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Charles Kennedy: Loss of a great leader

June 5, 2015 4:27 PM
By Parmjit Singh Gill - psg@parmjitgill.com - Tel: 07843055151 in Liberal Democrat Voice
Originally published by East Midlands Liberal Democrats

Formidable, talented, passionate and hugely inspirational, Charles had deep conviction and was able to engage the public in a way no other politician could. That gave him a level of public popularity rarely enjoyed by a political party leader. Above all else he was highly principled and when Tony Blair took us into the Iraq war supported by the Conservatives, he stood firm to those principles against the political establishment. Despite being heckled and shouted down in Parliament and criticised widely he remained resolutely against a war which he knew was fundamentally wrong.

That principled stand was significant in the historic 2004 Leicester South By-election, where media arrived from all over the world. I recall speaking to a number of international film crews from as far away as India and Japan. They were unclear on whether the British public supported the war or not and seemed to have a collective view that this particular By-election would be seen abroad as a Referendum on the Iraq war. Would the British public support Tony Blair's decision to go to war through the ballot box?

During the campaign, I was with Charles one afternoon when in an effort to wrong-foot him a British journalist in the presence of camera crews asked why the Liberal Democrats had referred to my name as Parmjit Singh Gill in some literature, while using only Parmjit Gill in other material? Was it because the party was somehow trying to conceal my minority background to secure more votes in some areas? Without hesitation and effortlessly an amused Charles responded, "I think it's fairly evident from the name Parmjit and for all to see turning in my direction, what Parmjit's identity is," leaving the journalist speechless.

On another occasion, dozens of Labour activists tried to disrupt a rally meeting, many dressed in chicken outfits and making as much noise as they possibly could while screaming criticism at Charles for not supporting the war. Inside the very packed venue, TV media had gathered in abundance in anticipation of how he would respond to the demonstration outside and respond in true form, he did. "With all the hullabaloo outside any right-minded person would think that we had been in Government for the last several years." There was an enormous rupture of laughter throughout the venue as he had clearly captured the moment so exceptionally well.

The courageous position Charles had taken against the war delivered Leicester its first MP from a Liberal Party in almost a century, in a city where even Sir Winston Churchill did not win when he stood as a Liberal. Proof enough, that conviction matters and where you demonstrate honesty on a matter of principle, the public can and does engage. Following the By-election victory, I received calls from relatives and friends all over the world including India, Canada, South Africa, the Middle East, Germany, France and the USA, both congratulating and supporting the principled stand taken by Charles. He had indeed reached out and engaged the public, and far beyond these British shores.

It was both a privilege and a pleasure to have served in Parliament under one of the finest political leaders in our time and I'm filled with tears and deep sadness for the loss of such a kind and generous friend who still had much to contribute to British politics.

* Parmjit Singh Gill is Vice Chair of Leicester Liberal Democrats and was MP for Leicester South from 2004-05.