Greg Hurst’s biography of Charles Kennedy was first published in 2006 and updated after Kennedy died in June, 2015. In fact, the book was commissioned before Kennedy resigned as Liberal Democrat Leader and he did not wish to be interviewed for it. One of Kennedy’s great strengths as a politician was his ability to identify long term consequences where others saw only short term gain. If he detected danger to his own legacy in Hurst’s project, he was probably right to do so.
The title initially suggests that that Kennedy’s life was some kind of cosmic error but, on closer inspection, defines it by the fact that he was an alcoholic. That is certainly what the tabloid media took from Hurst’s biography when it was praised in 2006 for revealing the “extent” of Kennedy’s drinking and again in 2015 for providing “additional information” on the same subject. Kennedy’s generosity in giving his approval for political friends and former staff to speak to Hurst only adds to the impression of a good man, ill-used. Still, the fact that all but two chapters of the biography was written ten years ago means that it is now read with the wisdom of hindsight which makes it more interesting than it was the first time.
When 25 Lib Dem MPs signed a statement urging Kennedy to resign in January 2006, for instance, they had his drinking in mind but there were other motives at work. It is remarkable that a Lib Dem putsch was once national news when the party no longer have enough MPs to mount one and nobody would care if it did. It’s even more remarkable that some party members thought the 62 MPs delivered under Kennedy in the 2005 general election was a relative failure and they would do better with someone else at the helm. The Lib Dems were the largest third party at Westminster since 1923, but not everyone appreciated the achievement. Those who followed Kennedy – Campbell and Clegg – had such a sobering effect that they are now reduced to eight MPs.
It is also clear in retrospect how young Kennedy was when he first went to Westminster; how different his background from the usual run of metropolitan politicians; and the degree to which he depended on native wit and debating skills honed at Glasgow University. His 1983 maiden speech was indicative of what was to come. His defeated opponent in Ross, Cromarty & Skye, Hamish Gray, was made a peer by Thatcher and Kennedy made hay: “I hope that three million people, many of whom lost their jobs largely as a result of government policies, will shortly be placed, as a result of Prime Ministerial decision, in much better jobs.”
Kennedy’s objection to preferment for political failure echoes down the years as does his treatment in the Commons during the debate on the Iraq War. Heckled by Labour and Conservative members, labelled “Charlie Chamberlain” and called a coward by a Tory who wanted to invade Iraq from the safety a Common’s seat, Kennedy maintained his opposition even as Ashdown was writing to Blair to tell him he was doing the right thing. Kennedy saw the probable consequences of Iraq as he did when opposing the Tory Lib Dem coalition, speaking out against tuition fees and questioning the conduct of the No side in the Scottish referendum.
One of the chapters that Hurst added to the original biography is a consideration of Kennedy’s place in history and it is surprisingly ungenerous. Kennedy’s success, he argues, was the product of the good work done by those who preceded him and “Paddy Ashdown was the most successful third party leader since the Edwardian Liberals, not Charles Kennedy.” The last few pages are not about Kennedy at all but Nick Clegg who was “right to go into coalition” and will be judged kindly by history. It’s a strange way to end to the story of Charles Kennedy who, frankly, we are no closer to understanding at the end of the book than we were at the beginning. The defining elements in his life seem to be beyond Hurst’s ken. He uses the word “Highland” in two chapter titles without showing that he understands it and Kennedy’s Catholicism is reduced to some routine observations from a priest about sophisticated and simple faith. One suspects that there was a lot more to it than that.