Some we will always carry with us in memory because of the momentous nature of them personally, some for their impact on the affairs of the world. Others sharpen our senses and awaken us from our slumber or from the furrows we are ploughing. Others still serve to remind us of the value of values and the fundamentals of what matters in life and our conduct.
We can all recount our own. Sadly, of course, the ending of lives is one of the most significant, inevitable but shocking events for us all. Personally, of course, scars are always cut that never heal but become part of us. Public figures too that are not our friends or close to us can also have a major impact in their passing.
I never knew John Smith personally, for example, but his death in 1994 was colossal for the whole country and it had an unusual effect on me as a young civil servant at the time which I couldn’t really explain. But the sense of loss across politics was genuine.
The Conservative conference stopped and ministers wept for a most gifted opponent. The public could see that, for all of the sound and fury of Parliament, there was a real sense of comradeship and friendship between combatants. This, I would contend, is a fundamentally good and important thing.
Five years after Smith’s death the new Scottish Parliament was born. It was my privilege to be a member as a young man. I would have been the youngest in the Parliament were it not for that damn pesky kid Duncan Hamilton. By this time both of us were good friends of Smith’s family and his delightful widow played host to us at her home for the week of the formal events. Many great characters of all political shades came and went.
The debate was always challenging and no quarter was given. But the atmosphere fostered was one of support for the whole process of politics, policy and public service. Labour, Nationalist, Liberal, whisper it, even Tory supporters, all shared views and friendship and put the world to rights. It is how the best of politics should be.
It has always been my instinct, because my first respect is for people who care enough to engage in the first place. That is far more unifying between parties than the relatively small differences they often scream at one another about.
It is a very real shame that the current febrile atmosphere at Holyrood puts the culture of good grace and adult conduct at risk of extinction. We would be diminished if this nature won out.
I reflected on that when thinking about the very sad and all too early passing last week of David McLetchie. A warm, witty, intelligent advocate of his party’s case, he was never shy of a harsh critique of any opponent. But he rarely lost the friendship of any. His performance in the 1997 referendum was remarkable when you consider the array of establishment forces ranged against what was effectively his lone voice.
What happened to him in his forced resignation over a nothing issue was tawdry and wrong. It marked an example of the unforgiving storm of manufactured fury that diminishes people, politics and public discourse. Some actions are so wrong that resignations are a must. His were a million miles from that.
I remained in touch with him in the decade and more since I left politics. We shared golf and football and occasional glasses. I enjoyed winding him up but he always knew how much he was liked and respected and enjoyed the sport. During the last election he was out in my home village with his kids making sure his posters were in place. I was out walking with my baby daughter and called out to him: “This bit I don’t miss David, but don’t worry – everyone in Balerno has a very high regard for you… none of us will vote for you, mind”. His trademark laugh echoed as I walked on.
When news of his illness reached us, my friend Duncan Hamilton and I invited him to Friday lunch at one of the favoured old haunts of politicians and editors from the first Parliament. It was great putting the world to rights. We didn’t speak of his illness until he got up to leave. “Have to go, lads, my son is coming home and that is what matters most.” Well said, David. He paused and looked us in the eye. “I really hope I am here to vote No come the referendum,” he said.
This is the most important vote on an issue I have worked for much of my adult life to win. Every vote counts. But the truth in my heart is his is one vote for No I really wish could be cast. «