Obituary: Dr Alistair Smith; brilliant political activist who became chairman of local party at the tender age of 28
Born: 16 January, 1939, in Aberdeen. Died: in Colombo, Sri Lanka, aged 73. His funeral was held on 28 July, 2012.
The adjective “brilliant” might well have been applied to the political skills of Dr Alistair Smith. Discussive, discursive and discoursive he was, as well as clever, capable and wily enough to navigate the murky waters of political Scotland from the 1960s onwards. Recognised by his beloved Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party as resourceful and more, he had by age 28 become chairman of the Tories in West Aberdeenshire, a constituency then Liberal-held by James Davidson but with deep Conservative roots.
Keen to have a candidate installed well before the general election of 1970, he and his committee had a short leet of two – one of whom was Lt Col Colin Mitchell, late Commanding Officer of the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders. The selection proved no contest, though in the battle of wills afterwards with the successful candidate – the notably headstrong and immensely popular “Mad Mitch” – Dr Smith displayed a steel few realised he possessed.
In the early hours after the 18 June vote, when both Colin Mitchell locally and Edward Heath nationally emerged as surprise winners, the newly civilianised Mr Mitchell’s first remark on the import of his victory was: “The Argylls are saved”. This in a constituency where the Gordon Highlanders reigned supreme. Dr Smith calmly interjected on air the importance of Scottish Command as a whole, as well as defining local industries in West Aberdeenshire in the emerging oil age.
Managing Colin Mitchell nationally proved an eight-day-a-week job for Dr Smith, though the one-time commander and hero of Aden turned out to be a loyal, well-liked and conscientious local MP. However, he never fitted in at Westminster, particularly in his back-bench role. Col Mitchell soon tired of the political round, and after one parliamentary term, moved into country pursuits in Banffshire and military work internationally.
Dr Smith astutely held the fort, ensuring the maintenance of the Tory fold with the return of Russell Fairgrieve (later Sir Russell) from February 1974 until retiral of the latter at the 1983 election. Alistair was both honoured by his party in being made president of the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Association for five years from 1981, as well as being made CBE.
But the political disillusionment that afflicted Mad Mitch caught up with Dr Smith, and in larger measure. He tired of both his party and party politics, ultimately not only allowing his membership to lapse, but going so far as to vote for Tony Blair in 1997. “The Tory Party now is not the party I once worked for,” he said shortly after casting his vote for the Labour landslide. Mixing Aberdeenshire idiom, he added: “Cherie Blair’s bidie-in now represents the ideals I hold.”
He switched to the Liberals at the 2001 general election, but scorned any notion of attaining a personal political grand slam by voting for the SNP.
Edward Alistair Smith CBE MA PhD was the son of Archie Smith, ebullient manager of the Clydesdale Bank in Inverurie. The young Alistair inherited the paternal sense of the shrewd and the bon mot, recalling that when his father was asked if he had been present at the opening of Inverurie Town Council’s new sewage treatment works in the 1960s, Archie responded: “No, but I sent along a contribution.”
Educated at Aberdeen Grammar School and Aberdeen University, Dr Smith moved swiftly into academia, being appointed a lecturer in geography at his alma mater in 1963. In later years, one of his students was Brian Adam, now SNP MSP for Aberdeen North.
A keen traveller, Alistair became director of the international office of the university in 1990. His public service work included a seat on Grampian Health Board for eight years from 1983, and work over many years with the Nature Conservancy Council for Scotland. His published work as co-author includes Europe –A Geographical Survey Of The Continent (1979).
Quiet, firm and a lover of good conversation and company, Dr Smith built up a lovely home in a classically granite street west end of Aberdeen, and became greatly liked as a friend and neighbour. Some dozen years ago, he surprised many by deciding to spend his retirement in Sri Lanka, and he settled in the township of Bentota. He died in hospital in the island capital after a short illness, with his funeral held in Bentota.
He is survived by his brother Dr Forbes Smith, and a niece and nephew.
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Saturday 25 May 2013
Temperature: 5 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
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Temperature: 8 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 14 mph
Wind direction: West