In Full: David Steel’s eulogy for Lord George Mackie

Lord George MackieWe are grateful to David Steel for sending us his eulogy to Lord George Mackie who died at the age of 95 last week. 

One of the noticeable traits of George Mackie was his reluctance to talk about his wartime exploits in Bomber Command.  We of a younger generation wanted to hear more of the events which led to his remarkable survival and the awards of the DSO and DFC, but the tales had to be coaxed out of him. He was never boastful.

It is a huge privilege to be asked to speak here about his role in politics – for me it is a small labour of love, because I owe my entire political career to him.  In 1962 when I had just graduated in law but had no intention of becoming a lawyer he offered me a one year post as assistant secretary of the Scottish Liberal Party at the princely salary of £895.  Because Alec Douglas-Home as new PM delayed the election it turned out to be two years during which I was heavily involved in several by-election campaigns and in fund-raising.

I had already been adopted as prospective candidate for Edinburgh Pentlands where our only realistic prospect was to save my deposit.

But the candidate in the Borders had resigned and this was a seat where Liberals had never been lower than in second place and had indeed won the somewhat changed seat in 1950. George himself had secured a notable second place in South Angus at the previous election, and Squadron-leader Arthur Purdom whom he had appointed as Secretary of the Party famously observed that “what this Party needs is a few less brilliant seconds and  a few more mediocre firsts”.

George later wrote as follows in an article for Liberal News:

A large crop of university students, inspired by Jo Grimond, had joined the party and my job was to make proper use of them. One of the young striplings was David Steel and another slightly older Russell Johnston.  Needless to say they were a damned nuisance at conferences, producing masses of resolutions of doubtful value…..

I had frightful trouble with the Borders – they were extremely arrogant about candidates. Their specifications fitted only God or Jo Grimond.  After turning good people down they were determined to have David Steel who was already in Pentlands, so I entered into negotiations with that constituency association and they eventually said no. So we simply removed David to the Borders and pacified Pentlands by having the Party Executive pass a vote of censure on Mackie for his authoritarian conduct.

George was as vice-chairman in charge of organisation and later chairman of the Party – the organising genius behind the Scottish Party’s revival working closely with Jo Grimond and John Bannerman, both of whom were charismatic figures but both had limited interest in the mechanics of building the Party.  He organised a research post in the Party for Russell Johnston enabling him also to be a full-time candidate in Inverness, and so in 1964 we swept to victory in the three highland seats to be followed six months later by my by-election in the Borders.  George led from the front by winning Caithness and Sutherland.

He was already an acknowledged authority on agriculture, not just in practice but on which he had published a policy pamphlet. Members enjoyed his gentle sparring with his brother John who was one of Prime Minister Wilson’s agriculture ministers.  George was also later in the Lords deeply involved in the details of the Scottish devolution proposals during the Callaghan government which he nevertheless described rightly as wholly inadequate.

He was not always gently tolerant.  I was with him at a by-election when he took our rather shy and diffident candidate round the farmers’ mart, after which as we were walking back to the by-election office the candidate was unwise enough to ask “Mr Mackie, was the speech I gave last night all right?”

A by now quite exasperated George turned to him and said “the content was fine but when you are speaking I do wish you would not hop from one foot to the other as though you had just shat your breeks”. The man’s confidence was not enhanced and he went on to lose his deposit.

On another occasion he thought that three young candidates, Steel, Johnston and in Argyll John Mackay needed tuition in agriculture and he invited us to spend a day on his farm at Benshie, after which he reported to the Executive: “Steel and Johnston were hopeless: Mackay was quite good.”  John Mackay went on to become an able Conservative minister in the Scottish Office.

Despite that justified adverse opinion he remained a most loyal personal supporter, and when I was fighting John Pardoe in the first ever democratic contest for political party leadership in Britain he wrote in his memoirs:

John Pardoe made the mistake of alleging that because he was a bit of a bastard that made him suitable for taking the party through the difficult period ahead.  We had lots of fun and I wrote a ditty about it:

Pardoe’s crude –but he will fight

Scattering shot to left and right.

Must we – to gather votes in season

Abandon now the use of reason?

Perhaps young Steel can break the deadlock

Although, alas, he’s born in wedlock!

That was typical of the many entertaining ditties he wrote, and an example of the wit with which he always laced his speeches, which made him such a popular member of both the Commons and the Lords.

Indeed one story which he told about failing to get off the night sleeper at Carlisle was so funny that his colleagues always insisted that he repeated it at every dinner at which he was speaking.

George was also fortunate in the wholehearted support of his two successful marriages, first of Lindsay in fundraising and campaigning in the north, and then of Jacqui in his role in the Assembly of the Council of Europe and the Inter-Parliamentary Union.  Judy and I will always be grateful for the help he gave her campaigning during general elections in my constituency when I was busy touring the country as party leader.

Last year on my way back from speaking at a dinner for Malcolm Bruce in Aberdeenshire I called in to visit George.  On leaving he came out of the cottage on two sticks to see me into my car, and I think we both knew that would be our last farewell.

A colleague has written to me saying it is the end of an era – “I shall miss his wise counsel and enthusiasm for life”.  To conclude I can do no better than quote two sentences from the many extensive newspaper obituaries last week:

George Mackie was a Liberal of the old school, whose values of public service and fairness stemmed from his family’s sense of responsibility towards the land they farmed and the people who worked for them. He was a big man who exuded geniality, good humour and a sense of duty which he retained to the end.



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