Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Charles Kennedy

Bereft. There's no other word for it.

When the BBC News app shot through with the breaking news on my mobile just after 6am yesterday morning, I found myself lying in bed for an hour just stunned beyond belief.

I didn't really believe it. It couldn't be true. I turned on my laptop after 7am and of course, sadly, it was and is.

Charles Kennedy was leader of the Liberal Democrats when I joined as a green but enthusiastic new student in Aberystwyth in September 2000. I was struck by his youth, his enthusiasm, his internationalism...and his accent. He didn't sound like a politician. He sounded like a normal person. Of course, that's because that's exactly what he was.

His leadership and indeed his political career could probably be encapsulated with his courageous decision to vote against the war in Iraq when the prevailing consensus was overwhelmingly in favour.

I recall doing my first ever media appearance for the party in the 2003 Welsh Liberal Democrat conference in Swansea which happened to fall on the weekend after we went to war in Iraq. I recall the morning of war (was it a Thursday?) and I was walking around the University concourse in a daze in shock at what my country was about to take a part in. I was clear in my mind in that first ever interview, live on Radio Wales that my leader was absolutely correct in his stance. History of course, will treat him kindly for his principled stand.

Meeting Charlie
It was with great excitement that friends and I from the Aberystwyth University student society got to meet with Charles in the Welsh conference of spring 2004 in Mold where he presented us with our 'Best LDYS Student Branch in the UK' award. He spoke to everyone and had that famous common touch that made us all feel relaxed in his company. Exactly what I would want in a leader.

He then amazed me just months later after I was first elected to Ceredigion County Council in June 2004. Aged 21, I was one of Wales' youngest Councillors and awaiting me in my pigeon hole before my first meeting in the Council Chamber was a House of Commons envelope. Who was this from? Lembit Opik I rememeber presuming as he was Welsh Liberal Democrat leader at the time. No, it was from Charles Kennedy. A beautifully handwritten note reminded me that being the youngest elected was no bar to future success with particular reference to David Steel, Matthew Taylor and Sarah Teather. Typical of Charles, he didn't mention himself in that exulted list!

His resignation in early 2006 after leading the party to its greatest House of Commons representation since the days of David Lloyd George was a blow but rumours within the party of his fight with alcohol had been abound for some time. Even as a young member, my student colleagues and I weren't immune to the rumours but that was all they were. I vividly recall the 2004 spring federal conference in Southport when, looking gaunt, Charles sweated profusely throughout his main conference concluding speech. I remember leaving the auditorium and the clamour from the media was for comment on his health. I recall particularly, Sky News looking to track down a young activist to give comment and having now been a member for a few years sensed a trap for newer members so I leapt in and offered myself to say a few words. I honestly accepted the formal statement that Charles was not well. There may have been rumours, but I couldn't believe them. Of course in hindsight, his core team were shielding him the best they could. But the media wouldn't relent. Clearly not getting the response from myself that they were looking for, they cleverly changed tack and asked who I believed may be the next leader after Charles in the future. They were clearly digging for the names of rival leadership candidates and I recall momentarily considering the question before responding, out of nowhere, that the future leadership of the party after Charles Kennedy hadn't even crossed my mind as it was years down the road. It was snappily good response and Sky News gave in on their interrogation. Apparently, my comments were part of a package of responses that were relayed on a news loop throughout the rest of that day on Sky News.

The Future
The birth of Donald was greeted with joy from the party faithful but sadly, the marriage was dissolved and as the years went on, concerns continued to be raised as he had now opened up publicly to his demons. His recent and sadly, final performance of BBC's Question Time showed that he was still not well and with the death of his father in April, I was personally very concerned about how he may respond to a defeat in May in a Nationalist SNP landslide. I therefore made the rare decision of directly supporting a candidate outside of Wales in the election campaign. I donated £50 to play my part in the hopeful re-election of a man who I admired so deeply. In return, I received another handwritten letter of gratitude for my contribution. It was written in the same hand-written scrawl as the letter that I received over a decade earlier. Again, that personal touch went such a long way.

The tsunami that swept the party's parliamentary representation away in the early hours of the 8th May left only 8 in its wake. Sadly, Charles was not one of them. Yet in his speech, his typical humour shone through. He seemed to have taken it so much better than Danny Alexander had taken his defeat in the neighbouring constituency.

He spoke about his intention to contribute in the forthcoming referendum debate on Britain's involvement in the European Union. As a fellow staunch internationalist, I was looking forward to his passionate contributions over the coming 12 months. Sadly, it will not be.

Even more sadly, he leaves young Donald and his family to mourn the loss of a much loved father and family man.

With a third increase in membership of over 16,000 to over 61,000 since polling day and an imminent leadership contest vote just weeks away, the party that he so proudly led will move on.

But it will do so without one of liberalism's most passionate advocates. As a good and close friend of mine succinctly put it:
"I didn't think it was possible for liberals to wake up to worse news than the results on 8th May. I was wrong".
Rest in Peace Charles. Your work here is done and you have left a lasting legacy of love, humour, action and commitment to the progressive cause. Sleep well brother.