Charles Kennedy and I were elected to Parliament on the same day, 9 June 1983. I was one of six new Liberal MPs. Charles was the one SDP gain. So for 32 years we have shared our parliamentary lives and a personal friendship.
Although I had heard of Charles, we had not met before the election. I knew he was in America on a scholarship and returned prematurely to secure the SDP nomination for Ross, Cromarty and Skye – a seat where the Liberals had come fourth in the previous election which was then held by Tory minister Hamish Gray.
Duncan Grant from Charles’ campaign team advised him to sit down at the count and then told him that he was elected. It was a sensation, and no sooner had he been elected when Charles found himself en route to the Grampian Television studios in Aberdeen to be interviewed. On the way, he asked the accompanying journalist whether MPs got paid, demonstrating how little he had prepared for this great event.
Once in London he was courted by everyone, being the youngest MP and possessing a distinctive accent and hair colour. What immediately became apparent was how well prepared he was for this by his experience of the Glasgow University Debating Society and his triumph at the Observer Mace.
I remember a walk-on role for a documentary about his arrival at Westminster for one of the Scottish TV channels. We were filmed having lunch together, and I recall Charles’ concern that it should appear frugal and restrained – which, of course, it was.
From the outset, Charles was quick to show his appreciation for the help he had received from local Liberals and from his neighbour, Russell Johnston, with whom he shared the representation of Inverness. Russell was later President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on which Charles and I successively had the privilege of serving.
Charles’ mentor in Parliament and politics, however, was Roy Jenkins, who took him under his wing and clearly saw him as a rising star. With him Charles drank at the fountain of the politics of social justice, reinforcing a lifelong commitment to reform and the European ideal.
From the start Charles had two contrasting lifestyles. In London he was at the centre of political debate, rarely out of the TV studios, speaking in Parliament and mixing with commentators, presenters and the leading lights in politics. He was in demand as a speaker and presenter of ideas.
Charles was a strong advocate of the merger of the Liberals and SDP, even though it meant leaving former colleagues behind. I remember welcoming his position and telling the last Liberal Assembly I could not imagine being in a party that did not have room for Charles Kennedy. Post-merger, Charles was relaxed to be described as a Liberal.
He appeared regularly on a radio programme with Julian Critchley and Austin Mitchell, giving a light-touch and irreverent view of day-to-day politics. The show became known as Mitch, Titch and Critch.
Back home, he was on the family croft at the foot of Ben Nevis and overlooking Loch Eck next to his parents’ house, where his father was a renowned player of the fiddle and his mother made sure Charles was never short of good food and home comforts. Sadly, he lost both his parents in the past two years. His father, who was in a nursing home, died at the start of the general election campaign.
For me, Charles was not just a colleague but a close friend. I was honoured when he agreed to be best man at my wedding in 1998, and then subsequently was godfather to my daughter. He presented a case of champagne for her head wetting, saying it was the only spiritual guidance she was going to get from him.
When we were both single, we went out on double dates a couple of times. On one occasion I was asked to arrange the venue, which was a restaurant established in a former dress shop which had taken an eponymous name. His office raised an eyebrow or two when I asked them to pass on the message to confirm the arrangements as “Frocks at eight”.
I also attended his wedding to Sarah Gurling which, like mine, took place in the House of Commons. I was delighted when their son Donald was born and am sad he has lost his father at such a tender age. I know he will grow up to know what a fine man he was.
32 years on, it is worth recalling that the 1983 election also saw Tony Blair and Gordon Brown arrive in Parliament. Blair led his party to great election victories, but ultimately lost its soul in the Iraq War. On this, Charles was crystal clear. The war was wrong, and probably illegal.
Charles was never anti-American, but he was no fan of George Bush and, unlike Blair, did not believe it was the UK’s duty to follow the US regardless of circumstance. He spoke clearly and passionately at the anti-war rally and led a wholly united Liberal Democrat parliamentary group into the lobby against UK engagement in the war. This laid the foundations for his electoral success in 2005 when the party secured a record number of seats.
His exit as leader of the party was badly handled, hurtful to Charles and damaging in that it appeared to show Liberal Democrats as ruthless. This wasn’t the case, as close colleagues had been trying to manage the situation, which was increasingly difficult. Nevertheless, the
matter should have been dealt with internally rather than on the media. I made one intervention to say so, which I think Charles appreciated, but the process was unleashed.
Charles had many talents as a broadcaster, speaker and writer, all of which would have enabled him to flourish outside politics. He had a style that made him accessible and approachable. He didn’t talk like a politician – just like a normal bloke. He was self-deprecating and spoke with charm, wit and humour.
He would have had important things to say in the debate on Scotland’s future – which is by no means resolved – and would have played a prominent role in the referendum campaign to keep the UK in the European Union.
Just before we went our separate ways on the day Parliament dissolved, I had a long chat with him in his office. He was very much on top of his form – relaxed, engaging, funny and set for the fray. He expressed his concern that people he knew well and who told him what a high opinion they had of him had said they were voting SNP but were confident he would be re-elected.
I guess for them as much as for him, the result was therefore a disappointment tempered only by the fact that it was right across the board. Typically, Charles accepted the verdict of the people with dignity and grace regardless of what he may have been feeling inside.
We have lost a great politician with unique gifts and an enviably emollient style that will be sadly missed from the debates to come. For me and my family, we have lost an irreplaceable friend and colleague.
Sir Malcolm Bruce was Liberal Democrat MP for Gordon from 1983 to 2015
Charles with Malcolm Bruce