Charles Kennedy is dead

Charles Kennedy’s funeral has passed and so has the intensive press coverage. The sheer volume of comment about him was astonishing. Much of it was repetitive, and it has left me feeling uncomfortable.

Even for those of us who didn’t like Charles Kennedy’s politics, he always seemed personable and decent. He was once the youngest Member of Parliament. Later on, he was the most successful leader that the Liberal Democrats have ever had. Or they won their largest number of seats under his leadership, which is a form of success. This may (or may not) have been because he led his party to occupy a space to the left of centre that had been vacated by Labour.

Kennedy opposed the illegal aggression against Iraq and foresaw what Blair’s New World Order would mean: brutality, instability and global danger. He voted against Lib Dem collusion with the Tories in the misleadingly named Coalition Government, the only Lib Dem MP to do so. In May 2015, his party reaped a bitter reward for betraying their promises of 2010 with something close to electoral wipe-out. There are no prizes in politics for being right, and Kennedy lost his seat alongside more culpable colleagues.

Charles Kennedy was found dead in his home amid the austere beauty of the Scottish Highlands. The timing, location and political context of his death spoke to a narrative of lost dreams and a broken heart. His party was crushed by an ill-judged alliance with their historic enemies. His liberal values of justice and fairness had been defeated. The mean-minded values of the champions of privilege had triumphed. His party, the party of William Gladstone and John Maynard Keynes, had made a pact with the party of Arthur Wellesley and Margaret Thatcher. They sat together as a Government committed to an increasingly unequal nation, evidently determined to rid capital of any duty of decency towards employees, the unemployed, the sick and the unlucky.

The Lib Dems may not have sold their souls to the Devil, but Nick Clegg certainly sold something irreplaceable to David Cameron. Clegg looked delighted at the press conference with Cameron at the Rose Garden in 2010, but it was the joy of the sucker who has received an advance from a loan shark. By all accounts, Kennedy had tried to warn the party of the perils, to no avail.

Through successive defeats, Charles Kennedy sat at the margins of his party, unable to wield any influence over their descent into the abyss. He watched his social-democratic liberalism die and then he lost his seat. Finally, he too died, alone. This is truly an archetypal story of the man whose life’s work lay in ruins, and whose heart had been broken.

However, this was not the narrative that the media dwelt upon. Instead, the early death of Charles Kennedy was construed as the tragedy of a talented man with a Fatal Flaw, alcoholism. Following an autopsy, his family made a statement that he had died from a medical complication of heavy drinking, but the narrative of his defeat by alcohol was established as the dominant theme in the coverage of his death well before this was known.

Although I have some expertise in alcohol and drug misuse, as well as in mental illness, I offer no medical or psychiatric opinion about Charles Kennedy. I had no personal knowledge of him. However, the contrast between the broken heart narrative and the Fatal Flaw narrative reveals a lot about public attitudes to alcoholism and other problems that can be loosely labelled mental disorders. This is what has made me feel uncomfortable about the coverage.

There are a number of different ways of weaving a story out of any set of facts. You might expect that the death of a man whose life had been politics would have been understood primarily in terms of the interaction of the political and the personal. Kennedy’s political life was not ignored, but every statement about his ability and his charm was qualified by a “but” that led back to the Fatal Flaw. Every achievement was balanced against his alcoholism. There was copious use of the cliché of Kennedy’s struggle with alcohol, a metaphor with no meaning because it is applied to every public figure who is said to have a problem with alcohol.

Throughout the period between Kennedy’s death and his funeral, the story of the Fatal Flaw was loudly proclaimed, effectively drowning out any other theme in his life that might have had a different meaning. It isn’t that his drinking should have been ignored. If Charles Kennedy was alcohol dependent, then that is part of his story. For most people with an alcohol problem, drinking is not the overarching theme of their life, it is just a part of it. It may explain some things about them and their behaviour. In trying to make sense of the complexities of the life of a major political figure, the Fatal Flaw has very little explanatory power. Explanations for Kennedy’s life are likely to lie in his background, his personality, his abilities, his influences, the political times he lived through and his leadership of a party that, like the Labour Party before them, eventually lost interest in principles in the face of the possibility of power.

Some health problems are associated with prejudice and stigma. This is particularly true of alcohol and drug dependence, together with mental illness and intellectual disability. People diagnosed with these problems often say that the stigma is worse than the problem itself. One of the misconceptions behind prejudice and stigma is the belief that a diagnosis tells you something profound and fundamental about the person. However, a diagnosis doesn’t explain anything, it is just a description of one aspect of a human being. This is as true for Charles Kennedy as it is for anyone else who is said to have an alcohol problem.

There is no suggestion that Kennedy had a mental illness, but there are close parallels between alcoholism and mental illness with respect to stigma. Bernice Pescosolido is Professor of Sociology at Indiana University. She is a leading researcher on the subject of stigma and mental illness. It is generally supposed that the more people know about mental disorders, the less likely they are to avoid people diagnosed with them. In recent decades, the American public’s knowledge of mental disorders has improved considerably. One of Pescosolido’s more disappointing findings is that this improved knowledge about mental disorders has not increased the public’s willingness to accept people with a known mental disorder. It has the opposite effect.

I find this dispiriting and I heard an echo of it in the coverage of Charles Kennedy’s death. The press collectively shook their heads sadly. Kennedy may have been absolved of responsibility for his Fatal Flaw by those commentators who saw alcohol dependency as a biological disease, but in their accounts of his life he was subsumed by the diagnosis. The ‘alcoholic’ explanation for his life’s course is no explanation at all. It obscures a more interesting and human story, with many nuances, one of which appears to have been excessive drinking. The posthumous commentaries denied him full humanity in that he was understood more in terms of his diagnosis than his actions. And that is what stigma is all about.

There is an optimistic coda. The Liberal Democrats under Nick Clegg were the first major party to show a genuine interest in mental health independent of a scandal about standards of care. No one could accuse them of playing a populist card here. At least one of the candidates to replace Clegg, Norman Lamb, has a clear intention to continue to make mental health a major policy issue. So whilst the sad demise of Charles Kennedy tells us that stigma is alive and well in British public life, his party is showing that political attitudes may be moving in a positive direction. And one of the things that off-sets stigma and prejudice is hope.