Derek Barrie dies at 77

The Lib Dems lost a much loved friend, mentor, agent and campaigner yesterday.  Derek Barrie gave six decades of service to this party and the Liberals before it. What he didn’t know about campaigning simply wasn’t worth knowing. As recently as the 2019 election, the advice that he gave was a valuable part of Wendy Chamberlain’s election as MP for North East Fife.

He had become increasingly frail in recent years, but he died quite suddenly having been admitted to hospital last weekend.

He was a brilliant friend to me and we worked so well together back in the early 2000s when I was Scottish Campaigns and Candidates Convener and he was the Party’s Chief of Staff. Together with then MSP Iain Smith, we ran the ground campaign in the 2005 election and jokingly took all the credit for our party’s best General Election performance which saw us gain Danny Alexander and Jo Swinson as MPs.

Later that year, he and I ran the Livingston by-election campaign after Robin Cook died, maintaining our vote with candidate Charles Dundas and stopping the SNP from gaining the sort of momentum that might have given them the Dunfermline by-election.

For years our Campaigns and Candidates meetings would start in the Haymarket Bar across the road from Scottish Lib Dem HQ with dinner and usually some wine before we went back across the road to do the business.

There are not very many people I would let introduce me as the Wicked Witch of West Lothian, though I replied that he should never forget that I could turn him into a toad at any moment. To me, he was Grumps.  When we adapted the English candidate approval system for Scotland in 2002, we had to get a lot of people approved very quickly. This we did over many weekends with a wonderful team of assessors and facilitators. Obviously it was all very professional, but we had a huge amount of fun with the role playing exercises. Derek, John Lawrie and George Grubb often had Rae Grant and I in tears of laughter. There was one notorious time when Rae was laughing so much she had to leave the room.

But all this was pretty late in Derek’s career. He started out as the candidate for East Fife in the 1966 General Election. I think this was the one where he didn’t have a phone in his house and would call his agent from a phone box at pre-arranged times. He came fourth  back then, but in the 70s, a determined group of campaigners, led by Derek, decided they were going to win the seat. It took more than a decade of slog, but they did it when Menzies Campbell was elected at the third attempt, having gained 10% in 1979 and 14% in 1983. They turned the local party into a formidable campaigning machine and it has gone from strength to strength.

Derek was the first Liberal Councillor elected in North East Fife in 1977 and went on to lead the Council.

After he retired from paid party work in 2009 we used to meet up at Conferences and for long lunches where we would reminisce and put the world to rights.

He remained an active part of North East Fife’s campaigning machine, though, and served for several years as clerk to the Scottish Executive where he continued to be a fount of wisdom. He was secretary of ASLDC until a couple of years ago and had become the organisation’s Honorary President.

Derek had been married to Lesley for more than 50 years. They were such a team and he so appreciated her sacrifices for the Lib Dem cause. My husband said this morning that Derek never forgot the campaign widows and widowers who held the fort while their other halves were out working for the party from dawn till well after dusk. Our love and thoughts are with Lesley now.

These are just a few random thoughts and memories from over 20 years of working with Derek. I’m sure many of you will have your own, so please add them in the comments.

On Facebook, people have been paying tribute and their words are repeated here with their permission.

Sheila Ritchie, Scottish Party Convener

Derek has been friend, mentor, campaigner, rock. It was typical of him that, on hearing I was to be Convenor, he summoned me- there is no other way of expressing it- and gave me my orders.

I cannot tell you how much I will miss his wisdom and counsel, but much more, his fellowship and humour.

North East Fife 2019 campaign manager Kevin Lang

Very sad. I learned so much from this man when it comes to campaigning (don’t forget, it’s all about PIG)
I ran a committee room from his house in North East Fife at the 2019 General Election. Even then, and looking frail, he was so engaged and excited about the election and the prospect of winning the seat back.

Wendy Chamberlain MP

I was very sad to hear this news yesterday. It is lovely to read all the memories from years past being shared here. From the moment I was selected to contest NEF he was keen to engage, share his knowledge, and guide. He and Lesley’s support during the 2019 campaign were much appreciated by us all. Proud to have taken the seat back. Love to Lesley at this difficult time.

Christine Jardine MP

One of the most reassuring sentences to hear over the years that I learned about campaigning was “I did this with Derek Barrie.”

Alistair Carmichael MP

In all the years that I knew him I cannot remember any occasion when Derek Barrie, having been asked for help or advice, did not give it. In particular I remember him driving up to Aberdeenshire and coming with me to a local party meeting to persuade the activists that if we picked a ward and worked it that we could win it. We followed his advice and, two years later, we defeated the then group leader in Banff and Buchan District Council.
Generous with his time and sage in his advice – someone who knew what it meant to be a liberal and who committed to it heart and soul. Scottish Conference will never be the same.

Former NE Fife activist Keith Legg

I’ve known Derek since I was about 7 or 8 – so many memories. Whether it was taking control of NE Fife District Council in 1984 (which Derek led), winning the NE Fife parliamentary seat in 1987 in that cramped flat which was our temporary office in Cupar, or in Clifton Terrace in the early 1990s – Derek was a key part of that. I wasn’t surprised when Mum told me that he was part of Wendy Anne’s successful campaign in 2019 too.
Even though he gave them up years ago, almost all of my memories of Derek still have him smoking a cigar. We were living in London when he stopped, and didn’t see him for a couple of years, and it was always strange seeing him without one!

He’ll be missed by all of us in NE Fife – my thoughts are with Lesley just now.

Paul McGarry, Central Scotland candidate and Scottish Conference Convener

So sad, a wonderful person who served the party so well. I remember meeting him and the support he gave me on my first few attempts to join the exec where I joined mid-term was incredible. He would go over the notes and explain what some of the ongoing issues were, and any historical background.

We was tremendous and one of the few people who could keep the then Convener in line.

Goodbye, Grumps. Love from the Wicked Witch of West Lothian.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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8 Comments

  • So very sad to hear this. Derek was one of my favourite people in the party. I worked with him at Scottish party HQ in the 1990s, and though the jobs I did were research and then press, my interest was always in campaigning so I think he saw me as a sort of protege. I certainly learned a lot from him. For Derek, it was always first and foremost about the party and about campaigning. Anything that got in the way of that irritated him.
    The tributes above are all true, but he had a temper. He generally got on well with everybody but when on occasion he didn’t, they didn’t have to guess it! He loathed the SNP, and Alex Salmond in particular. I think he viewed their rise in recent years with some bafflement.
    In recent years we’ve met occasionally to have a Chinese meal and put the party to rights. The last few times we met it was clear he was getting increasingly frail. But he still had the sharpness, the humour, the love of gossip and the abiding commitment to the party.
    Like Keith, I still find it hard to picture him without the cigar. And that’s how I will remember him, from those great days in the late ’90s in Clifton Terrace. Sitting in his little corner, puffing away as he typed out (very loudly) yet another report to C&C committee. Or cursing at the photocopier – which always seemed to work fine for everyone else but broke down when he was using it.
    Lesley was the perfect partner for him – and he knew that. I stayed at their house once and it was just lovely to see them together in their own home. My thoughts are with her now of course. And the party has lost one of its true heroes.

  • Moyra Forrest 25th Feb '21 - 10:05pm

    Council election successes in Scotland owed much to Derek Barrie over many years – I’m but one of those who benefitted from his support and wisdom. A master tactician, he never forgot that our goal in winning was to serve our communities. And he served his well, making a massive contribution also to the St. Andrews Preservation Trust where it was a joy to meet Lesley and him in more recent years.
    [City of Edinburgh councillor, 1990-2003]

  • I worked with Derek in the 90s and those years were some of the best of my life. I don’t do Facebook these days so I’m posting my thoughts here.

    The nickname “Grumps” isn’t one I recall but I heartily endorse it. I recall him dismissing the then-new World Wide Web as “Just like Teletext then” when I showed off the nascent Scottish Lib Dems site in Clifton Terrace. But that grumpiness was rooted in practicality: at that stage, the Internet couldn’t help him win elections so he wasn’t interested. Later on he was to embrace CiX and other aspects of the new technology to gain even a small advantage.

    I was lucky enough to work with him, Iain Smith and others in the Monklands East and Perth & Kinross by-elections, and he was always an oasis of stability in a desert of chaos. I’ll never forget the latter election, where Derek sat patiently adding up the returns from tellers at the count. At one point he announced “Okay boys, I’ve got some more figures for you.” and the entire press corps scampered over to him like schoolkids after sweets. I didn’t see the coverage but I still smile when I think how these reporters must have appeared on TV seconds later, quoting Derek’s results as a “source”. They knew the value of an announcement from Derek Barrie. We all knew it.

    The Richmond Formula – do you still use that? – was famous across the Lib Dem Campaign Dept but in Scotland we used The Derek Barrie formula, which took into account a fourth party and tweaked other parameters to fit the situation better. I hope it’s still called that.

    I only met Lesley a few times and the transformation that Derek would undergo when they were together was remarkable. From someone devoted 100% to campaigning he became someone 100% devoted to his wife. My thoughts are with her.

    There’s another hundred stories I could tell; another hundred moments to treasure; another hundred ways Derek helped someone. Some of them won’t ever be told outside a group of people who knew Derek and campaigned with him. But those can wait. For now, let’s all raise a glass and toast a great campaigner, a great man and a great friend.

  • Erlend Watson 26th Feb '21 - 1:22am

    Derek was good in the best scenarios but could also make lemonade if he was dealt lemons. Rob Herbert quotes Perth and Kinross and also Monklands East. In the former he made use of our local strength in parts of the seat to keep us from being mulled and indeed to make gains in the local elections leading up.

    In Monklands East without those advantages he managed the expectations so that when we got 2.6% it was seen as a success. As we came 3rd ahead of the Tories. Part of getting that was that a large number of Scottish Lib Dem activists trusted his judgement not to waste their efforts. So he could get people to come to an Airdie warehouse and help meet those limited objectives.

    It is a while since I saw Derek but I am sad that I will never be able to consult Dr Barries great campaigning brain in the future.

  • Rob – that Derek Barrie formula was legendary. I think it was the 1992 election where Derek and Iain knew that we’d retained NE Fife within about 30 minutes – 1 hour after the count began, while the Tories skipped in thinking they’d won.

  • Ronald Murray 26th Feb '21 - 10:48am

    Not seen Derek for a few years now since about 1999 when I gave up being West Lothian Secretary and worked in the Falklands for a few years. Condolences to his famaily and many friends. He was the ultimate tireless campaigner for our cause.

  • Tony Greaves 28th Feb '21 - 8:05pm

    I am so sorry to hear this news. Only recently Derek and I were exchanging friendly banter somewhere on the internet on the lines of “Well we are both still around”…oh dear. Derek was a very important person in the old ALC days some 40 years ago, spreading the local campaigning message to so many parts of Scotland.

  • Only just picked this up. Sad to hear of Derek’s passing. I first met him in the run up to the 2005 election when I was persuaded to stand for election in the Western Isles. Warm and welcoming and so supportive as I ‘learned the ropes’ his advice and encouragement stood me in good stead throughout my campaigning career. It was always a pleasure to catch up at conferences. He will be sadly missed.

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