This article is from 2007.
Hounded by the press and bullied by his own party, it’s no surprise to discover that Charles Kennedy is enjoying his political sabbatical. Ruth Hedges catches up with him and finds a man at ease with the world again
Charles Kennedy has spent over half his life as an MP. In June the 47-year-old celebrated 24 years at Westminster which, by simple deduction, means it all began at the tender age of 23.
To rise and fall and keep your head, as he has done over the last 18 months, is something of an achievement. The nasty spectacle back in January 2006, where his party ‘faithful’ turned the knife after he returned the highest proportion of Lib Dem votes for 80 years, was not pretty. In the face of leaks detailing treatment for alcoholism, he was forced into a public confirmation, and statements of being dry for two months did nothing to quell the unrest.
‘It’s only when you stop doing it that you realise how unremitting they were,’ he says on the pressures of being party leader. Kennedy recalls Tony Blair saying to him, ‘The difference between being leader of the opposition and becoming Prime Minister was that the leader of the opposition wakes up in the morning and thinks, “What have I got to say today?” and the Prime Minister wakes up in the morning and thinks: “What have I got to do today?”’ Kennedy adds: ‘If you’re leader of the Liberal Democrats, you wake up in the morning and think, “What have I got to say today and how do I get anybody to pay attention to it and report it?”’
Despite Kennedy’s bruising treatment, a certain respect for him has remained within and beyond politics. Today he is relaxed, calm and apparently not bitter. ‘At the moment I’m enjoying a healthy, settled family life for the first time ever,’ he notes. ‘We have a two-year-old who was something of a stranger to me for the first nine months of his life.’ Now he describes the bond as ‘rock solid’. Indeed, ‘Taxi Kennedy’ as he was known in his days at Glasgow University for his predilection for the minicab, says that ‘taxi’ was one of his son’s first words. ‘He is obsessed with London cabs. It’s uncanny.’
Kennedy has been doing a parliamentary fellowship at St Antony’s college in Oxford as well as making a BBC documentary looking at the influence of the Act of Union. He’s called it A Chip on Each Shoulder and explains, ‘It ranges from talking to learned academics to chatting in a bar outside Hampden with the Tartan Army on their relationship with England.’
Kennedy seems to be revelling in having more time to pursue other projects, whether academic or in the media. However, the political sidelines are not, one senses, going to satisfy forever. The ‘snowball’, as he describes it, of proportional representation, may soon grow to encompass Westminster and he believes that, ‘The experience of pluralistic politics in Scotland is one that is going to have some degree of impact or influence.’
With the SNP controlling the Scottish Parliament, two of the three Westminster party leaders representing neighbouring constituencies in Fife and Gordon Brown tasting his long-nurtured dream of power, who says politics is boring? Not Kennedy. For his event, he’ll be in conversation with the parliament’s presiding officer about his life, career and thoughts on politics today, and it couldn’t have come at a more interesting time. Taxi!
Scottish Parliament, Holyrood Road, 0131 473 2000, 24 Aug, 11am, £5 (£3).