by Colin Campbell
FOR anyone who has been around quite a long time in the Highlands, much of Tuesday night’s BBC Alba documentary on Charles Kennedy would have been a nostalgic trip down memory lane.
The portrayal of the former Ross MP and Liberal Democrat leader was hugely affectionate and, when it turned to the drink problem that finally killed him in 2015, greatly sympathetic.
But before it turned to that grim affliction the depiction of the rise of Kennedy covered an era which seemed a darn sight kinder and gentler than it is now.
Glorious scenic shots of the Highlands were the backdrop to his days on the campaign trail back in 1983 with half a dozen supporters helping him out as he went from one remote and draughty village hall to another, in an election effort which seemed refreshingly amateurish compared with how things are now.
Going all the way back to the devastating closure of the Invergordon Aluminium Smelter, it included a clip of a renowned former Highland councillor, the late Isobel Rhind from Invergordon, addressing a meeting of the smelter workforce, with the Tory MP of the time, Hamish Gray in attendance. Isobel Rhind was a truly formidable woman. I wonder how many of today’s councillors will be quite so vividly remembered 40 years from now.
Kennedy famously defeated Gray as a 23-year-old in 1983. Difficult as it may be for some to believe now, for 13 years the constituency did have the genial and well-respected Conservative as its MP. One wintry afternoon in the late 1970s Hamish Gray put his head round the door of my office in Dingwall, when I worked on the local paper there, carrying a bottle of House of Commons branded whisky. We’d demolished most of it before he left much later on.
Gray, who went on to become Lord Gray of Contin, enjoyed a dram but it wasn’t a problem for him.
Unfortunately, it became a very serious problem for Charles Kennedy. After he rose through the ranks to become leader of the Liberal Democrats, the pressure on him increased and the disease – now widely considered an appropriate definition of alcoholism – steadily worsened.
A memorably brutal encounter on BBC’s Newsnight in which Jeremy Paxman confronted him directly about his drink problem brought it out into the open. Paxman told Kennedy at the beginning of the interview that MPs he’d spoken to in advance of it had said, “I hope you’re able to find him sober”.
However, Charles Kennedy had been assured and determined enough to become the country’s leading and most powerful voice against the Iraq war, in the eyes of many his finest hour.
But his drink problem increased to the point where he was subsequently forced by his own MPs to step down as leader, although in public he maintained a steady and competent demeanour.
Then, at the 2015 General Election, along came the SNP’s Ian Blackford and his team aiming to unseat him. Contributors to the documentary depicted the onslaught mounted on Kennedy as personal and vicious, to an unprecedented degree in the Highlands, with a barrage of comments about his alcoholism being posted on social media, and attempts to highlight it elsewhere at every opportunity. Kennedy, highly vulnerable, was defeated.
Songstress and musician Mary Ann Kennedy summed it up when she said: “It would be completely wrong to say the SNP was against Charles Kennedy. But there was a petty, malicious group which undermined him during an election campaign which was shameful.”
That segment brought the enjoyable and nostalgic memory lane trip jarringly to an end.
Now we are where we are and what seems with hindsight like those gentler, kinder days of the Kennedy era have long gone.
The man who has replaced him as Ross MP is a blustering, bellowing embarrassment to Scotland, hellbent on provoking division at every opportunity.
For many the contrast between Charles Kennedy and Ian Blackford could not be more extreme. Kennedy, amusing, light-hearted, engaging, witty, conciliatory, and liked and respected by both supporters and opponents to the same degree.
Blackford, the odiously divisive face of the SNP.
Five years after the death of Charles Kennedy, I suspect many who watched last night’s programme will feel a sense of anger over the increasingly poisonous atmosphere stoked up by the SNP in a horribly split and rancorous Scotland these days, but even more they will feel saddened by it.