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Wednesday, June 03, 2015

How Charles Kennedy helped shape Welsh devolution

I have been reflecting over the last 24 hours on the times that my path crossed that of Charles Kennedy. The party is of course still in deep shock at his passing and I cannot begin to imagine the grief felt by his family.  His contribution to politics and to the United Kingdom during the course of his short life was immense.

Quite rightly people have referred to his political courage in standing up to the establishment and opposing the Iraq war. Others, including myself have also referenced his strength of character in leaving behind a Owenite rump of the SDP and helping to form a new merged party back in 1988/89. As Welsh Assembly members we saw him often. He was a good friend of Wales and the Welsh Liberal Democrats.

I recall that during the discussions in 2000, when we were trying to build a majority coalition government between the Welsh Liberal Democrats and Labour, Charles was asked to intervene.

Up until that point the Assembly and the future of devolution was teetering. Alun Michael had resigned as First Secretary so as not to face a no-confidence vote, and the institution seemed doomed to deadlock, with a minority Labour Government apparently unable to implement any sort of programme.

Rhodri Morgan took the helm and made overtures to the Welsh Liberal Democrats to form a stable coalition government. Negotiations followed in which we put together a programme stuffed full of Liberal Democrats policies. However, the Welsh Liberal Democrats group of 6 AMs remained split as to whether to proceed or not.

So, we were gathered into our leader's office to take part in a telephone conference with Charles Kennedy. I think the expectation was that he would lay down the law and insist that we sign up to the deal. Charles knew better than to take that approach, indeed his liberal instincts told him that it was not his job to be dictating to the Welsh what we did within a devolved body.

Instead, he acted as a mediator, seeking our views, probing our respective positions and helping us to make up our own mind. The outcome was that a majority of the group voted to proceed with the coalition and we were able to bring some stability to the Assembly for the rest of its first term.

It was a significant intervention but one that had all the hallmarks of a decent liberal, who believed in enabling people not dictating to them. It was also an indication of his more consensual leadership style, one that made him by far our most popular leader, able to lead us to our best General Election result since 1922. He will be greatly missed.
Peter your memory is failing you. Charles was never in the Owenite SDP camp or rump! as you put it. Like me he was a loyal supporter of Roy Jenkins. From 1983-88 we worked and fought hard within the SDP and the Alliance to bring the merger with the Liberal into effect.


You are right Gwynoro. I have amended the passage.
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