When I agreed to do this event, I was determined – and I think Lesley was keen – that I did not dwell too long on Brexit. And fear not, the bulk of what I talk about will be Charles. But how to talk about Charles today without mentioning the most pressing issue of our times? I think we can safely say he would have had a lot to say for himself and I for one, as a campaigner for a People’s Vote, would have welcomed the weight he would have added to that cause.
On the day of his funeral, we were driving up to Fort William from Glasgow airport listening to the tributes across Good Morning Scotland. A constituent recalled asking him whether he intended to support or oppose the bedroom tax, and Charles saying he would oppose it. His reasoning was very simple. ‘It’s just wrong.’
And I think he would argue very strongly that it is just wrong if the government and Parliament press ahead with a course of action that they know is going to make people poorer, our country weaker, our standing in the world lower. I believe too he would have had no difficulty arguing against this notion that somehow it is anti-democratic to put the outcome of these negotiations back to the people, given the Brexit now on offer bears next to no relation to the false prospectus on which it was sold. MPs are there to lead not follow, and Charles would have led the argument that that far from it being anti-democratic to have a People’s Vote, it would be anti-democratic – just wrong– not to. So we keep fighting.
But today I want to talk about Charles in the context of two important issues – friendship, and male mental health and addiction.
People, used to the shouting and bawling in the Commons, the aggression across the media, are sometimes surprised that friendships develop across party political boundaries. But they do. One of my more unusual friendships was with fellow diarist Alan Clark, and my own diaries record him calling me in Downing Street to say – I will not, in this polite company, use the F word that he did – that the Tories had had it for years to come. Why so? I asked. ‘Because we now hate each other more than we hate you.’ So friendships can sometimes be born of the enmities on your own side.
I should warn anyone minded to form a friendship with me not to get too close – for I have had more than my fair share of loss on that front. My two older brothers, Donald and Graeme, were both 62 when they died which, given I am 61, makes me a little nervous. One of my closest friends at university, Mark Gault, died aged 45. My best friend in newspapers, John Merritt, died in his 30s. My former boss at the Mirror, who also edited my diaries, Richard Stott, was 63. My best friend in Labour politics, Philip Gould, was 61. And Charles, perhaps my closest non-Labour friend in politics, was just 55.
When my mother died, she left us a short poem she had written, which ended: ‘Those you love don’t go away. They walk beside you every day.’ And sometimes, when I am on my own, walking or running, I talk to these friends I have lost. And whenever I am up here, which is fairly often, I certainly imagine conversations with Charles.
‘Charles,’ I say ‘a lot has happened since you left us.’
‘Such as?’ he asks.
‘Vince is leading your party.’
‘Vince? Oh my. He must be loving that.’
‘Can’t say he looks terribly happy.’
‘So what happened to Nick Clegg?’
‘He is Mark Zuckerberg’s right hand man.’
‘The Facebook guy? Dearie me!’
‘Yes, in California.’
‘And who is Labour leader? Ed Miliband stepped down not long before I died.’
‘Er, Jeremy Corbyn.’
‘Jerrremy Corrrbyn? Few people could more expressively roll an r than ‘Charrr-els.’ … ‘Next you’ll be telling me Theresa May is Prime Minister.’
‘Well, funny you should say that, Charles.’
‘You’re not serious?’
‘Well, David Cameron made rather a big call. We had a referendum, he lost, and she became PM on the back of it.’
‘Oh heavens! So Scotland is independent?’
‘I’m afraid it was a referendum on Europe, Charles. A new word has been invented since you died. Brexit. It’s all anyone is talking about.’
‘That is terrible … I am assuming the rest of the world is in better shape?’
‘Well, Donald Trump is President of the US.’
By now, Charles, for all the grief his death caused us, would be wondering whether he got out at the right time. What a world we are currently living in.
So for sure, Charles would have fought hard against the madness in our politics right now where Tory and Labour leaders – and yes, he would be surprised at both being there – seem determined to see through something they know will make the country worse off.
Yet Charles, whose political skills were honed as a student debater at Glasgow University, always had respect for the other side of an argument.
Sometimes he would even forget what the big differences of opinion were.
As his second term as Glasgow University Rector neared its end, he sounded me out as a possible successor. He said listen, your Dad was at Glasgow, your brother is the principal’s official piper, your name and your bagpipes give you a bit of Scottish cred, you get on with young people, and, you would love it.’
‘But Charles, what about Iraq?’
‘Oh, Iraq. Huh huh, yes, Iraq. I forgot you were part of all that, weren’t you? Ach well, not to worry.’
Charles was one of the most eloquent, consistent opponents of the decision to invade Iraq and topple Saddam. He never wavered in that, even when most of the political establishment was united – the bit the Tories like to forget sometimes – in pushing for action. He got a lot of abuse, which bounced off him, because he believed in what he was saying.
But the reason I would respect him for his views, in a way that I could not always respect some anti- voices, is that he did not believe that because he in all integrity had one position, that meant he had to doubt the integrity of those who reached a different position.
When Charles opposed the coalition government raising tuition fees he said this… ‘I cast no aspersions whatsoever on the conclusions arrived at by any others.These are testing decisions being taken against an extremely difficult economic backdrop; it is incumbent upon us all to recognise the sincerity of the motives among those who arrive at a different outcome.’He opposed on policy and principle, never on personality.
But Charles’ had wit to match his moral courage.
It was TS Elliot who described wit as the alliance of levity and seriousness by which the seriousness is intensified. Charles knew the value of wit. As when – back to Europe – he suggested on hearing Tory Eurosceptic Bill Cash had been elected chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee. ‘It is akin to putting King Herod in charge of a maternity ward.’
Or of politics more generally … ‘I’m a big fan of Puccini. Tosca is great because it has got the lot – murder, politics, sex, intrigue. It is like the whole pastiche of the House of Commons, only with good music.’
And he appreciated the wit of others, and had some wonderful tales of life on the campaign trail, my favourite of which was a woman on whose door he knocked, to be told ‘I’m sorry dear, but I am blow-drying the cat.’
For some years, my family has spent either Easter, or New Year, sometimes both, just over the water from here, and he, his wife Sarah before they split up, and their lovely son Donald would come over. I always think one’s own children’s judgement of friends is a good indicator, and my kids, used to politicians in their lives and often seeing straight through them, saw right into Charles for what he was – clever, funny, giving, flawed.
I remember one meal we had where I was trying to persuade Charles that he should embrace social media. He said it was all a bit silly and new fangled. Nonetheless, he agreed to give it a go, and I helped him set up his twitter account. Fair to say he never quite moved from his initial assessment. And my mother told him he was not to listen to me, and ‘just be yourself.’ I don’t think Charles could ever be accused of not being himself.
Mine is a somewhat fanatical keep fit family. The only time I ever heard the word exercise pass Charles’ lips was when, whatever the snow or rain or sleat outside, he would announce he was nipping out to exercise his lungs, aka have a fag.
I remember once on a nice warmish day we were outside, and looking out at Ben Nevis, snowcapped and stunning. I asked if he ever took the beauty of these surrounds for granted.
‘Aye, it’s quite a mountain,’ he replied.
‘How many times have you been up there?’ I asked.
‘Eh – actually, none. I’ve never been up there.’
‘What?’ I replied, incredulously.
‘I have never been to the bottom either,’ he added.
He saw my look.
‘Well you won’t find too many constituents up there.’
It was funny to watch the vox pops in Fort William after his death. Virtually everyone said ‘oh yes, I always voted for Charles.’ Amazing he lost really! But he would have seen the funny side of that too. There was pain in his defeat, but no bitterness. I never once heard him express bitterness about his ousting as Lib Dem leader either. He knew his colleagues had a point. They knew – and he knew they knew – that unless he cracked his drink problem, a bigger problem was coming their way. That being said, as the Lib Dems surveyed the wreckage of their party after the last two elections, they might recall his warning that if they got into bed with the Tories they would use them, abuse them and then destroy them.
He took to sending me the William Hill odds on his survival, and a day before his last election in 2015, I got a text saying ‘Not good. William Hill has me 3-1 against, SNP odds on, they’re looking unstoppable.’
Afterwards, he said in some ways he was glad to be out of it. I am not totally sure I believed him, but he had plenty of ideas of how he would spend his time. There was definitely the possibility of a new life opening up for him. But all too soon, he was gone.
On the day he died, I did a tribute discussion on the radio with Shirley Williams, who said that had it not been for his drinking, Charles could have been a great politician. I would never be anything other than polite with or about Shirley Williams, but to me it was like saying Churchill could have been even greater but for his Black Dog and his tendency to drown it in Scotch; Clinton would have had a near perfect Presidential reputation had he not had a Kennedy-esque sex drive – that is JFK not Charles; Abraham Lincoln would have been even greater without his ‘melancholia’; or Martin Luther King an even finer and more charismatic campaigner without the down days on which the energy of the manic side of his bipolar disorder was well and truly sapped.
Charles was respectedbecause of the qualities that saw him rise so young and so far; but lovedbecause people sensed his vulnerability and, through it, his humanity.Drink, and the things going on inside him that led him down that path, was part of who Charles was and part of that humanity, his ability to connect with people in a way most politicians couldn’t, his ability to converse with anyone from Queen to cleaning lady, in the same charming, seemingly effortless way.
People talk a lot about legacy for politicians. This event, the fact we will reflect on him for a long time to come, is part of Charles’ legacy.
But a bigger and greater legacy would come from a new approach by politicians to alcohol – and to be fair to the Scottish government they have taken a lead – so that we learn to understand and accept that alcoholism is a disease not a lifestyle choice. Some get it, some don’t. Charles got it, got it badly, and that is why he is not here now, why we miss him, why we miss his voice in the debate on Europe, and the direction of our country.
And for me, though I don’t do God, when drink does take someone close to me, I do have a strong sense of ‘there but for the grace of God go I.’ Anyone who has had a troubled relationship with alcohol knows that this is the way you must think of it – it is a relationship. Some days you are in control of it, others you are not. Some days you wake and know you will get to the end of the day without being tempted by a beer, a wine, or the harder stuff I have not touched in over three decades. Other days every minute of every day you feel yourself being yanked towards a fridge or a shop or a pub or a hidden stash, and the days which start with that feeling tend to end badly. They did for me at least, when I was in the throes of addiction. For Charles too. Because all too often, he told me.
Those whose lives have been taken over or blighted by alcohol tend to develop deeper relationships with each other. That was certainly the case with us.
As a young journalist, I was the one heading to a drink problem without realising it. I always remember Charles as a steady drinker but not someone who shared my desire to see lunch as an excuse for a four hour binge.
I liked his company and I valued his judgement. I liked his politics and I regularly tried to persuade Charles that deep down he was Labour, that an accident of birth in the land of the great Highland liberal tradition is largely what propelled him to being a great Highland liberal. But it was a lost cause. In August 2010, he told the Sunday Mail: ‘I will go out of this world feet first with my Lib Dem membership card in my pocket.’ He did.
Mind you, one of his last texts to me suggested we meet up to discuss the possibility of starting a new Scottish centre left party. We have had a few imaginary conversations on that one since.
Lib Dem or not, he was one of a small number of MPs to whom I went for advice when Tony Blair made what I knew would be a life-changing offer to work for him. One of the things that held me back was the fear that the pressure, and my character – prone to excess and to courting danger – would lead to another breakdown or another collapse into the warm, ugly, enveloping embrace of alcohol.
Charles, unlike my family, thought that ‘on balance, all things considered’ – two of his favourite phrases – I should do it. He felt I had ‘cracked it,’ and would be fine. I thought of that phrase many times in subsequent years. Not about me, but about him. I had pretty much cracked it. I went 13 years without a drink and when I did fall off the wagon, I got back on pretty quickly. I drank – stupidly but part of the courting danger trait in my personality, and never the hard stuff – to test myself, to see whether one glass of wine would lead to one bottle of Scotch. So far so stupid – note to anyone in AA … don’t try it – but so far so good. The last time I was worse for wear was in Scotland in the spring of 1986, shortly before I was arrested, banged up for my own safety, then hospitalised.
I am not sure, once Charles’ drinking started to become a problem – and for both drinker and friends it is almost impossible to know when exactly that happens – he ever really ‘cracked it.’ He did go for periods without a drink. He did go into rehab and get dried out. He did confide in a small number of people that he had a problem and he was trying his best. But if this disease is in you, will power alone, or other people telling you it is obvious what you need to do – ‘just don’t do it’ – won’t crack it. You need to find a new way of looking at the world, and that is a lot harder if you are trying to do it in the public eye, every move you make subject to analysis and attack.
When I was in hospital in the mid-80s, I was led by a wonderful Paisley psychiatrist named Ernest Bennie to the insight that unless I resolved to stop drinking then I would likely be back in such places again and again. Though I was in the intense pain that follows a breakdown, and heading for a depression that would stay with me for a long time, something clicked in me and I knew my life had to change. Also, I was in journalism not politics at the time, so when I got back to work I felt I could be open about my problems and even in the hard drinking environment of late Fleet St most people were always brilliant with me.
I said all this to Charles when trying to persuade him not just to get help but to be open about it, so he did not have the added worry of being ‘found out.’ But I think a part of him worried that if he had admitted to a possible problem when on the rise, he might never have reached the top. And, though there is a lot more niceness in politics than people might realize, it was not unreasonable for Charles to worry about what his colleagues would say and do, how the media would respond and whether it would unleash a torrent of coverage that would hurt his family, and of course how his constituents would react. Scotland has a somewhat troubled relationship with alcohol (yes, the relationship notion applies to countries as well as people). But there is also a strand of Scottish opinion that deeply disapproves of alcohol and might not be overly sympathetic. So he thought.
But there was another factor we chatted about several times, including when he was Lib Dem leader. Of course he knew there was a problem or else why were we talking about it? But did he really, deep down in his gut, accept the scale of it? And could he do the things he was going to need to do to be able to say, genuinely, he had ‘cracked it’? I fear not. Too many of our conversations on the subject were laced with the little tales and tactics I knew so well from my own dark days – ‘not had a drink so far today, barely touched it at the weekend, did fine on TV last night, I’m feeling good.’
This is the opposite, it seems to me, to what a lot of people do when the relationship with a partner is going wrong and they can only see the bad side, not the person they fell in love with. With alcohol, you look for the bits that tell you everything is ok when the evidence is staring you in the face every time you look in the mirror or to the bottom of a glass and prepare for another hangover or vomiting session.
I remember the first time his saying to me without equivocation that he had a real problem, and he knew he had to do something about it, and for the first time believing him. It was well after he had stopped being leader and I had left Downing Street. It was not far from here. Donald was playing snooker with our sons and Charles asked if I would go for a walk with him. We stood in the garden looking out over Ben Nevis. He looked crestfallen. Then he said ‘just tell me again, how did you do it?’ I said nothing – it was a tactic I remember from my meeting many years earlier with Dr Bennie. ‘You know, how you managed to go from all to nothing?’ I smiled. Eventually he said ‘I know I have to crack this thing once and for all, no messing… Or else I am going to lose everything.’ His career was on a decline. His marriage was all but over. His health was deteriorating again. ‘So what do I do?’
I tried to get him to agree to go to a place I know in the Scottish Borders, Castle Craig. He said he was up for it. I said you may have to stay for weeks, months even. He said fine. ‘If I have to, I have to. It has gone beyond.’ It felt like a major step forward.
In the morning, however, I noticed that the bottle of wine that had been half empty when I went to bed, was now empty. Two and two doesn’t always make four but Charles – something of an insomniac – had been last to go upstairs saying he would stay up to read for a while. Maybe I should have challenged him. But by the time we had breakfast Donald was there enjoying himself – it was like watching a mini version of Charles – his Dad was back on form charming our other friends, and an hour or so later they were heading back to the ferry.
By the time I went back to him with possible dates and rates for Castle Craig, he had other things to deal with, reasons to put it off – a sick father to help, a speech to make, a visit to Glasgow University, a planning meeting for the next election campaign. And so it went on.
Charles was – still is – in my phone as ‘Charles K’ and I got a text from ‘him,’ saying that Charles had died and could I call on this phone to speak to Carole. Carole McDonald, his friend and partner. I called and she told me she had been worried about him after speaking on the phone, had driven up to see him and he was dead. I asked who knew. She said the police, the ambulance, Sarah, his brother and sister, and now me. She said ‘I know he would have wanted you to know before it started to leak out.’ I think I knew why. To help with the announcement, yes. But also, it was about our relationship with alcohol. He would have wanted me to be among the first to know that his was at an end, over. And he would want me to use that to keep my own relationship with alcohol on the straight and narrow.
I tried to be at his shoulder, or at least its mental version, whenever that feeling of being yanked towards the bottle kicked in. I think that sometimes I helped and sometimes I didn’t because nobody could. He is at my side now, along with others I have known who have fallen victim to this evil disease, and he will be urging me to push the urge aside, and also to keep coming up with the family to the most beautiful place on earth, a place he loved from birth to death, and where now he rests in peace, in the little cemetery at Clunes, where Fiona and I make an annual pilgrimage and I play on the pipes the lament that was played at his funeral.
His memory also pushes me on to campaign for change, and fight for a new relationship between people and booze, one which has to be led by politicians understanding that unless we face up as a country to the damage being wreaked across families and communities, wrecking our NHS, filling our courts and prisons, then there will be many more Charles Kennedys to come. Not so well known, not so talented maybe, not with memorial lectures to their names. But victims like him of a disease we all too often fail to see as one. And it is not enough for Prime Ministers and ministers and others to say ‘isn’t it great that we are all talking about mental health in a way we never used to?’ Because no, it’s not, unless the services that match the need are there to help the people who need them. And I sometimes worry government uses the awareness and anti-stigma campaigns, welcome though they are, as a substitute not an accompaniment to the services. On stigma, we are going forwards. On services, in many parts of the UK, we are going backwards.
The reason I knew about Castle Craig, and felt it would be right for him, was because it was where my son Calum sorted out his troubled relationship with alcohol and, touch wood, he has not touched drink for more than five years. But I often wonder what we would have done if we had not been able to pay, as many alcoholics and their families cannot.
I don’t know if Charles would still be here if he had gone there. But he might be. I don’t know if the reasons why he didn’t make that step were as I set them out – his worries about how others would react and might exploit. But they might have been. And one thing all of us know, at a time we need good politicians more than ever, and seem to have so few, is that we lost one of the best way too young.
Castle Craig is a place where mainly British alcoholics mingle with mainly Dutch drug addicts, the latter sent there at public expense by a government which understands not just that addiction is an illness, but that long-term savings can be made for the State if we invest in treating it as such, even for the hardest cases. Some will relapse. But many do not. And when those that don’t are able to rebuild their lives, become productive citizens again, we all gain from that.
And one big political point I feel sure Charles would be making today if he was still with us – how low down the pecking order of priorities have issues like this fallen, as Brexit takes up so much of the government bandwidth? Austerity plus Brexit is no equation, sadly, for the more enlightened, more long-term approach to the addiction and mental health crisis we face. So yes, let’s halt austerity, but let’s be honest, that challenge is harder if this miserable Brexit goes ahead, and damages our economy as even the government acknowledges it will.
Every time we pick up a glass, that is a choice we make. But nobody makes the active choice, the first time they take a drink, to become an alcoholic. Nobody actively wants to do what it takes to destroy health, work, relationships, and when anyone asks me if I think they should be worried about their drinking, that is the question I ask – is it in any way damaging your health, your work, your relationships? One is bad. Two is worse. The full house is a real problem. I had the full house in 1986, but cracked it. Charles had the full house, didn’t crack it, and we remain deeply saddened by that. But if we as a country are to crack it, we need to take a very different approach, and have very different attitudes, to those which prevail today. Let the fight for that different approach and those different attitudes be a part of Charles’ legacy too. A new relationship with alcohol. A new relationship for Britain in Europe, inside the EU after a People’s Vote rejecting this miserable deal. Plenty to fight for. Plenty for me to talk to Charles about on long Highland walks with his memory at my side. Thank you.
This is so poignant. I only met Charles once but liked him enormously and I think I understand Alastair’s view that Charles’ alcoholism was part of what made him the human being that he was. We need more people with Alastair’s insight and deep understanding to speak on issues such as this. Where are all the sincere politicians now? In these troubled times we need some political leaders with this level of insight. If Charles and Alastair had started to set up that new centre party I would have been one of the first to join them.
An honest a very readable account of friendship, recovery and the often tragic outcome of active alcoholism. Thank you. From one of Charles’ constituents and fellow travellers in recovery.
Brilliant piece. Thank you.
Candid, kind and worthy assessments of both an exceptionally decent bloke and the profound health problem from which he suffered. Hopefully, your reflections and insights will be appreciated by many more of us who are still saddened by Charles’ far too early death.