Charles was a generous and much loved member of the Liberal Democrat family, and an exceptional politician. Sharp wits, skilled in debate, with a wisdom gained from the perspective of over 30 years in Parliament; he was all those things, but frankly, what made him truly exceptional was the warm and gentle rapport he so quickly established with people everywhere.
This made ‘Chat Show Charlie’ (a rebuke which was far more of a compliment than his detractors ever realised), also the effortless exponent of the political walkabout. I fondly remember some years ago one birthday of mine spent with him on the campaign trail: we arrived late at an independent baker’s having taken far longer than planned talking with anyone and everyone all the way down the high street. They don’t do it like that anymore. It seemed everyone wanted to chat to Charles, and the birthday cake which had been lovingly crafted was suddenly presented – to him! Without a moment’s hesitation, Charles swept his finger through the cream and icing, licked it enthusiastically in front of the massed cameras, and declared it ‘very good indeed’.
That relaxed charm, combined with the courage to lead the Liberal Democrats away from the consensus in the House of Commons, won him an unforgettable audience in 2003 on the march against the then imminent Iraq war. For nearly two million of us, young and old, it was a formative experience of people-powered politics, and his calm conviction made us proud.
I’m so sad that we will no longer benefit from his good humour, inspiration, or sage advice. Remembering a man whom Paddy Ashdown recognised this week as ‘the best of us’, but who himself preferred to be known as ‘a fully paid-up member of the human race’, somehow helps. The Liberal Democrats have opened an online book of condolence, so if you have memories of Charles, I’m sure his friends and family would appreciate you sharing them.