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House of Lords

Monday, 26th February 2001.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Lichfield.

Tributes to the Late Chairman of Committees

The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington): My Lords, this has been a very sad week for the House because it has lost two of its most prominent and distinguished Members, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos and Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish. Both were admired on all sides of the House for their political success and had warm friends in every part of the House, and it is fitting that we pay tribute to them this afternoon.

Last Wednesday when we heard of the sudden and untimely death of Lord Mackay there was palpable shock and deep distress among both Peers and members of staff alike. Only the evening before several of us had enjoyed his companionable charm at a reception to honour his appointment as Chairman of Committees. I myself had listened to wonderful stories about his fishing companions and fishing holiday plans told with his usual energetic zest and twinkle, so the next morning's news was particularly unbearable. It is a matter of huge regret that he did not have longer in the role as Chairman of Committees. I feel sure that he would have used his skills in that post to the lasting benefit of the House.

The list of John Mackay's political achievements is impressive. He was a Member of another place from 1979 until 1987, and for much of that time he sat on the Front Bench as a Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in the Scottish Office. When he came to this House in 1991 he was first Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in the Department of Transport and then Minister of State in the Department of Social Security. In opposition after 1997 he was made Deputy Leader and became a key member of the usual channels. While in that role he was voted Peer of the Year in 1998--an honour by which he appeared to be both pleased and amused.

But he will be remembered as much for the characteristics that he brought to office as for the offices he held. We shall all remember his precise and rigorous mind, which was combined, often to devastating effect, with his concise and articulate delivery. He was a master of the Dispatch Box. Many of us on these Benches were enticed to dance nearer and nearer only to fall into traps that he had set when we had committed ourselves beyond recall. I remember Lord Mackay's glee when during the passage of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill in the previous Session he uncovered a problem whereby the Bill would have required the

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leader of a party, which in our case would be the Prime Minister, personally to agree and sign a document every time a constituency treasurer was appointed in a local party. The Government gave in very quickly with as much grace as they could muster and amended the Bill.

As one of my ministerial colleagues said in the past few days, as a parliamentary debater Lord Mackay could make one smile and look foolish at the same time. Such episodes were meat and drink to him. He had an impish delight in what could be called mischief-making which very much belied the seriousness of the principles and issues which lay beneath his triumphs.

Lord Mackay's political life and broad friendships were based in Scotland, not least among the group of bright political stars who emerged from the University of Glasgow some 40 years ago. Last October at a similarly sad occasion John found himself paying tribute to Donald Dewar, one of those good friends from college days. He singled out decency as Donald's defining characteristic and went on to say:


    "Donald enjoyed himself, and we enjoyed having him".--[Official Report, 11/10/00; col. 323.]

Perhaps those are the most fitting words of tribute to John Mackay himself. He was decent; he certainly enjoyed himself, and we enjoyed having him.

I know that the whole House will join me in sending our deepest sympathy and condolences to John's widow Sheena and to his whole family.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I echo the sentiments of the Leader of the House, particularly on this most sad day when we announce the death of two Members of the House. John Mackay was one of my friends. Although I in particular shall miss his friendship, wisdom and the practical way that he dealt with political problems, I know that his loss will be felt greatly throughout the House and beyond, especially in Scotland where so much of his attention was focused.

On behalf of the Opposition I join the noble Baroness in offering our deepest condolences to his wife Sheena and to the rest of his family. However terrible and shocking to us the suddenness of his death, it has been a devastating few days for his family. I know how touched and strengthened they will be by the tone of the tributes that have already been expressed. John Mackay was above all a family man who never lost an opportunity to bring his children and grandchildren into debates. Few who heard him will forget how he used what he described as his Italian grandchildren to explain the discrimination against English students at Scottish universities, nor how his daughter who lived in Italy would be able to vote in the referendum in Scotland while his children who lived in England would not.

John Mackay was one of that breed of politicians who by the way they act give politics and politicians a good name. He had an approach to politics which was, when necessary, highly combative and forensic but was put into effect without ever losing the respect for and of his political opponents. He always acted

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professionally and was guided by the highest motives to do what he believed to be right. In the pursuit of his objectives his style was never to hector and bully but to persuade and argue the case rationally. That made him an immensely effective Member in your Lordships' House and, before that, in another place.

The transition from elected politician to this House is not always an easy one, but John made it with great skill and tact. While he never forgot his links and contact with Members of the House of Commons--friends who often inhabited other Benches--he became a House of Lords man, understanding the delicate balances and the nature of this place.

Although his career was distinguished in another place, it was cut short by his losing his seat. So he joined this House in 1991 where he made a very effective Minister of State at the Department of Social Security, a post which at that time in this House was a real burden. But it was in Opposition that he made such a lasting and deep impression. His interventions from this Dispatch Box were always carefully thought through and designed to have the maximum impact.

That is why last summer I was so surprised when he approached me to indicate that he was interested in taking on the role of Chairman of Committees. Only after a great deal of thought and consideration did he decide to allow his name to go forward, reasoning that at his age he wanted enough vigour and energy to do his final job well. That was a great loss to these Benches. But, whatever our loss, it would be an immense benefit to the House as a whole at a time of transition. I believe that in the short time he was Chairman of Committees he demonstrated convincingly what an excellent job he would have done for this House over the next few years.

Of course, politics was not his only love. Fishing for salmon in Scotland was something he enjoyed even more than being here in this House. That, combined with his love and knowledge of Scotland, gave him so much to live for.

My purpose today is not to sum up all the aspects of Lord Mackay's life, but to pay tribute to and offer reflections on a man I held in the highest esteem and with the greatest affection. All of us in this House feel his loss, but perhaps the most fitting and appropriate tribute is that this loss is felt so widely across the House and transcends all the normal political boundaries. His was a life of public duty and public service. It will be a long time before we see one like him again.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank: My Lords, these Benches would wish to be associated with all that has been said already about John Mackay. It was with a shock close to disbelief that those of us who were here on Wednesday heard first of his illness and then of his death. It was apparent then that it was not only a great loss to the House, but there seemed to be a peculiar unfairness that he should be carried away within 12 hours of the party to celebrate his becoming Chairman of Committees.

John Mackay was a Liberal candidate in 1964. Indeed, he helped to get David Steel elected in the by-election in 1965. But I did not meet him until he arrived

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in the House of Commons in 1979. I still remember his maiden speech, made on the second day of the Debate on the Address, mainly for his passion for--what I later learned to be enduring concerns of his--Argyll, very appropriate in so far as it was his constituency, but also salmon fishing, to which reference has already been made. After that, although I detected that he was a considerable political operator, I did not see him until I met him in this House.

I should like to confirm, because it is the experience of all of us, the very unusual qualities that he brought to debates. He was one of those who enjoyed debate for its own sake, irrespective of the substance. That is not to devalue the arguments and the principles behind him. He was didactic, but that was only, or mainly, to provoke; again a common characteristic of a debater. Then, as others have said, he never took himself too seriously, which many of us too often do.

He was making the difficult transition, as it seemed to many of us to be, from being a very effective Front Bench spokesman to Chairman of Committees. But he had already demonstrated, I think most effectively, that he would be, as he should be, neutral in the chair. We shall all remember him and miss him greatly.


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