Tim Farron addresses Liberal Democrat party conference. Photo: Getty Images
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"God rest you, Charlie": Tim Farron's tribute to Charles Kennedy

The full text of Tim Farron's tribute to Charles Kennedy, the former Liberal Democrat leader, who died this week.

I was elected to this House on 5 May 2005, and Charles Kennedy was my party leader. In the weeks running up to that election, he was meant to pay a visit to Westmorland and Lonsdale—to the University of Cumbria, Ambleside—but in the event he had a very good excuse for missing that appointment, which was the birth of Donald. I remember the immense pride we felt in having Charles as our leader, and the immense pride he felt in becoming a father.

I won my seat at that election by 267 votes. When a candidate wins by that small amount, everything counts. I am quite sure that the additional publicity of Donald’s birth contributed to the capturing of Westmorland after 96 years of Tory rule.

As the months went by, I did not get a phone call. There were a good number of us and many were appointed to positions in junior shadow ministries and junior, junior shadow ministries.

Then in September I got the phone call from Charles. He said, “I’m sorry I haven’t given you a job. I just completely forgot about you.”

He asked me whether I would like to be the youth affairs spokesperson, which was obviously an entirely natural fit. That was the only time I ever felt forgotten by Charles.

A year before that, I lost my mother—she was a year younger than Charles at his passing—after a long and pretty horrific illness. I remember seeing him when I was among dozens of other candidates, and he knew exactly about the situation that I and my family were going through, and he showed immense compassion.

He never stopped asking me about the situation. When she passed away, he asked me how I was. That was the measure of the man. He went through some very difficult things in terms of his personal health, but he was always primarily concerned about the wellbeing of others.

Charles was a persuader; he was able to reach people in their gut. People make up their minds on the basis of all sorts of things, but generally speaking we can only move people if we can get them in the gut.

He was the only Social Democratic party MP ever to gain his seat in a general election. Four years later, when the SDP and the Liberals merged, he argued on the conference floor against his own leader, David Owen. We could see the faces of people in that hall as they changed their minds. Charles Kennedy had reached into their hearts and turned them.

To my mind, what Charles was so good at was his ability to communicate and get to people, and it was not contrived.

People say that Charles Kennedy was human. Yes, he was, but he was not contrived. The first time that I went on, I think, Any Questions a few years ago, he gave me a piece of advice.  He just said: “Be yourself.”

Charles was successful because he was himself. If any hon. Member is ever invited on to Have I Got News For You, my advice is, “Say no, unless you want to be made out to be a prat or unless you are Charles Kennedy.”

Charles had a natural ability to communicate with people, because he was absolutely himself. That humanity is one thing; his principle has been spoken of several times, but it cannot be said enough that his stance against the Iraq war seems like the populist and right thing to do today. Twelve years ago, it was not.

He was surrounded by people baying at him as though he was somehow Chamberlain or an appeaser of Saddam Hussein, and the Sun had a front-page picture of Charles Kennedy the anti-patriotic rattlesnake. By golly, someone must be doing something right when that happens!

Charles Kennedy was principled and he changed people’s minds, and he was right. He was human; he was principled; and he was effective. He led our party to the largest number of Members of Parliament since Lloyd George’s day.

I suggest that that humanity, that principle and that effectiveness—those three things—are connected. If we want to understand why Charles Kennedy was great, we should realise that it was because he was himself.

People say that politicians should have a life outside politics before they become Members of Parliament. Maybe. Charlie was elected at 23. It is hard to argue that he did.

The reality is that it is not what you have done, it is who you are, and Charles Kennedy was a very, very special man.

Donald, you should be really proud of your daddy. I am proud of your daddy. I loved him to bits.

I am proud to call him my friend. God rest you, Charlie.


Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.