The death of Charles Kennedy, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats, was announced this morning. He was fifty-five years old. He died sometime late on Monday; the cause of his death has not been given at this stage, but he endured a long and often publicised struggle with alcohol. Kennedy served as Member of Parliament for the constituency of Ross, Skye and Lochaber and its precursors between 1983 and 2015, first for the Social Democratic Party, then for the Liberal Democrats upon the conclusion of the SDP-Liberal merger in 1988. He became the leader of the Liberal Democrats in 1999, following the resignation of Paddy Ashdown. As party leader Kennedy was prominent for his steadfast opposition to the Iraq War. At the 2005 general election, he led the Liberal Democrats to their best modern election result, as they increased their seats in the House of Commons to 62.
His resignation from the post of party leader in 2006 came after reports he was undergoing treatment for alcoholism. Remaining an MP, he was vocal in his refusal of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition formed after the general election of 2010. In a piece for The Guardian, Kennedy wrote that this would ‘drive a strategic coach and horses through the long-nurtured “realignment of the centre-left” to which leaders in the Liberal tradition, this one included, have all subscribed’. It is fair to think that without his removal in 2006, British politics today would be very different.
Kennedy’s death came after the loss of his parliamentary seat at last month’s general election, and following the death of his father in April. Amid the heartfelt tributes payed today to Kennedy from across the political spectrum, one seemed to me especially thoughtful and honest. Harriet Harman – acting Labour leader in the midst of an already horrific leadership race, witnessing a grab for the presumed, half-imagined votes of a diminished centre ground, and the vacating of left-wing principles in favour of the parroting of Conservative rhetoric – took time to say:
‘It was always worth listening to him and, you know, sometimes he was right and I was wrong. I mean, like for example on the war in Iraq… if you look back, the judgements he made, they were made out of a deep sense of progressive commitment and a real fierce intelligence which was not just about this country but about the world.’
This thought was echoed in its way by Liberal Democrat Chief Whip in the House of Lords Dick Newby, who stated that Kennedy ‘instinctively knew where he stood on the big issues. He was immensely generous-spirited in both his politics and his broader approach to life’. These remarks were a vital reminder and a testament to the capacity to eschew party politics and cheap gains; to bear empathy, to feel and maintain beliefs, and to think through the consequences of failing to uphold them.
* * *
Also today, Sepp Blatter resigned as president of world football’s governing body FIFA. After taking the post in 1998, Blatter was successfully re-elected to serve a fifth term only last Friday; but surprisingly chose to resign amid fierce protests from European football associations and UEFA, and against the backdrop of the corruption case brought last week by the FBI. Leading FIFA officials from CONMEBOL (South America) and CONCACAF (North America, Central America, and the Caribbean) are implicated in receiving and laundering $150 million in bribes. The case involves media and marketing rights and sponsorship contracts, but perhaps most seriously the bidding processes for several World Cups.
Across recent World Cups, host nations have been coerced to afford FIFA tax breaks and a host of other financial incentives. While FIFA have profited to the tune of billions of dollars, host nations have experienced debt, with their income from the tournament not making up for their expenses, and funds meanwhile taken away from local infrastructure projects; social unrest in the form of forced evictions and protests; and stadia built at vast costs being left as white elephants, serving to diminish rather than enhance the urban environment. In December 2010, Qatar won the right to host the 2022 World Cup; and although this bidding process was not considered as part of the FBI investigation, these plans have remained firmly intact despite the country facing allegations of human rights abuses.
Such events away from the pitch will always be more important than anything that happens on it; but beyond the pleasure and excitement over Blatter’s departure, it is hard to be too thrilled about any of his likely replacements. Michel Platini, the president of UEFA, voted in 2010 for Qatar, and unconvincingly cried conspiracy when questioned about his decision. The rampant inequality within the European game, which has proven so detrimental to the sport over the past decade, and the prospective presidency of Prince Ali bin Hussein of Jordan, hardly suggest a bold and brilliant future. In England, any thought of sharing in Greg Dyke’s enthusiasm ought to be tempered by the crudity of his recent proposals.