Charles Peter Kennedy was born on the 25th November 1959 at Inverness in Scotland, but spent most of his childhood at Fort William, where he attended the local Lochaber High School. His father, Ian Kennedy was a draughtsman with Scotish Hydroelectric but also owned and ran a small farm, thereby enabling Charles to later claim that he was a crofter's son when it suited his purpose. Charles' father has since stated that his son's approach to schoolwork was to "Do enough to get by without knocking your pan out". He clearly did enough to win a place studying Politics and Philosophy at the University of Glasgow. There he was president of the Glasgow University Union in 1980-1981, became a leading member of the University's debating club, the Dialectic Society, and won the Observer Mace Debating Tournament in 1982. He also earned himself the nickname of 'Taxi Kennedy' thanks to his aversion to walking and his preference for hiring minicabs for even the shortest of journeys.
After university he briefly worked as journalist for BBC Highland before gaining a Fulbright scholarship to Indiana University in the United States, where he began work on his doctoral thesis, taking as his subject the political rhetoric of Roy Jenkins.
Early Political Career
Although Charles had joined the Labour Party when he was fifteen he later shared in the disillusionment experienced by many regarding that party's direction and whilst at university joined the breakaway Social Democratic Party (SDP). He later agreed to stand as the SDP candidare for the constituency of Ross, Cromarty and Skye1, (then held by Hamish Gray for the Labour Party), in the 1983 General Election. Since Charles had no expectation of winning, he returned to the United States as soon as the polls had closed without waiting for the result. It appears to have come as somewhat of a surprise to him when he found out that he had in fact won, and rushed back to the United Kingdom to take his seat in parliament becoming, at the tender age of twenty-three, the youngest MP in the House at the time.
Since the SDP had only a handful or two of MPs, he soon found himself propelled to the front bench and was variously the party's spokesman for social security, Scotland and health over the following years. In 1988 he came out strongly in support of the proposed merger with the Liberal Party that duly went ahead and created the Liberal Democrats.
Subsequent to the merger, he was President of the Liberal Democrats from 1990 to 1994, following which he was their spokesperson on European Affairs (1994-1997) and 'Team Leader' on Agriculture and Rural Affairs 1997-1999. During this time he also began to appear regularly on television chatshows and panel shows such as Call my Bluff, Countdown, Through the Keyhole and Have I Got News For You, earning himself the nickname of 'Chatshow Charlie'. However much he hated this sobriquet (and he hid) it was at least some recognition of his success in winning for himself a higher than usual public profile. This may well have been sufficient to encourage him to put himself forward as a candidate to succeed Paddy Ashdown when he decided to stand down as a party leader. In the subsequent contest Charles eventually defeated the runner up Simon Hughes by a margin of 57% to 43%, being duly elected party leader on the 9th August 1999.
Leader of the Liberal Democrats
His predecessor Paddy Ashdown had followed a policy of alliance with the Labour Party in the belief that the two parties shared similar objectives and in the hope that a Labour government might deliver some degree of electoral reform. However once elected it soon became clear that Tony Blair would not deliver on his promise to hold a referendum on the issue of electoral reform, thus demonstrating the futility of such a policy.
On assuming the leadership, Charles Kennedy abandoned such ideas and sought to establish the Liberal Democrats as a credible party of government on its own terms. In contrast to his predecessor he appeared
rather laid back and earned himself the nickname of 'inaction man' and was oftened to be criticised for apparently lacking the energy to make the most of the opportunities. Possibly as a result of this he pursued what has been referred to as a 'collegiate style' of leadership, which in practice meant allowing his front bench spokesman some degree of latitude in making policy pronouncements. This in turn is often attributed as the source of the phenomenon whereby the Liberal Democrats often appeared to be simultaneously adopting positions that were alternatively to the left and to the right of New Labour.2
Cultivating a 'man of the people' image, Charles Kennedy was generally regarded as a popular figure who was an asset to his party. Under his leadershio the Liberal Democrats became the only major British political party to oppose the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and took a leading role in opposing many of New Labour's myriad anti-terrorism measures. More importantly the party continued to make electoral gains. At the 2001 General Election the party increased its share of the vote to 18.3%, (a 1.5% increase from 1997) and won a total of fifty-two seats. Four years later in 2005 the party was rewarded with sixty-two seats, this being best third party election result since 1923.
Given this record of electoral achievement it might come as a surprise to discover that many in the party regarded the outcome of the 2005 election with disappointment. The problem was that many in the party had hoped for better, and indeed Kennedy's own much vaunted 'decapitation strategy', had led them to believe that the party was on the verge of a crucial breakthrough. The 'decapitation strategy' involved targeting a number of constituencies held by key members of the Conservative Party, with the intention of replacing them with Lib Dems and creating the perception that the Liberal Democrats had now replaced the Tories as the 'official opposition'. However with the exception of the Shadow Education Secretary Tim Collins who lost his seat in Westmorland and Lonsdale, this strategy largely failed, with all the major 'targets' re-elected with scarcely a scratch on their political reputations.
In the aftermath of the General Election, the Conservative Party leader Michael Howard resigned and the party began a long-winded process of electing a successor. Many leading Liberal Democrats were disappointed that Kennedy failed to capitalise on this opportunity to bash their rivals, which together with the perceived failure of the decapitation strategy led them to question whether Charles was the right man to lead the party.
This perception was amplified with the election of David Cameron as leader of the Conservative Party. Although Cameron had held the post for little more than a month, his subsequent promotion of a 'caring-sharing' Conservatism (which appeared almost tailor-made to appeal to Liberal Democrat voters) soon threw the Liberal Democrat party into a state bordering panic.
Recent press reports which revealed that Kennedy had been in breach of the electoral law regarding his acceptance of free flights, and that the party had apparently accepted one or two significant donations that were also in contravention of the law, did not, of course help, whilst the party's 2005 conference was also widely regarded as a shambolic affair, for which Kennedy was blamed for his failure to give a clear lead.
All of which amounts to the fact that by the latter half of 2005 there were many Liberal Democrats who had become disatisfied with Kennedy's position as leader.
It has long been known that Charles was fond of a drink. During the leadership contest of 1999 he described himself as an "up front social drinker", but the suspicion has always been that his alcohol intake went somewhat beyond that of a typical social drinker. In fact to be quite honest Charles has attracted the reputation of being a drunk, and such notions have been the staple ingredient of political humour for a number of years.
It now appears that Charles began drinking heavily during the 1990s. It said that during this period his romance with the literary agent Georgina Capel came to grief as the result of an incident when a rather tipsy Charles urninated all over Ms Capel's only manuscript copy of An Evil Cradling by Brian Keenan. Piers Morgan, former editor of the Daily Mirror, has also recorded how both he and Kennedy became "horrendously drunk" at Wimbledon, whilst tales have since emerged of Charles swigging mouthwash enroute to campaign meetings in an attempt to disguise his most recent drinking bour.
Although Charles has since admitted that he was indeed an alcoholic during this time, both he and his party consistently denied that he had any kind of drink problem. In 2002 there was a famous incident when Jeremy Paxman, exercising his well-known talent for subtlety, posed the question "Do you drink privately? At home alone do you finish off a bottle of Scotch?". Kennedy denied any such thing and afterwards complained to the BBC. Although the BBC later apologised for the accusation, Paxman himself refused to endorse the apology.
Despite Charles emphatic denials there were a number of occasions on which he appeared to be too 'tired and emotional' to carry out his duties as party leader. There was the notable occasion in June 2003 failed to appear in the Commons when Gordon Brown made the announcement that Britain would not be joining the Euro. (An issue of particular interest to the Liberal Democrats.) Many regarded his absence was not unconnected with the fact that he had been the guest of honour the previous night at a party celebrating his twenty years as an MP. It was a similar no show for the 2004 Budget debate, but when The Times had the temerity to suggest that this was as a result of his over-indulgence in alcohol the paper was forced under the threat of legal action to print an apology.
Thus despite being described as "the worst kept secret in Westminster", Charles appeared confident in his ability to continue denying that he had a drink problem. Indeed, when he appeared on Desert Island Discs, he responded to Sue Lawley's questions on the subject by blaming the media for perpetuating the sterotype of the "red-headed Highlander from the north of Scotland".
Sometime in 2004 what are described as "four top party figures" 3approached Kennedy and threatened to resign unless he sought professional help for his drink problem. At the time Kennedy acquiesced and appears to given the impression that he would stand down as leader following the 2005 General Election. However in the immediate aftermath Charles called a snap leadership election, in which he was the only candidate, thereby confirming his position for the immediate future and confounding his enemies4. Now a family man (his first child was born at the beginning of the election campaign) it seemed as if Charles might now have the incentive to conquer his problems.
On the 15th November 2005 he appeared at a meeting of the front bench somewhat under the weather and later that day addressed a student meeting at the London School of Economics where his performance was described as "stumbling" and "embarrassing". He later cancelled a projected visit to Newcastle, and although he cited his son's ill health as the reason, many concluded that he was now back on the drink in a big way. It was at this point that some senior Liberal Democrats began anonymously briefing journalists with anti-Kennedy information. This 'briefing against' soon became a media issue, with Kennedy loyalists protesting about the underhand nature of this whispering campaign, but it was clear that there was a substantial faction within the party to get rid of Kennedy.
The issue finally came to a head at another front bench meeting on the 13th December when the deputy leader Menzies Campbell insisted that Charles must resolve the question regarding the lack of confidence in his leadership. This seemed to have encouraged his opponents to become more vocal in their opposition and it became clear that he was now locked in a battle to retain his position as leader. Whilst Kennedy appeared resolved to fight on many now regarded him as dead in the water. As Boris Johnson wrote at the time "He is more endangered than the giant panda, whose laid back style he so brilliantly emulates".
The independent magazine The Liberal began an online 'Kennedy Must Go' petition and soon claimed that they had obtained the 'signatures' of over 3,000 party members, including 386 local councillors and two MPs. Despite doubts about the vailidity of such petitions it was indicative of the level of disatisfaction in the party, although it failed to make much impression on Charles, who continued to deny that there was any kind of problem.
Everything changed on the 5th January 2006, when ITN5 confronted Kennedy with the information that they would be running a news item that evening making public the evidence they had gathered confirming that he had indeed been receiving treatment for alcohol addiction. Charles was thus forced to issue a statement admitting that he had been receiving treatment for what he referred to as "this medical problem - one that is dealt with successfully by many others on a daily basis", and claimed that he had been 'dry' for the past two months. But now that the issue was in the public domain his critics came out into the open. Two of his key front bench team ,Andrew George (international development) and Norman Lamb (trade and industry), threatened to resign if Kennedy continued as leader, whilst Vince Cable, (Shadow Chancellor), delivered a letter signed by himself and another ten members of Kennedy's Shadow Cabinet, calling on him to go. Only Lembit Opik (Northern Ireland) and Mark Oaten (Home Affairs) came out in favour of him staying on as leader.
Such levels of opposition did not initally appear to deter Charles. In an apparently last ditch effort to save his position he decided to call a leadership election, effectively appealing to the party membership over the heads of the parliamentary party. On Friday, 7th January an interview appeared in The Independent in which Kennedy confirmed his determination to fight on, but by the afternoon of that same day he had changed his mind. He called a press conference and announced that he was resigning with "immediate effect", and that Menzies Campbell had agreed to act as interim leader until such time as an election could be held.
In 2002 Charles Kennedy married Sarah Gurling, the sister of his best friend James Gurling, whom he met whilst she was helping Paddy Ashdown with his election campaign in 1997. They have one son, Donald James Kennedy born on 12th April 2005.
Charles is also the author of The Future of Politics, (HarperCollins Year, 2002).
1 The seat has gone through a number of changes since 1983 and is now known as Ross, Skye and Lochaber and includes within its boundaries, Charles' former home town of Fort William.
2 Which is itself symptomatic of the inherent divide that exists in the party between so-called 'economic' and 'social' liberals within the party.
3 One of whom, at least, has been identified as Matthew Taylor.
4 The rules of the Liberal Democrats require a leadership contest to be held within a year of a General Election, but don't specify exactly when. Charlie simply called the contest before anyone was ready to challenge him.
4 As it happens ITN now employ a certain Daisy McAndrew. She just happens to have once been Charles' press secretary and so presumably knows exactly where the bodies are buried.
Charles Kennedy Biographies at
- Brian Wheeler, The Charles Kennedy story, 7 January 2006,
- Embattled Kennedy quits as leader, 7 January 2006
- Kennedy admits battling alcohol, 5 January 2006
From the Independent on Sunday, 8th January 2006
- Greg Hurst, Kennedy locked in battle to survive as allies desert, December 15, 2005
- Jenny Booth and agencies, Charles Kennedy defies growing revolt from his MPs , January 06, 2006
- Marie Woolf and Francis Elliot, The plot that sank Kennedy and The lies, the drink and the cover-up
- John Rentoul Popular, principled and flawed and Whodunnit? Cameron, of course