Obituary: Keith Harding, unassuming politician who nationalised a bank and cleaned up our streets
Keith Harding was a diligent banker in Africa and local entrepreneur in Scotland who overcame his natural modesty to become leader of Stirling District Council and then an inaugural member of the Scottish Parliament where his Private Bill to ensure dog walkers cleaned up their animals’ mess emphasised his civic pride and belief in working across parties to improve the common good. After failing to be re-elected he retired to France and immersed himself in local life and was asked to become local mayor, but politely declined.
Born in 1938, at Chipping Norton in the Cotswolds, Keith Harding’s mother died when he was only four and he was then raised by an aunt in a pit village outside Wakefield, West Yorkshire. Harding attended Grammar School then joined National Westminster Bank in 1955, where he rose up the executive ladder. His career took him to Zambia in 1969, joining the the Commercial Bank of Zambia, where he was instrumental in its merger with the National Bank to create the National Commercial Bank of Zambia. While there he met Anne and they married in 1973, with the Zambian government Finance Minister hosting the wedding and Zambian Ambassador to the United Nations, Vernon Mwaanga, acting as Keith’s Best Man. Harding was then asked by the Zambian Government to nationalise the bank, which he undertook solemnly – a process he was to use regularly as a joke at his own expense back in Scotland, ribbing socialist opponents they could not match his achievement.
After the births of their two children in Zambia he and Anne returned to Britain in 1976 and decided to settle in her home town of Stirling, where he opened a number of retail outlets including a newsagents, pet shop, pet grooming parlour and established a confectionary wholesalers.
Inspired by Margaret Thatcher to enter politics Keith Harding was elected as Conservative Councillor for Stirling’s Torbrex Ward in a 1986 by-election in what was a tightly contested parliamentary constituency where Michael Forsyth, later to become Secretary of State for Scotland, had won the new parliamentary division in 1983. Forsyth’s opponent was Labour’s then Stirling Council leader, Michael Connarty (later MP for Falkirk East) and it was in this cauldron that Harding ran a tight ship of idiosyncratic but competitive local councillors, eventually taking control from Labour in 1992 in dramatic circumstances.
Labour and Conservatives were tied with ten councillors each in two consecutive council elections of 1988 and 1992 and it fell to their respective nominees for the Provost to cut cards. In 1988 Labour won, but in 1992 Cllr Pat Greenhill won for the Conservatives against Jack McConnell’s Labour Group and Keith Harding became council leader. In 1995 the new unitary council elections were held and Labour won overall control outright forcing Harding to return to being opposition group leader.
With Labour being elected at Westminster in 1997 following Tony Blair’s landslide, the subsequent referendum of the same year agreed there should be a devolved Scottish legislature and Keith Harding put his name forward to the Conservative selection panel for the Region of Mid Scotland and Fife. Although standing for the solid Labour seat of Central Fife his experience and council success saw him ranked top of the Conservatives’ list, assuring him of election. In May 1999 Harding joined 18 Conservatives in the 129 new MSPs and was immediately appointed Local Government and Housing Spokesman by his leader, David McLetchie.
Harding’s ability to speak to everyone no matter their political colour meant he could work quietly but effectively on committees calling on his hard-won council knowledge and applying his banker’s attention to detail.
Active in the local Dunblane Masonic lodge, Harding was one of four Conservative MSPs who in 2002 openly professed their membership of the Freemasons after the Scottish Conservative leader David McLetchie had caused Harding’s annoyance by denying any involvement. The Masons were to be a regular source of friendship for Harding beyond politics including visits to lodges in France once he settled there.
A dog lover, with an English Boxer called Tika, it had always been Harding’s intention to introduce a Private Bill that would encourage local councils to enforce by-laws against dog fouling more effectively with on-the-spot fines for owners who did not clean up after their animals. Harding had concluded that because the offence was criminal, requiring two police officers to witness it and then a court case, prosecutions would remain rare. Instead, Harding wanted to change dog fouling to a civil offence requiring only one constable or a warden to officiate, with any fines going to councils who would then have a financial interest in seeing the law enforced effectively.
After attracting cross-party backing, not least the personal support of his old foe in Stirling Council, Jack McConnell, the Dog Fouling (Scotland) Bill passed into law in 2003. The Bill became the butt of jokes by those wishing to demean the status of the nascent parliament, yet it did change attitudes to dog fouling and the practice of carrying a small plastic bag for dog poo became accepted and widespread. It was however to be his swan song as the ranking system for Conservative list candidates had changed, with all members now being given a vote (which Harding supported against his best interests). Unsurprisingly the larger memberships in Perthshire, North East Fife and Stirling constituencies voted primarily for their own candidates and Harding dropped to fifth – essentially making it impossible for him to win re-election.
It was hard blow for one of the most experienced Conservative MSPs to take and while he saw out his time as a Conservative backbencher (which he saw as his duty) he resigned from the party following the dissolution of parliament and stood as the candidate for the Scottish People’s Alliance, He fought the Stirling constituency and came sixth but continued to work with the New Party that evolved from the SPA until 2010. His wife Anne had meantime become the Conservative Councillor for Torbrex in 2000, increasing her husband’s majority and holding the seat for the party until they moved to France after the council elections of 2004.
In France Harding remained in contact with many of his former MSP colleagues including the former First Minister, now Lord McConnell, who had earlier invited him to his 40th birthday party – the only Tory asked. Harding would joke that McConnell’s political adage of seeking to “do less better” had originally been his slogan in Stirling Council and that the First Minister was slowly adopting his political positions.
A keen Twitcher, able chess player and regular golfer – with a wonderful anecdote about being bitten by a snake while playing a foursomes in Africa, but the snake survived – the Hardings easily made friends wherever he and Anne settled. While living in Brittany he was active in his town’s civic scene and was approached to stand for local Mayor. Although tickled by the compliment he declined, wishing instead to focus on his family that now included grandchildren – and the aviary he had built at the foot of his garden.
Despite achievements to his name Keith Harding was a modest politician by today’s media-driven standards but always made a contribution to civic life wherever he went. He passed away after a surprise short illness and is survived by his wife Anne, their children Tanya and James, and two grandchildren.
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