Charles Kennedy, the leader of the British Liberal Democrats from 1999-2007, died today at the age of 55. He was far from perfect: he recently lost his parliamentary seat in the SNP tsunami and lost his leadership post because of a serious drinking problem. But Kennedy stood tall when it most mattered in his political career and opposed the UK’s entry into the Iraq War:
Doubtless it will be his decision to oppose the war in Iraq for which he will be defined as a politician. He described it as the biggest British foreign policy mistake since Suez, and told parliament in the critical debate: “The case has not yet been made for military action. The evidence has not been clearly assembled. Public opinion in this country is profoundly opposed to unilateral action by US and British forces without a UN mandate and without clear evidence of the need for war.”
It was a brave move since he respected much of Blair’s domestic policy and came under pressure from the prime minister not to oppose him. Leading a political party in opposing military action by UK troops is not easy and quickly led to allegations of appeasement. Kennedy found himself as the highest ranking politician to join an anti-war march in Hyde Park, London. And he did not abandon the issue after the invasion, insisting that the continued occupation of Iraq “contributes to the insurgency and attracts those from abroad who see the opportunity to spread violent fundamentalism”.
As Blair moved right into the arms of Bush and Cheney, Kennedy positioned the Lib Dems to the left of the New Labour government on many issues. In 2005, Kennedy led his party to its best electoral showing since the days of Asquith and Lloyd George. He was ousted in 2007 and eventually succeeded by Nick Clegg who moved the party right into the arms of Cameron and Osborne and the political catastrophe of the 2015 election. Kennedy opposed going into government with the Tories and eventually lost his seat because his warnings were not heeded. Anyone detect a pattern?
Charles Kennedy was a kind, compassionate, witty, and articulate man. He wore his failings with grace and dignity. It’s appropriate that this Scotsman shared a last name with John F. Kennedy. His political career was genuinely a profile in courage.