President John F Kennedy (1917 – 1963)
When I reflect on my childhood, I remember my parents (and those of their generation) talking of moments frozen in their collective memories. Perhaps unsurprisingly given my age, I couldn’t understand how such a wide and varied selection of individuals could share a singular point in time.
The most obvious and now cliched example cited by them was the fact that everyone knew where they were when they heard of the death of President Kennedy.
The first time I became aware of this linkage between location and passing was the death of Elvis Presley. I have no idea why I was at Birmingham New Street station with my parents, but I know exactly which of the waiting rooms I was in when evening television was interrupted with the news of his death.
In common with most British nationals, I have a similar experience with hearing the news of the death of Diana Princess of Wales. She above all others, probably mirrors the American ‘frozen moment’ associated with Kennedy.
However, all three of these examples were leading figures on the world stage either through politics, celebrity or status. It is rare for our politicians to make such an impact.
John Smith (19??-1994)
Firstly, I should declare myself as being politically engaged rather than a follower or member of any political party. I often find my political views dotted across the traditional political spectrum.
However, I remember the sense of shock and huge loss when the sudden and unexpected death of John Smith (Labour leader in the mid 1990’s) was announced. For many supporters of the Labour party – and those like me of no particular party – he was perhaps the greatest Prime Minister we never had. Interestingly, he was far from the traditional politician of his day.
John Smith was religious at a time when secular MP’s were the norm, he had worked in ‘the real world’ becoming a QC before entering politics but came from a very traditional Scottish working class background. He was some distance from the ‘ideal’ often described by many of the public and most of the political selection committees of the time.
Then we come to today. In the United Kingdom, I sense the same sense of shock, loss and wasted opportunity with the death of a rare politician. Not JFK but CPK.
Charles Kennedy (1959 – 2015)
Charles (Peter) Kennedy was one of those unusual politicians with whom you could disagree strongly but still admire for their honesty and humanity.
His death was announced today and although he had recently lost his seat at the 2015 general election, the overwhelming sense I feel is one of huge loss and wasted potential.
Again, it struck me that Charles Kennedy was some distance from the ‘ideal’ MP we so often say we seek.
Perhaps the most obvious difference is life experience. The British public consistently say they want fewer ‘professional politicians’. We want our MP’s to have previous life experience on which to draw. Charles Kennedy was first elected to the House of Commons at the tender age of 23 having no signficant business or professional career. He was the youngest MP with his previous experience being university debating. However, this didn’t stop him being one of the most natural politicians in the house.
The tribute from the Speaker of the House of Commons is notable for a number of reasons. The speaker (whilst politically neutral in his role) is a conservative MP. He is clearly moved and gives a warm and glowing tribute to a former member of the House. This genuine and wide ranging praise was reflected across all parties and factions within Parliament.
Then we turn to Gravitas. How often do we cringe at our politicians and their attempts to get ‘down with the kids’ or gain ‘street cred’ by undertaking some form of political stunt? Kennedy ignored warnings of falling on his face even becoming known briefly as ‘Chat show Charlie’. He is probably the only politician to survive appearing on Have I got News for You.
As in this appearance on that programme, Kennedy often undertook these against advice and public expectation. However, almost uniquely he managed to pull off the trick of being seen as both a credible politician and a human being.
Then we turn to being a ‘middle Englander’. Not meant literally, this refers to a politician belonging to the middle ground. Charles Kennedy was far from this.
In a time where being a proud Scot can be problematic, Charles Kennedy was not only this, but more importantly a proud Highlander (a distinction missed by many in England). Nobody could have been more proudly Caledonian, yet, not unusually for such a thoughtful politician, he was staunchly pro the United Kingdom. He spoke out publically and actively against the move to independence for Scotland.
Anyone doubting his true roots only needs to watch his concession speach. The Sgian Dubh (skee n Doo) referenced in his speech is the knife worn along with the kilt as part of traditional highland dress. Anyone wishing to paint themselves as a man of the United Kingdom would be unlikely to start from here – yet he managed it with ease accepted, liked and respected on both sides of the border.
Then the whole question of clean living. Arguably, we the great British public want a non drinking, non smoking, a-sexual athiest to represent us. At least that is the impression we often give.
In his tribute to the former Liberal Democrat leader, Ken Clarke described him as being the last politician to enjoy debate in smoke filled rooms. As a Scottish highlander, it should come as no surprise that he had been photographed enjoying a wee dram.
However, it was that battle against alcohol which cost him his leadership of the Liberal Democrats. Many well placed in the party believe he would still be leader had this been manageable or handled differently. It’s certainly one of those questions how different the UK would be today if that had been the case. Kennedy opposed the coalition with the Conservatives; It is hard to imagine anything stronger than an offer of confidence and supply under his leadership.
That said, I remember seeing the Question Time debate in which this most able of political commentators appeared to struggle with his demons.
It is certainly unfair to overstate this problem (and who doesn’t have problems in their lives). Indeed, his apparent difficulties may have more to do with his father suffering a fall shortly before going to air. Whatever the truth, there are reportedly lengthy periods where he wouldn’t drink and was far from the uncontrolled alcoholic. There is no suggestion that his death was alcohol related and in some ways, his public battle made him all the more human.
So given these apparent issues what made him such a compelling and popular politician. I can’t better the summary given by Harriot Harman MP – again not of his own party who summed up (at least for me) what Charles Kennedy brought to political life.
For myself, (as someone who is politicallly non-aligned) I will greatly miss this conviction politician. His staunch and unwavering critique of the Iraq war at a time when that was politically unpopular marked him out as a courageous and thoughtful politician. I for one wish we had more of these and were able to make more allowance for human frailties in all their forms.
Charles Kennedy divorced five years ago but remained a doting father to his son Donald. As someone who lost my father at a similarly young age, I know some of the challenges he may face. However, whatever the future may hold, Donald should always be increadibly proud of his fathers achievements and humanity.The cross party tributes to this popular politician show some of the reasons.