Charles Kennedy’s first parliamentary election, fought at the young age of twenty-three, must have been quite an experience and winning it even more so. Kennedy went on to hold variations of the constituency until 2015, first for the SDP and then the Liberal Democrats.
This is a testament to his popularity amongst the highlanders he had grown up with. He joined a parliament dominated with a landslide Thatcher majority and her revolution was yet to develop on to its second phase. The SDP group had just six members (the majority of defectors had been defeated) and its leader Roy Jenkins decided to call it a day. His successor, David Owen, was determined to keep the new party alive at all costs.
Even after a further setback in 1987, Owen resisted proposals to merge with the Liberals. This effectively killed off the SDP. Kennedy supported the merger and became President of the Liberal Democrats in 1990. By then, he was firmly established as a front runner for the party leadership. He was popular with both party members and the wider electorate, thanks to his charm and gift for straight talking – a rare but winning combination in politics.
When the post of leader became vacant in 1999, Kennedy was successful in defeating five others to lead a parliamentary group of forty-six. Kennedy’s first general election contest as leader came in 2001, when the Liberal Democrats increased their number by eight. Four years later, the party won in sixty-three constituencies – the highest Liberal tally since 1923.
Kennedy’s finest hour came in 2003 when he was alone in leading a major party opposed to the invasion of Iraq. On addressing the House, Kennedy was forced to contend with heckles from Conservative and Labour benches. Kennedy was further criticised for agreeing to speak at the national rally against the war in London on 15 February 2003. History however, proved him and the party to be right.
The Liberal Democrat honeymoon period after the 2005 General Election was cut short in part, due to Kennedy’s problems with alcohol. After losing the support of the parliamentary party, he resigned as leader on 7 January 2006. His departure signalled an ideological shift for the party and soon, the man firmly on the centre-left grew uncomfortable with his party’s coalition with the Conservative Party in 2010. In fact, Kennedy was the only member of the parliamentary party to vote against a formal coalition.
Kennedy lost his seat to the SNP in 2015 and died just a few weeks later, aged fifty-five. It was a tragic end to a thrilling public life. Charles Kennedy was and will remain a man universally loved by millions and a true highland warrior.
David is a member of Horsham and Crawley Liberal Democrats