Popular Lib Dem leader known for his wit

Charles Kennedy: November 25th, 1959 - June 1st, 2015

Charles Kennedy, who has died aged 55, was a hugely popular politician and once leader of Britain’s Liberal Democrat party, who was brought low and forced out of the leadership when his struggles with alcoholism became known.

When elected aged 23 as Social Democratic Party MP for Ross, Cromarty and Skye in the 1983 general election he was the youngest member of the House of Commons. Leading the Liberal Democrats in two general elections, in 2001 and 2005, he was instrumental in achieving that party’s best result for 80 years, when it won 62 seats in the latter contest.

It was no secret that he was disenchanted with the direction the party took following his removal as leader in 2006 and particularly with its decision to enter coalition government with the Tories in 2010.

Kennedy, red-haired and round-faced, a cheery, amiable and approachable figure with a soft Scottish accent, will be remembered by many as much for his numerous television appearances as for his political achievements.


Envious colleagues marvelled at his easy charm and wry sense of humour, which went down well with a public increasingly suspicious of cautious or manipulative party-line politicians.

To the public, he scarcely seemed like a politician at all. "I make no apologies," he once told an interviewer, "for the fact that I am a paid-up member of the human race." Catholic family Charles Peter Kennedy was born in Inverness and raised in Fort William. He came from a well-known local Catholic family, the younger son of a crofter, Ian Kennedy, and his wife, Mary (née MacEachen), both enthusiastic folk singers. He attended Lochaber high school, Fort William, before going on to study politics and philosophy at Glasgow University.

There he joined the SDP, then newly formed by moderate and right-wing Labour politicians averse to the leftwards direction the party was then taking. Kennedy became president of the university’s student union and after graduation joined BBC Scotland as a journalist before winning a Fulbright scholarship which took him to study at Indiana University.

While in the US he won the SDP’s nomination for the Ross, Cromarty and Skye constituency and returned home to be unexpectedly elected to Westminster in what had previously been a Tory seat. He was to hold it until the 2015 general election, when he was dislodged by the SNP landslide.

After the merger of the SDP and the Liberals in the Liberal Democrat party in 1987, he assumed a number of front-bench spokesmanships and became party president in 1990. The party's fortunes were revived throughout the decade under the energetic leadership of Paddy Ashdown, who eventually stood down in 1999 following the Blair electoral landslide.

Kennedy, succeeding him, became the first Roman Catholic to lead the party and, for a brief period in the early 2000s all three party leaders were either Catholics – Kennedy and Iain Duncan Smith – or heading that way – Tony Blair.

As leader, Kennedy saw little reason to change his relaxed style – some colleagues said indolence – and continued to appear on TV programmes like the satirical Have I Got News for You, joining with gusto in its irreverent approach to politics and his fellow politicians. It did him no harm at all with the electorate.

Nor did his popularity with the public suffer when he led the party's opposition to the Iraq war when both major parties were supporting it. Electoral success Kennedy led the Lib Dems to a tally of 52 seats in 2001. Four years later another 10 were added but he was blamed internally for targeting Tory voters rather than broadening the party's electoral appeal with electors disillusioned with Labour. Within months, whispers about his drinking surfaced in public for the first time. Senior MPs were rumoured to have warned him to improve his performance and in January 2006 he was told the media planned to run a story about him being treated for alcoholism.

Kennedy, who had always publicly denied having a drinking problem, called a press conference, confirmed that the story was true and asserted that he had not had a drink for several months. It was not enough to save his career: the party’s MPs, including his closest associates, drifted away from him. Within a day he had resigned.

After that he was to become a somewhat marginalised figure in the party, particularly after he made it clear that he was unhappy with its coalition with the Tories in 2010. European Movement In 2008 he was appointed president of the pro-EU European Movement and the same year elected rector of Glasgow University and re-elected in 2011. He also agreed to campaign for the cross-party Better Together group, opposing Scottish independence in the 2014 referendum.

In 2002 he married Sarah Gurling, a public relations officer, Lib Dem activist and sister of a friend, and the couple had a son, Donald, in 2005. The marriage ended in divorce in 2010.