I keep thinking back to 1994 this morning. It was in the run up to my final undergraduate exams and the news on the radio that morning said that John Smith had had a heart attack. By the time I came out of the library a few hours later, that news had changed and everyone was talking about his death. It was an odd time and felt almost like a period of national mourning as people processed the death of a man they’d all assumed would be Prime Minister in a few years time.
Today has a similar feel to it and not just because another leading Scottish politician has been taken from us at 55. The news came differently, as a bleep on my tablet announcing breaking news from the Guardian rather than someone telling me it, but it’s come with the same air of shock and surprise as your mind tries to cope with accepting that someone you thought would be around for years to come will be there no longer. There’s that same sense of national mourning at losing someone who still had so much to give, and was liked and respected by those of all parties and none.
I’ve been trying to get on with some of my dissertation work this morning, but it’s hard when Kennedy’s such a key figure in the period I’m studying and writing about. I found a line by Duncan Brack in Peace, Reform and Liberation that third party leaders were permanently searching for policy that was ‘principled and different’ which are two words that perfectly sum up Kennedy’s role in British politics. He was always unafraid to stand up for his principles, and was always ready to do things differently, most notably in standing so firmly against the Iraq War.
That wa not an easy decision to make when the Westminster consensus was that war was the only way forward. In hindsight, it’s easy to see he was right on that, as he was on so many other things, but at the time both he and the party faced down incredible levels of anger, derision, hatred and vitriol to stand up for principle and to do things differently. Today it feels like we’re also mourning for what might have been back then, where we could have ended up if more people had listened to him in 2003.
He’ll be remembered as an important and vital leader for the British liberal movement and we’ll recognise and celebrate his contributions to that tradition, but for today I’m gripped by sadness at what we’ve lost and what we’ll not have over the coming years. We can remember him not just by what he did but what he inspired the rest of us to do and what his example can continue to inspire us to do: be principled, be different and don’t be afraid.