A common theme among the tributes to Alex Johnstone which have poured in this week is the fact that although his political opponents may have disagreed with him, they universally liked him.
Alex was a principled man, never afraid to make a stand and argue the case, but he did so with good humour and respect. He described himself as the spokesman for “late at night and early mornings”, reflecting the fact that when others were unavailable, he would happily turn up at a TV or radio studio and do the job.
Print journalists always knew they could rely on a comment from Alex to make a story work – one told me that they knew they could turn a story into a splash if they could get a quote from Alex.
Alex had diverse political interests. He took advantage of the historical links between the northeast of Scotland and Japan to champion the relations between our two countries, something that earned him the Consul General of Japan’s Certificate of Commendation.
He was the first MSP to speak Japanese in the Chamber, something he prepared for by getting my Japanese-speaking wife to tape the speech for him, and learning it by heart in the office. It was a challenging process, and one that was thankfully not repeated.
Alex was also a strong advocate for the Veteran community, supporting charities who assisted Veterans with housing, employment and health issues.
He was particularly scathing about people who wore military medals they had not earned, and was leading the way on this until he fell ill. It speaks volumes of him that newspapers that would not ordinarily give a Tory MSP decent coverage were keen to work with him on projects like this.
Knife crime was another issue Alex was passionate about, and he campaigned for more education programmes to educate young people on the dangers of carrying a blade. He led a debate on it in Parliament, and in a twist of fate we both became involved in an incident in which someone pulled a large knife in a pub we were in. The subsequent press coverage of the incident included a photo of Alex and I in the Sun, with the strapline “Terror, Pair at Boozer”. Alex framed the press cutting and it still hung in his office years later.
His keen interest in history led him to demand the rehabilitation of King Macbeth from Shakespeare’s portrayal. This attracted worldwide interest, and saw him get up at 4am to do radio interviews for the Australian media. Not everyone appreciated the campaign, however – one Shakespeare aficionado was so outraged, he threatened to kill Alex.
Another historically themed campaign he launched was to seek Unesco recognition for Arbroath Abbey on the basis of its connection to the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320. The campaign was launched outside the Abbey, with two of us in suits of armour and Alex holding a replica Declaration. This prompted an almost immediate hissy fit from some in the SNP which, typically, amused Alex no end.
The hallmark of Alex’ office was undoubtedly the roaring of laughter that inevitably rolled down the corridor, often accompanied by the banging of his great fists on the desk.
On one occasion he returned from recess and saw that the door to his flat had been tampered with and we suspected squatters. Instead of calling the police as he should have, we turned up and kicked the door in. It had been an attempted break in, but they had not gained access, and we were left standing there having nearly taken the door clean off its hinges, and had to call a joiner.
Alex was a big presence at Holyrood, not just physically, but in his contributions in the chamber and in committee. He was extremely well read on a broad range of subjects, but he was passionate about cricket, rugby and technology.
He loved Burns, and had set himself the task of mastering Tam O’ Shanter, something he pursued with his usual enthusiasm, and mastered it quickly.
He was a loving family man, and would often speak with pride about his wife, children and grandchildren in a way that made for compelling listening.
In the years that I knew Alex Johnstone, I did not ever hear him say a bad word about anyone. He always found the good in people, and others liked him because of it.
Politics is a fractious business, but Alex was above some of the behaviour that rightly turns the electorate off. He remained grounded, was proud of where he came from, and was a staunch champion for the north east. He will be sorely missed.