I phoned Charles Kennedy after Christmas in 1999. Would you come up to Shetland to speak at my constituency dinner before the Scottish elections? Yes of course Tav, he chortled.
I arranged the usual politicians’ photocall. We visited a salmon farm the morning afterwards. Jim Wallace, Charles and I had gossiped into the small hours after the dinner. So a blast of Shetland air on the open deck of a salmon boat was just what we needed. Charles was in his element. The witty aside, a trenchant observation and a wonderful put down of some preposterous political position taken by another party. It was a memorable weekend.
Charles argued that politicians had to put people first. He was a crofters son of the west highlands, educated at his local high school in Fort William. Many local people paying tribute to Charles after his death was announced on Tuesday, said having their local man in Parliament was so important. Charles put the people he represented first in his actions as an outstanding MP and one of Britain’s finest politicians.
At John Farquhar Munro’s funeral at Glenshiel in 2014 Charles gazed across the graveyard on a sombre but bright Highland day. The 5 sisters of Kintail bore down. The lap of Loch Duich could be heard on the foreshore. A piper played a Gaelic lament. It was as atmospheric a moment as I have ever witnessed. Charles was visibly moved. Yet he had cheerful words for all who spoke to him that day. JF had been nothing but a pain in the previous Scottish elections. But as we stood in the grave yard, Charles told me that being present was the right thing to do. You do not desert years of friendship because of political skulduggery. Friendships endure in life and through death.
I used to be Jim Wallace’s parliamentary bag carrier in the late 1980’s. One of the Wallace researchers jobs was to organise a tour for Highland MPs covering all points between Campbeltown and Saxavord. One such occasion the MP’s joined a demonstration with students at Inverness College. Jim Wallace and Charles spoke and debated with students before driving to Portree. The next morning we drove back to Inverness. Charles gave me a political tour de force on the Highlands, nationalism and Britain. The lessons of that discussion stay with me to this day.
When I became leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats he was incredibly helpful. After the 2010 general election when the Lib Dem MPs decided to form a coalition with the Tories it was Charles who spoke to me as the London meeting was breaking up. I despaired at a pact with the Tories. I guessed at the likely political fallout in Scotland. Charles spoke against the formation of that coalition. Had his colleagues listened to him there would be many more Lib Dem MPs still in the House of Commons.
I struggle with the thought of not having Charles to phone, to laugh with and to analyse the politics of our country.