Tuesday, June 02, 2015

To speak of a friend

A man who smoked, who famously refused to exercise, who even more famously drank way too much, who was middle aged, male and Scottish has died only 55. In a way, therefore, Charles Kennedy was a young death foretold. Yet, still it has been a heartbreaking day for those who admired him, or liked him or who knew him.

I know that there have been a hundred "the Charles Kennedy I knew" pieces in every media outlet today. It is hard to offer anything more than cliche or stereotype.

I have known Charles since I was 19, and he was 25. I -like so many others- was caught in his charm: his all too human charm. His death was not necessarily a surprise, but my God it has been a shock. A bitter reminder of how near mortality really is. 

What has made this day so painful has been to understand that Charles, as brilliant, warm, clever and charming as he was, never did escape the doom that was pronounced upon him when he was elected aged only 23 as the MP for the West Highlands. It was the best thing and the worst thing that ever happened to him. It made him as a public figure, but perhaps it was the undoing of him as a man. 

For when I first met him he had much of the same awareness of himself as a public figure as Lembit Opik had when he too was first elected to the House of Commons -far too young. In the face of such expectations and adulation, it was hard to retain a sense of self, but whereas Lembit was a secure extrovert, Charles was not. As Alastair Campbell noted in his touching eulogy today, there was a corner of Charles that very few, if any, ever really knew. Outwardly controlled and confident, inwardly Charles was shy, and intense and eternally questioning: he was a sceptic, but most of all he questioned his own motives and his own agenda. This made him a unique political figure but it made him also a man who would never give himself the benefit of the doubt.

He was a man of passion: David Bowie, good debate, the Highlands, alcohol, politics, people, music, all found their place in the heart of this big hearted man. He was a later convert to Liberalism, having made a political migration to become a convinced Liberal, but in truth there was no other cause that a man of such integrity could have truly followed.

To see today the genuine pain and loss that his many friends feel at his death is to understand that this flawed, occasionally difficult, even impossible, man was so beloved. People liked Charles: he was all too human.

Yet though I have known him superficially for decades, I never truly knew him, for in the end he was a withheld and private man. Perhaps he believed in a purity of spirit which invites disappointment; perhaps he never found a place of comfortable observation. He was a remarkable intelligence, a gifted speaker- as all good University debaters should be- and a shrewd judge of character, yet he judged himself harshly, and his conscience would not admit of the slightest moral compromise. Kind to others and too harsh to himself.

Charles Kennedy had an acute and ready understanding of politics. His idea of a new party for Scotland may yet prove to be the future, but it will only work if it has Charles' own warmth, tolerance and humanity. Internationalist, Liberal, European, Highlander, British. open and decent: this was the man. 

May his legacy and Liberal vision live on.      

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