Motion of Condolence

– in the Scottish Parliament on 3rd September 2013.

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Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick None

The next item of business is one that we would prefer not to be holding: a motion of condolence in the name of Ruth Davidson, following the death of David McLetchie MSP. I remind members that a book of condolence will be available for them to sign in the black and white corridor for the rest of the week.

I would like to welcome Sheila and James and all of the McLetchie family to the gallery as Parliament pays its own tributes to David McLetchie. Thank you for being with us today. On behalf of all of us who were at the funeral, I say to James that the eulogy he gave was the finest eulogy from a son to a father that I have ever heard.

David and I started together as part of the first intake of MSPs in 1999. In those early days, I would come into the chamber when I knew that David was due to speak. He was always witty, clever and a great debater, and I wished that I could be like him.

I had a great personal relationship with David. We were often on opposite sides of an issue, and we both served on the first Scotland Bill Committee. It is fair to say that that committee was more than occasionally fraught and regularly robust, and David and I were often at the heart of that. However, through that long process, we used to pass notes to each other commenting on the day’s business, and we always maintained good humour and total respect for each other’s point of view.

Despite failing health, David played a full part in parliamentary business way beyond the time that some of us thought he should. Those contributions were as robust and erudite as any of his previous contributions over the years. That was the mark of the man, and it demonstrates his commitment to the Parliament.

David always shone brightly in the chamber in particular, which I know he loved. We will all miss his contributions. This place will be that bit dimmer without David McLetchie.

Photo of Ruth Davidson Ruth Davidson Conservative

The best of parliamentarians and the best of men—the death of David McLetchie leaves a hole that we will struggle to fill. I knew David for only a few short years; others in the chamber—those from the class of 99—knew him far better and far longer than I did. Among my colleagues on the Conservative benches, there were friendships with him that lasted half a lifetime.

As we remember David’s political achievement and remark on the size of his contribution to the life of the chamber and the democracy of our country, we must remember that politics was not his first love; it was not even a close second. David’s priority first, last and always was his family. Our condolences go out to his wife, Sheila, his son, James, his mother, Rena, and their wider family, many of whom we welcome to the chamber gallery today.

David was a man who was shaped and forged by his family, background and city. He was an Edinburgh boy who was brought up near Meadowbank. He started out at Leith academy primary school before he won a bursary for George Heriot’s. There he attended the literary and debating society, although it was a portent for things to come that he claimed that his membership was only an excuse to sneak out to the nearby Captains Bar for a pint after.

David then did law at the University of Edinburgh—he was the first of his family to receive a higher education. In 1975, he was selected as the Conservative candidate in Edinburgh Central. A general election was anticipated in the following year, but that election would not come for another four years, of course. That gave David the opportunity to work with his Labour opponent—the MP Robin Cook—on the no campaign of 1979. David never tired of highlighting the irony of that in later years.

David completed his legal training at Shepherd and Wedderburn and joined Tods Murray in 1980, where he became a partner and established himself as a highly regarded expert in the field of tax planning, trusts and estates. David brought to the Parliament when it was established in 1999 that legal training, intellectual rigour, attention to detail and discipline. My colleague Mary Scanlon speaks for all of us when she says that she always felt like a 10-year-old taking her jotters to the headmaster and waiting to see whether a red pen would be scored across the page. Indeed, I fear that there is a great irony and—dare I say—an impropriety in Parliament’s tribute today. I can almost feel the spirit of David, who was always quick to castigate those who worship the false god of consensus, clamouring for an amendment to the motion, if only to correct a grammatical error.

Since David’s death, much has been made of his contribution to the party and Parliament as Conservative leader; the strength that he showed in 1997 after our electoral wipe-out in stooping to build up our party with worn-out tools; the resilience to keep speaking his truth clearly, knowing that there was a space and a need for a right-of-centre voice in public debate; the reward of outperforming pundits’ predictions in 1999 and establishing a sizeable Conservative group in the Parliament; and the personal pride that he rightly took four years later in winning his own Edinburgh Pentlands constituency under first past the post.

Despite the other leaders having parliamentary experience that far exceeded his, David was a debater of the first order who would often come out on top. A personal highlight for me as a young journalist who followed the fledgling Parliament was his contribution on the appointment of Des McNulty as a junior minister in 2002. During his speech, David managed to remind members that there were but 123 reshuffling days left until dissolution; console the mere seven Labour members who had not yet been given a job in government; comment on the illegitimacy of John Reid, as remarked on in a taped conversation between Henry McLeish and Helen Liddell; score several substantive points on the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill; and crack a fine joke about Jim and Dr Richard’s Wallace-Simpson partnership leading to an abdication. He did all that in less than two minutes; it was a tour de force.

David’s contribution did not stop when he resigned the leadership. Indeed, his period as chief whip and business manager during the previous parliamentary session tested his political gifts. His robust but honest approach gathered him many plaudits. David played with a straight bat; he always did what he said he would do.

It was in no small part David’s skill, judgment, ability to work with others and determination that this Parliament and this legislative process should proceed that ensured that the fragility of a minority Government did not result in political paralysis. During that period, his long-standing personal assistant, Ann, would often hear him speaking on the telephone to other business managers, eloquently and logically outlining the Conservative Party position and, consequently, how he would vote. In the very next breath he would continue, “And may I say that your voting position on this is totally at odds with your policy,” and a lecture on inconsistency would follow.

David was not above trying to whip the other parties either. Once he was sure that his group was accounted for, he would ask the other business managers whether all their MSPs were present and correct. Given David’s propensity for checking every detail, he often questioned the assurances that he was given. He would ask, “What about so-and-so? I thought that they were away for the day.” On more than one occasion, he dispatched his parliamentary researcher, Martin, behind enemy lines to chat with friends on other corridors just to make sure. In many respects, David was the first-ever cross-party chief whip.

David’s contribution to Parliament was not just in the chamber or the committee rooms, as significant as those contributions were. He was clubbable, personable, generous with his time, anecdotes and stories, and generous with a drink at the bar and a friendly conversation with someone whom he may well have just eviscerated in the chamber. He added to the life of the Parliament, not just its business.

David was no machine politician; he also had a life and interests outside of this place, including his family, golf and his beloved Heart of Midlothian. A regular Tynecastle attender, he would gently tease opponents such as the First Minister and John Swinney for being so-called plastic Jambos by asking when was the last time they had made it to a game. At David’s death, the Hearts message boards were filled with tributes. My favourite said:

“he came across as a great Jambo and a real gentleman.”

The message was right on both counts.

I was thinking of the best words in which to describe David: intelligent, forensic, principled, generous, humorous, loyal, pedantic, irascible, curmudgeonly and combative. However, he had a charm and warmth that drew people to him and took people with him. I settle on brave as the word best to describe him. David was brave to pick up the reins of the defeated party; he was brave to stand his ground, speak his truth and defy consensus; he was brave to bear the death of his wife and to give strength to his then teenage son; he was brave to love again; and he was brave in the face of his illness.

I know that David would not want today to pass without due recognition given to the Presiding Officer and the parliamentary staff whose support allowed him to attend this place until so recently, and long past the time that many would have been able to do so. That attendance and service took a bravery and strength, too. I thank you for allowing that to happen.

I thank also the many members of this Parliament, past and present, who have contacted me and my Conservative colleagues to give their sympathies and share their memories of David. He had friends on all sides of the chamber, and it is a mark of his decency and generosity that some of the warmest tributes have come from his fiercest political opponents.

In David’s death, the Conservatives have lost a leader and MSPs have lost a colleague. We have all lost a friend. David McLetchie was the best of parliamentarians and the best of men, and this Parliament and country is the poorer for his passing.

It is with great sadness but with great pride that I move,

That the Parliament expresses its deep regret and sadness at the death of David McLetchie CBE MSP; offers its sympathy and condolences to David’s family and friends; recognises the high regard in which he was held by so many colleagues; appreciates his significant contribution to civic life through his legal career, and acknowledges his distinguished record of service, both in this Parliament and to his constituents in the Lothians. [Applause.]

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

On behalf of the Scottish National Party and the Scottish Government, let me join in supporting the motion from Ruth Davidson paying fond tribute to David McLetchie and, of course, expressing our condolences to his family who are here with us today—his first love, as Ruth Davidson put it.

David was a founding member of the Parliament. He was a respected, intelligent and witty advocate for his party. His political achievements were considerable. He led the Conservatives from a wipe-out in 1997 to a secure footing in this Parliament and, I think by general acknowledgement, allowed the Conservative Party to punch well above its numerical weight in this Parliament.

I rather liked David’s description of his decision to become a parliamentary leader under such unpromising circumstances. He said:

“it was a combination of a mid-life career change and a mid-life crisis.”

Whatever it was, he served this Parliament and his constituents as a man of character, experience and persistence.

As we have heard, David was a gifted debater, and in seven years as a party leader he proved himself to be a worthy opponent for First Ministers and leading figures across the chamber. Whatever the issue—and he pursued many, from the Holyrood building project to education reforms to housing—David would draw on his legal skills to produce an effective cross-examination, which always climaxed in a devastating political punchline.

Like Ruth Davidson, I was drawn to the parliamentary masterpieces that were his speeches on what are fairly mundane matters and were fairly regular matters in those days: governmental changes. David managed to turn them into parliamentary classics. A speech in a debate in 2002 illustrates that very well. This is how David opened it:

“Here we are again with another ministerial reshuffle. Sometimes, it seems that there are more drop-outs in the Scottish Executive than there were at Woodstock.”

I am not sure whether David was personally at Woodstock; nonetheless, the point was well made. In the same speech, he went on to deliver the absolute classic. He acknowledged that 3 per cent of Scots believed that he was the Deputy First Minister. This is how he responded to that. He said:

“That is a worrying statistic. It means that, as we speak, 150,000 people are walking around Scotland blaming me for Jim Wallace’s mistakes. I would like to take this opportunity to state categorically for the Official Report that I take absolutely no responsibility for such failures.”—[Official Report, 8 May 2002; c 8622, 23.]

That was classic McLetchie.

He was never shy in holding the Government or his opponents to account; equally, he rarely lost the respect or friendship of any. It was a measure of the man that he never allowed a political disagreement to become just a personal disagreement.

When Donald Dewar died in October 2000, David McLetchie paid tribute to him with characteristic eloquence. He made the point that

“One does not have to be of the same political persuasion as another to recognise in them someone who has ability, sincerity and conviction.”—[Official Report, 13 October 2000; c 1081.]

The same words stand also for David himself. He was equally committed to serving his constituents and his country. It is a goal that we all share, even if we differ on what the means should be.

David and I shared two great loves—not just Heart of Midlothian Football Club but golf—but I would say that it was not until he served as Tory business manager during the period of minority government that I got to know him best. There, I think, his talents truly excelled. He always negotiated hard, in his party’s interest but also in the interests of the Parliament and effective government, and his word was absolutely his bond.

In my estimation, that performance marks David as an outstanding politician of the devolution era. There is no question but that, when the history of this Parliament comes to be written, David McLetchie’s place will be assured. He had many, many qualities. He fought hard and passionately in everything that he did—in politics and, personally, in his final battle with cancer. This Parliament is poorer—much poorer—without David McLetchie. [Applause.]

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

This is another sad day for the Scottish Parliament as we gather to reflect on the loss of David McLetchie, whose untimely death we deeply regret. On behalf of the Scottish Labour Party, I not only offer our sincerest condolences to his family and friends, who must feel his loss most fiercely, but recognise that David was a man who had a huge impact on people across this chamber and far beyond.

As has been said, David was another of the 1999 group of MSPs who were given the task of lifting the Scottish Parliament from the dry words of a parliamentary act to a living, breathing part of Scotland’s political, economic and social landscape, and he was a key player in helping the Scottish Parliament become that place.

Again, as has been said, David was a great parliamentarian, fierce in debate and unrelenting in deconstructing arguments that might have displayed any hint of inconsistency. He was logical and rational, with a devastating turn of phrase. I still remember to this day the feeling of stress when, serving as a minister, I would see him rise to his feet in that languid way of his to deliver what we all feared would be the killer question. Although his wit and withering scorn were his greatest weapons, I believe that he deployed them not to belittle but to make his case. Yes, he was tough in debate, but it was always the argument, not the person, he was pursuing.

Of course, David McLetchie was far more than simply a debater. In committee, his passion to make the Parliament work, interrogate legislation and develop policy was at its most evident. Always willing to do the heavy lifting, he took his job seriously, regardless of whether that work would be recognised or heralded by others. I believe that he simply wanted to make a difference.

David McLetchie always made you think. It was rather unsettling for a Tory to do this, but I often found him challenging me to test my own assumptions rather than to presume them to be a self-evident truth. It is a useful lesson for us all, I think. I recall his capturing in a wonderful phrase the weakness of some of us in Scotland’s political environment when he said that we may now be living in a Scotland where that which is not banned will be compulsory.

David was a man of intellect and wit with interests far beyond politics, and his life and legacy are hard to describe fully. What do I think when I think of David? At heart, when I think of David, I smile. For all our political differences, his humanity, compassion and interest in people were far stronger. He valued people, listened and revealed a warmth and friendship that could never be limited by party boundaries. Across this chamber, we shall miss his wisdom, his commitment and his love for life.

In conclusion, I want to echo the words of the Presiding Officer. If there were ever a testimony to the person David McLetchie was beyond this place, the man who was not simply a politician, it was to be found in the words of his son James who, at his funeral, bravely and compellingly described what David meant to his family through tough and happy times. It is testament to the way that this man—this husband, father and son—lived his life that those who knew him best could speak so powerfully of his goodness and love for them.

We shall miss David and our thoughts today are for this good man taken too soon and for those for whom this loss is so much greater still. [Applause.]

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

Every morning on my way to my son’s school, I would meet J T Murphy out for his morning stroll. As an old Fife coal miner from deep working class roots in Lochore, J T was not someone one would imagine to be a natural Conservative supporter. However, he was a David McLetchie supporter. J T liked his straight talking and forensic style and, every single day, he would tell me how good David was. Such was David’s widespread appeal.

I, too, liked David. I only really got to know him as a fellow member of the Scotland Bill Committee. James Kelly, Richard Baker and I would work closely with David, tapping into his knowledge and understanding of the territory. Often, we would subconsciously—and physically—look to David at committee meetings when faced with an unexpectedly tricky issue, and I am sure that our collective sighs of relief were audible when he came up with an inspired response to a difficult question. Occasionally, however, he would say nothing, with a wicked glint in his eye. We would scrabble around and, panicking, attempt to conjure up some kind of answer that would pale into significance beside David’s own answer. Such was David’s sense of humour.

Earlier this year, we paid tribute to another pillar of this Parliament, Brian Adam, who was credited with helping to make minority government work for the first time in Holyrood when all had expected it to fail. David McLetchie deserves equal praise for his role in ensuring that it worked. As the business manager for the Conservatives, he was able to reach out and build relationships with others that ensured that the business could get done. That feat was even more remarkable because he had previously been in regular combat with the SNP as the leader of the Scottish Conservatives. Such were David’s versatility and intelligence.

David was a towering figure who changed the future for the Scottish Conservatives and Scottish politics. Such were David’s widespread appeal, his versatility and his intelligence. Such were David’s many talents that he helped to change Scotland. What will we do without David McLetchie?

J T Murphy passed away a couple of years ago. David never had the opportunity to meet J T down here, but I like to think that he will get to meet him up there and that they will have a drink and a laugh together.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

I first met the man when I was just a young cub reporter and I was doing an interview with him—I do not have the faintest idea what it was about, but I remember thinking, “There’s a good guy. Too bad there are strikes against him: he’s a Tory and he’s a Jambo.” [Laughter.]

I later had reason to change my mind about him. Just before we came here, we were both at a yee-haw concert by Reba McEntire—he was as big a country fan as me. We started to talk about that and found that we had a great deal in common at that level.

Although David was a wonderful debater—none better has graced this Parliament—he never let me in, and I had a slight girn about that. However, I am very grateful for something that he once told me. I do not know whether members will remember, but we had an unseemly row—I think that it was in the first Parliament—about whether we were worthy of our wages. Scottish Television had conducted an opinion poll and found that the Scots thought that we were not. Well, quelle surprise! I advised the Parliament to ignore all of that because rules had been laid down that we should stick to, or else we would not be able to ensure that other people would stick to the rules that we laid down. David came up to me after the debate and said, “I think you did the Parliament a good turn today.” The fact that he knew and recognised that and told me about it was worth a great deal to me. I will miss him and so will we all.

Photo of Annabel Goldie Annabel Goldie Conservative

I thank the Presiding Officer, the party leaders and Margo MacDonald for all the kind and touching remarks that they have made this afternoon, spoken with affection and grace. I know that David McLetchie’s family will have been much comforted by all that has been said.

My first recollection of David McLetchie, at a party meeting many years ago, is hardly an extensive encapsulation of either his character or his talents: I noted him simply as that good-looking big Edinburgh lawyer chap with the glasses. Mind you, coming from a then Glasgow lawyer, that was in the realms of high praise. [Laughter.]

Even then, David made an immediate impression, leavening the universally dry fodder that was so characteristic of the business meetings of all parties. Not only was he analytical and forensic in his approach to all issues, he was dogged in his pursuit of what he believed to be right. Those attributes, in conjunction with an approach to political issues derived from basic principle and an unshakeable commitment to his political beliefs, made him the effective and formidable political operator that he was.

In politics, working relationships between colleagues in the same party are routine and we could not function without them. However, real friendships within parties are perhaps a little less common, and across parties they are rarer still. Yet, in politics, David McLetchie cultivated and established all those different relationships. That is not easy to do, but, as we have heard from the speeches this afternoon, even among his political opponents he elicited respect and affection.

When David became leader of the Scottish Conservatives, those personal strengths of character served his party and his colleagues well. His first ever speech to the Parliament in 1999 had clarity, vision and his trademark acerbity. He began by saying:

“I am well aware that, unless there is a sudden, widespread and highly unlikely outbreak of common sense, my candidacy for First Minister will not succeed this afternoon.”—[Official Report, 13 May 1999; c 19.]

He then articulated his vision for the Scottish Conservatives: he said that we should be a constructive Opposition in the Parliament, dedicated to making it a success, and that we should aspire to Government in Scotland again some day. That is still the vision for my party—it was endorsed by me and Ruth Davidson as his successors. David was unflagging in his endeavours to realise those ambitions.

When I succeeded David, I could not have asked for a more supportive colleague. His counsel was sound and any confidence that I shared with him remained with him; he knew how solitary leadership can be. His friendship was comforting and reassuring, and his integrity manifest.

The one word that I knew never to mention in David’s presence was “consensus”. To him, “consensus” was synonymous with fudge, dilution of intellectual rigour and impairment of political purity. However, he was pragmatic. As others have said, in 2007, when the Parliament first experienced minority government, there was a need for party business managers with honed political skills, razor-sharp minds and acutely sensitive political antenna who were astute in judgment and skilled in negotiation. I could not have been better served than I was by David McLetchie. He excelled, and not only his party, but the Parliament, were the beneficiaries.

The touching and eloquent tributes that we have heard this afternoon reflect David McLetchie’s enormous contribution to Scottish politics and our sorrow as politicians at the loss of a colleague, a gentleman and a friend. [Applause.]

The Presiding Officer:

I will allow a short period of suspension before we move to the rest of this afternoon’s business. I suspend the meeting until 2.50.

14:32 Meeting suspended.

14:50 On resuming—