Charles Kennedy was right about almost everything
The outpouring of sadness for Charles Kennedy is partly a result of his young age and the suddenness of the death. Partly it is also a reflection of how rare it is for modern politicians to have the charisma and the lightness of touch which promotes genuine, heartfelt sadness at their passing. Kennedy spoke like a human. He was kind-hearted, seemingly unencumbered by instinctive party political spite, and quick to smile.
But it might be worth spending a moment considering another attribute he had, which politicians and political commentators have shown little ability to emulate over the last few months: he was usually right.
Being right is a somewhat undervalued quality in Westminster. Politicians succeed on the basis of being loyal and not making mistakes in front of TV cameras. Whether they happen to be right about something is frankly irrelevant. Political commentators can afford to be wrong all the time and no-one holds them to account over it. You'll frequently see them the day after events have proved them wrong, talking confidently about some other matter which they will likely also be wrong about. Why anyone takes us seriously after the election result is beyond me.
For both groups, their powers of prediction are borderline non-existent. They call themselves political experts, but they have little-to-no ability of foresight.
Kennedy was right far more often than he was wrong. He was right about Iraq, he was right about coalition, he was right about general political positioning and he was right about tactics.
It's easy to understate the bravery it took to stand up against Iraq. Sure, there was widespread opposition to the move. But most politicians buckle when presented with the momentum of the war machine. The drums beat, newspapers adopt a manly, Hemmingway-like style of reportage in which big men make tough decisions with the world as their audience. Washington commands the agenda, the great wheels of state and media driving it all mercilessly forward.
Kennedy was brave enough to stand up to it. You could say no-one really cared about the Liberal Democrats at that time. You could say that it was safe to do so, given the Tories were plainly going to vote with Labour. But Kennedy was much mocked at the time for his choice. When he addressed anti-war protestors, there were plenty of voices in the media branding him irresponsible. He did not just get Iraq right. He got the manner in which he led on Iraq right too. He joined the protest movement but also managed to stand above it. It was an extremely challenging situation both for political judgement and political conduct, and he got it spot on.
By positioning the Lib Dems as a liberal left party, he achieved the party's best ever election result, winning another ten seats to secure 62. Nick Clegg, for all the hype and excitement in 2010, actually lost several seats to win just 57, albeit on a slightly higher share of the popular vote. When the Lib Dems deserted their position on the left of British politics it all came crashing down. You can say that is a product of changes around the Lib Dems – that it reflected the return of alienated left-wing voters who cared about Iraq and civil liberties to Labour under Ed Miliband. But even now the SNP offered voters a left wing proposition and performed so strongly they unseated all before them. The Greens did the same and performed very well, especially given the absence of media coverage and the underperformance of their leader. The truth is, the Lib Dems had a viable position on the left but they could not find one in the centre.
The 2005 result was not just a matter of political positioning. It was also tactical. Kennedy encouraged MPs to dig in, cementing their reputation as local, trench-warfare political fighters. They got to know people, kept their head down with constituency case work and attended local events. They knew they had no national support base in the media, so they had to dig in in the local area.
The absence of print support meant Kennedy was forced to target a more welcoming section of the media by turning himself into 'chat show Charlie'. He won time on screen, and national recognition, by being a glorified dinner party guest. He succeeded at what leaders in any area most need: the wisdom to do the most they can with what they've got. Kennedy took his light-touch charisma and turned it into the lynchpin of the party's media strategy. His smile got him into people's homes and side-stepped the restrictions of a binary Tory-Labour media culture.
But Kennedy's most important prediction was about coalition. Alone at the top of the party, he stood up to the idea. The party mostly ignored him. I and most people I spoke to at the time thought he was wrong. Many of us wanted a liberal restraining influence on the Tories and Labour. Many wanted a more consensual style of politics. Even those who were politically unfussed thought it would be strategically bonkers for a party which had promoted moderation and cooperation to turn down the offer of coalition.
And five years later, with the Lib Dems shattered probably beyond repair, who comes out of that moment looking wiser? It is now hard to argue against the idea that the Lib Dems should have wielded their influence outside of government, holding the Tories to account in a more public manner than they could within. Kennedy got it right. And even with all his colleagues pushing the other way, he was brave enough to say it.
On a day in which people will be mostly celebrating his charm and wit, it's worth recognising the rarity of Kennedy's other quality. He was right about almost everything.