Kennedy, Charles

▪ 2000

      In August 1999 Charles Kennedy succeeded Paddy Ashdown as leader of the U.K.'s third largest party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). He took over a party that had 46 members of Parliament, more than at any time since 1931. Born in Inverness, Scot., on Nov. 25, 1959, Kennedy went to school in the Scottish highlands, followed by the University of Glasgow; he also studied at Indiana University in the U.S. in the early 1980s as a Fulbright scholar. He interrupted his studies to return to Scotland in May 1983 to stand in that year's general election as the candidate of the short-lived Social Democratic Party (SDP) for the vast, thinly populated highlands seat of Ross, Cromarty, and Skye. To widespread astonishment, not least his own, he captured the seat from the Conservatives, and at the age of 23 he entered Parliament as its youngest member.

      An engaging, witty, quick-thinking, and irreverent politician, Kennedy soon became one of the SDP's most regular performers on radio and television, appearing not only on news and current affairs programs but also on lighter programs, such as quiz shows. When the majority of the SDP decided in 1988 to merge with the Liberal Party against the wishes of the party's leader, David Owen, Kennedy became a prominent member of the merged party, the LDP. Three years later he was elected to the titular post of party president. He held the post for four years before standing down. In 1995 Kennedy became vice-chairman of the European Movement, an all-party campaign supporting greater European integration.

      In January 1999 Ashdown, who had led the LDP since 1988, announced that he would step down that summer. Kennedy was one of five candidates to contest the succession, but it soon became clear that the two leading candidates would be Kennedy and Simon Hughes, the MP for the deprived, inner-London constituency of Southwark and Bermondsey. Although not as close personally to Prime Minister Tony Blair of the Labour Party as Ashdown had been, Kennedy was effectively the continuity candidate. He promised to continue Ashdown's strategy of working closely with the Labour government on some issues, such as constitutional reform, while opposing it on others, such as social policy (where the LDP criticized the government for spending too little). Hughes, who argued for a change of strategy, wanted the party to revert to the traditional Liberal posture of equal hostility to Labour and the Conservatives. In a closely fought contest, the result of which was announced on August 9, Kennedy defeated Hughes on the fourth count, after the other three candidates had been eliminated, by 57–43%, without saddling the LDP with the electorally disastrous reputation of being more left-wing.

Peter Kellner

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Universalium. 2010.

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