How Charles Kennedy Became a Student Hero

Under Charles Kennedy, the Lib Dems enjoyed more support among students than any other party, despite their being a distant third place party nationally. Indeed, Oxford West was a Lib Dem stronghold while Oxford East came to within 2% of containing a plurality for Kennedy’s party, two among dozens of student-heavy seats in which the Lib Dems enjoyed rapturous support at the time. So what was it about him that resonated so deeply with a huge number of students?

Charles Kennedy was an outsider. In a world of refined, polished and plastic politicians, Charles went his merry way into parliament unmoulded, honest and rogue. He treated endless meetings in parliament, and within his party, with the same disdain most of us would. Yet he was unequivocally and deeply a man whose focus was always on the bigger picture. How he managed to survive, let alone be adored, in parliament for so long with these qualities is a testament to his charm, likability and humanity. No one doubted for a second that Charles wasn’t doing something he didn’t absolutely believe in to be the right thing.

His mettle in sticking to his principles is perhaps best illustrated in what many believe to be his finest hour. I remember as an 8 year old, atop my father’s shoulders, being in Hyde Park at my first protest in 2003. Charles shared the exact same birthday as my dad, so I was encouraged to listen, and it was only years later that I understood the significance of what he was doing. It’s easy to forget how tough it was to oppose the war on Iraq, especially now history as made the wisdom of this decision clear. At the time, Charles was either despised as a Saddam-loving dictatorship facilitator, or a fuzzy, naïve pacifist who couldn’t cut it in the real world. Through it all and driven boldly by principle and what he believed in, he stood firmly against the war. While politicians around the world were busy keeping their political lives intact by supporting the war, Charles was making himself the face of the opposition, and by that doing what every politician should be seeking to do – giving a voice to the voiceless.

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Consider the consequences of his bravery – as a result of his actions and him being proved right, this country will never rush to war again. We will always scrutinise and question – rightfully so – any move the leaders of this country want to make on our behalf internationally and in war. A truly outstanding achievement.

But Charles was never one to say ‘I told you so’. A deeply humble, never pompous, man he understood the need for humanity when serving his constituents and the people of the country, but equally he understood the need for humanity when talking to people (in parliament and outside) with whom he disagreed. He always conducted fair and open minded dialogue with his adversaries and was up for a conversation with anyone at a moment’s notice. He focused on convincing the other in an argument, rather than defeating or embarrassing them. Not only did this make him popular on all sides of the political spectrum, but it made everyone listen to every word he spoke. Many people claim and wish to be ‘above’ politics, Charles Kennedy was one of the few who might well have been.

I suppose the biggest reason for the endearment he enjoyed in Oxford and afar might be for the simplest- he was one of us. Upon his unexpected election victory in 1983, aged 23, Charles said:

“We have heard much […] about the iniquities of our electoral system. Under the present system many people are effectively disfranchised. However, voluntary disfranchisement is also taking place. During my campaign people of my age and younger said consistently that they would not vote because their votes simply no longer matter and because no Government or Member of Parliament cared a whit about their problems and their striving for employment. That is disturbing for all of the parties and all honarary Members. Those who will contribute most to British democracy in the future are extricating themselves from the system already because they believe that it is no longer relevant. Part of the solution to that is electoral reform, but even more urgent is the need for a more tolerant, caring and compassionate Government.”

After all, isn’t that what we all believe too?