James Davidson – a Liberal MP in Scotland who should not be forgotten

The Times has carried an obituary for a former Liberal MP for Aberdeenshire West. You can be forgiven for not having heard of him because he served as MP from 1966-70 and he died at the age of 90.

But having read his story I really wish I had known him. Here are some extracts:

A British naval attaché was on a 1,100-mile train journey from Murmansk to Moscow in the early 1950s when he got talking to a young captain of artillery in his carriage. “We had lunch together and he asked if I would like to bring a girl from the embassy to come to have dinner with him and his fiancée,” recalled James Davidson. “Then, 48 hours before I was due to go, the phone rang and it was him. He just said, ‘This is Sergei. I am afraid we cannot meet you. I am sure you understand.’ And he hung up and that was the end of that.”

On another occasion Davidson and a colleague went for a walk in the forest and were stopped by soldiers armed with Kalashnikovs who tried to make them sign a confession that they had deliberately gone into a forbidden area. “But that was not true, there were no signs,” he protested.

More than a decade later, and back in Britain, Davidson discovered that the Russians had not forgotten their suspicions. Now serving as a Liberal MP, he was proposed as a member of a parliamentary Anglo-Russian friendship society, but the Soviets refused to accept him.

He had joined the Navy, studied Russian at University and been posted to Moscow as a Russian interpreter, where he claimed to have seen Stalin both alive and dead.

Leaving the Navy in 1956, he turned his attention to a recently inherited family farm in Aberdeenshire, teaching himself the business through a correspondence course and serving on the area executive of the National Farmers’ Union. Meanwhile, his interest in Liberal politics was growing. The party had not thought it worth contesting Aberdeenshire West in 1959 but, after an unsuccessful run in the 1964 general election, Davidson returned two years later to topple Forbes Hendry, the sitting Conservative, by a majority of less than 1,200.

In the Commons, he campaigned tirelessly for reform to “feu duties, multures and long leases” in Scotland, was an energetic foreign affairs spokesman for the party and at one point was spoken of as a successor to Jo Grimond as leader, an honour that went instead to Jeremy Thorpe.

He stood down for personal reasons and then became chief executive of the organisation that runs the Royal Highland Show in Edinburgh.

Since the 1980s, Davidson had lived in Newtonmore, Inverness-shire, where he was one of the founders of a community woodland group and helped to plant 22,000 trees in the area.

He didn’t stop when he retired…

Retiring in 1992, he founded the Flower of Scotland campaign to promote healthy lifestyles, setting a good example by climbing the Eiger and the Matterhorn. He also wrote Scots and the Sea (2003), about the nation’s naval history, and Thinker, Sailor, Shepherd, Spy? (2009), a gripping memoir of his rich and varied life. To the end he insisted that he had never been involved in espionage in Moscow. “My job while I was there was simply to observe,” he said. “I was not a spy.”

Our sympathies go to his family and friends.

* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames and is a member of Federal Conference Committee.

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  • Richard Underhill 27th Jul '17 - 2:08pm

    The OED says that multures are “toll of grain or flour paid to miller”.

  • In my Newcastle University days James Davidson was my one success in attempts to “get a Scottish Lib Dem MP to break his journey home and talk to Newcastle University Liberals.” That James was willing to do this was a mark of his generosity of spirit. He was a soft-spoken, courteous politician of no mean intellect and those of us who heard him that night were inspired to look out for any meagre references to his speeches in the newspapers or even to look him up in Hansard.

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