Goodbye Bob, the kindest of politicians
|Bob Maclennan (26th June 1936 - 18th January 2020)|
Photo: Andrew Page
Robert Maclennan, Lord Maclennan of Rogart (but always “Bob” to me) was the son of a gynaecologist (Sir Hector Maclennan) and a forward-thinking doctor with interests in public health (Isabel Adam), and he always spoke highly of his family and his parents’ role in shaping the route he took in life. His house in Glasgow was bombed during the Blitz, something that naturally had an effect on him. Bob often told me anecdotes about his school life, and it always amused me that apparently he was a talented fencer in his prime. A young man of many talents, Bob went on to study at Balliol College, Oxford and Trinity College, Cambridge. Newly qualified in law, Bob considered working for a multi-national agency through which he could use his abilities for the purpose of creating a fairer society - always an aspiration that featured in Bob's thinking - and probably would have done if the 1966 General Election hadn’t intervened.
As a boy Bob’s grandfather had taken him to Stirling, where the young Bob expressed interest in the statue of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman. “Who is that?” Bob enquired. “A politician” came the reply, with obvious contempt. Politics was not the kind of career Bob's grandfather had in mind for him. In spite of that, Bob was not put off from becoming Labour candidate for the constituency of Caithness and Sutherland – a constituency Labour had never previously won.
An unlikely win over Liberal incumbent George Mackie – with a majority of just 64 - meant that the 29 year-old young lawyer, who had recently married Helen, was now the constituency’s new representative in Westminster: a position he would hold for the next 35 years. While Bob often attributed his initial success to his father’s local connections, there can be no denying his personal appeal to his new constituents or his commitment to them. His relationship with them was such that not only did he represent them under the colours of three different parties (Labour, SDP and Liberal Democrat) he increased his majority steadily from 64 in 1966 to over 8,000 in 1987.
Bob had been a junior minister in the Callaghan government but was heavily involved in the work that eventually led to the creation of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 1981. He played a key role in that party’s initial successes – especially the 1982 Hillhead by-election in which he ensured Roy Jenkins, rather than Chic Brodie, would fight the by-election as the Alliance candidate.
In 1987, after the electoral system had contrived a play a cruel trick on the SDP-Liberal Alliance, David Owen resigned the leadership of the SDP. In a move that surprised many, Bob stood for the vacant leadership. He often told me what a difficult time it was for him personally, but it was clear to me what his thinking was: he wanted to explore potential new constitutional arrangements in such a way that keep the Owenites on board. His leadership of the party, and his co-leadership of the new Social and Liberal Democrats, might have come at a fraught time but there can be little doubt that the new merged party he bequeathed us proved to be greater than the sum of its parts. His legacy was a professionalised party, a federal party, and a base on which future electoral successes would be built. The high point, in 2005, of 62 seats – under the leadership of Charles Kennedy, a close friend of Bob’s – would simply not have happened without the foundation Bob gave the Liberal Democrats.
In later years Bob put his incredibly meticulous mind to work in the House of Lords, especially in relation to constitutional and Scottish matters. He usually had something to say on reform of the House of Lords (his views on which he allowed me to publish on this blog in 2011) and generally saw himself as a "turkey who wants to vote for Christmas".
I recall, in January 2013, I was with Bob when the BBC news reported that David Cameron proposed an in-out referendum on the EU should his party win a majority at the next election. I had never seen Bob so angry. “Does Cameron even realise what he is doing?” he said. “Does he realise the damage this will do, the sheer stupidity of it...?” Bob was the kind of man whose instincts were generally correct, and he knew exactly what the legacy of Mr Cameron would be. He was the kind of politician – a rare kind – who considers in detail the potential ramifications of an action prior to undertaking it.
I first met Bob in 2009, when I was working on a History of the Liberal Democrats (and its Predecessor Parties). After a couple of years’ work unfortunately the realities of life as a parent intervened and I have never been able to add to the 200 or so pages I had written up to that point, not least as political events overtook me. However, in the course of my work I came to realise that while other leaders, such as David Owen and David Steel, had largely been their own historians (and been rather kind to themselves in the process) Bob had not done this and seemed to be something of a “forgotten man”. I hoped I would be able, through my own writing, to rescue Bob from this misfortune – and certainly from the unfair criticisms of others. Bob was so much more than “the grey man” of Spitting Image infamy, the “unbelievably bad public speaker” of Tony Blair’s assessment or the man whose leadership caused such “embarrassment” to David Owen. I felt Liberal Democrats owe Bob a debt of gratitude; indeed, I still do.
Those who, like Owen, question the strength of his leadership should take a look at Bob’s principled and outspoken opposition to Section 28 of the Education Act 1988. All these years later it still makes me proud to consider the man who made those arguments, against the backdrop of such hostility and prejudice, a personal friend. He was a champion of LGBT+ rights a long time before it was politically expedient to be.
Bob was also far more of a radical than many believed - certainly at the time of the merger negotiations many liberals underestimated his own philosophically liberal inclinations. He never ceased to identify as a Social Democrat, but his views on a range of issues from the environment to the monarchy and from social justice to education showed not only the assiduous mind for which we was renowned, but also radically progressive instincts.
Bob encouraged me to be actively involved in politics, casting aside my objections that I was “too emotional a person” for political life. He wouldn’t hear any of it. Bob enjoyed encouraging and developing emerging talent – and often talked about his own role in “discovering” Charles Kennedy and ensuring he was the candidate for Ross, Cromarty and Skye in 1983. That he’d consider me to have similar potential was, for me, an incredible stamp of approval (the electorate has, unfortunately, consistently disagreed with him so far).
From our interviews understandings developed and a personal friendship grew. Myself and my partner spent time at Bob’s house in Caithness, and Bob became the godfather to little Xanthe when she arrived in 2012. Most of my memories of Bob have absolutely nothing to do with politics, and everything to do with the most generous and humble person I’ve ever had the fortune to know.
Put simply, we were kindred spirits. In addition to having similar political perspectives, we had shared tastes in art and music - although his tended to be somewhat better developed than mine. Unknown to many, he wrote operas and poetry and was also a fine musician. He was an infinitely better violinist than I. He was a patron of Caithness Glass and North Lands Creative, a contemporary glass studio in Lybster. While staying with Bob in Caithness in 2011, Bob was invited to an event at Keiss Castle at which the Lord Lieutenant and various other notables were present. Of course, he insisted I come along too in spite of not being invited – and somehow, naturally at Bob’s insistence, “Andrew from Islay” ended up singing various traditional Scottish songs (including the Lewis Bridal Song but I can’t recall what else) to these distinguished guests, accompanied by one of the finest ceilidh bands in Scotland. That was typical Bob – excluding no-one, and always encouraging people to use their gifts for others’ enjoyment.
I know Bob had been ill for a while, but all the same his passing has come as a shock and is deeply upsetting. Bob wasn’t simply a former political leader, but a caring, honest, principled, wonderfully kind and intellectually brilliant man who loved life – and helped others do the same.
Goodbye Bob, I already miss you.