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Tuesday, June 02, 2015 

The Charles Kennedy I didn't know.

In common with most of my fellow journalists commissioned to write about him following his untimely death, I never actually met Charles "Charlie" Kennedy, as he was universally known to all us political commentators.  A fearsomely tall man, muscularly built and with a booming voice, you most certainly would have seen him coming.

And yet from such low beginnings did this titan of Liberal politics rise to lead his merry band into the coveted third party position it wishes it still retained.  Born on the banks of Loch Lochbaer to parents from parts unknown, he fought against the twin barriers of being ginger and Scottish from the start.  Known as "Charlie" at school, he disdained the local custom of hanging around the local newsagents swigging from a bottle of Buckfast, and instead preferred to attend debates at the local corn exchange, where he first gained his liking for a wee dram or 13.  It was also here that he became known as something of a bruiser, objecting to a particular point of view from the local son of the manse, a certain Alex Ferguson, by giving him a firm punch on the bottom.  It was an incident that led to Ferguson never speaking to Chaz again, and a lifetime ban from Old Trafford.

Like so many young people, Chalkie had to leave school on finishing exams.  Despite an indifferent academic career up until that point, he was accepted by Glasgow University to read ancient Aramaic, a choice that seemed strange to everyone who knew him at that point as "Bluff" Charlie.  He nonetheless excelled, not only at his studies but also at anything he seemingly turned his hand to: Chattanooga swiftly became president of the student union, war correspondent for the Scotsman and also won the Watney's Red Barrel Have I Gone Blind Yet? championship 1981.  He likewise gained notoriety for his ability to seduce both male and female contemporaries, such was the raw animal magnetism he radiated at this stage in his life.  Later described as the Scottish Lynn Barber, it is estimated he slept with over 6,000 people in his first term alone.

Although offered the then vacant role of James Bond by MGM, Chaffinch knew his future lay in politics.  Unexpectedly winning the seat of Morose, Skye and Balamory at the first attempt for the nascent Dr Death Nuclear Doom party in 1983, he joined fellow future household names such as Geoffrey Dickens, Robert Kilroy-Silk and Gyles Brandreth at Westminster.  Such associations understandably led to the much too young Chappaquiddick taking solace in the bottle, to which he invariably returned throughout his parliamentary career.  As however by the standards of the time his drinking was considered to be social, only requiring medical intervention 4 times over the space of 5 years, it was little remarked upon.

Kennedy was by this point rising in the estimation of the Liberal Democrat party leadership, as the David Owen-led Doom party had dissolved into.  Charlie further built public recognition by appearing on a number of popular television shows, including That's My Dog, Supermarket Sweep, Bullseye and most notably, Have I Got News for You?, where he sat alongside Paul Merton trying to get a word in edgeways.  Such performances made him a natural frontrunner for the Lib Dem leadership after the sudden death of Paddy Ashdown in a tragic hat-swallowing stunt, winning the contest by a landslide, receiving 29 votes out of 30 in the membership ballot.

The great turning point in Charlie's political journey occurred with his decision to oppose the Iraq war.  Advised against rocking the boat from both within and outside his party, as well as warned by friend Alastair Campbell to avoid walking alone in woodland or up mountains, he ignored all such entreaties, going as far as to attend the 25 million strong 15th Feb 2003 protest in London.  He electrified the crowd with his "I don't think this war thing's a good idea, on the whole" oratory, and for a moment "Chaz-mania" swept the country.  Two years later he led his party to its best ever result in a general election, winning 62 seats in the Commons.

His success was also to be his downfall.  Impatient, ambitious colleagues within the party, concerned that his drinking would eventually cause it incalculable damage briefed extensively against him.  A last ditch effort by Kennedy to flush out his opponents in a leadership contest lasted all of a day before he resigned and accepted he would not stand again.  His successor, the 154-year-old Methuselah Campbell, himself only lasted 18 months in the role before he was smothered by Nicholas "Nick" Clegg.

Chaz returned to the wilderness, an embittered if still witty and well-loved figure, and was one of only three others in the party with the foresight to abstain on the vote on whether to go into government with the Conservatives in 2010.  His refusal to endorse the coalition did not save him from the great Sturgeon surge of 2015, losing not only his seat but also we must speculate in the most tasteless way possible much else besides.  In detail we journalists and his now talkative "confidantes" must discuss his demons and flaws, rather than wonder precisely how it was such a thoroughly decent man could be treated so shoddily and with such little respect by those around him who claimed to be his friends.  A party leader who was human enough to admit to a drink problem despite never being caught in public the worse for wear and yet was still punished for it?  Certainly, we shall not see his like again.

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