Scotsman Obituaries: John Purvis CBE, visionary politician and banker

John Robert Purvis CBE, politician and banker. Born: 6 July 1938 in St Andrews. Died: March 20th 2022, aged 83

John Purvis was a member of the first directly elected European Parliament

Two eight-year-old boys – one British, one German – played among the rubble of Hamburg in 1946.

The British boy was John Purvis, whose father Lt-Col Robert Purvis was responsible for securing food and supplies for starving Germans as Food and Agriculture Controller in the British Control Commission. John’s childhood exposure to the devastation of war in Europe and early experience of the power of friendship to bridge cultural divides, were to stay with him through his career in international business and public service.

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Sixty years later he was able to meet with his childhood friend, Clamor, in the prosperous Hamburg of 2009. That reunion confirmed John’s core belief that close economic and political alignment between European nations was key to prosperity and the prevention of war.

John Purvis was born in St Andrews on 6 July 1938. During his early years his father was often overseas on top secret SOE wartime missions. His mother Vivienne kept the Scottish farm going with a team of Land Girls and Italian prisoners of war.

After school at Glenalmond in Perthshire, John was called up to National Service and served as a Lieutenant in the Scots Guards from 1956-1958. He attended St Andrews University, studying Political Economy and Moral Philosophy from 1958-1962. There he met an American exchange student from Virginia’s Sweet Briar College, Louise Durham. Louise would become his wife of almost 60 years.

It was John’s 1960s career as an international banker for First National City Bank (FNCB) – now Citibank – in London, New York and Milan, that first convinced him of the ability of shared economic interests to unify people and countries. It also exposed him to business leaders like Walter Wriston (future FNCB CEO). The bank’s culture of innovation encouraged the young John Purvis to experiment. Colourful cheque book covers he commissioned from Florentine designer Emilio Pucci became coveted collectables, snapped up by the New York HQ for its wealthiest clients. In Milan, he and colleague Jerry Mitchell submitted a proposal to Wriston for “A machine which could recognise signatures or thumbprints and would be able to dispense cash”. Several years later Citibank opened its first ATMs with some fanfare.

In 1969 John returned from Milan with his family to live on his father’s farm near St Andrews, Scotland. He worked in merchant banking for Noble Grossart in Edinburgh and then set up his own international consultancy. Politics had never been in the picture, until Sir John Gilmour – then Conservative MP for North East Fife – pointed out that his finance background, international outlook and sociable personality would be a great fit for the first European Parliament. Elections were to take place in June 1979. In the heavily Labour constituency of Mid Scotland and Fife, winning would be a long shot. John Purvis took the risk and won, to his great surprise.

The members of the first directly elected European Parliament were a diverse group, including names like Simone Veil, Barbara Castle and Willi Brandt. It was an ambitious exercise in international democracy which John found invigorating. His sense of humour and genuine interest in people allowed him to develop lasting friendships across ideological and national boundaries. Through his work on the Economic and Monetary Affairs and Energy and Research committees, he felt he was making a difference in reducing red tape and improving standards for millions. John also believed the European Community provided a vital “third bloc” to balance the economic and political muscle of the US and China.

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It was definitely a frustration when the British press and some UK politicians misrepresented the European Parliament’s work and intentions. Nations were lining up to join the EEC but blue passports and bendy bananas often garnered more attention in the UK than progress towards the single market or other real European news.

John’s collaborative instincts and Christian faith led him to set up the first cross party group in the European Parliament – The European Parliament Prayer Breakfast, which is still active today. Another lasting legacy was his contribution to the Delors Commission. This policy group put forward plans for the first European currency. The currency was provisionally named the Ecu but eventually became the Euro.

As expected, John lost his seat to Labour in 1984, resuming his consulting practice. During this period he was appointed Member for Scotland on the Independent Broadcasting Authority and awarded the CBE in 1990. However, he missed the fascinating policy work in the European Parliament. In 1999, 20 years after his first term, he stood again as an MEP for Scotland. He remained a highly committed MEP and Vice Chairman of the Economic and Monetary Committee until he retired from the European Parliament in 2009. Towards the end of his term, it became a challenge to reconcile his unstinting belief in Europe with the Conservative party’s increasingly eurosceptic outlook.

When the Brexit referendum reared its head, John criss-crossed Scotland, speaking more than 100 times to community groups in support of a “Remain” vote. His efforts paid off in Scotland, but not in the wider UK. After Brexit, John continued to advocate for Scotland and the UK’s place at the heart of Europe, setting up the group Fife for Europe in 2017 and being appointed co-president of European Movement in Scotland in 2021.

His belief in the imperative for a united Europe, is summed up by a speech he gave in 2001 to the European Parliament, “The European Union and this Parliament are our family’s guarantee that the peace and security for which my father has fought and worked in his lifetime will indeed continue for future generations.”

Despite being diagnosed with a brain tumour in early September 2021, John continued to participate in discussions about security and prosperity in Europe into his final days and he was particularly concerned about the situation in Ukraine.

He is survived by his wife Louise, children Elizabeth, Emily and Robert, ten grandchildren and one great grandson.

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