Obituary: Donald Gorrie, politician

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BORN: 2 April, 1933, in India. Died: 25 August, 2012, aged 79

DONALD Gorrie was an old-fashioned Liberal and proud of it. He was independent, unafraid to speak his mind and committed to the three pillars of devolution, social justice and freedom.

Gorrie was most proud – and rightly so – of being one of the founding members of the Scottish Parliament, an institution he had campaigned for over many years.

But, even in those early days of Scottish Parliamentary democracy, Gorrie’s mature and wise voice stood out amid the machine politicians, the party apparatchiks and placemen and women of the other parties. Already 66 when he was elected to the Scottish Parliament, Gorrie knew he had been around long enough by that time not to be cowed by party whips and he was not afraid to stand up for what he believed in.

Gorrie stood down from 
Holyrood in 2007, having served as an MSP for eight years. By that time he was 75, more than earning the retirement which he, reluctantly, allowed himself to settle into.

Donald Cameron Easterbrook Gorrie was born in India in 1933, the youngest son of Duncan Gorrie of the Indian Forestry Service. At age of six, however, Gorrie and his family moved back to Britain and settled in Edinburgh.

Gorrie was sent away to school, to Oundle, before going up to Corpus Christi College, 
Oxford, to read history.

By this time, Gorrie was a very talented athlete and became the Scottish record holder over 880 yards. He specialised in long and middle-distance running, something he joked later put him in good stead to become an aspiring Liberal politician.

After university, Gorrie went into teaching, first at Gordons-toun and then at Marlborough. He was not afraid to show his more maverick streak even then, opting for brightly-coloured shirts in what was a deeply conservative environment at Marlborough at the time.

It was while at Marlborough that he joined the Liberal Party and contested his first election – for a place on the Marlborough Town Council. He was unsuccessful, but he learned the lesson of targeting.

That first election saw Gorrie as one of three unsuccessful Liberal candidates. At the next election, the party put up one candidate and won that one seat – with Gorrie as the agent.

He returned to Scotland in the late 1960s and, in 1969 he became the Scottish Liberal Party’s director of research, responsible for the party’s election manifestos for the 1970 and 1974 ­elections.

He won his first election in 1971, becoming a councillor on Edinburgh council, a seat he held through various local government changes until 1997.

Gorrie was not so lucky, though, in national elections, standing in Edinburgh West in four elections before eventually winning in 1997. An MP at last, Gorrie enjoyed the House of Commons, but his real motivation was the Scottish Parliament, which the then Labour government set about creating.

Gorrie stood for election to the Scottish Parliament in 1999 and was elected as a list member for Central Scotland. He retired from the Commons in 2001 to concentrate on Scotland.

With his party going into coalition with Labour after the 1999 Scottish Parliament elections, there was a chance that Gorrie might have been made a minister. But, deep down, he knew he was too much of a maverick and too keen a member of the Liberal Democrat “awkward squad” to be offered that sort of role, particularly as he had opposed the coalition with Labour when it was first mooted.

He also insisted that he wasn’t a rebel, arguing that he was merely sticking to his party’s election manifesto while his colleagues – tied in to the coalition – were not.

Gorrie decided to set about making the early parliament perform better and represent the people better.

This was represented in two awards, one for Back-bencher of the Year and the other for Free Spirit of the Year – accolades which reflected his extraordinary contribution to the ­parliament.

His rather individual approach to problems did, however, sometimes lead to odd ideas. Once Gorrie stunned the chamber when, during a debate on the escalating costs of the parliament building, he suggested the idea of “bunk desks” for MSPs, with one MSP working underneath another to save space.

Elected again in 2003, Gorrie continued to campaign about the costs and delays to the parliament building at Holyrood and also on sectarianism, an unpopular cause when he took it up but one which he managed to elevate up the political agenda until it was taken on by the then first minister, Jack 
McConnell.

Always willing to adopt causes which went against mainstream opinion in his party, Gorrie argued in the run up to the 2007 election that the Liberal Democrats should not set themselves against a referendum on independence as that would simply consign them to another coalition with Labour.

His approach to party politics, like his approach to his own politics, was governed by independence. He was independent of mind, he wanted his party to be independent (particularly of coalitions with Labour) and he wanted MSPs to be as independent as him.

As he left parliament, his colleagues acknowledged that the Scottish Parliament was lessened by his departure and that his rather old-fashioned values of service to ideas and people above party had brought a sense colour, depth and wisdom to the institution which only he could bring.

Gorrie was awarded an OBE in 1984. He had been ill for a considerable time before his death.

He leaves a wife, Astrid, whom he married in 1957, and two sons.

HAMISH MACDONELL