“This morning, I was saddened to know that Charles Kennedy passed away, and I must first express my sincere condolences to his family as they mourn his loss, which is our loss as well. Even though we disagreed on the issue of Scottish independence, Charles was a good man and a decent public servant, and especially with regard to the upcoming EU referendum, our political landscape is poorer without him.”
This is what Alex Salmond, the former First Minister of Scotland – and now MP for Gordon – could have said in the wake of the untimely and tragic death of Charles Kennedy, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats and recently defeated MP for Ross, Skye, and Lochaber, at the relatively young age of 55.
Alas however, while he did express condolence and sympathy like everyone else, he also managed to insert his cause of independence in the crudest fashion when he actually said this:
“Yes, he was an extremely generous human being. I have had one or two, but not many, people who had a bad word to say about Charles, and that’s very rare in politics. In terms of the independence referendum, I don’t think his heart was in the ‘Better Together’ campaign.
“His heart would have been in a pro-European campaign, that’s a campaign that Charles would have engaged in heart and soul. That is something he absolutely believed in.”
Here, Salmond implied that that Kennedy was somehow not a supporter of the Union, and more so, was a closet supporter of independence. But as Alex Massie wrote in the Spectator:
“Charles Kennedy had ample opportunity to demonstrate his nationalist sympathies. To my knowledge he declined any and all such invitations. Perhaps because, jings, he wasn’t a nationalist. His heart and his head were Unionist.”
Now Salmond said that Kennedy was actually a “federalist”, which is true in the sense that the Liberal Democrats tend to believe in devolution and federalism within the United Kingdom, but are nevertheless supportive in the basic notion of keeping the Union together. Allan Massie (Alex's father) attests to this in his Telegraph column, where he said “federalism is very different from Salmond’s Nationalism. Federalists seek to improve the United Kingdom, Nationalists to destroy it.”
The use of the federalist label was merely Salmond’s attempt to drive a wedge between those who believe in a federal union and those who believe a unitary union, and to imply that federalism is somehow closer to independence in terms of political thought and ideology.
Ahh, but you may say that Salmond said nothing about Kennedy’s support for the Union – just his lack of prominence in Better Together and his criticism of it. True, but this nevertheless implied that Kennedy didn’t really believe in fighting for the Union in contrast to being “engaged heart and soul” in the upcoming referendum campaign to retain Britain’s membership in the European Union, which as yet does not have an organization officially backed by the political parties.
In reality, as Massie and others have stated, it was more likely that Kennedy’s health – long plagued by alcoholism – was the reason for his relative absence in the referendum campaign last year to keep Scotland as part of the UK. He may not have had the prominence of people such as Jim Murphy, Alistair Darling, Ruth Davidson, and Gordon Brown, but he did do his bit in speeches and other appearances to keep the UK together. To say the Kennedy’s heart was not in Better Together is like saying that Jim Sillars’ heart wasn’t in the main pro-independence campaign organization, Yes Scotland, because Sillars (more-or-less) carried out his own campaign take Scotland out of the UK, or that his heart isn't in the SNPbecause of his criticism of it as intellectually dumb and totalitarian under Salmond's leadership.
Since yesterday, Salmond’s comments have attracted controversy for coming so soon after the announcement of Kennedy’s death, with Kennedy's successor as Lib Dem leader (and fellow Scot), Sir Menzies Campbell saying the Salmond's comments were “out of order.” In response, some of his and the SNP’s supporters have accused others of using Kennedy’s passing to score political points against Salmond and his party. However, I argue that Salmond was attempting to score political points by bringing up Kennedy’s involvement with Better Together (or lack thereof), which made it seem as though he didn’t really believe in keeping the UK together.
Even if that was not the case, and Salmond was merely referring to Kennedy’s criticisms of the Better Together campaign, and not his commitment to the Union, there was no reason to bring that up so soon, and Salmond should have followed the magnanimous lead of the his new party leader and current First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who simply said on Twitter.
“Sad beyond words to hear the news about Charlie Kennedy. A lovely man and one of the most talented politicians of his time. Gone too soon.”
Other tributes from across the political spectrum – expressed by Gordon Brown, Ruth Davidson, Willie Rennie, Jim Murphy, Sir Malcolm Bruce, Nick Clegg, Prime Minister David Cameron, and several others – were gracious in their thoughts on Kennedy and sympathies to his family. Probably the best tribute came from Tony Blair’s former press officer and adviser Alastair Campbell, who tackled his own issues with drinking and developed a friendship with Kennedy as they faced a “shared enemy.”
To his credit, Alex Salmond did praise Kennedy for his opposition to the 2003 invasion and war in Iraq – calling it his finest moment – in the face of “enormous pressure” and for his personal connection to his constituents in the Highlands, which helped him to make decisions and keep his seat in Parliament for 32 years.
However, by bringing up the referendum the way he did and (seemingly) questioning Kennedy’s beliefs, Salmond poured salt on the raw divisions still apparent throughout Scotland in the aftermath of the two year long campaign. Even in this unfortunate circumstance, he found a way to make what appeared to be a snide remark at a departed opponent and in the process, he made himself the story.
With regard to Charles Kennedy himself, as a young teenager, I remember watching the broadcast of Prime Minister's Questions on C-SPAN in the US and watching him among the many people presenting questions to then Prime Minister Tony Blair. As leader of the Liberal Democrats (as an independent third force in British politics) at the time, Kennedy had a significant role in the political discourse of the Commons, and was almost always seen at some point during PMQ's.
The first thing that stood out was the fact that he shared the same name as one of our most prominent families, including a beloved president.
Second, like that president, Kennedy appeared to be a regular guy (or bloke, as is said in Britain) - with a way of talking which suggested that he did not come from an upper crust background. Indeed, it was an accent that was quite different from the other major party leaders, but I did not believe that this was indicative of him coming from another country - merely that he hailed from the same country as the others did, the United Kingdom - albeit perhaps, a different part of it. Nothing about Kennedy suggested anything other than this, and I treated it in the same way as I treat people with varying accents within the US, who are part of the same country, and in the UK itself, I knew there were many British accents.
Eventually, I came to understand how the UK itself was a union of countries - a country in and of itself that had developed over time into what is now. It was not until later that I realized that Kennedy was Scottish, but this did not take away from the fact that he was the British leader of a British political party. Indeed, by the time of the 2010 General Election - after a period where I was not observing British politics so closely - I remember thinking that Kennedy was still leading the Liberal Democrats, only to find Nick Clegg and not knowing that Kennedy had been replaced long ago, and I certainly was not aware of the circumstances under which he stood down as leader.
As time went on and I became more familiar with British politics, I also became more familiar with Kennedy - including the struggles with alcoholism which cost him his job as a party leader. However, I also gained an understanding of him as a decent man and talented political figure who stood for what he believed in, was authentic and had integrity, showed compassion, commanded the respect of his peers, and had a natural common touch and connection with people that many politicians envy (on both sides of the Atlantic).
For these and other reasons, it was unfortunate that he did not lead the campaign to keep the UK together. Nothing against Alistair Darling (who has his own personal qualities which carried Better Together to victory), but people I have been in contact with believe that Kennedy - with his down-to-earth Highland roots - may have been a better communicator for the Union to the people of Scotland and more effective against Alex Salmond, for as some of my friends can attest, he was engaging as a speaker. Indeed, as Allan Massie said, people such as Kennedy were “actually expressing a stronger faith in the Union than those who preferred to dwell on the weaknesses of the case for Independence and the inadequacy of the SNP’s programme and arguments.”
In researching for my book on the referendum, I found a video from 2012 which included Charles Kennedy making a remark that spoke of people who need not be political nationalists in order to be nationalistic Scots, so that support for independence and the SNP was not equated with pride in Scotland and being Scottish. This was something I found to be simple and true, and it is a sentiment that especially needs repeating today in the wake of the SNP landslide at the general election nearly a month ago that engulfed many pro-Union politicians, including Kennedy himself.
His untimely death creates a hole in Scottish and British politics that will be hard to fill, if it is to be filled at all. Like that beloved American president with whom he shares a surname, he was - quite simply - taken away too soon.
Rest in Peace, Charles Peter Kennedy.
UPDATE (11:00 PM, EDT):
Alex Salmond has stressed that he was not suggesting that the late Charles Kennedy was for independence, and was only referring to his criticisms regarding the Better Together campaign - saying that Kennedy “was one of the first unionist politicians to realise that the result would be close and said publicly that he felt that the actions of the No campaign were contributing to this.”
In light of this, the younger Massie has acknowledged on Twitter that his article (which was quoted here) had been“over the top”, and I must admit that my own tweets/retweets on the issue were just that - especially on the day when we should have been focused on honoring Charles Kennedy.
For that reason, I still believe that Salmond should have at least made it clear during his original comments that he was not questioning Kennedy's commitment to the Union, for it did sound as though he was, and he ended up becoming the story.
Nevertheless, he has clarified his statements, I understand what he was attempting to say, and all of us should move forward.