Tributes to the Late Chairman of Committees

– in the House of Lords at 2:30 pm on 26th February 2001.

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Photo of Baroness Jay of Paddington Baroness Jay of Paddington President of the Council, Privy Council Office, Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal 2:30 pm, 26th February 2001

My Lords, this has been a very sad week for the House because it has lost two of its most prominent and distinguished Members, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos and Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish. Both were admired on all sides of the House for their political success and had warm friends in every part of the House, and it is fitting that we pay tribute to them this afternoon.

Last Wednesday when we heard of the sudden and untimely death of Lord Mackay there was palpable shock and deep distress among both Peers and members of staff alike. Only the evening before several of us had enjoyed his companionable charm at a reception to honour his appointment as Chairman of Committees. I myself had listened to wonderful stories about his fishing companions and fishing holiday plans told with his usual energetic zest and twinkle, so the next morning's news was particularly unbearable. It is a matter of huge regret that he did not have longer in the role as Chairman of Committees. I feel sure that he would have used his skills in that post to the lasting benefit of the House.

The list of John Mackay's political achievements is impressive. He was a Member of another place from 1979 until 1987, and for much of that time he sat on the Front Bench as a Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in the Scottish Office. When he came to this House in 1991 he was first Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in the Department of Transport and then Minister of State in the Department of Social Security. In opposition after 1997 he was made Deputy Leader and became a key member of the usual channels. While in that role he was voted Peer of the Year in 1998--an honour by which he appeared to be both pleased and amused.

But he will be remembered as much for the characteristics that he brought to office as for the offices he held. We shall all remember his precise and rigorous mind, which was combined, often to devastating effect, with his concise and articulate delivery. He was a master of the Dispatch Box. Many of us on these Benches were enticed to dance nearer and nearer only to fall into traps that he had set when we had committed ourselves beyond recall. I remember Lord Mackay's glee when during the passage of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill in the previous Session he uncovered a problem whereby the Bill would have required the leader of a party, which in our case would be the Prime Minister, personally to agree and sign a document every time a constituency treasurer was appointed in a local party. The Government gave in very quickly with as much grace as they could muster and amended the Bill.

As one of my ministerial colleagues said in the past few days, as a parliamentary debater Lord Mackay could make one smile and look foolish at the same time. Such episodes were meat and drink to him. He had an impish delight in what could be called mischief-making which very much belied the seriousness of the principles and issues which lay beneath his triumphs.

Lord Mackay's political life and broad friendships were based in Scotland, not least among the group of bright political stars who emerged from the University of Glasgow some 40 years ago. Last October at a similarly sad occasion John found himself paying tribute to Donald Dewar, one of those good friends from college days. He singled out decency as Donald's defining characteristic and went on to say:

"Donald enjoyed himself, and we enjoyed having him".--[Official Report, 11/10/00; col. 323.]

Perhaps those are the most fitting words of tribute to John Mackay himself. He was decent; he certainly enjoyed himself, and we enjoyed having him.

I know that the whole House will join me in sending our deepest sympathy and condolences to John's widow Sheena and to his whole family.

Photo of Lord Strathclyde Lord Strathclyde Conservative

My Lords, I echo the sentiments of the Leader of the House, particularly on this most sad day when we announce the death of two Members of the House. John Mackay was one of my friends. Although I in particular shall miss his friendship, wisdom and the practical way that he dealt with political problems, I know that his loss will be felt greatly throughout the House and beyond, especially in Scotland where so much of his attention was focused.

On behalf of the Opposition I join the noble Baroness in offering our deepest condolences to his wife Sheena and to the rest of his family. However terrible and shocking to us the suddenness of his death, it has been a devastating few days for his family. I know how touched and strengthened they will be by the tone of the tributes that have already been expressed. John Mackay was above all a family man who never lost an opportunity to bring his children and grandchildren into debates. Few who heard him will forget how he used what he described as his Italian grandchildren to explain the discrimination against English students at Scottish universities, nor how his daughter who lived in Italy would be able to vote in the referendum in Scotland while his children who lived in England would not.

John Mackay was one of that breed of politicians who by the way they act give politics and politicians a good name. He had an approach to politics which was, when necessary, highly combative and forensic but was put into effect without ever losing the respect for and of his political opponents. He always acted professionally and was guided by the highest motives to do what he believed to be right. In the pursuit of his objectives his style was never to hector and bully but to persuade and argue the case rationally. That made him an immensely effective Member in your Lordships' House and, before that, in another place.

The transition from elected politician to this House is not always an easy one, but John made it with great skill and tact. While he never forgot his links and contact with Members of the House of Commons--friends who often inhabited other Benches--he became a House of Lords man, understanding the delicate balances and the nature of this place.

Although his career was distinguished in another place, it was cut short by his losing his seat. So he joined this House in 1991 where he made a very effective Minister of State at the Department of Social Security, a post which at that time in this House was a real burden. But it was in Opposition that he made such a lasting and deep impression. His interventions from this Dispatch Box were always carefully thought through and designed to have the maximum impact.

That is why last summer I was so surprised when he approached me to indicate that he was interested in taking on the role of Chairman of Committees. Only after a great deal of thought and consideration did he decide to allow his name to go forward, reasoning that at his age he wanted enough vigour and energy to do his final job well. That was a great loss to these Benches. But, whatever our loss, it would be an immense benefit to the House as a whole at a time of transition. I believe that in the short time he was Chairman of Committees he demonstrated convincingly what an excellent job he would have done for this House over the next few years.

Of course, politics was not his only love. Fishing for salmon in Scotland was something he enjoyed even more than being here in this House. That, combined with his love and knowledge of Scotland, gave him so much to live for.

My purpose today is not to sum up all the aspects of Lord Mackay's life, but to pay tribute to and offer reflections on a man I held in the highest esteem and with the greatest affection. All of us in this House feel his loss, but perhaps the most fitting and appropriate tribute is that this loss is felt so widely across the House and transcends all the normal political boundaries. His was a life of public duty and public service. It will be a long time before we see one like him again.

Photo of Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

My Lords, these Benches would wish to be associated with all that has been said already about John Mackay. It was with a shock close to disbelief that those of us who were here on Wednesday heard first of his illness and then of his death. It was apparent then that it was not only a great loss to the House, but there seemed to be a peculiar unfairness that he should be carried away within 12 hours of the party to celebrate his becoming Chairman of Committees.

John Mackay was a Liberal candidate in 1964. Indeed, he helped to get David Steel elected in the by-election in 1965. But I did not meet him until he arrived in the House of Commons in 1979. I still remember his maiden speech, made on the second day of the Debate on the Address, mainly for his passion for--what I later learned to be enduring concerns of his--Argyll, very appropriate in so far as it was his constituency, but also salmon fishing, to which reference has already been made. After that, although I detected that he was a considerable political operator, I did not see him until I met him in this House.

I should like to confirm, because it is the experience of all of us, the very unusual qualities that he brought to debates. He was one of those who enjoyed debate for its own sake, irrespective of the substance. That is not to devalue the arguments and the principles behind him. He was didactic, but that was only, or mainly, to provoke; again a common characteristic of a debater. Then, as others have said, he never took himself too seriously, which many of us too often do.

He was making the difficult transition, as it seemed to many of us to be, from being a very effective Front Bench spokesman to Chairman of Committees. But he had already demonstrated, I think most effectively, that he would be, as he should be, neutral in the chair. We shall all remember him and miss him greatly.

Photo of Lord Craig of Radley Lord Craig of Radley Convenor of the Crossbench Peers

My Lords, on behalf of all Cross-Bench Peers and myself, I add our sincerest condolences and sympathy to the family of Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish. Words fail to describe adequately the sense of shock and loss which the House has experienced. Well-known and much admired, even maybe politically feared by some, for his trenchant and perceptive handling of business from the then government Front-Bench and, more recently, in opposition, Lord Mackay was much liked and respected on all sides of this House.

His transition to Chairman of Committees and so to these Benches only a few weeks ago was smooth and full of hope for a period of reforming leadership as Chairman. The evening before his death I had a long conversation with him about some of the issues which he felt were most urgently in need of attention. I, and all on these Benches, greatly regret that he is no longer here to take the helm of revision and reform.

But our conversation that evening was not all about committees and their structures. I remarked that I had noticed a photograph in the office of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, of the two of them, each sporting a fishing success. Two large healthy looking salmon, held by two large and apparently very healthy and smiling Members of your Lordships' House. Lord Mackay's fish was definitely the larger of the two fish displayed and caught that day on the Tay. But, typically, as I congratulated him on outshining his erstwhile leader, he volunteered that the picture did not reveal the full story. He told me that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, had landed two fine fish to his one. That was surely typical of his generosity of spirit.

The House will greatly miss his extensive and detailed knowledge of fishing and the whole gamut of issues that surround that troubled and hard-hit industry. But, it is above all the man, his wit, his wisdom, his friendly and approachable nature, his love of politics and of this place, which most of all will be missed. The House has suffered a very great loss of a fine parliamentarian and a charming human being.

Photo of The Bishop of Lichfield The Bishop of Lichfield Bishop

My Lords, from these Benches I wish to pay tribute to Lord Mackay. With Scottish blood in my own veins, I always resonated strongly to the power of his Celtic oratory, which I memorably recall once late at night here in this Chamber. He had the ability to inject real adrenaline, as I witnessed, into the debates of the House. I sensed also, as other speakers have said, that he was deeply loyal to his own roots. From these Benches, too, I know that we would want to extend deep sympathy to his wife and to his family in the circumstances of sudden death.

Photo of Lord Irvine of Lairg Lord Irvine of Lairg Lord Chancellor, Lord Chancellor's Department, Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I, too, wish to pay tribute to John Mackay. John was a Scot from Lochgilphead in Argyll. I first met him over 40 years ago at Glasgow University. He was among a unique generation of natural debaters, which included the late John Smith and Donald Dewar as well as Menzies Campbell and Jimmy Gordon, now the noble Lord, Lord Gordon of Strathblane. His hallmarks were acuity, wit, good humour and warmth, which were ever on display in this Chamber. His generosity of spirit most recently stood out in his moving tribute to Donald Dewar.

As has been remarked, on the evening before his death he attended a party in his honour to celebrate his new role as Chairman of Committees. He was on top form, happy and full of fun. He spoke enthusiastically of Scotland, his planned summer fishing trip there and his forthcoming 40th wedding anniversary. He was a good man, of great personal kindness, liked by all and a splendid companion. He had a talent for friendship across party divides. There was no one better qualified to win the confidence of the whole House in his new role. So, for this House, his premature death is an appalling loss; for his mother, widow and family, for whom we feel deeply, it is a personal tragedy.

Photo of Lord Mackie of Benshie Lord Mackie of Benshie Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I should like to add a short sentence of tribute to the gracious and indeed beautiful tributes already paid to John Mackay. David Steel and I probably knew him as well as anyone, from long ago in the Scottish Liberal Party, where he was a lively and active thorn in the flesh of the management, of which I was unfortunately one. But one could not help admire and see the promise in John. He was an original thinker and, of course, the wit was there already. I was very sorry when he left to join the Tory Party, but I did realise that the Tory Party needed him.

He had everything that it takes. He had the spark. We have all enjoyed listening to him. We have all been put down by him. We have all tried to get in a dig and never entirely succeeded. I have never been so struck down by a death. It is fate dealing as cruel a blow as ever I saw. He was a man ready to do a job that would have been excellently done. It would have been a credit to this House. It would have done him a great deal of good and would have been a proper finish. To have been struck down is appalling. My sympathy, like the sympathy of all noble Lords, goes to his wife and family. But this House is the poorer; and we all know it.

Photo of Earl Russell Earl Russell Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I once heard Lord Whitelaw remark that one of the things wrong with politics is that so few of us now are friends with our opposite numbers. That reproach was never addressed to Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish. He was my opposite number for five years. He never gave us an easy time. His defence was so impenetrable that one of his own Back-Benchers nicknamed him "slasher Mackay", after the great Australian stonewaller. But at the same time he was utterly relaxed with anything that any of us could throw at him; he was totally attuned to the mood of the House.

I remember him once answering a question from the noble Baroness, Lady Castle of Blackburn, on the closure of the Road Research Laboratory. As the noble Baroness's volume grew greater and greater, the noble Lord grew quieter and quieter; a very exact piece of judgment. When we were outside the Chamber, never was there one moment's irritation at having had an extremely hard time inside it. Never was there one moment when he did anything gratuitously annoying to those who were opposite him. And when you least expected it, there was that sudden little serpentine flicker of the tongue, which heralded a joke that left you in helpless laughter. We are all the poorer for his absence and it has been a privilege to serve opposite him.