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Charles Peter Kennedy MP (born 25 November 1959) is a British politician.

From 9 August 1999 until 7 January 2006, he was the leader of the Liberal Democrats, the third largest political party in the United Kingdom.

In the 1983 General Election he stood for the Ross, Cromarty & Skye constituency, then held by the Conservative MP and Minister, Hamish Gray. In a shock result, Kennedy was elected (for the Social Democratic Party (SDP)): at 23, he became the youngest MP in the House of Commons. Ambitious and popular, he quickly emerged as a potential party leader. In 1994, by which time the SDP and the Liberal Party had merged, he became President of the Liberal Democrats - a position he held for four years. In 1999, on the resignation of Paddy Ashdown, Kennedy was elected party leader.

He took the party through two General Elections. However, he faced criticism for his laid-back leadership style, and there was considerable speculation regarding his alcohol consumption. From December 2005, some within the party were questioning his leadership and calling for a leadership election. On 5 January 2006, Kennedy was informed that ITN would be reporting that he had received treatment for a drinking problem. Kennedy decided to pre-empt the broadcast and admit his drinking problem openly. He called a leadership election at the same time, stating that he intended to stand. The admission of a drinking problem seriously damaged his standing within the parliamentary party. As support for him amongst this key group ebbed away, Kennedy resigned as leader on 7 January, saying that he would not be standing in the leadership election. Deputy leader Sir Menzies Campbell took over as interim leader and was elected as leader on 2 March 2006.

Early life

Born in Invernessmarker, Scotland, and raised as a Roman Catholic, Charles Kennedy was educated at Lochaber High School, in Fort Williammarker. There, he was known for taking part in the school's mock elections that ran at the same time as the real elections.

Kennedy went on to study for a Master of Arts degree in Politics and Philosophy at the University of Glasgowmarker. At university, he became politically active, joining the Dialectic Society. He was elected president of the Glasgow University Union (GUU) and won the British Observer Mace university debating award. The GUU was the last all-male student union in the UK and became open to men and women during his term of office. Although Kennedy would go on to lead the Liberal Democrats, he did not join the Liberal Club at the University, instead joining the Social Democrats (SDP).

Upon graduation in 1982, he went to work for BBC Highland as a journalist, and later received a Fulbright Fellowship. This allowed him to carry out research at Indiana Universitymarker in the United States, on the speeches and writings of Roy Jenkins.

Member of Parliament

While studying in America he also received the Social Democratic Party (SDP) nomination for the Scottish seat of Ross, Cromarty and Skye, which he went on to win in 1983, becoming the youngest sitting Member of Parliament. He has retained the seat and its successor, Ross, Skye and Inverness West, at five subsequent general elections. He is the Liberal Democrat MP for the seat which replaced it in 2005, Ross, Skye and Lochaber.

In the late 1980s the SDP and the Liberal Party, which had been co-operating in the SDP-Liberal Alliance, merged to form the Social and Liberal Democratic Party, later renamed the Liberal Democrats. Kennedy was the first of the five SDP MPs to support the merger; in his book "Time To Declare" David Owen suggests this was due to pressure from Liberal activists in his constituency.

Kennedy served as a frontbencher for the Lib Dems in a variety of posts, including social security, agriculture and rural affairs, health, Scotland and Europe. He was also party president for four years, between 1990 and 1994.

Leader of Liberal Democrats

On 9 August 1999, Charles Kennedy was elected leader of the Liberal Democrats after the retirement of Paddy Ashdown; he beat Jackie Ballard, Malcolm Bruce, Simon Hughes and David Rendel. He won 57% of the transferred vote under the Alternative Vote system (Simon Hughes, the runner-up, won 43% of the vote).

Kennedy's style of leadership differed from Ashdown's, being regarded as more conversational and "laid back". Although he has been dismissed as "Chatshow Charlie" by some observers, as a result of his appearances on the satirical panel game Have I Got News for You, opinion polls showed him to be regarded positively as a party leader and potential Prime Minister by a significant fraction of the British electorate. He had made many appearances on HIGNFY prior to his election as leader; and subsequently became the first serving leader of one of the three main parties to appear on the show. He then went on to be a guest host of it.

Kennedy maintained the long-standing aspiration for his party to break through to the status of official opposition. In his first major campaign, the 2001 general election, the Liberal Democrats improved their share of the vote to 18.3%, 1.5% more than in the 1997 election. Although this was a smaller share than the 25.4% the SDP/Liberal Alliance achieved in 1983, the Lib Dems won 52 seats compared to the Alliance's 23. In his last General Election as leader, in May 2005, the Liberal Democrats won 62 seats, their greatest number of seats since the 1920s, gaining 22.1% of the vote.

Kennedy has also spoken out in favour of lowering the British drinking age from 18 to 16, as well as supporting lowering the voting age from 18 down to 16.

Kennedy, along with his "election guru" Lord Rennard, targeted the Lib Dems' campaigning on a limited number of seats in such a way as to turn a lower level of national support into a greater number of Parliamentary seats. He extended this strategy at the 2005 General Election targeting the seats held by the most senior and/or highly regarded Conservative MPs, dubbed a "decapitation" strategy, with the expectation that without these "key" figures, the Conservatives would be discredited as the Official Opposition allowing Charles Kennedy and the Liberal Democrats to claim that they are the "effective Opposition".

However, this strategy is widely seen to have failed. At the 2005 General Election, the Liberal Democrats failed to unseat leading Conservatives such as the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer Oliver Letwin, Shadow Home Secretary David Davis, Shadow Secretary of State for the Family Theresa May and the Leader of the Opposition Michael Howard. The biggest "scalp" the Liberal Democrats managed to claim was that of the Shadow Education Secretary Tim Collins in Westmorland and Lonsdalemarker. This was one of only three seats the Liberal Democrats won from the Conservatives, the others being Solihullmarker and Taunton. However, the Lib Dems lost more seats overall to the Conservatives, resulting in a net loss to the Conservatives. The net gain was instead made through winning significant numbers of seats from Labour.

At the same time, the Lib Dems also hoped to capture marginal Labour seats, attracting Labour voters (particularly Muslim voters) who were dissatisfied because of the invasion of Iraq which Kennedy's party had opposed; the party had succeeded with this tactic in by-elections, taking Brent Eastmarker and Leicester Southmarker from Labour. The Party did succeed to some extent in this aim, winning particularly in student areas such as Bristol, Cardiff and Manchester, but did not see the breakthrough some expected in areas with large Asian populations, even losing Leicester South.

In the 2005 election the party succeeded in regaining the seat of Ceredigion, its first gain from the Welsh Party Plaid Cymru. Overall Kennedy's party achieved a total of 62 seats, their highest number since 1923 with 22% of the overall vote.

In the wake of the General Election, Kennedy's leadership came under increased criticism from those who felt that the Liberal Democrats could have surged forward at a time when, arguably, the Official Opposition, the Conservative Party, were in a relatively weak position. Many pointed the finger of blame at Kennedy for failing to widen the Party's appeal while others, like the former Deputy Chairman of the Federal Liberal Democrat Party, Donnachadh McCarthy, resigned from the Party citing the party's shift to the right of the political spectrum under Kennedy in pursuit of Conservative votes. Under the party's rules, a leader has to stand for re-election within a year of a general election. Kennedy handed out the ballot papers to the parliamentary party within days of the 2005 election, leaving no time for anyone to mount a challenge, and allowing him to be re-elected unopposed. There was much speculation at the time as to whether he would have survived a challenge .

In late 2005, the leadership speculation was renewed, with the journalist Andrew Neil claiming to speak "on good authority" that Kennedy would announce his resignation at the 2006 spring conference of the Liberal Democrats. Kennedy's spokeswoman denied the report and complained against the BBC which had broadcast it. After the election of the "more moderate" David Cameron as Leader of the Conservative Party in December 2005, it was widely reported that senior members of the Liberal Democrats had told Kennedy that he must either "raise his game" or resign.

On 13 December 2005, the BBC's Political Editor, Nick Robinson, claimed that there were briefings against the leader, with members of his party unhappy at what they saw as 'lack of leadership' from Kennedy. A "Kennedy Must Go" petition was started by The Liberal magazine (a publication which has no affiliation to the Liberal Democrats) and allegedly had been signed by over 3,300 party members including 386 local councillors and two MPs by the end of 2005. A 'round robin' letter signed by Liberal Democrat MPs rejecting his leadership received 23 signatures.

Responses to Kennedy's statement focused on his previous denials of any problems with alcohol. As recently as the Jonathan Dimbleby programme on ITV1 on 18 December 2005 when asked "Has it been a battle to stay off the booze, have you had to have medical support in any way at all?" Kennedy replied "No, no, no, that is not the case, it is a matter on all fronts – if there's something my doctor really wants me to do over this holiday period as a matter of fact, is give up smoking and I think he's right". In 2002, the journalist Jeremy Paxman claimed Kennedy was often drunk, and asked him if he drank privately "by yourself, a bottle of whisky late at night?". "No I do not," Kennedy replied. The BBC apologised to Charles Kennedy; Paxman refused to endorse the apology. In 2004, The Times published a 'clarification' over a report it had made stating Kennedy had not taken part in that year's budget debate due to excessive drinking.

On 6 January 2006, Kennedy was informed that ITN would be reporting that he had received treatment for alcoholism, and called a sudden news conference to make a personal statement confirming the story. He stated clearly that over the past eighteen months he had been coming to terms with a drinking problem, but has sought ongoing professional help. He told reporters that recent questions among his colleagues about his suitability as leader were partly as a result of the drinking problem, but stated that he had been dry for the past two months and would be calling a leadership contest to resolve the issues surrounding his authority once and for all. It was later claimed that the source for ITN's story was his former press secretary turned ITV News correspondent, Daisy McAndrew.

Resignation and backbenches

Following Kennedy's admission, a letter from twenty-five Liberal Democrat MPs, including nineteen frontbench members, was delivered to him. It stated that the signatories could no longer serve as front bench speakers under his leadership, or fill any vacancies, and gave a deadline of 9 January for him to make a decision before they resigned. Despite a combative interview in The Independent at which Kennedy described a decision to resign as a "dereliction of duty", on 6 January a large number of senior Liberal Democrats stated that his position was untenable. Chris Davies, at that time the leader of Liberal Democrat Members of the European Parliamentmarker, described him as "a dead man walking". A survey for BBC Newsnight found that more than half of Liberal Democrat MPs thought he should resign, and only 17 out of 62 MPs positively wanted him to stay, while 11 of his 23 frontbenchers wanted him to leave. Among those who thought he should go were Norman Lamb and Andrew George, who had served as his Parliamentary Private Secretary, and Matthew Taylor, the chairman of his 1999 leadership campaign.

At 3 pm on 7 January, Kennedy called a press conference where he announced that, whilst he was buoyed by the supportive messages he had received from grassroot members, he felt that he could not continue because of the lack of confidence of the parliamentary party. He said he would not be a candidate in the leadership election, and that he would stand down as leader "with immediate effect", with Menzies Campbell acting as interim leader until a new leader was elected. He also confirmed in his resignation speech that he did not expect to remain on the frontbench, pledging his loyalty to a new leader "as a backbench" MP, but that he wished to remain active in the party and politics. His leadership lasted slightly less than six years and five months.

Campbell went on win the resulting leadership election and Kennedy subsequently gave his successor full public support.

Following his resignation Kennedy's first major political activity was to campaign in the Dunfermline and West Fife by-election, which the Liberal Democrats went on to win, taking a seat from Labour.

On 22 June 2006, Kennedy made his first appearance in the national media after stepping down when he appeared on the BBC's Question Time. One of the questions on the show was about his possible return as leader, which he declined to rule out.

On 4 August 2006, Kennedy hosted a documentary on Channel 4 about what he saw as the increasing disenchantment felt by voters towards the main parties in British politics due to their hesitation to discuss the big issues, especially at election time, and the ruthless targeting of swing-voters in key constituencies at the expense of the majority. He also contributed an article covering the same issues to The Guardian's Comment Is Free section.

On 29 August 2006, The Times began serialising a biography of Kennedy, by journalist Greg Hurst. The book claimed that senior Liberal Democrats, including present leader Sir Menzies Campbell, knew of Kennedy's drinking problem when he was elected leader in 1999 and subsequently kept it hidden from the public.

After Campbell resigned as Liberal Democrat leader on 15 October 2007, Kennedy said that it was "highly unlikely" that he would try to return as party leader, although he did not rule it out completely.

In September 2007, Charles Kennedy received unanimous support for the post of President of the European Movement in the UK, after the death of Sir Edward Heath.

Rector of University of Glasgow

In February 2008, Charles Kennedy was elected Rector of the University of Glasgow and was officially installed, succeeding Mordechai Vanunu, on 10 April 2008. He won the election with a 46% share of vote, having been uniquely supported by not only his own Glasgow University Union, but also the Queen Margaret Union and Glasgow University Sports Association.

Personal life

In July 2002, Charles Kennedy married Sarah Gurling, the sister of his friend, James Gurling.

Reports of Kennedy's ill-health in 2003 at the time of crucial debates on Iraq and after the 2004 budget (his ill health meant he missed an entire budget speech) were linked to the rumours of alcoholism which were strenuously denied by himself and the party but which he subsequently admitted.

Sarah gave birth to their first child, Donald James Kennedy, at 12:14 am 12 April 2005, at St Thomas' Hospitalmarker, London. Kennedy had been due to launch his party's manifesto for the General Election, which was subsequently delayed, with Sir Menzies Campbell taking temporary charge as acting leader and covering Kennedy's campaign duties. During the manifesto launch on his first day back on the campaign trail after the birth, Kennedy struggled to remember the details of a key policy (replacing the Council Tax with a Local Income Tax) at an early morning press conference, which he later blamed on a lack of sleep due to his new child.

In July 2007, Kennedy was informally spoken to by the British Transport Police after he breached the smoking ban on a train.


  • The Future of Politics (2000) ISBN 0-00-710131-7 (hardcover) ISBN 0-00-710132-5 (paperback)
  • Hurst, Greg Charles Kennedy: A Tragic Flaw Politico's Publishing Ltd (18 September 2006) ISBN 1-84275-176-X


  1. BBC Anti-Kennedy briefings 'cowardly' 14 December 2005
  2. BBC Kennedy hits back over quit call 30 December 2005
  3. The Times (Andrew Pierce) 'No confidence' letter from Lib Dems forced Kennedy to brink 5 January 2006
  4. The Guardian (Claire Cozens) Times apologises after Kennedy drink story 20 October 2004
  5. BBC Kennedy admits battling alcohol 5 January 2006
  6. Liberal Democrats Kennedy calls for leadership election 5 January 2006
  7. How Chatshow Charlie was left high and dry, Scotland on Sunday, 8 January 2006
  8. BBC Embattled Kennedy quits as leader 7 January 2006
  9. BBC Support for new Lib Dems leader 2 March 2006
  10. BBC Kennedy joins by-election drive 2 February 2006
  11. BBC Kennedy not ruling out his return 22 June 2006
  12. The Guardian How we lost people's trust 4 August 2006
  13. The Times (Andrew Pierce) Conspiracy and cover-up – how Lib Dems hid their leader's alcoholism 29 August 2006
  14. The Times (Greg Hurst) You are an alcoholic, aren't you? Yes, he finally replied 29 August 2006
  15. The Times Curse of Kennedy: The former Lib Dem leader must be honest about his return to politics 29 August 2006
  16. "Kennedy 'unlikely to run again'", BBC News, 17 October 2007.
  17. BBC In pictures: Charles Kennedy weds 20 July 2002
  18. Kennedy laughs off health fears 26 March 2004
  19. AOL, Kennedy 'spoken to over smoking' 6 July 2007

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