When Greg Hurst’s biography of former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy, A Tragic Flaw, first came out in 2006, it was rightly praised for treating a controversial and sensitive subject in an exemplary way, with very few of those involved in the contentious and emotional events it recounted having complaints over the book’s accuracy.
Newly updated since Kennedy’s death in 2015, the book maintains its excellence and rightly summarises Kennedy’s political approach: “both temperamentally and politically, Charles Kennedy was generally reluctant to commit himself to irrevocable decisions but it is noticeable that some of his best judgements [such as over Iraq] were made when he was forced to do so”.
Why Charles Kennedy was ousted
Popular with the public and right on the big issues that tested his political judgement, Kennedy seemed to many set for even greater political success, but instead his leadership of the Liberal Democrats was ended in early 2006 by his fellow Lib Dem MPs. Greg Hurst is particularly good at explaining why this happened. When stories of Kennedy’s alcoholism and the resulting threats to his leadership first hit the mainstream media, for many people the obvious question was ‘If Charles Kennedy has a health problem, why not support him through dealing with it?’ A Tragic Flaw provides the sad answer – which is that many in the party had been trying to do that for several years already, including one occasion when Ming Campbell was on a train down from Scotland to London for an announcement that he would be taking over as interim leader whilst Kennedy sought medical help, only to be turned around at Peterborough because Kennedy had changed his mind.
What was for the public fresh news as 2005 turned into 2006 was for many of Kennedy’s colleagues a long-running issue to which they felt they had tried many solutions, failed and now only had the option of forcing him out. “Ultimately, and tragically, Charles Kennedy himself was the architect of his own downfall having been unable to act on repeated pleas and warnings from colleagues,” concludes Hurst.
Charles Kennedy’s career after Lib Dem leadership
The completely new chapters in the revised edition, covering 2005 to 2015, cover a period in which both of Kennedy’s parents died and his older brother was left quadriplegic after a slip at home. As with the earlier sections, these new sections are fair without being idolising – mentioning Kennedy’s low workrate in the House of Commons itself after he stopped being leader, for example, but also giving explanations such as his ill relatives. These chapters are also frank about the continuing battle with alcoholism without being sensational, and make the book’s title all the more poignant.
It makes for an interesting, respectful but questioning account of Kennedy’s life, career, political successes and political limitations.
If you like this, you might also be interested in Against the Grain by Norman Baker.
Note: a review copy of this book was provided to me by the author.