I have known Charlie since about 1979. He was, and always remained, a brilliant, witty and very gentle man. His weaknesses were of the gregarious kind, one of many things we had in common. We first met on the universities debating circuit and in student politics. He became President of Glasgow University Union and I of Dundee University Students Association. As we both ran as Liberal Democrats that was uncommon. By one of life’s quirks, a generation later he was Rector of Glasgow University and I was Rector of Dundee University. We both shared a horror of the marketization of universities and an urgent desire to return to the old Scottish tradition of democratic governance, and we worked together with other Rectors to institute regular Rectors’ meetings and try to make the office of Rector relevant.
Charlie had come under the most enormous pressure not to oppose the Iraq war. The entire force of the British establishment bore down on him, including from former party leaders and from Ming Campbell, though he denies it now. Charlie showed tremendous courage and spirit in resisting the pressures to which almost everybody in authority in the Westminster power structure caved in.
Charlie told me the story of how, as party leader, he was invited by Blair to Downing Street to be shown the original key evidence on Iraqi WMD. Charlie was really worried as he walked there, that there really would be compelling evidence as Blair said, and he would then be unable to maintain the party line against the war. When he saw the actual intelligence on which the dodgy dossier was based, he was astounded. It was incredibly weak and “totally unconvincing”. Blair was not present while Charlie saw the reports, but he saw him afterwards and told Blair he was quite astonished by the paucity of the evidence. Blair went white and looked really rattled, and resorted to a plea for patriotic solidarity. He then reminded Charlie he was not allowed to reveal what he had seen. Charlie felt bound by good faith – he had been shown the intelligence in confidence – not to publish this. Not I think his best moral judgement.
Charlie was very definitely not an enthusiastic supporter of the coalition and, though a federalist not a nationalist, generally kept his distance from the Better Together campaign. He seemed to me to have lost self-confidence through the exposure of his struggles with alcohol, and probably underrated his influence. Charlie was consistent in both his faults and his principles. As President of Glasgow University Union, he was inclined to hands off sybaritism; his expenses and use of taxis became an issue, and that epicurean streak never left him. In his presence I always felt an inferior talent, and those of us who knew him 35 years ago I think all expected him to rise even higher than he did. But he never had the sociopathic streak that makes a dominant political career, and he was at base a very decent and kind man. That is how I shall remember him.