Book review: Charles Kennedy: A Tragic Flaw by Greg Hurst

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I had a chance to read this recently updated book while on holiday in West Africa. It is a remarkably fine volume. Painstakingly researched and impeccably sourced, it offers a skillfully balanced portrait of a remarkable and inspiring man. As the title suggests, the author does not hold back on the human frailties of its subject but these are, nevertheless, presented as part of a rounded, fair and endearing commentary. I feel this book helps us to inch forward a little further in understanding the rather enigmatic Charles Kennedy, while deconstructing a few myths along the way.

I’ll pick out a few parts of the book which particularly caught my attention:

The Liberal Democrat party has often been portrayed as having “done a dirty” on Charles Kennedy – unceremoniously dropping him as leader and not supporting him through his illness. The book makes clear that this is simply wrong. There are many examples given of those around Charles Kennedy making strenuous efforts to help him over years.

Far from the party “hounding” Kennedy, Greg Hurst suggests the opposite; that because Kennedy was so respected, and out of sensitivity for him, the party held off and hesitated in its deliberations concerning him.

The book also makes clear the great efforts which Kennedy himself made to try to deal with his alcoholism, including sincere attendance of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in Glasgow. There is also some insight into this area offered via Alistair Campbell.

It is easy to assume that the “Tragic Flaw” referred toTragic flaw Charles Kennedy
in the book’s title is alcoholism. In fact, the author goes a little deeper:

The most arresting change in Charles Kennedy as he progressed from star student debater to contender for party leader was in his self-confidence.

The author says that in the mid-1990s a serious lack of self-esteem became apparent to some of those around him, concluding:

Alcohol may have been a symptom rather than a cause.

There is much in the book about Charles’ time in the SDP, and how he played a leading role in nudging that party towards merger and the formation of the Liberal Democrats. There is one tale of Charkles Kennedy taking dear old Bob Maclennan, somewhat distraught at an impasse in the inter-party negotiations, aside to gently console and encourage him.

It is worth reading the book to understand better the history of the Liberal Democrats during the Labour government 1997-2010. The story of the 2001 general election was particularly interesting given the close liaison between the Liberal Democrats and Labour. Our campaign leader was phoning Labour virtually everyday to check that we were co-ordinating our “grids” with them. That is quite remarkable in retrospect.

There is some very good detail of Charles Kennedy on the campaign trail during the 2001 general election. The appendices contain a very humble note from him, on what went well and what didn’t go so well during the campaign. It is clear that Charles liked to have old friends or relatives with him in the campaign bus.

Also in the appendices there is an hilarious Glasgow University Union debate order paper from 1980. There are very interesting extracts from a memo from Tim Razzall, general election campaign director, after the 2005 general election. We won 62 seats but somehow the ensuing media spin turned this into a near-disaster – “they should have done so much better”. Nowadays we look back at those 62 seats with great reverence – and it is clear they were won largely because of the public’s trust in Charles Kennedy and because of his stance on Iraq. The disintegration of the Conservative party also helped.

Greg Hurst details Kennedy’s bid to become Rector of Glasgow University, after his leadership years, and his subsequent holding of the post. He really did throw himself into the role, spending a great amount of time on it.

There is also much about Charles Kennedy’s original student days in Glasgow – particularly his debating. He excelled in “mid-evening and, particularly, government pre-question time rounds”. Another member of the debating club, John Morrison, himself sadly taken from us far too young, said that Charles’ “conversational conference speech style” could be traced back to those Glasgow sessions.

Both for his great service as Rector and his notable contributions as a student, it is no wonder that Charles Kennedy has been posthumously honoured so much by the great Glaswegian institution.

It is also very cheering to read of Charles Kennedy’s campaigning style in the Highlands. He didn’t do doorstepping. He spoke at loads of public meetings accompanied by his father on the fiddle. This seemed to strike a real chord with locals – and seems to have been one of the main reasons behind Charles’ original meteoric election as an MP.

One thing this book does is to outline the enormous family pressure Charles Kennedy was under in his final years. Due to an accident his brother had become quadriplegic and his father was ailing – and this was only shortly after losing his mother. Kennedy had a great deal of responsibility on his shoulders as a family carer, as well as being expected to play a key role in the “No” campaign for the Scottish referendum.

All in all, this is a great book. If you haven’t read it already, I urge you to do so.

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