People

Confessions of a party animal (Charles Kennedy)

The leader of the Liberal Democrats Charles Kennedy, shares a dram with Jane Slade.
By Jane Slade
Charles Kennedy does not have the mantle of a future Prime Minister. He has not the cold stare of Margaret Thatcher, nor the disingenuous smile of Tony Blair. In fact he seems so disarmingly warm and friendly it is hard to believe he is a fiercely-focussed politician at all. It is only his red hair that makes you wary that he may have 'another side'.

He gestures me towards a side table in his modest office at the House of Commons in the Palace of Westminster and takes his seat at the other side. The subject of our conversation is not going to be controversial, which is why I am sure he has avoided the offensive position of sitting behind his desk. We are talking about one of his favourite subjects and definitely his favourite drink, so he can dismantle the political armour. "Whisky is my favourite drink above all others," he pronounces in his warm soft Scottish burr. "But I am quite particular about how and when I drink it." For example, he will never be tempted before lunch or even before tea . "I never drink it until the second half of the day, usually after dinner and always with soda or fizzy water."Kennedy will also only drink single malts. He enjoys a huge variety from the big, powerful belters of Islay to the softer, heathery hues of Speyside . "I love the peaty malts of Laphroaig and Lagavulin, but then I also love The Macallan 10 year old, Highland Park, Talisker and Glen Ord." His interest in the last two has to be declared; they are distilleries in his constituency of Skye, Ross and Inverness West, which is the UK’s largest constituency covering two million acres and where 60 per cent of the residents re bilingual in English and GaelicBorn in Fort William, the beautifully scenic Highland town on Loch Linnhe in the shadow of the snow-streaked bulk of Ben Nevis, Kennedy made a quantum leap when he came down from his croft at Fort William at the age of 23 to take his seat in the House of Commons.Even though he had been working towards a PhD at Indiana University after winning a Fulbright scholarship, he dashed home when the opportunity arose to seek the SDP nomination for Ross, Cromarty and Skye, as the constituency was then known. He won from a field of six and a few months later was elected to the House of Commons, defeating the sitting Conservative Government minister for energy, Hamish Gray.His political achievements have taken him to the top of his party's tree at the age of just 40, and there is just one job left that has so far eluded him. He is often criticised for being a political lightweight and indeed he is rarely venemous to his political enemies; the reason is probably because his heart is happiest in the Highland heather."I still live in my grandfather's croft which is 100 yards from my parents home in Fort William," he says. "I haven't moved far in my life. I still regard Fort William as home. I love going up for weekends and sharing a dram with my mother and catching up on the gossip." Whisky has flowed through the veins of the Kennedy family for generations, but this branch is not related to the Irish Kennedy dynasty in the US. "I discovered only recently that my great grandfather was a mashman at the local Ben Nevis distillery," Charles adds. "He was Donald Kennedy and he probably worked there for a very long time. I was always aware that whisky was part of the social fabric of Fort William. Whisky-making has played a major role in the family as the Kennedys were well-established in the area, running lots of small businesses including bars and restaurants."Kennedy himself worked as a barman in the Volunteer Arms on the High Street during his holidays from Glasgow University. "The clientele were mostly older men who would order a half-and-half (half a pint of beer and a dram of whisky)," he recalls.Then, there were two distilleries in Fort William; Ben Nevis which is the most northerly on the Western coast and currently owned by the Japanese company Nikka and Glenlochy distillery which closed in 1983 – the year the young Kennedy took up his seat in parliament. The early 1980s were a bad time for whisky production; several distilleries closed and the industry was falling into the doldrums. At that time Kennedy was responsible for three distilleries; he also had Glenmorangie, within the boundaries of his constituency. "Ah, the 16 men of Tain," he mused wistfully. But then the borders changed and he lost Tain. "I was robbed of those men," he joked ruefully. Losing the producer of Scotland's best-selling single malt from his constituency hurt Kennedy; he enjoys representing whisky producers and is heavily involved with the Scotch Whisky Association.The vodka and rum market were stealing a march on the whisky producers in the mid-eighties and taking over as the fashionable drink among the young and trendy. "The cinematic image of white spirits was successful in getting them to appeal to young people," Kennedy explains. "The images were of sun, sports and sand. The whisky industry was remiss in allowing itself to be portrayed as an old man's drink. Thankfully, things have improved."Kennedy's 'local' distilleries are now Talisker on the Isle of Skye and Glen Ord, which are both owned by UDV. Ord, in the Muir of Ord, was built on the site of an illicit still in1838. At the time of its first licence Ord was one of 10 legal distilleries in the area. It was bought by John Dewar & Sons in 1923 then passed to DCL the following year. Now it supplies malt to seven other UDV distilleries. "I have to say Glenmorangie was always my favourite distillery," sighs Kennedy. Scotch, and it has to be Scotch – he won't entertain bourbon and only occasionally a drop of Irish – is a relaxing tonic for the LibDem leader who enjoys it most at the end of a hectic day . "I do find it soothing and very relaxing – it makes me more mellow. When I get home from the Commons at about 10:30 in the evening, I sit with a dram and watch Newsnight. It is a special time." Indeed and one he might even share with his girlfriend, PR executive Sarah Gurling. "She enjoys a dram too," he adds, anxious to disprove the myth that whisky is solely a boy's drink.Sharing a dram is also synonymous with imparting advice, as Kennedy found when he was learning at the knee of his political mentor and fellow Scotsman David Steel, the former leader of the Liberal party. "I particularly remember him giving me some very good advice when we were travelling on a sleeper train to Scotland," Kennedy recalls. "He brought out a hip flask, David likes a dram or two himself, and said that hip flasks had two advantages; their contents were cheaper than British Rail prices and there was just enough in them to anaesthetise you to fall asleep without making you feel fuzzy in the morning." Needless to say Kennedy has lots of hip flasks. "I found it very good advice," he smiled.