Serving professional journalism since 1912

Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Journalists

Charles Kennedy

It was an unlikely venue to meet a rising star of the SDP. On the first night of the Conservative Party conference in Blackpool in 1989, I had been chatting to a couple of political reporters at the bar of the Imperial Hotel.  As on most such occasions, the barman was being kept pretty busy.

I had been accredited as a reporter at the conference to do some “colour pieces” for the East-Midlands-based newspaper group for whom I wrote a weekly political column, The Trader Group – then owned by Derby journalist and entrepreneur, Lionel Pickering.

I hadn’t been there long when I bumped into a cheerful, chatty, red-haired Scot whom I recalled had been elected to Parliament for the Social Democratic Party in 1983.  Just two years after we met, following the formal merger of the SDP and Liberal Party, my conference companion over a few drinks became President of the newly-formed Liberal Democrats.

So what exactly was an SDP MP doing at the Tory Party Conference?

The gregarious Scot in question was Charles Kennedy, who, after graduating with an MA in Politics and Philosophy from Glasgow University had worked for BBC Scotland as a journalist.  It was an Editor at “Today” who hit on the idea of Charles using his journalist background  to do an “outsider-looking-in” style coverage of the Conservative gathering for the Radio 4 programme.  Which is how he came to be running shoulders with other journalists – and a good few Tory MP’s in Blackpool!

In 1983 Kennedy was studying at Indian University – having received a Fulbright scholarship – when he received the SDP nomination  to stand for the Ross, Cromarty and Skye constituency in General Election.  In a shock result he became the then-youngest sitting Member of Parliament (at 23) defeating the sitting Conservative Hamish Grey.

He retained his seat at the at the 1987 General Election and was the first SDP to support a formal alliance with the Liberals – with whom they finally merged the following year.

I met Charles a few times at the House of Commons after our first encounter and two years later we persuaded him to be the guest speaker at the Institute’s Annual Dinner during the CIoJ Conference in Glasgow. Somewhere in the Institute archives we should have some photographs of him at the dinner where he proved a highly entertaining after-dinner speaker!

He was Liberal Democrat Party President from 1990 to ’94 and Lib Dem Leader of the House of Commons from 1997 to 1999.  In that year Charles was elected leader of the Lib Dems after Paddy Ashdown retired – beating four other candidates with 57% of the “transferred” vote.

His affable, and relatively laid-back style was particularly in evidence in his appearances on the satirical panel show “Have I Got News for You?” and as a result, some commentators dubbed him “Chatshow Charlie”.

But his affable style was not a “performance” – it was part of the genuine down-to earth nature of the man, who was a witty and talented debater – indeed, he had won the Observer Mace Debating Competition in 1982.  He was, in that awful phrase, a “ people person”, who was at ease in the company of folk from every kind of background. His manner put everyone he met at ease.

Under his leadership, in 2001 the Lib Dems won 52 seats with 18.3 percent of the vote and then in 2005 was at the helm when his party took 62 seats -their greatest number of seats since 1923, with 22% of the vote.  They took a good number of seats from Labour – especially in constituencies

Although there had been rumour about his health around the time of the 2003 invasion of Iraq (which Charles and the Liberal Democrats opposed – the only major British party to do so) and the 2004 Budget, but it was not until 2006, when Charles was informed that ITN would report he was being treated for a drink problem that the story finally broke.  He decided to get his announcement in before the broadcast and held a news conference to confirm that he had sought profession help for a drinking problem.

He told reporters he had now been dry for two months and would call a leadership contest – in which he planned to be a candidate.  Twenty five of his MP’s called on him to resign in a public statement and – despite a great deal of support from grass-roots party members he decided to stand down as leader.  He continued in the Commons as a backbencher until he lost his Ross Skye and Lochaber seat in the SNP tidal wave that swept Scotland in the May General election this year.

Less  than a month later he died suddenly at his Fort William Home of a haemorrhage linked to his struggle with alcohol.

Charles had married Sarah Gurling in July 2002, but they were divorced in December 2010.  Their son was in the gallery with his former wife when the House of Commons paid tribute to Charles – with politicians of all persuasions remarking on his sincerity and thorough-going decency.  He was a gentleman among politicians and, like those MP’s, I feel privileged to have known him.

As for those Today commentaries on the Tory Party Conference he did for the Today programme; I confess I never did hear them. I fear I was too busy each morning writing up material from the day before!   But, knowing him – even a little – I don’t doubt they were both witty and incisive.  Politics and journalism have lost a very fine man.

Paul Leighton. President