Eddie Barnes: Marking McLetchie’s political style

MORE than ten years ago, David McLetchie told a story about bumping into the then first minister Jack McConnell, just as MSPs were heading off for their summer break.

David McLetchie MSP, who has died aged 61. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

“Off on holiday?” McLetchie asked McConnell. “Yes,” said the First Minister, “Over to Brodick, on Arran, next week. You?” he asked McLetchie. The Tory leader put his head in his hands – he was heading off next week. To Arran. Brodick, to be exact.

Keen to get away from the political hothouse, the idea of spending a holiday with one another was probably not what either man would have chosen. But, in truth, it wouldn’t have been too uncomfortable. McLetchie and McConnell personally got on very well, most visibly at the annual golf match between politicians and political journalists, where they came together in a common cause to try to beat their mutual foe.

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On Monday, after McLetchie’s untimely death had been announced, McConnell posted a picture on Twitter of the two of them on the course. Like many politicians in Scotland, of all parties, his loss will be heartfelt.

Such close ties, across political boundaries, have long been common of course. Whereas relationships within parties often break down thanks to thwarted ambition, grudges and personal gripes, those between political opponents have no such ill-feeling, leaving room for genuine friendships to develop. It’s not as if you have to work with them, after all. And so it’s a regular sight to see MPs and MSPs who have just slugged it out on TV enjoying a drink later that same evening. It may seem to be bad form to be sleeping – or even just drinking – with the enemy. But in fact, it suggests a maturity and a humility that marks out a real political pro.

McLetchie was undoubtedly that. The most common point made in the tributes on Monday by opponents was in attesting to those dual qualities of professional toughness and personal warmth. McLetchie’s political style took no prisoners – just ask Henry McLeish, whose political frailties the Tory leader so brutally exposed. All those attacks were carefully plotted and planned. But this was also a man who was once praised to the rafters by Scottish Socialist MSP Rosie Kane and who this week received a glowing tribute yesterday from Scottish Green Party leader Patrick Harvie.

The accolades are likely to continue from MSPs. But perhaps if they want to pay genuine tribute to McLetchie, they should carefully plan a forensic parliamentary attack on a political opponent over the coming weeks – and then make sure they buy them a drink in the bar afterwards. Cross-party friendships like those he earned are the lifeblood of any parliament.

“I like Jack,” acknowledged McLetchie once about McConnell. “But I don’t think anyone can say I bowled him any easy balls.” That’s true and an example worth following.