Is it wrong to tell the truth about the dead?

D.J. Webb

Occasionally, something happens in public life that leaves you stroking your head. How can you be the only one not to share in the general emotion? The death of Charles Kennedy, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats, has had that reaction on me. I wonder, if I died, would people crawl out of the woodwork to praise me, people who did not have a good word for me in my lifetime? Is it wrong to “defame” the dead? Or is it wrong to engage in this horrible mawkish pretence that anyone who dies was an asset to the country?

Parliament–clearly a body that has spare time on its hands–has paused to hold tributes to Kennedy. One Lib Dem MP besmirched the dignity of Parliament by declaiming in the House that Kennedy’s 10-year-old son, Donald, should be “really proud of [his] Daddy”. But this man was no stateman. He was neither Churchill nor Thatcher. If he had worthwhile achievements to his name, I am not aware of them.

Having becoming leader of the Lib Dems, he was forced to resign in 2006 as a drunkard. His marriage failed as a result of the drink, and so the son, who seems to have been reinvented as a political prop, did not have a functional family, being brought up by his mother in the family home while Kennedy lived elsewhere. Should young Donald be proud of such a father?

As a Liberal Democrat, Charles Kennedy supported rule by an international bureaucracy based in Belgium. He backed detailed regulation of the economy by Westminster bureaucrats. He supported mass immigration, and controls on free speech, freedom of association and so on that flow from the creation of a multicultural society. He backed high taxation and high state spending.

In short, Kennedy was a not a liberal in the 19th-century meaning of the term, and was yet another tired supporter of state power and the long arm of the unaccountable civil service. For this, he was about to be “ennobled” and thus appointed to the House of Lords–quite an inappropriate reaction to a failed politician’s defeat at the polls.

Kennedy was not all bad–nobody is–and did oppose the Iraq War in a rare display of good political judgement. However, he was not a man who deserved Parliamentary plaudits and not a husband, son or father of whom anyone could be proud. Do we have to take part in the pretence that he was one of our greatest politicians ever?


12 thoughts on “Is it wrong to tell the truth about the dead?

  1. He was indeed no Churchill nor a Thatcher. My only question: Why do you see this as a negative?

    Perhaps he was not the greatest politician ever, but he was one of a very few in the Commons to stand up to Blair at a time when it was rather difficult to do this. Indeed, he led the Lib Dems through a general election as the only major party opposed to that illegal invasion.

    I personally have never said he was honourable or statesmanlike or a good father. Indeed, these are quite subjective matters and in my capacity as a libertarian I will not comment on them.

    But, the man has just died and at a young age. He did at least one good thing (opposed Iraq). To my knowledge, he never hurt anyone, or gave orders for anyone to be hurt, and he certainly never hurt me. On these grounds, I will not speak ill of him.

  2. Interesting question DJ.

    I am inclined to approve of the tradition of speaking well of the dead. I remember the vicar’s eulogy for my Great Aunt who was, in reality, an awkward and obstreperous woman but, as she was dead, we all duly sat there nodding at the description of the saintly figure presented to us. I am inclined to think that such rituals, however foolish, are a last bastion of gentility in our decaying civilisation.

    So far as I can tell, it is rapidly becoming the new convention that as soon as somebody dies, they are automatically denounced for bizarre and repulsive acts with children, but I’m not sure that that is going to be as worthy an institution as pretending everyone who dies is a great loss to humanity however crap they were in life.

  3. I’m not fond myself of speaking ill of the dead, but I can see little point in praising someone just because they have died when they didn’t merit any particular praise during their lifetime. The best that could be said of Charles Kennedy was that he truly fulfilled Enoch Powell’s law that: “All political lives end in failure”.

    • Unfortunately, not all political lives end in failure; Powell just said that to console himself. Those who on the side of the Establishment tend to have political success. Edward Heath is a noted political success. He achieved entry into the EU, mass immigration of Uganda Asians and much else. Wherein did he fail?

      • I presume you wrote that with your tongue firmly in your cheek. Heath, of course, was one of the greatest political failures of all time. History will ultimately remember him only as a liar and a traitor – which he was.

        • No – there’s nothing tongue-in-cheek about it. We are living in a country that has followed the path Heath set out for it. His legacy remains. It makes no difference that he was a traitor – the traitors have won.

          • They might have, but that doesn’t make them a political success – only successful traitors. Heath succeeded in carrying out treasonous acts, that is all. He has been found out and judged accordingly. History determines political success, and history will condemn Edward Heath.

  4. It is very difficult to deviate away from the flow (of how wider society seems to have changed over the last few generations). I think we have, as a society, become much more emotional.

    A case in point may be the death of Princess Diana, which tended to leave me quite bewildered at how much over-emotion and weeping was being displayed publicly for somebody which 99.9% of people would never have even met, never mind been a close friend or relative.

    Another thing I can sometimes find annoying is the increasing regularity of “a minute silence” – whether at football grounds or at other tragedies.

    400,000 people lost their lives in the second world war, for which we commemorate their sacrifice with a minutes silence.

    A circumstance where, say, 30 people died at a football ground is horrible and I can understand the feeling that those effected by it to mark it in some way (I may feel differently if it was me and my family), but at the same time, I cannot help but feel that it diminishes the minute that is reserved for those who perished in the war.

    I don’t know much about Mr Kennedy. I take on board the expressed view of where his politics lay and that his positions and actions on this front may not be worthy of praise. They certainly weren’t my brand of politics.

    As for his personal and private life, I cannot really pass comment. If the demon of drink and the resulting failed marriage was his only vice, then surely he is elevated beyond the underhand and sleazy goings on of most of the others in the houses of parliament. I believe that he fought his alcoholism, which I think is doable but not all that easy.

    As I approach middle age, I have become much more mindful of life itself and how precious it is. Maybe others have had this all their lives, but only in recent years have I started to grapple with the difficult realities that my parents are getting old, ill with various problems and will one day deteriorate and die – unless they are taken away from me prematurely in an accident or by cancer.

    I have also had to think of my own future, the depressing reality that I will too be like that one day. That for all I know I may have bowel cancer now and die in a matter of months, or be involved in a car crash, or drop down with a heart attack.

    All my life I have never given it a thought and blocked it out as something that will not happen to me, and that my parents will never get old. Well, of course it can and they will. It has given me anxiety attacks and depression even though I know it is the inevitable cycle of life. Coming to terms with it is still not easy.

    As a result I have become much more “compassionate” than I have been up to now. I am getting more sympathetic towards those who genuinely feel saddened by the death of somebody and how much it can impact on their life.

    But this is something I feel to be primarily for those who are relatives, close friends, etc and not something for national consumption and media platitudes.

    I do not think it is right to speak ill of the dead unless they are real scumbags, but it can be difficult to know where to draw the line when somebody ‘decent’ enough dies who has been in the public eye for so long.

    I think what annoys me more about it is the media hunger over an unfortunate event, which fuels this kind of pressure for everybody to offer their condolences all day long and how it picks up ‘turns of phrase’ to thread through the entire day, endlessly.

    I also get annoyed with politicians who use a death to get a platform or to distract away from what is otherwise going on.

    But yes, I do feel that there is greater pressure in society to “show support” and be emotional for deaths and for ’causes’ of certain sorts, whether it be gay marriage, (formerly) Bruce Jenner, or whatever else can be manufactured into a “feel good” story of “openness” and “acceptance” and to be seen to be the one untouchable in the face of scrutiny.

  5. I don’t think there’s anyone in British politics today who comes anywhere close to being a liberal in the 19th century sense. Come to think of it, just about all the major political figures in British history have said things that would get them arrested if they were around today.

    • And who do you think made the laws that would have got them arrested for expressing an opinion?

      One thing is certain, ‘liberals’ like Charles Kennedy played their part.

  6. If Kennedy had worked lifelong as a dustman he would have done more good and less harm to humanity than he did. At best he was a bloviating and egotistical fool who looked to impose his own ideas on how others should live. Perhaps his drinking showed that he knew this on some level.

    His family may miss him for which I do feel regret and I hope he now finds an opportunity to mend his ways.

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