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.]