Obituary: Richard Giles ‘Dick’ Douglas, former MP Dunfermline West

Born: 4 January 1932 in Govan, Glasgow. Died: 3 May, 2014, in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, aged 82

Dick Douglas: Labour MP who crossed the floor to join the SNP amid protests against the poll tax
Dick Douglas: Labour MP who crossed the floor to join the SNP amid protests against the poll tax

WHEN Dick Douglas, the longtime Labour and Co-operative MP (mostly for Dunfermline West), switched his allegiance to the SNP in 1990, it was a significant boost for the Nationalists at an important time in modern Scottish history. He had served at Westminster for Labour for 17 years, though not consecutively, but in 1990 defected to the SNP, saying Labour had become too centrist and criticising the party’s attitude towards Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax. Douglas was firmly in favour of a no- payment campaign, as were many Labour supporters and others on the streets, but his party backed off while the SNP increasingly jumped on the issue.

A marathon man from his youth until older age, Douglas, already in his late fifties, ran from his Dunfermline constituency to Buckingham Palace to express to the Queen what he thought about the poll tax. After he became one of 12 Scottish Labour MPs faced with legal action for not paying their poll tax – his debt at the time was £800 – he was rebuked by the Speaker in the House of Commons for protesting. He had paraphrased Rabbie Burns’s famous song by stating: “They break our backs for Maggie’s tax, such a parcel of rogues in a nation,” updating the Bard by adding: “The people of Scotland will not accept this unfair, undemocratic tax they did not vote for.”

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Speaking at an SNP rally at Bannockburn, beneath the horseback statue of Robert the Bruce, Douglas made his most memorable speech: “Bruce won a decisive battle, but he wouldn’t have completed …the struggle for independence had he not won the hearts and minds of the Scottish people.”

Douglas continued to run marathons and half-marathons all his life. After his family and supporting those most in need, marathons were his lifeblood. His defection to the SNP increased the number of SNP MPs from four to five, but had a far more symbolic significance than that one-seat rise suggests in boosting support for Home Rule. In the meantime, Douglas became known among fellow politicians across the spectrum for his integrity.

Douglas had been highly influenced by the Jim Sillars’ victory for the SNP in the Govan by-election of 1988 when he derided the Scottish Labour MPs at Westminster as “the Feeble Fifty”. These included Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling, John Reid and John McFall, of whom one writer famously wrote: “Those of them who don’t die will end up in the House of Lords,” a prediction whose accuracy remains to be seen.

Richard Giles Douglas was born on 4 January, 1932, in Govan on Clydeside and went to Govan High School, perhaps better-known for a slightly older pupil called Alex Ferguson. He became an apprentice in the shipyards, where, according to friends, he was only 18 when he led fellow shipworkers out on strike.

He later qualified as an engineer and eventually got on board those great ships as an engineering officer, sailing down the Clyde, past the old Erskine ferry and Dumbarton Rock, to places far away. On settling back in the UK, he studied in Leicestershire, at the University of Srathclyde (BA Hons), London University (BSc) and St Andrews (MA in History). He would later become a lecturer at the Dundee College of Technology.

Intrigued by politics, he told friends he was intent on getting into parliament. Labour and Co-operative since he was 16 (the two parties had a long-standing alliance agreement), he ran first for South Angus, later for Edinburgh West and eventually, in 1967, in the by-election caused by the death of Labour MP Alex Garrow. The seat had been marginal and Douglas lost by more than 2,000 votes to Conservative Esmond Wright. It was in 1970 that he finally achieved his ambition, a seat in the House of Commons for Clackmannan and Eastern Stirlingshire, and later for Dunfermline West after boundary changes.

Losing that seat in 1974, he focused on Scotland’s growing oil industry and became a much sought-after expert and adviser, both by the industry and by the UK government of the time. By 1979, he was back at Westminster as Labour MP for Dunfermline West, where he would stay until his fall-out with the party over the poll tax.

And so, in 1990, he “crossed the floor of the House”, as the saying goes. “Actually, since he was in opposition, he didn’t have to cross the floor, just slide along the bench,” according to his old friend Tom Carberry, Emeritus Professor at Strathclyde University.

Highly popular among not only his supporters in the constituency but also among his political opponents, Douglas’s career on the back-benches was relatively tranquil until the poll tax raised what he and many others considered its ugly head.

By now in the SNP, Douglas opted not to stand in Dunfermline West, the seat he had held for 13 years, but was nominated to take on the high-profile Labour candidate Donald Dewar (at the time shadow Scottish secretary) in Glasgow’s Garscadden constituency. Dewar won comfortably and Dunfermline West also went back to Labour. By then 60, Douglas quit parliamentary politics but remained an active and popular SNP member.

He retired first to Fife, latterly to the royal burgh of Auchtermuchty, but sold up to be closer to his daughters in rural Gloucestershire. Suffering from dementia, he died in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire. By then, he had written an autobiography of former SNP leader Dr Robert McIntyre, entitled At the Helm.

First Minister Alex Salmond, who worked with Douglas for many years, told The Scotsman last night: “Dick was an extraordinary politician. He was someone I came to know as a result of the anti-poll tax campaign, something that changed his politics and his view of the constitution.

“After being a senior figure in the Labour Party in Scotland over many years, Dick came dramatically to prominence with an extraordinary and memorable speech at the Scottish Labour conference in 1988 on the Tories’ imposition of the poll tax in Scotland, which was one of the great political speeches of the times.

“He joined the SNP in late 1990, shortly after I became leader, and we forged a close political relationship. He then took on the daunting task of taking on Donald Dewar in Garscadden at the 1992 general election, before going on to show his considerable campaigning mettle in his stamping ground of Mid Scotland and Fife in the 1994 European elections.

“He also served as chair of the Scottish Water and Sewage Customers Council, a role in which he vigorously defended consumer interests. Dick always had a direct, inquiring political mind, and he leaves a substantial legacy in Scottish public life.”

Dick Douglas died in Oxfordshire after suffering for some time from Alzheimer’s disease. He is survived by his wife Jean, daughters Louise and Clare and grandsons Giles and Edmund.