there very quietly just worshipping and communing with his God, from whom he drew such strength. I hope you will forgive me, Mr Speaker, for pointing out that tonight, mass will be celebrated for the repose of his soul and for the comfort of his family in the Undercroft chapel.
Charles Kennedy—the words must give us pause to realise how much we have lost, but how blessed we were to have known that great man. Charles Kennedy—may light eternal shine upon him and may he rest in peace.
It may be too sentimental to describe political parties, some big, some perhaps rather too small these days, as families. We could describe this House as a family perhaps today. Today, this family is mourning one of its finest sons. Much more important than that, our thoughts must first and foremost be with the Kennedy family, as all hon. Members have said throughout this very moving set of tributes to a great man.
Like my hon. Friend Greg Mulholland, I was immensely proud to be elected in 2005 under the leadership of Charles Kennedy. I was proud to be one of his foot soldiers. I think back to the time when he ceased to be our leader. It was a particularly harrowing time. In later years, some of us still looked to Charles as the leader of our particular brand of Celtic liberalism.
In 2005 I won by just 219 votes. I have often reflected on what the determining factor was. I have no doubt it was Charles Kennedy’s principled and brave stand on Iraq. When I once attributed my win to him, he told me with characteristic modesty, humility and generosity that I was talking utter nonsense. But I was right. His leadership of our party at that time was engaging, inclusive and inspirational. So too, we must not forget, were some of the perhaps not as frequent as we would have liked appearances in this Chamber in recent years. I still think of the doors opening, Charles arriving to sit down there in the corner in one of those flash light suits, glasses perched on the end of his nose. We knew we were in for a treat and that Charles Kennedy was going to say something of significance and importance. How good it was to rush home on a Thursday night to ensure you were there in time for Charles Kennedy on “Question Time”. Charles the great communicator, Charles with his great capacity, as everyone said, to put everyone at ease, including the nervous, new, unexpected MP, as he had been in 1983 and many of us were subsequently—everyone, from every walk of life.
When he came to Wales, whether he was meeting students, health managers or party activists in Ceredigion, or farmers in the mart in Newcastle Emlyn, whether he was canvassing during the by-election at Tredegar or Blaenau Gwent, he had the same effectiveness with people. Those who know their psephology know that there are not many Liberals in Blaenau Gwent or Tredegar, but it did not matter. Charles Kennedy, knocking on doors, would enjoy meeting people, and he left an impression that would stay with them for the rest of their lives.
Charles Kennedy—dignified, compassionate, principled, honest, yet somehow vulnerable. Above all else, as others have said, he was a fully signed-up member of the human race, a rare breed—a politician who was universally liked if not loved.
I am grateful for the opportunity to pay tribute to Charles Kennedy. As we have heard, he was a politician with all the talents, but as one of the MPs who were here at the time of the Iraq war and as one of the small group of Labour MPs that voted against the Iraq war, I remind the House that it was not just remarkable that Charles Kennedy was the one party leader who took the correct position against the Iraq war. Those of us who opposed the war from the beginning were very worried that in the end Charles Kennedy would not be able to lead his MPs through the Lobby because he was under pressure within his own party. We cannot understate the judgment and courage he showed.
We had the biggest rally in London ever against the war. I remember Charles Kennedy on the platform addressing the crowds and how excited and happy they were to hear him speak. His position on the Iraq war was the right position for him, and it was the right position for his party because he led it to its greatest ever victory. It was also the right position for Westminster politics because the public like nothing better than to see a politician stand on principle. He exemplified that.
Sometimes the people who pay the price for the personal ambitions of MPs are our families and our children. I would like the message to go out to his son that he should never cease to be proud of his father—the best of the political class and the best of men.
I thank all colleagues for what they have said and the way in which they have said it. We must, I am sure, all hope that the warmth of the sentiments expressed and the demonstrable unity of the House on this occasion will offer some, even if modest comfort and succour to the family in the harrowing period that lies ahead.
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, we have a lot of pressing business. Perhaps we can come to it later.