Film reopens row over Charles Kennedy’s last electoral battle

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FRIENDS and colleagues of the late Charles Kennedy MP have condemned the treatment they say he experienced during the 2015 General Election campaign.

Their responses feature in a new documentary, Charles Kennedy: A Good Man, showing on BBC Alba tonight.

The former Liberal Democrat leader lost his Ross, Skye and Lochaber seat to the SNP’s Ian Blackford in May 2015. Mr Kennedy died three weeks later from a haemorrhage caused by alcoholism.

A row over the campaign surfaced in 2018 when Mr Blackford, interviewed by The Times, said there had been “absolutely no issue” between himself and Mr Kennedy.

But former Labour minister Brian Wilson rejected that version of events in a separate article written for the paper.

At the time, an SNP spokesperson said: “Neither the campaign nor Ian Blackford made personal attacks.”

In the new documentary, Mr Wilson, now a columnist for The , says: “What Charles was subjected to had nothing to do with his politics.

“It had no respect for what he had done in politics and his public life.

“It had no respect for his personal circumstances. It was naked abuse and denigration of the worst kind. What was done to him was cruel beyond words.”

The hour-long film opens in 1983 when Mr Kennedy became Britain’s youngest MP at the age of 23.

“You could tell he had something,” says Alistair Campbell. The former press secretary to Tony Blair was a reporter when he first met Mr Kennedy, and the two became friends.

A champion debater, and well-versed in media skills after a stint at BBC Radio Highland, the former Lochaber High School pupil was soon a regular on shows including Call My Bluff and Have I Got News for You.

Obituary, Charles Kennedy

When Paddy Ashdown stepped down from the leadership in 1999, Mr Kennedy was in many ways the ideal choice to replace him. But his drinking had begun to attract attention.

Mr Wilson says: “Clearly there was a problem and people who were in no way ill-disposed to him knew that once there was a much sharper focus on his public persona either he had to sort that [the drinking]out or else it was going to end badly.”

Tackled by the media, Mr Kennedy and the party denied he had a problem. After half his party’s MPs told BBC Newsnight they wanted him to quit as leader he resigned in 2006, saying he was getting help with alcoholism.

Jim Wallace, former Deputy First Minister of Scotland, says the way Mr Kennedy was treated by the party “still leaves a bad taste in my mouth”.

Life resumed on the backbenches, the Liberal Democrat coalition with the Conservatives came and went – he had been against it – and then the 2015 election arrived.

Documentary previewed

PR consultant James Gurling, Mr Kennedy’s friend and brother-in-law, said the level of anger in the campaign surprised and worried him. He was attacked on social media as “a Westminster toad” and told to “get back in the pub”. Notes were left on his car and pushed through the letterbox.

The SNP took the seat with 20,119 votes against Mr Kennedy’s 14,995. In his election concession speech Mr Kennedy joked about the SNP’s landslide victory across Scotland, saying it had been “the night of the long sgian-dubh”.

Jim Wallace says the last he heard from Mr Kennedy he was looking forward to joining him on the Remain side of the EU referendum.

It was not to be. He was buried with other generations of Kennedys on a hillside in Lochaber. He was 55.

David Green, Kennedy’s aide, said the 2015 campaign was a lesson in being careful about language.

“Because you don’t believe in a certain constitutional outcome for the country you deeply care about that doesn’t in any way make you a quisling, a traitor, or otherwise. It just means you have a different viewpoint.”

Mary Ann Kennedy, who lives and works in Lochaber and was a constituent of Mr Kennedy’s, said: “It would be completely wrong to say ‘the SNP was against Charles Kennedy’. It wasn’t like that.

“But there was a petty malicious group which undermined him, devising an election campaign which was shameful.”

The BBC said it had not approached Mr Blackford for comment on the campaign because the documentary was about Mr Kennedy and not his political opponents.

Charles Kennedy: A Good Man, BBC Alba, tonight, 9pm, and on HD on iPlayer

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