Growing up in middle-class Britain, it’s easy to fall in love with the Liberal Democrat way of life. The promise of great change without messy revolution, quietly radical and faintly utopian, proves a strong draw to those who awaken to find that the world isn’t as it should be. And perhaps one of their greatest talents as a party is finding leaders to represent this philosophy: far from the fire and brimstone and smug pandering of those on either side of them, they’re seen as Dumbledore figures, separate from and slightly amused by the devious goings-on of authoritative and paternal British politics.
Charles Kennedy is a shrewd and very clever politician who took the Liberal Democrats from strength to strength, to the point where they constantly seemed one lucky break away, just one more Tory scandal, one last push to become the official opposition, and to stand a chance of becoming the first non-Tory or Labour party to be in power in 85 years.
Of course, this never quite panned out. He was forced to make his drinking problem – the worst kept secret in Westminster – public, and over three days his party made it increasingly clear that they would not operate under his leadership. He resigned to the back benches, and his party never quite recovered.
Addiction or not, he has strong links with Glasgow University and his legacy is unassailable: president of the GU in 1980, British Observer Mace university debating award champion, MP at 23, leader of his party for eight years, and even after his resignation, one of the most respected politicians in recent history. The reaction to his disclosure was testament to the level of affection he even now maintains – “Oh, Charlie”, was the general response, as if he was a teenager sneaking in late and drunk. We pinched his cheek and sent him on his way. He’s smart, with a keen sense of public image and an unerring ability to make it seem as if disagreeing with him was never even an option.
And now he wants to be your rector.
Meeting Kennedy in person is an oddly familiar experience. All the customary meeting-someone-famous tropes are present: he’s slightly shorter than you’d think, slightly older-looking; his schoolboyish flash of red hair is beginning to recede. But all the words and mannerisms are there: over the 25 years that he’s been in public office, he’s honed his manner of speaking into a precise weapon, being disarming when he wants to be, incisive when he needs to be, and candid, well, nearly never. Give him a topic and he’ll dance round it, speaking meticulously and without hesitation, like he’s reading from a well-rehearsed script. You have to keep reminding yourself that you’re not watching him on television.
Running for rector seems to be an odd sideways move in a long career in mainstream politics. Not that odd, he insists. “I do know from my dealings over the years with campus that there is a big entry for rector at the moment and for a working rector, who’s treating it, if you like, as being the constituency MP for the student body as a whole,” he says. “Also, given the fact that I am a Westminster MP… If there are bigger problems that are coming up for Glasgow University, and it doesn’t feel that its needs are being sufficiently being taken into account, then that is something that you have a legislative platform to articulate, and I’d want to use that opportunity if that was required.”
Some have suggested that his party allegiance might affect his time in the rectorship. Many people might be put off by the previous rectorship of Mordechai Vanunu, nominated and elected for political reasons, despite being under house arrest in Israel for his entire tenure. Could the rector, the representative of the students to the university court, really be said to represent everyone if he was espousing social democrat politics in Westminster every other day?
“Obviously, being a candidate, I would hope that people who were Liberal Democrats might feel inclined to support me, there’s no doubt about that,” he says. “But I think that that’s very different from using it as a party political platform. When we see who all the candidates are in a few weeks or at the end of January, we will see to what extent some might regard this as a party political referendum, or vote. Now that’s now how I’m approaching it or regarding it, either the election, or if I was successful the job that then follows.”
Again, a seasoned politician, precise and concise. But not a politician with any real ambition of working his way back up to the top, despite speculation. The hardest thing to draw out of a politician is a straight answer, and here Kennedy specialises: he has never said outright that he never wants to run for the leadership of his party again.“Any time I’ve been asked, I’ve said look, I’m quite happy with the role that I’ve got in a party sense; I’m quite happy, I’m not seeking other positions or titles or handles or anything like that. But it is a wise thing in life never to say never.”
This is when I bring up the subject of his resignation. And completely imperceptibly, the Kennedy PR machine shifts into high gear.
What is it like, being the victim of a political scandal?
“Controversy,” he corrects. “There’s a difference, I think.” I guess there is. If you think you’re in a controversy, then you think you’re right.
“You know, as I said, I’ve been in politics for a long time and you go in with your eyes open, and you just know that things blow from time to time to time, things get plastered across newspapers from time to time and so on and so forth. It’s never been my experience, I’d have to tell you, that not being leader of the party, or the circumstances I made clear at the time that I decided to stand down as leader of the party, that that has really in any way held me back politically. I don’t think it has at all. That’s my honest view, based on my experience.”
So do you think it’s possible to be the leader of a major political party and an alcoholic?
“I think, yes, I think it can be done, actually. You have to define the word alcoholism…”
How would you define it?
“I would say that I took advice for what I would recognise had become a drink problem. Whether people would define that as alcoholism I do not know. I think there’s no set formula. I think I got about… a combination of letters and emails, something in the region of 8,000 – 10,000 at the time that I stood down, and no two people’s experiences I took out of reading every single one of them are in any way the same. So I don’t think I can really sit and say that’s a definition of anything.”
If you feel that way, then why resign?
“Oh, well, quite straightforwardly, it was a parliamentary decision – it had become clear that there were a sufficient number that may or may not have been a majority, because I had already taken the decision by that point. But there was a sufficient number of parliamentary colleagues who felt that they didn’t want to continue in posts under my leadership. Well, if that happens you have to have a straightforward recognition of reality, so it becomes a very easy decision, as a matter of fact.”
Of course, this is Kennedy’s version of events. It’s the carefully-constructed tale of Charlie the Angel, cultivated by press managers and spin doctors; the story of a great politician who enjoyed a drink, probably still does in moderation, who unfortunately found himself in a position where he could not effectively run the party to which he still had so much to give. But there’s also the story of Charlie the Devil, spread by tabloids and enemies, portraying him as a drink-sozzled wreck who was too drunk at times even to attend important budget debates, a man so far fallen to his vice that his closest friends in parliament had to take him down for his own good and for the good of the party. Obviously, neither is completely true, but both entertain a ring of plausibility, and both are going to be repeated ad nauseum over the coming weeks and months of the election campaign; his relationship with drink will probably be the issue that settles the vote one way or the other. Charlie’s going to read you a story. And, like all things in politics, it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. But what you believe will have a huge effect on the way campus is run over the next three years. It’s up to you to decide.