Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Farewell Charles Kennedy

I never had the pleasure of meeting Charles Kennedy but I did feel almost as if an old friend had died when I heard about his premature death. It would take a spiteful spirit indeed to contest the general consensus that UK politics has lost one of its very few genuinely good guys.

It would take a poor article indeed not to mention his principled opposition to the murderous folly that was the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Back in 2003 he was the only UK wide party leader to stand in opposition to the invasion (Plaid Cymru and the SNP voted against it too). Charles resolutely stuck by his principles despite despicable efforts to smear his stance as some kind of unacceptable anti-British treachery by his political opponents (especially from the Tories and the right-wing press), and the pleading from many within his party for him to abandon his anti-invasion position.

It doesn't matter so much that he was completely vindicated when the case for war unraveled revealing little but lies, spin and imperialist posturing.

And it's no reward that we were proven right when the invasion gave birth to the predictable wave of appalling sectarian violence, culminating in the rise of ever more extreme Islamist terrorism cults like ISIS.

It's no reward that we were right and the majority of the British establishment were wrong, because hundreds of thousands of people have died and literally millions have been displaced by the devastating instability wrought by those who ignored us. 

What matters is that Charles Kennedy dared to give us a voice, albeit a marginalised one, in the halls of power. Those of us who actively opposed the invasion and occupation of Iraq will never forget Charles Kennedy's principled stance in the face of such vicious criticism.

Another illustration of Charles Kennedy's principles is the fact that while many of his fellow politicians were gaming the parliamentary system to the max by claiming all manner of luxury items, and even using their so-called expenses as a free taxpayer subsidy to fund their speculative property investments (second home flipping), Charles did nothing more than make a few minor oversights. While so many of his peers were enriching themselves to the tune of tens, or even hundreds of thousands of pounds at the taxpayers' expense, the biggest sum he was made to pay back was just £35.75 for some confectionery he'd accidentally claimed.

One of the saddest spectacles in British politics was seeing Charles Kennedy get hounded out of his job by his own MPs, who orchestrated a campaign of leaks and smears relating to his alcohol problems, eventually culminating in the majority of his shadow cabinet forcing him out of his job. When they should have been rallying around to support him in his hour of need, they turned on him and humiliated him. When Margaret Thatcher's MPs turned on her like a nest of vipers, there was some justice in it, for she worshipped at the alter of self-interest, so to see her MPs turning on her and vying for position within the party was just her acolytes following her philosophy of ruthless self-interest to its logical conclusion. There was nothing just about the way the Lib-Dems turned on a good man; a man who turned out to be by far the best and most popular leader they ever had.

In 2010 Charles Kennedy once again proved to be a lone voice of reason, this time counselling against a binding coalition agreement with the Tories, but this time he was ignored, and the Lib-Dems, giddy with opportunism and short-term personal ambition, formed a consensus in favour of such a strategically inept move.

What followed was a five year long vindication of Charles Kennedy's decision to speak out against entering a pact with the Tories (the tuition fees debacle,  secret courts, "Bedroom Tax", the gagging law, Theresa May's grotesquely illiberal immigration laws, DRIP
the complete failure to deliver political reform ...). 

There are many within the Lib-Dem bubble who, despite all of the damage to their party, still stubbornly refuse to see what a catastrophic strategic error their deal with the Tories was, but many of us outside the party can see that Charles Kennedy was right and that the Lib-Dems ended up getting ragdolled almost out of existence by the Tories and their chums in the right-wing media because of it.

Charles Kennedy was one of the only Liberal Democrats I was genuinely saddened to see loose his seat in the 2015 General Election. It clearly wasn't his fault that the party he once led had abandoned his commitment to social justice in favour of the sickening Orange Book Toryism that has driven the party to the absolute brink of ruin, but he still paid the price for it at the ballot box, just like so many other decent hard-working Lib-Dem MSPs MEPs and councillors paid the price too.

In my view it was a measure of his great loyalty that he stayed with the party at all. 

He'd been hounded out of his job, marginalised and ignored by them, but he stuck by them even when he would surely have had more personal success by joining a group of genuine liberals in a breakaway group from a party that had so clearly abandoned all pretence at social liberalism in return for a tiny taste of second hand Tory power. 

Perhaps he just couldn't bear the thought of tearing apart the party he'd worked so hard to build up? 

Or perhaps he was just too loyal to even contemplate abandoning his friends and colleagues, even though several of them had ruthlessly stabbed him in the back in his hour of need, and almost all of them had gone along with the terrible error of judgement he'd explicitly waned them against?

Returning to his much publicised alcohol problems. I think it's worth noting that Charles Kennedy managed to be the best party leader the Lib-Dems ever had, retained more integrity than the overwhelming majority of his political peers, and was an exceptionally popular man for a politician. And he achieved all of this even though he was often heavily drunk. 

Despite his problems, he stood head and shoulders above his political peers, and stood especially tall against his sickeningly unprincipled successors at the top of the Liberal Democrat pyramid.

I can only hope that there are some sensible people within the party who are willing to accept that Charles Kennedy was right; that the austerity pact with the Tories was a terrible mistake; and that the Lib-Dems were at their absolute best when they had a principled leader with the strength of character to stick by his convictions.

If the future leaders of the party use the memory of Charles Kennedy as an inspiration, there might be some small chance of a Lib-Dem fightback.

If they want to regain any ground at all they've got to look back to the Charles Kennedy era and try to recreate the party that stood for social justice, progressive reform, and political integrity. Then they might just win back some of the hard earned-trust and respect that people like Nick Clegg, Danny Alexander, Jo Swinson, Steve Webb, Ed Davey and Vince Cable saw as disposable commodities in their quest for a taste of second hand Tory power.

If the Lib-Dems choose to continue with Orange Book neoliberalism, continue breaking pledges, promises and vows all over the place, continue pushing hard-right austerity extremism, and continue blaming everyone but themselves for their predicament, they'll deserve to suffer even bigger electoral defeats in the months and years to come.

Charles Kennedy's death is a great loss to anyone who appreciates integrity in public life, but an even bigger loss to the the Liberal Democrats. 

Just when they needed a voice of reason within their party more than ever to guide them away from the kind of toxic self-righteous drivel that is emanating from the Lib-Dem bubble; just when they needed to listen to their voice of reason and to rediscover the commitments to social justice, integrity and political reform that he championed; he's no longer with us.

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