Some of the most well-known names in British politics have walked through the doors of Glasgow University Union and cut their teeth on the floor of the Union’s Debating Chamber. Charles Kennedy is one of those names. His tragic death on the 1st of June came as a tremendous shock to us all here at the Union, and indeed across the country, and yet we can look back with nothing but fondness at his time here on Gilmorehill and the contributions that he made to our Union and to the University.
Charles arrived at Glasgow University already a seasoned schools debater; indeed, he had appeared in the Union’s Schools Debating Championship final in 1977 before eventually arriving as an undergraduate politics student. Now, anyone who has ever appeared to speak in the Union’s Debating Chamber will tell you that it can be a daunting experience at first. Bodies swell and pack the benches for the three o’clock afternoon start and get progressively more intoxicated as the day wears on and glasses of wine, gin and whatever else the Union bars offer have been seen away. Speakers are subjected to heckling and put downs; the audience not shy to let you know what they think of what you are saying as you progress through your remarks.
Charles, like all great Union debaters, though, understood that the trick was to embrace the heckling and react to it. A pithy, withering put down of a brazen heckler offering a point of information, or merely trying to distract from the back benches, can often cement your speech as a winner and leave your opponent feeling somewhat silly. Wit and humour were skills that Charles possessed in abundance thanks to his participation in the unique form of Union debating, and he used them to become one of the supreme University debaters on the British circuit, winning the Observer Mace, the premier, inter-UK Universities’ student debating tournament, in 1982. It wasn’t just in debating competitions that Charles excelled in at University, either; he went on to become the Convener of Debates and President on the Board of Management of Glasgow University Union during his stint on campus, training him up for his future career in politics. When that career arrived, it did so in spectacular fashion.
During his time at Glasgow he joined the Social Democratic Party and became active on the political scene. Upon graduating, he worked as a journalist in Inverness with BBC Highland. Thereafter, Charles was the recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship which enabled him to attend Indiana University in the USA. During his time in the States, the opportunity arose for him to stand as the SDP candidate in Ross, Cromarty and Skye in the 1983 General Election. After winning the nomination he participated in a number of town hall debates against the much more experienced incumbent, Conservative MP who was a Government Minister at the time. We suspect that the skills Charles honed on the floors of the Union’s Chamber stood him in good stead as he was returned to Westminster as the then youngest MP of the time. Charles’ political career went from strength to strength and he became President of the newly formed Liberal Democrats, perhaps largely due to his pivotal role in the merger between the SDP and Liberal Parties, before succeeding Paddy Ashdown as party leader in 1999.
Over the piece, Charles’ time as leader was regarded as a success, with the Lib Dems’ greatest electoral result in terms of seats coming in the 2005 General Election. He stepped down as leader in 2006 and occupied a more backbench role, opposing the Coalition Agreement in 2010 and certain party policies without ever really breaking ranks and publicly distancing himself from Nick Clegg. He was also, of course, later elected as Rector of Glasgow University, a role in which he served a historic two terms. His defeat in Ross, Skye and Lochaber in the 2015 General Election was the end of an era for a political giant and perhaps one of the more genuinely sad losses during what turned out to be a landslide victory for the Conservatives in England and Wales and the SNP in Scotland. His tragic death a few weeks ago merely serves to underline just how big a contribution to public life he made.
What marks Charles Kennedy out as being one of the most outstanding political operators of the last thirty or so years, ironically, isn’t his political nous or wisdom, of which he had copious amounts; rather, it was his remarkably down to earth, human approach to dealing with friends and foes. With everything that he did, from his appearances on shows like Have I Got News For You; to his easy-going approach in the vipers’ nest that is Westminster; to his casual ambling in to the Union to take in a Parliamentary debate every now and again, he was easy to like and get on with. This kindness in approach is indeed also the overwhelming spirit of debating at the Union in 2015, and anyone who has spent any time within the debating community here will attest to that. Ever since Charles left us as outgoing President to forge his own political career at Westminster, young students in their finery at countless debating events have spoken in hushed tones about the almost revered Highlander who was the life and soul of the Union once upon a time, and who went on to be so popular after his time as an undergraduate here. They will, as am I, all be proud to say that, in their own little way by taking part in debating here at the Union, they followed in Charles Kennedy’s footsteps.