Nick Clegg’s beautiful tribute to Charles Kennedy

This is just how to pay tribute after the tragic death of someone – honest but affectionate, using your own experiences but keeping the focus on their memory and achievements.

A few days ago I got in touch with Charles because I was looking for a telephone number of someone we both knew.

His friends will not be surprised to learn that we were texting each other. He was notoriously bad at answering his phone but famously fluent by SMS.

He said he didn’t have the number on him – but he would get back to me this week – because he was spending time with his beloved son, Donald, during his half-term break.

While we all remember Charles as a formidable parliamentarian and a much-loved politician, it is worth remembering that he retained his greatest pride and devotion for his family. He lived next door to his parents and latterly his brother in his grandfather’s croft house near Fort William and cared for them through sickness and old age.

Much though he was wedded to politics all his life, I think Charles would have wanted to be remembered as a kind and loving father, brother and son first; and an accomplished politician second.

And my thoughts and condolences are with all his family and friends today.

Maybe it was that enduring humanity – people always came before politics for Charles – which is reflected in the heartfelt tributes over the last twenty-four hours from so many outside the world of politics who didn’t know him directly but somehow still felt they knew him, and could relate to him.

He had – and still has – that rare gift for someone in public life that when people think of him, they smile.

He saw good in people – even his staunchest political foes – and that always brought out the best in people in return.

He was the polar opposite of a cardboard cut out, point-scoring party politician.

Brave yet vulnerable.

Brilliant yet flawed.

As he would often say about people he admired most – he was a fully signed up member of the human race.

And, Mr Speaker, he was funny.

Very funny.

But his good humour must not obscure the fact that there was a steely courage about him, most memorably on display when he took the principled decision to oppose the Iraq War.

Just because that may seem an obvious thing to do now, it was not at the time.

Charles was often a lone voice in this House, standing up against a consensus in favour of war on all sides.

The fact that he was proved so spectacularly right is a tribute to his judgement and his intuitive common sense.

Mr Speaker, I think Charles would be the first to admit cheerily that he was not exactly a details man when it came to policy. He treated the necessary but often tedious detail of policy discussions within the Liberal Democrats with the same attitude he viewed Ben Nevis in his own constituency. Something to be admired from afar but a trial to be endured by others.

One of his earliest decisions when he became Leader of the Liberal Democrats was to end the long-held convention that the Leader of the party should attend all of the regular, and invariably lengthy, meetings of the Liberal Democrat Federal Party Policy Committee. It was a characteristically wise decision for which I have been forever grateful during my time as Leader.

But, again, his disregard for the undergrowth of policymaking should not obscure his unusually instinctive – and deeply serious – appreciation of the bigger picture in politics.

Whether on Europe, or constitutional reform, or his arguments against nationalism and the politics of identity, or his lifelong belief in social justice, Charles had a gut instinct about the big challenges and the big choices we faced, not the daily twists and turns and sleights of hand that dominate so much of Westminster politics.

He understood, above all, that politics is at its best when it speaks to people’s values in their hearts, not just the dry policy debates of the head.

There is so much I will miss about Charles – his wit, warmth and modesty – but I suspect many of us will feel his absence most keenly when our country decides in the next year or two whether we belong or not in the European Union.

Because of all his convictions, his internationalism endured most strongly.

He was a proud Highlander, a proud Scot, a man who believed in our community of nations within the UK, but also a lifelong believer that our outward-facing character as a country is best secured by remaining at the heart of Europe rather than retreating elsewhere.

As the debate becomes dominated – as it no doubt will – by the noise of statistical claim and counterclaim I will miss the lyrical clarity of Charles’s belief that our future as an open-hearted and generous-spirited country is at stake and must be defended at all costs.

Mr Speaker, a couple of years ago Charles and I found ourselves cowering under the shelter of a parasol on the terrace of the National Liberal Club in the pouring rain for what he called “a wee bit of fresh air”, a wonderfully inappropriate euphemism for a quick smoke.

We talked at length about the difficulties the Liberal Democrats were facing within the coalition.

It is a measure of the man that, though he was almost alone in our party in not supporting the decision to enter into coalition in May 2010, there was never a hint of reproach or “I told you so” in the advice he gave to me in that and in other conversations.

He remained unstintingly loyal, no matter what the circumstances and no matter how strong the temptation must have been to blow his own trumpet and say that events had proved him right.

He was far too subtle for that. He had made his views clear at the outset but respected in good faith what his party colleagues were seeking to achieve in Government and provided support and advice every step of the way.

Which is why it was no surprise when he said, after being challenged about his loyalties after the 2010 election: “I will go out of this world feet first with my Lib Dem membership card in my pocket.”

I am just devastated that it has happened so soon.

Our liberal political family has lost one of its most admired advocates.

British politics has lost one of its best storytellers.

This House has lost one of its warmest wits and most loyal Parliamentarians.

If we could all carry ourselves with a little more of the honesty, wisdom and humility of Charles Kennedy, politics would be held in much higher regard than it is today.

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