Charles Kennedy’s gift as a politician was to relate to ordinary people

Charles Kennedy 1959-2015. Andrew Milligan / P

I remember watching Charles Kennedy in the debating chamber at the University of Glasgow when we were both undergraduates. It was already obvious that he was a great orator – not someone who would write complicated speeches, but someone who even then had that knack of communicating with his audience. He kept things simple and clear, and was always able to find the right anecdote or the right analogy to get his point across.

One of the things that struck me most powerfully during his political career was his speech at the anti-Iraq war rally in Hyde Park in London in 2003. He articulated his personal opposition to the war so clearly, stressing that he wasn’t being driven by pacifism or anti-Americanism. It was a powerful statement that positioned the Lib Dems as the anti-war party. Without wanting to make a political point, I admired him for standing up for what he believed in.

He will also be remembered for voting against his party entering the coalition government in 2010. I remember him remarking to me that it was the wrong turn for his party to take. Yet despite that, he was very loyal to the Lib Dems while they were in government.

With Nick Clegg on Andrew Marr in 2010, before the coalition split. Dave Thompson/PA

Kennedy as rector

I really got to know Charles when I came back to the university as principal in 2009 and he had been elected rector – indeed he sat on the appointments committee that appointed me. He would not often talk explicitly about politics to me. One of the things that always struck you about him was that he was able to converse freely on a range of subjects.

I particularly remember his wit and charm. Governing-body meetings are typically very formal affairs. Charles always broke the ice with some memorable anecdote about current affairs that seemed appropriate to the situation. He was incredibly down to earth, and was always able to relate to ordinary people. I suppose that was his gift as a politician. There is often a distance between public figures and their audience, but that was never the case with Charles.

In recent years, the university rector’s role has tended to alternate between someone who is present and someone who is absent – such as the current incumbent Edward Snowden. Charles was very much a working rector. Even though he was an MP and had a vast constituency to serve in the Highlands, he tried to spend as much time on the campus as possible.

Having been elected by the students, he would hold regular surgeries. He felt he was almost like their MP. I was struck that he went about this role in a way that left his politics at the university gates. He strongly believed he wasn’t there as a politician but simply as Charles Kennedy, simply to represent the students. This is undoubtedly one of the reasons why he represented them extremely well. His ear was close to the ground, and we met regularly to discuss issues they were raising with him.

Kennedy in full flow. Liberal Democrats, CC BY

Charles and Benjamin

Charles was elected as rector for a second term in 2011. I remember his re-election night, which he won decisively. He said in his speech that he was the first rector to have two consecutive terms since Benjamin Disraeli. He led his party in two very successful elections, and 2005 was probably the party’s most successful of all. But I remember how much he enjoyed winning that second term as rector, beaming with pride as the result was announced.

I hadn’t seen him since the general election, during which time he was of course very busy. We had intended to meet a week ago, but he had had to cancel. It is extremely sad not to have had the chance to hear about his plans for life outside Westminster.

No doubt Europe would have been part of that. It was one of his other defining political passions, and I am sure he would have played a very active role in the campaign to remain in the EU in the forthcoming referendum. He would have been a powerful voice.

How sad that we will not now have the chance to hear what he would have said.