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.