MacKay, Stewart and Johnstone – gone but never forgotten

MacKay, Stewart and Johnstone – gone but never forgotten

by Brian Monteith
article from Saturday 10, December, 2016

IT HAS BEEN a sad and dispiriting week for those of a right of centre disposition in Scotland.

As regular readers may have noticed, we have carried on ThinkScotland not one, not two, but three appreciations of friends that we have lost to the hallowed free market in the sky. Earlier in November, Professor Sir Donald MacKay (79) died and his funeral and memorial in Cramond was, Peter de Vink tells me, a most impressive service with an outstanding eulogy by Iain Gotts. Sadly I could not be there to hear it as I am writing today’s commentary from Uganda, where I work from time to time.

Bill Jamieson has written a lovely appreciation of Donald and Geoff Mawdsley and I added our own thoughts at the end of it. For those of a younger generation it should be recorded that Donald was to Conservative Ministers in the Scottish Office what Professor Sir Alan Walters was to Margaret Thatcher in Downing Street. Without being obviously dogmatically ideological Donald gave intellectual support and weight for the liberalisation of the Scottish economy and in particular the need to grow the private sector.

Since he stepped back from that role there really has been no-one of his stature or calibre championing liberal economics in Scotland’s corridors of power – and we are all the poorer for that.

So, having posted the appreciation on Wednesday it was already a sad week when the next day I received a press notice from The Scottish Conservatives announcing the death of former Tory MP Allan Stewart. Allan was a Tory stalwart of the 80s and 90s but had his own personal demons that were, unfortunately, to get the better of his political career.

He was avidly anti-devolutionist and a member of that school to which I had great sympathy that feared devolution would be worse than going directly towards independence, believing devolution would simply reward the nationalists, causing great division and pain for little, if any, gain. Thus far Allan has not been proven wrong, as the rise of the SNP leading to a highly divisive referendum – and now this week’s PISA rankings for scores in science, maths and reading – all testify. My good friend Eamonn Butler who was taught by Allan at St Andrews provided a touching appreciation that caught him well.

Only a couple of hours after receiving Allan’s death notice my inbox pinged again to tell me that my former drinking buddy Alex Johnstone had passed away that morning. Murdo Fraser had told me Alex was ill but I was still shocked he had been taken so suddenly and am thankful to Murdo for providing a tremendous tribute to the big man.

Who could not like Alex? A man whose natural disposition was to smile, who had a wonderful observational wit and was a great raconteur standing at the bar, Alex made friends easily and without any pretension.

Once we got to know each other up on the Mound, after the Scottish Parliament had opened, Alex and I would swap stories from the past when he was a leader of the Scottish Young Farmers and I was leader of the Scottish Young Conservatives. We would recall our escapades when our annual conferences were held at the Peebles Hydro, which in those days our organisations could fill by ourselves. Alex was mischievously proud that the farmers were banned from the Hydro’s doors before the YCs, although I assured him it was probably the same people that had been drinking the bars dry and doing naughty things in the ‘Bubbles’ swimming pool.

With Alex now gone it is hard to believe there is no one left from that first Tory intake of 1999. Alex was a core figure amongst that group and if there was one thing I would identify Alex with it was his obvious loyalty to the party. It was this loyalty that led John Crawford, Geoff Mawdsley and I to lobby David McLetchie to make him Chief Whip. Alex was physically imposing, held devout no-nonsense views and could look after himself when abused by our opponents, defending Tory policy to the hilt even if he questioned it himself. What better person for Chief Whip? David was under great pressure from some colleagues hoping to force him out and he needed someone beside him that would be beholden to no one but him.

Eventually David relented and so Alex got the job. Only then did we discover the other side of Alex that most people did not immediately see – he was a pussycat!

Despite his robust style Alex was actually a big softie, he did not like confrontation, especially with colleagues, and the idea of keeping a black book or bullying his friends was just not him. I don’t know if Alex enjoyed being Whip but he certainly seemed to enjoy being rural affairs spokesman much more!

We could always rely on Alex to give a tub-thumping, occasionally politically incorrect speech, said with a cheeky twinkle in his eye – just as we could rely on Alex at the annual parliamentary Tug-of-War challenge at Holyrood Park. Often, his soulmate and wife, Linda, would be down in Edinburgh and there was never a reception, dinner or party that was not more fun thanks to their attendance. When there was a dull or dreadful event to attend, gravitating towards Alex and Linda was the smart thing to do if you wanted a good time.

The last occasion I saw Alex was last year when I had coffee with him to discuss if he would urge people to vote for Brexit. His own position had seemed clear, he had been a staunch critic of the EU all of his life and instinctively felt we would be better off out, but there was a problem. To reveal his own position was different from that of his leader Ruth Davidson, when there would be the Holyrood elections the next year made him uncomfortable and untypically cautious. In the end his loyalty to the party was what decided it for him and he became a very reluctant remainer. That was the mark of how loyal and reliable he could be and why he won friends and respect from across the political divide.

So now we all grieve that Alex has gone, but rejoice in the memory of how he brought brightness to everyone he met.  Maybe if we listen carefully enough we shall still hear his Doric lilt and hearty laugh reverberating in the Holyrood Chamber or at the bar of Deacon Brodies, I know I shall.

What a week, one I hope and suspect we will not see the likes of again.



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