Charles Kennedy, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats has died aged 55.
Kennedy, who won the seat of Ross, Cromarty and Skye for the SDP in 1983, held the constituency for 32 years before losing to the SNP in last month’s General Election.
Kennedy was, during his time in parliament, a vocal advocate for LGBT equality. In 1988, when the Conservative Party introduced Section 28 of the Local Government Act prohibiting the promotion of homosexuality in schools, Kennedy voted in support of Dr Jack Cunningham’s amendment, which would have scuppered the clause.
He remained implacably opposed to Clause 28 in principle and championed its repeal. In July 2000, he told the Commons that Section 28 was “bad legislation” that was “incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights”. He also suggested that “Section 28 is a major stumbling block to discussing sexual orientation and homophobic bullying…the research evidence therefore suggests something that Conservative Members will not accept: Section 28 helps homophobic bullying. They can ignore the scientific research, but they must recognise that they are doing so.”
Earlier in the same year, Kennedy appeared in an edition of Question Time with Brian Souter and Boy George, in which he rounded on the Keep the Clause campaigner. “What I’m not in favour of, and I think it is a very dangerous road to go down, is that the more successful and prosperous you are the more you can seek to influence the public in this country” he said, to applause from the audience. Kennedy, a popular and articulate participant in Question Time, also had no time for the pseudo-moral arguments – for him, Section 28 was in itself immoral: “Why have we got Section 28? It was because of Margaret Thatcher and some mad cap idea that she had. It was daft then and it is daft now.”
Kennedy was a pro-active supporter of DELGA – now LGBT+ Lib Dems – and voted for many pro-equality measures. He voted to remove the ban on gay people serving in the armed forces, to reduce the same-sex age of consent to 16, to introduce civil partnerships and to give same-sex couples to adoption rights. He also voted for the Equal Marriage Bill in its third reading. Perhaps more significantly, during his time as leader the party made very significant advances on LGBT rights and in stripping away stigma and prejudice.
Tony Blair was considered by many to be a “homo hero” for helping to deliver civil partnerships, equalising the age of consent and extending adoption rights to gay people – but it should not be forgotten that in each of these objectives he was supported by the Liberal Democrats, and Kennedy personally. In the case of civil partnerships it was a Liberal Democrat peer, Lord Lester of Herne Hill who first submitted a Private Members’ Bill on the issue in 2002 with Kennedy’s support. Speaking in 2003 on the Civil Partnerships Bill, Kennedy said: “If passed into law, it will do a great deal to end much of the legal anomaly that currently exists, and end the injustice which particularly confronts many gay and lesbian couples in long-term, loving, and stable relationships.”
Kennedy had his own well-documented struggles with alcohol, which led to him stepping down in 2006 following pressure from within his party. However, his personal courage cannot be doubted and his consistent advocacy of human rights is testimony to this. Standing up against homophobia in 2000 did not necessarily make him popular but, like his stance on the Iraq invasion, it was the right thing to do. This was typical of Kennedy’s leadership.
Another former leader of the Liberal Democrats, Paddy Ashdown, described Kennedy’s passing as “a terrible shock” and “a great loss”. Referring to Kennedy’s personal battles, Ashdown remarked that “we all have our demons, all of us do, none of us are free of them… But Charles by and large rose above those and on form, he was the very best of us.”
It is difficult to do justice to Kennedy’s legacy in a few paragraphs, and I think it’s best to let the man speak for himself. “I jump on injustice, not bandwagons” he said in 2001, opposing what he perceived as Conservatives’ willingness to pander to prejudice. That neatly sums up his personal and political philosophy. For Kennedy, there were no distinctions – human rights were for all.