Alex Johnstone MSP – A Tribute

Alex Johnstone MSP – A Tribute

by Murdo Fraser
article from Friday 9, December, 2016

I first came across Alex Johnstone at the Conservative Party Conference in Blackpool in 1997. This event was held in the wake of the Party’s crushing defeat in that year’s General Election, but one of the platform speakers caught my eye. He was a young Kincardineshire farmer who spoke with passion and clarity. I cannot remember the topic of the debate, and I did not know then that he would become one of my best friends in politics, but he certainly impressed me as a Scottish Conservative with a future.

Alex would later tell me that he was on such a high after making his Conference speech that he went out to celebrate by purchasing a fish supper on Blackpool pier. When he unwrapped it he found it so disgusting that he hurled it over the railings into the Irish Sea. Given how unlikely Alex was to waste food, it must have been really bad.

I came to know Alex a lot better in the years that followed. Our paths crossed again when we were both on the selection trail to find seats for the new Scottish Parliament in 1999. He beat me to it, getting in on the first wave, and I was not able to follow until two years later.

Alex was a big man, full of good humour, and with a characteristic belly laugh that would echo down the corridors at Holyrood. When I first came to the Scottish Parliament it was when we still occupied the temporary offices on the Lawnmarket, in large open plan rooms. I was allocated the desk next to Alex. Within two days I had to request Bill Aitken, the then Chief Whip, for a move as I simply could not cope with the noise levels. Alex tended to dominate everything around him.

As Willie Rennie said in a generous tribute this week, Alex may have given the impression of being a political bruiser, but there was much more to him than that. He was highly intelligent, thoughtful, skilled in debate, and utterly true to his beliefs.

In an era when so many are influenced by opinion polls and focus groups, Alex was a true conviction politician. He knew what he believed, and he always robustly defended his position. He was not afraid to take unfashionable views on issues like same sex marriage, and his strong Christian beliefs often influenced his politics.

When groups of school children visit the Scottish Parliament they often ask MSPs what attracted them to politics. The stock answer for many is that they wanted to change the world. Alex used to joke that he came into politics because he felt the world was changing too fast, and he wanted to slow it down. There was more than a little truth behind the humour.

Alex was a loyal Party man who was always ready to defend difficult positions. Ruth Davidson appointed him to the new Welfare Reform Committee in the Scottish Parliament, knowing that he would stand his ground. For the same reason he was a frequent contributor to television and radio programmes, as a reliable spokesman for Scottish Conservative values.

He was popular across the political spectrum, and well-liked by journalists. He always returned calls, and could be relied upon for the odd titbit of gossip over a pint in the bar.

Alex’s soulmate and life companion was Linda, his wife of 36 years. She was a frequent visitor to Edinburgh, and they would often be seen on the dance floor together at party functions and events. Alex loved having a good time, and was never happier than when belting out the Tom Jones classic Delilah on the karaoke.

His death came all too soon, after a short illness. I last saw him just two days before he died, and he still had a smile and a sense of humour. He was determined that his funeral would be held on a Friday or Monday when Holyrood would not be sitting: as a former Chief Whip, there was no way he was going to run the risk of the SNP stealing victory in a Holyrood vote due to the absence of a large number of Conservative colleagues.

It is still almost impossible to believe that he is gone, that his presence, contribution, and laughter, are lost to us. Right across the Scottish Parliament, we will all miss him hugely.

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