Charles Peter Kennedy (born 25 November 1959) is a British Liberal Democrat politician, who led the Liberal Democrats from 9 August 1999 until 7 January 2006 and is currently a Member of Parliament (MP) for the Ross, Skye and Lochaber constituency.
In the 1983 General Election he stood for the Ross, Cromarty & Skye constituency, then held by the Conservative MP and Minister, Hamish Gray. In a shock result, Kennedy was elected for the Social Democratic Party (SDP): at 23, he became the youngest MP in the House of Commons. Ambitious and popular, he quickly emerged as a potential party leader. In 1994, by which time the SDP and the Liberal Party had merged, he became President of the Liberal Democrats, a position he held for four years. In 1999, on the resignation of Paddy Ashdown, Kennedy was elected party leader.
He took the party through two successful general elections. However, he faced criticism for his laid-back leadership style, and there was considerable speculation regarding his alcohol consumption. From December 2005, some within the party were questioning his leadership and calling for a leadership election. On 5 January 2006, Kennedy was informed that ITN would be reporting that he had received treatment for a drinking problem. Kennedy decided to pre-empt the broadcast and admit his drinking problem openly. He called a leadership election at the same time, stating that he intended to stand. The admission of a drinking problem seriously damaged his standing within the parliamentary party. As support for him amongst this key group ebbed away, Kennedy resigned as leader on 7 January, saying that he would not be standing in the leadership election. Deputy leader Sir Menzies Campbell took over as interim leader and was elected as leader on 2 March 2006.
Kennedy will play a prominent role in the cross-party Keep Scotland in Britain campaign.
Born in Inverness, and raised as a Roman Catholic, Kennedy was educated at Lochaber High School, in Fort William. There, he was known for taking part in the school's mock elections that ran at the same time as the real elections.
Kennedy went on to study for a Master of Arts degree in Politics and Philosophy at the University of Glasgow. At university, he became politically active, joining the Social Democrats (SDP)[, as well as the Dialectic Society. He was elected president of the Glasgow University Union (GUU). The GUU was the last all-male student union in the UK and became open to men and women during his term of office.
In 1982, Kennedy won The Observer Mace debating competition, speaking with Clark McGinn and representing Glasgow University. In 1995, the competition was renamed The John Smith Memorial Mace and is now run by The English-Speaking Union.
Upon graduation in 1982, he went to work for BBC Scotland as a journalist, and later received a Fulbright Fellowship. This allowed him to carry out research at Indiana University in the United States, on the speeches and writings of Roy Jenkins.
Member of Parliament
While studying in America, he received the Social Democratic Party (SDP) nomination for the Scottish seat of Ross, Cromarty and Skye, which he went on to win in 1983, becoming the youngest sitting Member of Parliament, aged 23. He has retained the seat and its successor, Ross, Skye and Inverness West, at five subsequent general elections. He is the Liberal Democrat MP for the seat, which replaced it in 2005, Ross, Skye and Lochaber.
In the late 1980s, the SDP and the Liberal Party, which had been co-operating in the SDP–Liberal Alliance, merged to form the Social and Liberal Democratic Party, later renamed the Liberal Democrats. Kennedy was the first of the five SDP MPs to support the merger; in his book "Time To Declare" David Owen suggests this was due to pressure from Liberal activists in his constituency.
Kennedy served as a frontbencher for the Lib Dems in a variety of posts, including social security, agriculture and rural affairs, health, Scotland and Europe. He was also party president for four years, between 1990 and 1994.
Leader of Liberal Democrats
On 9 August 1999, Kennedy was elected leader of the Liberal Democrats after the retirement of Paddy Ashdown; he beat Jackie Ballard, Malcolm Bruce, Simon Hughes and David Rendel. He won 57% of the transferred vote under the Alternative Vote system (Hughes, the runner-up, won 43% of the vote).
Kennedy's style of leadership differed from Ashdown's, being regarded as more conversational and laid back. Although he has been dismissed as "Chatshow Charlie" by some observers, as a result of his appearances on the satirical panel game Have I Got News for You, opinion polls showed him to be regarded positively as a party leader and potential Prime Minister by a significant fraction of the British electorate. He had made many appearances on HIGNFY prior to his election as leader; and subsequently became the first serving leader of one of the three main parties to appear on the show. He then went on to be a guest host of it.
Kennedy maintained the long-standing aspiration for his party to break through to the status of official opposition. In his first major campaign, the 2001 general election, the Liberal Democrats improved their share of the vote to 18.3%, which was 1.5% more than in the 1997 election. Although this was a smaller share than the 25.4% the SDP/Liberal Alliance achieved in 1983, the Lib Dems won 52 seats compared to the Alliance's 23. In his last general election as leader, in May 2005, the Liberal Democrats won 62 seats, their greatest number of seats since the 1920s, gaining 22.1% of the vote.
Kennedy has also spoken out in favour of lowering the British drinking age from 18 to 16, as well as supporting lowering the voting age from 18 down to 16.
Kennedy, along with his "election guru" Lord Rennard, targeted the Lib Dems' campaigning on a limited number of seats in such a way as to turn a lower level of national support into a greater number of Parliamentary seats. He extended this strategy at the 2005 General Election targeting the seats held by the most senior and/or highly regarded Conservative MPs, dubbed a "decapitation" strategy, with the expectation that without these "key" figures, the Conservatives would be discredited as the Official Opposition allowing Kennedy and the Liberal Democrats to claim that they are the "effective Opposition".
However, this strategy is widely seen to have failed. At the 2005 General Election, the Liberal Democrats failed to unseat leading Conservatives such as the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer Oliver Letwin, Shadow Home Secretary David Davis, Shadow Secretary of State for the Family Theresa May and the Leader of the Opposition Michael Howard. The biggest "scalp" the Liberal Democrats managed to claim was that of the Shadow Education Secretary Tim Collins in Westmorland and Lonsdale. This was one of only three seats the Liberal Democrats won from the Conservatives, the others being Solihull and Taunton. However, the Lib Dems lost more seats overall to the Conservatives, resulting in a net loss to the Conservatives. The net gain was instead made through winning significant numbers of seats from Labour.
At the same time, the Lib Dems also hoped to capture marginal Labour seats, attracting Labour voters (particularly Muslim voters) who were dissatisfied because of the invasion of Iraq, which Kennedy's party had opposed; the party had succeeded with this tactic in by-elections, taking Brent East and Leicester South from Labour. The Party did succeed to some extent in this aim, winning particularly in student areas such as Bristol, Cardiff and Manchester, but did not see the breakthrough some expected in areas with large Asian populations, even losing Leicester South.
In the 2005 election, the party succeeded in regaining the seat of Ceredigion, its first gain from the Welsh Party Plaid Cymru. Overall Kennedy's party achieved a total of 62 seats, their highest number since 1923 with 22% of the overall vote. He heralded the Liberal Democrats as the "national party of the future".
However, this was significantly less than most observers had expected the party to win; just before the election, it had been anticipated by the media and opinion polls that the Liberal Democrats could win up to 100 seats and place them close to the Tories in terms of seats as well as votes.
In the wake of the general election, Kennedy's leadership came under increased criticism from those who felt that the Liberal Democrats could have surged forward, the Official Opposition, the Conservative Party, being relatively weak. Many pointed the finger of blame at Kennedy for failing to widen the Party's appeal. Others, like the former Deputy Chairman of the Federal Liberal Democrat Party, Donnachadh McCarthy, resigned, citing the party's shift to the right of the political spectrum under Kennedy in pursuit of Conservative votes. Under the party's rules, a leader has to stand for re-election within a year of a general election. Kennedy handed out the ballot papers to the parliamentary party within days of the 2005 election, leaving no time for anyone to mount a challenge, and allowing him to be re-elected unopposed. There was much speculation at the time as to whether he would have survived a challenge.
In late 2005, the leadership speculation was renewed, with the journalist Andrew Neil claiming to speak "on good authority" that Kennedy would announce his resignation at the 2006 spring conference of the Liberal Democrats. Kennedy's spokeswoman denied the report and complained against the BBC, which had broadcast it. After the election of the more moderate David Cameron as Leader of the Conservative Party in December 2005, it was widely reported that senior members of the Liberal Democrats had told Kennedy that he must either "raise his game" or resign.
On 13 December 2005, the BBC's political editor, Nick Robinson, claimed that there were briefings against the leader, with members of his party unhappy at what they saw as 'lack of leadership' from Kennedy. A "Kennedy Must Go" petition was started by The Liberal magazine (a publication with no affiliation to the Liberal Democrats) and allegedly had been signed by over 3,300 party members including 386 local councillors and two MPs by the end of 2005. A round-robin letter signed by Liberal Democrat MPs rejecting his leadership received 23 signatures.
Responses to Kennedy's statement focused on his previous denials of any problems with alcohol. As recently as the Jonathan Dimbleby programme on ITV1 on 18 December 2005 when asked "Has it been a battle to stay off the booze, have you had to have medical support in any way at all?" Kennedy replied, "No, no, no, that is not the case, it is a matter on all fronts – if there's something my doctor really wants me to do over this holiday period as a matter of fact, is give up smoking and I think he's right". In 2002, the journalist Jeremy Paxman claimed Kennedy was often drunk, and asked him if he drank privately "by yourself, a bottle of whisky late at night?". "No I do not," Kennedy replied. The BBC apologised to Kennedy; Paxman refused to endorse the apology. In 2004, The Times published an apology over a report it had made stating Kennedy had not taken part in that year's budget debate due to excessive drinking.
On 6 January 2006, Kennedy was informed that ITN would be reporting that he had received treatment for alcoholism. He called a sudden news conference to make a personal statement confirming the story. He stated that over the past eighteen months he had been coming to terms with a drinking problem, but has sought ongoing professional help. He told reporters that recent questions among his colleagues about his suitability as leader were partly as a result of the drinking problem but stated that he had been dry for the past two months and would be calling a leadership contest to resolve the issues surrounding his authority once and for all.
It was later claimed that the source for ITN's story was his former press secretary turned ITV News correspondent, Daisy McAndrew.
Resignation and backbenches
Following Kennedy's admission, a letter from twenty-five Liberal Democrat MPs, including nineteen frontbench members, was delivered to him. It stated that the signatories could no longer serve as front bench speakers under his leadership, or fill any vacancies, and gave a deadline of 9 January for him to make a decision before they resigned. Despite a combative interview in The Independent, at which Kennedy described a decision to resign as a "dereliction of duty", a large number of senior Liberal Democrats stated on 6 January that his position was untenable. Chris Davies, at that time the leader of Liberal Democrat Members of the European Parliament, described him as "a dead man walking". A survey for BBC Newsnight found that more than half of Liberal Democrat MPs thought he should resign, and only 17 out of 62 MPs positively wanted him to stay, but 11 of his 23 frontbenchers wanted him to leave. Among those who thought that he should go were Norman Lamb and Andrew George, who had served as his Parliamentary Private Secretary, and Matthew Taylor, the chairman of his 1999 leadership campaign.
At 3 p.m. on 7 January, Kennedy called a press conference where he announced that whilst he was buoyed by the supportive messages he had received from grassroot members, he felt that he could not continue because of the lack of confidence of the parliamentary party. He said he would not be a candidate in the leadership election, and that he would stand down as leader "with immediate effect", with Menzies Campbell acting as interim leader until a new leader was elected. He also confirmed in his resignation speech that he did not expect to remain on the Liberal Democrat Frontbench Team and pledged his loyalty to a new leader "as a backbench" MP, but he wished to remain active in the party and politics. His leadership lasted slightly less than six years and five months.
Campbell went on win the resulting leadership election and Kennedy subsequently gave his successor full public support.
Following his resignation, Kennedy's first major political activity was to campaign in the Dunfermline and West Fife by-election, which the Liberal Democrats went on to win, taking a seat from Labour.
On 22 June 2006, Kennedy made his first appearance in the national media after stepping down when he appeared on the BBC's Question Time. One of the questions on the show was about his possible return as leader, which he declined to rule out.
On 4 August 2006, Kennedy hosted a documentary on Channel 4 about what he saw as the increasing disenchantment felt by voters towards the main parties in British politics due to their hesitation to discuss the big issues, especially at election time, and the ruthless targeting of swing-voters in key constituencies at the expense of the majority. He also contributed an article covering the same issues to The Guardian's Comment Is Free section.
On 29 August 2006, The Times began serialising a biography of Kennedy, by journalist Greg Hurst. The book claimed that senior Liberal Democrats, including the subsequent leader Sir Menzies Campbell, knew of Kennedy's drinking problem when he was elected leader in 1999 and subsequently kept it hidden from the public.
After Campbell resigned as Liberal Democrat leader on 15 October 2007, Kennedy said that it was "highly unlikely" that he would try to return as party leader, but he did not rule it out completely.
In September 2007, Kennedy received unanimous support for the post of President of the European Movement in the UK after the death of Sir Edward Heath more than two years earlier.
In May 2010, Kennedy wrote an article in The Observer, in which he criticised the controversial Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government, calling it "a strategic coach and horses through the long-nurtured "realignment of the centre-left" to which leaders in the Liberal tradition, this one included, have all subscribed since the Jo Grimond era".
Kennedy specified he had voted against it "when it was presented to Liberal Democrat parliamentarians" and that he "did not subscribe to the view that remaining in opposition ourselves, while extending responsible "confidence and supply" requirements to a minority Tory administration, was tantamount to a "do nothing" response".
Finally, Kennedy warned of the risks of "a subsequent assimilation within the Conservative fold", adding: "[David Cameron] has been here often before: from the early days of his leadership he was happy to describe himself as a "liberal Conservative". And we know he dislikes the term Tory. These ongoing efforts at appropriation are going to have to be watched".
The media reported on 21 August 2010 that Kennedy was about to defect from the Liberal Democrats to Labour in protest against his party's role in the coalition government's public spending cuts, but the Liberal Democrats were swift to deny these reports. Kennedy himself denied the rumours in an interview with The Mail on Sunday.
Rector of University of Glasgow
In February 2008, Kennedy was elected Rector of the University of Glasgow and was officially installed, succeeding Mordechai Vanunu, on 10 April 2008. He won the election with a 46% share of vote, having been uniquely supported by not only his own Glasgow University Union but also the Queen Margaret Union and Glasgow University Sports Association. He was re-elected in February 2011, defeating one other candidate, writer A. L. Kennedy, by a clear margin.
In July 2002, Kennedy married Sarah Gurling, the sister of his friend, James Gurling.
Reports of Kennedy's ill-health in 2003 at the time of crucial debates on Iraq and after the 2004 budget (his ill health meant he missed an entire budget speech) were linked to the rumours of alcoholism, strenuously denied by him and the party but he subsequently admitted the rumours.
In April 2005, the launch of his party's manifesto for the General Election was delayed due to the birth of his first child, with Sir Menzies Campbell taking temporary charge as acting leader and covering Kennedy's campaign duties. During the manifesto launch, on his first day back on the campaign trail after the birth, Kennedy struggled to remember the details of a key policy (replacing the council tax with a local income tax) at an early morning press conference, which he later blamed on a lack of sleep due to his new child.
In July 2007, Kennedy was informally spoken to by the British Transport Police after he breached the smoking ban in England on a train.
On 9 August 2010, it was announced that Kennedy and his wife were to separate. Their divorce was granted on 9 December 2010.
The Future of Politics (2000) ISBN 0-00-710131-7 (hardcover) ISBN 0-00-710132-5 (paperback)
Hurst, Greg Charles Kennedy: A Tragic Flaw Politico's Publishing Ltd (18 September 2006) ISBN 1-84275-176