07 January, 2006

Last orders

Charles Kennedy's resignation is one of the most astonishing events in recent political history - not so much because of the act itself, more the way it came about.

It's been over half a century since a leader has fallen on his own sword due solely to threats from his own party members. The last such instance was probably Neville "peace in our time" Chamberlain in 1940, who as Prime Minister had contrived to alienate so many MPs that half his Government announced their intention to resign unless he stepped down.

Unlike Margaret Thatcher, Kennedy hadn't just been subject to a leadership contest and found himself substantially short of enough votes to go through to the second round. Unlike Iain Duncan Smith he hadn't just lost a vote of confidence. And unlike, say, Harold Wilson, he hadn't simply got tired of people whispering about him behind his back and decided to call it a day.

Instead he was, right up to last night, insisting he was going to stick it out and face down all the malcontents and potential mass resignations by submitting himself to a fresh leadership election involving all of the party's thousands of members. In this he was also different to John Major's infamous - and hapless - "put up or shut up" contest in 1995, which only involved MPs, and the calibre of which was epitomised by Major's unique observation that "when your back is against the wall, it is time to turn round and start fighting".

The manner of Kennedy's departure is therefore of profound importance, in part thanks to it being so unusual and distinctive, in part because it serves as a useful reminder of how this country can still be completely sidelined from the democratic process whenever a few politicians decide to play party games.

It's safe to say a huge portion of votes the Liberal Democrats acquired at the last General Election (including my own) were down solely to the actions and declarations of Charles Kennedy on everything from the opposing the Iraq war to civil liberties to scrapping student fees to free care for the elderly to abolishing the council tax. That election was only eight months ago. The person we all voted for has now been kicked out, not by us, but by the collective strutting of two dozen individuals.

I'd quite like my vote back now, please.

Equally when Tony Blair "hands over" to Gordon Brown, we'll have a Prime Minister none of us effectively voted for, and whose policies we won't be able to do anything about until he graciously submits himself to a General Election.

At least Neville Chamberlain could hand over to someone everybody was happy to run the country: Winston Churchill. The irony is, in light of Kennedy's "drink problem", Churchill was one of the most pissed Prime Ministers this country has ever had - and everyone knew about it. Because there was a war on, however, it was OK.

There's a war on now, of course. And we've just lost yet another valuable opponent to that war.


Blogger Neil Craig said...

I don't think Churchill was seen, at the time, as a fine thing it was just that there was nobody else not tainted by appeasement.

Most of the Tories disliked him as not a team player, always wittering on about the Indian Empire & generally a pain but being discredited they used him as a moral "air raid shelter". Labour disliked him for his role in the general strike & general anti-socialism.

Comparing him with Kennedy it is worth noting that in the 20s he was beaten in an election by a straight Temperance candidate. However the world has moved on & the public clearly liked Kennedy.

3:13 pm  
Blogger Alistair Myles said...

Uncannily enough, the circumstances surrounding Churchill's re-emergence into the front line of British politics are dramatised on BBC2 this evening at 9pm.

8:38 pm  

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