Wednesday 3 June 2015

On Charles Kennedy and Alex Salmond

Charles Kennedy, former leader of the Liberal Democrats, passed away on Monday. He was an exceptionally decent, principled and humane politician. My sympathy goes out to his family, friends and colleagues.

Charles Kennedy.

I will remember Kennedy for one thing above all else. In 2003, Tony Blair was marching the country to war in Iraq, with the enthusiastic support of Iain Duncan Smith's Conservatives. Kennedy was one of the very few senior politicians who stood up to say it was a dreadful mistake. He was a voice of sanity in an insane time. Like Robin Cook, another principled opponent of the war, he has left us far too young.

It is unfortunate that the mourning for Kennedy has been overshadowed by Alex Salmond's ill-judged remark:

In terms of the independence referendum, I don’t think his heart was in the ‘Better Together’ campaign.

Salmond later clarified:

I have made no claim whatsoever that Charles Kennedy was either a Yes or an SNP supporter. He was not. He was a committed federalist all of his political career.

Very well. Let us take Salmond at his word. If he doesn't mean Kennedy was a supporter of Scottish independence, what on earth does he mean?

Kennedy had his differences with the leadership of Better Together. So what? Better Together was a temporary alliance between mutually hostile unionist parties. Inevitably, its message was a compromise which satisfied no one: Not Kennedy, not Gordon Brown, probably not even Alistair Darling. Saying Kennedy disagreed with some of Better Together's tactical decisions is true but hardly noteworthy.

Salmond is clearly hinting Kennedy was, at the very least, ambivalent about Scotland remaining within the UK. The impression is supported by Salmond's misuse of the word "federalist":

[Salmond] claimed the former Liberal Democrat MP would have “reconciled” to an independent Scotland. "I don’t think he would have had any difficulty whatsoever with that position," he said. "Charles was a federalist."

As Kennedy's successor Menzies Campbell pointed out, this is arrant nonsense:

Asked whether Kennedy supported Scotland’s continued membership of the UK, Campbell said: “Of course Charles did. He was a federalist. The important thing to remember is that federalism necessarily involves being part of the UK. You can’t be a federalist and want independence at the same time. Charles was a classic Liberal home ruler within the UK. Federalism necessarily involves being within a whole.”

Alex Massie suggests Salmond just can't believe goodness and commitment to the UK coexisted within the same person. Kennedy was well known as a good and principled man, so Salmond couldn't help but downplay his unionism.

This may be so, but Salmond's words are appalling on a more fundamental level: Who the hell is Alexander Salmond to say what was in Charles Kennedy's heart?

It is true Kennedy did not play a very prominent role in the No campaign. It may feel as if the referendum was ages ago, but in fact it has been less than nine months. In hindsight, Kennedy may have been suffering from physical health problems at the time. He was certainly struggling with alcoholism, and had been for many years. Family matters may also have weighed on Kennedy's mind; his father died in April this year.

Maybe Kennedy desperately wanted to do more to campaign for a No vote, but couldn't for personal reasons. Maybe not. I don't know. Neither does Salmond, and it is deeply presumptuous for him to pretend otherwise.

Salmond knew exactly what he was saying. There is no one active in British politics who equals his skill as a communicator. It would have been the easiest thing in the world for him to find uncontroversial words of appreciation for Kennedy's life and work. Instead, he could not resist one more opportunity to disparage his unionist opponents. It's petty, shameful behaviour from a politician who should know better.

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