Profile: Lord Forsyth
OF ALL the unlikely starts to 2011, the sight of former Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth, the high priest of unrepentant Thatcherism, being lauded for his selflessness and goodwill is possibly the most unexpected and incongruous.
After all, well over a decade since he was emphatically ejected from elected office by the good folk of Stirling, few men are viewed with as much vitriol by their fellow Scots as the poll tax-loving, stoically anti-devolution peer.
Yet the political bogey-man Lord Forsyth - he was created Baron Forsyth of Drumlean in 1999 - this week finds himself in the unusual position of being widely admired for his charitable works. And no wonder: how many 56-year-olds would voluntarily spend their New Year away from their wife, children and grandchildren to spend Hogmanay en route to temperatures of -40C, which is what he'll encounter on his way up a mountain 750 miles from the South Pole?
That, however, is what Forsyth is doing in a bid to raise 350,000 for Marie Curie, the cancer charity, which is the figure he'll raise if he reaches the top of Mount Vinson, unconquered until the 1960s and one of the world's iciest and most formidable climbs. A climbing fanatic as a boy, Forsyth has already climbed three of the "Seven Summits" - the highest peaks on each continent - in Mont Blanc, Kilimanjaro and the 22,831ft Aconcagua in the Argentine Andes. Mount Vinson is the highest peak in the "world's coldest desert" at 16,067ft, but for a veteran climber with Forsyth's stubbornness, there's every prospect that he will succeed on what he insists will be his last big climb.
Yet even as he prepared to head to Chile and then onto Antarctica, Forsyth was again demonstrating his uncanny ability to propel himself to centre stage. This time he did so by lobbing a political hand grenade into the cosy Unionist consensus on the extra tax-raising powers for the Scottish Government that have come out of the Calman Commission. The proposed reforms, he said, belong to "the Walter Mitty school of politics", adding that they would wreak havoc on the Scottish economy, fatally undermine the Barnett Formula and bring independence closer.
Alarm bells started ringing at Holyrood when Forsyth demanded a referendum on the subject. It is, he said, completely iniquitous that a change as major as tax-raising powers being transferred from MPs to MSPs should be rubber-stamped without the consent of the electorate. Forsyth says that when the bill transferring powers comes before the Lords, he will table an amendment which requires a referendum.
Forsyth's demand for a referendum could provide a key political battleground in this election year, and he has form when it comes to getting his way in such circumstances. In the run-up to the devolution vote in 1997, he was one of the most ardent opponents - he once said that he'd rather vote for independence than devolution, a stance he adheres to despite the change in his party's policy - and launched attack after attack on the tax-varying powers, which he memorably dubbed "the tartan tax".
Perhaps the most obvious question ought to be why a washed-up Tory who was an arch-advocate of the poll tax and once admitted he was less popular with the Scottish electorate than Freddy Krueger is being taken seriously. The answer lies as much in Tory strategy under Annabel Goldie's leadership as in Forsyth's uncompromising willingness to highlight what he sees as the contradictions inherent in devolution. In a land of ad hoc coalitions where the main substantive issue is the speed of further devolution, Forsyth provides a welcome splash of contrariness.
Forsyth, the bright, savvy and hard-nosed Tory who grew up in a Montrose council house and cut his political teeth at St Andrews University as a contemporary of Alex Salmond, says he's a very different, less abrasive figure than the politician who made so many enemies in government, and who was ousted as party chairman in Scotland in 1990. Friends say his softer side was always apparent, especially in the company of his warm and down-to-earth wife Susan; and even his bitterest opponents say he is friendly and witty in private. And yet he admits high office had a dehumanising effect on him: "Because you are always under attack and there's always someone who wants you to do something for them, you become very defensive. Because there is so much work, everything, including your family, gets crowded out. People don't treat you as they would an ordinary human being. You are set apart. To begin with that doesn't matter, because you've kind of still got your hinterland. But after some time you just shrivel up."
Yet he still smacks of a man who is the unrepentant keeper of the Thatcherite flame - he and the baroness are friends - a man who has the cachet of a purist for many dyed-in-the-wool Conservatives. In many ways that is at the kernel of his appeal, because he is a man who knows where he stands and is prepared to be unpopular. When Forsyth was asked to help Lord Sanderson modernise the party structure last summer, he started by describing the mission as "a hospital pass" before going on to accept the challenge. He lambasted the party for its lack of leadership, calling the showing in the general election "disastrous", adding that "for a long time the Conservatives have been a bit marginal".
When David Cameron looks north, Goldie isn't the only Conservative grandee on his radar. As the most recognisable figure in the Scottish party, in 2005 he was co-opted onto Shadow Chancellor George Osborne's Tax Reform Commission as the Tories prepared for a return to power.
Forsyth remains a headache for Goldie and the Scottish Tories. They can't clutch the arch-Thatcherite too tightly to their collective bosom, but he is also a big beast that they'd rather have inside the tent looking outwards. That, though, is unlikely to happen. Forsyth said in 1997 that electoral defeat left him feeling "liberated, free" to speak his mind. He's been doing so ever since, and there's no chance of him refraining from raining on devolution's parade any time soon.
• Until July 2005, Forsyth was deputy chairman of merchant bank JP Morgan.
• Forsyth is widely credited with getting the Stone of Destiny returned to Scotland during his tenure as Secretary of State for Scotland between 1995-97.
• After he lost his seat in 1997, Forsyth relaxed by building himself a little replica of an Edwardian steam launch.
• When he climbed Kilimanjaro in 2004, he raised 220,000 for DebRA, a charity which works on behalf of people with the genetic skin-blistering disease epidermolysis bullosa, which afflicts his 12-year-old niece Adana.
• Forsyth set up the University of the Highlands despite resistance from the Civil Service.
• He threatened to resign from John Major's cabinet if the government did not propose a ban on handguns after Dunblane.
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