By Njoki Mahiaini, 10 June 2015
“They’re all the same”. I don’t know about you but I lost count of how many times I heard this said in reference to the leaders of the three largest parties during the 2015 general election campaign. Admittedly the trio in question were all 6-foot something, dark-haired Englishmen in their mid-forties, yet it was the perceived overlap in approach and life experience which seemed
to really frustrate floating voters. All three Oxbridge graduates, all former advisors to senior politicians, all, it seemed, never having worked outside politics or, at a stretch, journalism and academia. Were it not for the colours of their rosettes, they could easily be mistaken for one another – a fact the Green party seized upon in producing their viral campaign broadcast.
He was human
Perhaps this was part of the reason for the outpouring of grief which followed the sudden death of Charles Kennedy, the former Member of Parliament for Ross, Skye and Lochaber and former leader of the Liberal Democrats. Aside from his Highland brogue, russet mop and Glasgow education, what set Charles Kennedy apart was his humility and his humanity. Indeed his leadership style was not the product of a systematic transformation in the style of Margaret Thatcher, nor did it have the studied nonchalance of Tony Blair. No, Kennedy’s friends and colleagues remarked that he was, as leader, much as he had been when he was first elected to parliament aged 23; contemplative, earnest and unassuming, simply Charles.
“To be seen to be human, provided you’re doing your job, is definitely not a negative, not at all” – Charles Kennedy
So why such sorrow? Alas, it would seem that in modern politics as in modern life, such traits are rare. However, it is unfair to blame modernity. In Paul’s letter to the ancient church in Philippi he writes, in reference to Timothy: “I have no one else like him, who will show genuine concern for your welfare. For everyone else looks out for their own interest…” (Phil 2:20-21). Christian MP and Lib Dem leadership hopeful Tim Farron affirmed Kennedy’s reputation during his House of Commons tribute saying “I lost my mother after a long and pretty horrific illness. He [Kennedy] showed immense compassion. He never stopped asking me about the situation. That was the measure of the man. He went through some very difficult things in terms of his personal health, but he was always primarily concerned about the wellbeing of others.” Perhaps this was why Farron, in a moment of extraordinarily un-British candidness went on to declare to the House “I loved him to bits. I am proud to call him my friend.” In an age in which the threshold of affection for public figures seems limited to being liked or being respected, it was positively uplifting to hear of a public servant being loved by his contemporaries.
He was flawed
Nevertheless, Charles Kennedy was no angel. I suspect that on hearing the news of his death an early thought in many minds was “It was the drink.” In that moment you may have remembered Amy Winehouse, George Best or further back, Oliver Reed and reflected ruefully on their own failed battles with addiction. Something of the tragedy of Kennedy’s passing is bound up with his alcoholism, a poorly-kept secret in Westminster and one which he confessed publicly shortly before resigning as leader. It was not the nature of his addiction but its role in exposing his vulnerability which proved so fascinating to us and which, perhaps subconsciously, endeared him to us. We all have our demons and seeing someone else’s torment as front page news somehow allows us feel a little less inadequate. Today we so often look for leaders who exhibit outward strength & resilience. We admire women like Angela Merkel who are uncompromising in their focus & approach, men like Barack Obama who can rouse emotion and inspire confidence. Yet we undervalue characteristics such as kindness and approachability because we too often live in pursuit of a media-friendly warrior-messiah rather than honouring the God who ‘exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight’ (Jeremiah 9:24).
He had conviction
One final, crucial, thing that the death of Charles Kennedy teaches us is the importance of standing up for one’s beliefs. When Christians speak of being convicted about something they usually mean that they sense God has placed it on their heart or that they feel compelled to defend a principle enshrined in Scripture and thereby sacrosanct. On the other hand, when we talk of politicians having conviction, it is usually in the context of them justifying their actions, however absurd, by the strength of their belief. All too often, to waver or review a decision is to appear weak or indecisive and, far from ensuring wise decision-making, probably results in poorer, more popular choices being made for fear of journalistic retribution. Kennedy, although popular across the political spectrum, was not a populist. His unique brand of integrity came not from staunch dogma but from a reflective, flexible and distinctly liberal approach to policy-making. He stood apart in the Commons over the Iraq war earning the Lib Dems unprecedented credibility; later, he stood practically alone in opposition to the Coalition Agreement. As it transpired, he was right on both occasions but vindication mattered less than the knowledge that he was true to himself.
There is a certain irony in the fact that it was Kennedy’s humility which earned him his celebrity. His uncontrived modesty won people’s trust and he was able to retain his constituency seat through a remarkable 7 parliamentary terms. Some feared that, having spent more of his life in parliament than outside it, losing his beloved seat in the SNP landslide of May 2015 might prove his undoing. Here too it seems Kennedy had the wisdom and foresight to ‘hold lightly’ to electoral success. In his own words: “It’s sensible not to take yourself too seriously. The vast majority of people think there’s a lot more to life than politics.”