Friendship, addiction and Brexit: Alastair Campbell’s poignant and frank Charles Kennedy Memorial Lecture

In the last 3.5 years, so many people have wondered what Charles Kennedy would have had to say about Brexit and our fight against it. A European to his core, he would have been such a strong and credible voice for Remain in the referendum. Our politics is so much the poorer for his absence […]

In the last 3.5 years, so many people have wondered what Charles Kennedy would have had to say about Brexit and our fight against it. A European to his core, he would have been such a strong and credible voice for Remain in the referendum.

Our politics is so much the poorer for his absence and in this party, his loss is particularly acute. People across politics and outside politics had so much time for him.

We didn’t find out until after he died how close he was to Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s Chief spin doctor. This was a relationship that transcended the fact that Charles was the leading opponent of the  Iraq war.

Last night Alastair Campbell travelled to Fort William to give the annual Charles Kennedy Memorial Lecture.

He recalled when Charles asked him to think about running for Rector of Glasgow University when he stood down:

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.’

He touched on Brexit and what Charles would have made of it all:

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.

That wasn’t the main topic of his lecture though. He wanted to talk about mental health and addiction. 

His alcoholism helped to form the character that people loved and respected:

Charles was respected because of the qualities that saw him rise so young and so far; but loved because 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.

He recounted some of his interactions with Charles about his alcoholism, and then, poignantly, talked about his annual pilgrimage north:

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.

Politicians need to realise that actively helping people with addictions is good for society and can save heartbreak and, yes, money in the long term:

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.

The whole lecture is really worth reading and brought tears to my eyes. Alistair Campbell reminds us of the best of Charles, his wit and wisdom. I can’t imagine a time when he isn’t deeply missed.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings