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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Meeting of the Parliament 20 December 2016

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Motion of Condolence, Presiding Officer’s Statement, Topical Question Time, Scotland’s Place in Europe, Improving the Care Experience for Looked-after Children, Higher Education and Research Bill, Business Motion, Decision Time, Tackling Mesothelioma


Motion of Condolence

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

It is now my sad duty to introduce a motion of condolence on the death of our parliamentary colleague, Alex Johnstone MSP.

I thank Alex’s wife Linda, their two children, Alexander and Christine, and Christine’s husband, Wattie, for joining us in the gallery today. Earlier this afternoon, I passed to Linda and her family the book of condolence that has been signed by friends, members and staff here at the Parliament. I hope that, in the weeks, months and years to come, you will take some comfort from the kind words that so many had to say about Alex. He was one of the original class of ’99 and he did so much to help to establish the Parliament at the centre of Scottish political life.

For me, and I suspect for many who knew him, it is not his political legacy nor his public service that will be at the front of our minds today so much as his warmth, his humanity and his friendliness. Alex was one of the most big-hearted and engaging of colleagues I had the pleasure to work with. Even when fellow MSPs disagreed with him, no one could ever dislike him.

Across the political divide, we are united in our sense of loss and we share the grief that is felt so acutely by those he loved and who will so miss him.


Ruth Davidson (Edinburgh Central) (Con)

I thank you, Presiding Officer, and so many members from all sides of the chamber for attending Alex’s funeral last week. As I said at the service, Alex expressly instructed that he be buried on a Friday, so that the Scottish National Party could not win any votes while the Tories were away.

Alex was a big man. He was big-hearted, he had a big personality and he had a big set of lungs on him when he wanted to be heard in here. He was the last of our class of 1999, and that ever-presence and his heft made him seem impregnable, solid, vital—which is why his short illness and death at the age of just 55 is so shocking. We have been robbed of a good man far, far too early.

Alex learned his public speaking in the Young Farmers, long before he came to Parliament. He would walk into this chamber with two or three lines written on a scrap of paper and stand up and deliver a whole speech without pause. Nothing blew him off course; no blows landed. He would go out to bat for us on any subject, stand his ground, speak with humour and clash with anyone—but buy them a drink afterwards.

I do not know anyone who did not like Alex. It was impossible not to like him. Even if you stood against everything that he stood for, his warmth, his decency and his sense of fun made him superb company. My favourite description of him after his death came from a Labour blogger, who said that he could disagree with Alex but could never find him disagreeable.

As much as Alex loved his politics and being an MSP, Holyrood was not where his heart lay. He was a Mearns boy, and his priorities from first to last were his family, his community and his faith. We welcome Alex’s wife, Linda, to the public gallery, with his son, Alexander, his daughter, Christine, and his son-in-law, Wattie, and we offer our condolences to them and to Alex’s mother, six grandsons and wider family. We have lost a friend, a colleague and an opponent; they have lost their world.

Because, in truth, Linda was more Alex than Alex was himself. They were a single, indivisible unit and had been for 40 years, ever since their introduction, at the age of 15, at the Drumlithie village hall disco. When Alex was first elected, it was Linda, along with son, Alexander, who took over the dairy farm. I do not like to cast aspersions, but I think that it is no coincidence that it took Alex leaving and Linda taking charge for the farm to win best Ayrshire herd in Scotland in 1999.

Once he was here, Alex set about his business like the workhorse that he was. Cheerily nicknaming himself the spokesperson for late nights and early mornings, he was always prepared to do the shifts that others would not do, because the party needed representing and that was the right thing to do.

But it was not all duty. AJ’s sense of fun meant that he loved concocting stunts with his trusty sidekick, Jim Millar. From rehabilitating King Macbeth from the scurrilous slurs of Shakespeare—with one particular bard aficionado dealing out a death threat in the process—to dressing up as knights in full armour in a bid to win UNESCO world heritage status for Arbroath abbey, there was nothing that those two would not do to make a headline. Sometimes they even made headlines without meaning to. One night when the pair of them were in the pub, someone pulled a knife. They chased him down the street and disarmed him. The Sun ran it full page with a moody picture and the headline “Terror, Pair at Boozer”, which Alex promptly framed and hung on his wall for the next 10 years.

Alex was good for another kind of headline, too. If a journalist needed a quote to elevate a story from being halfway in to being the splash, Alex was your man. He would always take the call, and he would always have something to say, irrespective of the subject. In part, that was because of his breadth of knowledge. He was interested in everything. He had a love of gadgets and technology, and an appreciation of history, built heritage and travel. He was often victorious with his regular pub quiz team in Stonehaven, and he read as if books were suddenly endangered.

That is the thing about Alex. Lots of people thought first and foremost of his stature—which he would happily use to his advantage, whether it was when anchoring the multi-award-winning and still-undefeated Conservative Holyrood tug-of-war team, sitting one seat behind me and to my left to act as a physical and vocal barrier against Alex Salmond at First Minister’s question time when I first became leader, or accompanying me to a meeting with a well-known political protester and disrupter. We held the meeting in the tiniest room that we could find in Parliament, so that Alex was practically sitting on the protester’s knee—and, as it turned out, the protester was as good as gold.

However, Alex had so much more to him than his bluff exterior. He studied, he encouraged younger colleagues, he cared. His stunts and campaigns were not one-offs; he carried them through. He did not send a press release and forget; he built friendships over years and sometimes decades. Action on knife crime, veterans’ housing, Scottish-Japanese relations, Arbroath, its abbey and the declaration, farming and his beloved north-east—all those things he championed again and again, year after year, making contacts, helping out and finding new branches, with one thing leading to another and another. It was not enough for him to be the only MSP to have spoken Japanese in the chamber; he continued his work on links between the north-east and Japan, earning himself the consul general of Japan’s certificate of commendation.

Before his death, Alex had taken it upon himself to do a further strand of work with the forces community, tackling the Walter Mittys who wore medals that they had not earned. Alex saw it as a grave affront to those who had served and sacrificed—a way of cheating and devaluing the achievements of folk who had put in a proper shift. It went against his natural sense of justice and fair play. That was Alex all over: a man who never sought recognition for the work that he did but who would fight tooth and nail for the work of others to be properly recognised.

He was a big man in every sense and a friend to all. I take pride in moving the motion in my name. I move,

That the Parliament expresses its deep regret and sadness at the untimely death of Alex Johnstone MSP; offers its sympathy and condolences to his family and friends; recognises the high esteem in which he was held by colleagues from all parties, and appreciates his contribution as a principled public servant dedicated to the people of the north east. [Applause.]


The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

On behalf of the Scottish National Party and the Scottish Government, I join in supporting Ruth Davidson’s motion.

In our day-to-day exchanges inside and outside the Parliament, we might not always live up to this, but there is no doubt that politics at its best should be characterised by respectful disagreement—the ability to make our case forcefully and well while always recognising the integrity and good intentions of our opponents. Alex Johnstone exemplified that quality. That is one of the reasons why he was so widely liked and why his passing has been so widely mourned across the chamber and far beyond it. He was a good politician and an excellent MSP. Much more important than that, he was a thoroughly good person. Our condolences go to Linda, Alex’s children, his wider family, his staff and his many friends.

Like me and a reducing number of members, Alex was one of the MSPs who were elected to the first Parliament, in 1999. He made an extraordinary contribution to the Parliament during all the years for which he was a member of it. First and foremost, that contribution was made in the chamber, but it was also made much more widely, in a remarkably wide range of roles. As Ruth Davidson just mentioned, for many years Alex was at the heart of the annual tug-of-war contest—a natural and largely unbeatable choice for the Conservative team. Many people in my party speak fondly of him in his role as the vice-convener of the parliamentary Burns supper club, where his undoubted talents as a master of ceremonies were on full display.

In the Parliament, he argued his view robustly, and he always did so from a deep well of knowledge and learning. He brought passion to every subject that he addressed in the chamber. He also always brought good grace and good humour and, often, a welcome sense of perspective. I was on the receiving end of Alex’s quick wit in the chamber on more occasions than I care to remember. Indeed, in the previous session of Parliament—in the days when the Conservatives sat on the other side of the chamber from where they sit now—I would frequently, during First Minister’s question time, catch out of the corner of my eye Alex gesticulating wildly at me as I made some important point. I always assumed that that was deliberate, and it was usually a highly successful attempt to throw me completely off my stride.

When Alex made his maiden speech in June 1999, he began by saying:

“I come from the farming community of the north-east, where I was born and where I live to this day.”—[Official Report, 16 June 1999; c 474.]

For every day of the next 17 years, it is fair to say that none of us was ever in any doubt about his passion for his home area. Alex was a proud champion of the north-east. He served his local area passionately and effectively, and he represented all his constituents with diligence and conscientiousness.

Given his interests and background, Alex was a natural choice to be convener of the Parliament’s first Rural Affairs Committee, but he went on to serve his party and the Parliament in many other capacities, most recently as the Conservative spokesman for infrastructure, housing and transport. During the previous session, he was a member of the Welfare Reform Committee. As Ruth Davidson said, he was also a strong campaigner against knife crime over many years.

Alex Johnstone was a man of wide interests as well as high principle. In all of that, he exemplified the integrity, the dedication and the sense of public service that people expect of their elected representatives.

In many respects, the Parliament’s single biggest achievement lies not in any specific piece of legislation but in how quickly and how completely we have become the centre of Scottish public life. People expect the Parliament to address their concerns, meet their priorities and reflect their hopes and dreams. That is not due to any individual party or Government; it is an achievement that belongs to all parties. It is a consequence of the way in which individual members have represented and championed the interests of the people they serve, and Alex Johnstone is a perfect example of that. Throughout his 17 years of service here, Alex made a huge contribution to the effectiveness and the stature of the Parliament, to the wellbeing of his constituents and to Scottish public life.

Today, we mourn the loss of a good friend and a dear colleague, but we also celebrate his life and honour his achievements. We hope that Alex’s wife, his children, his family and his loved ones can find some comfort in seeing the affection and the respect with which he is remembered. [Applause.]


Kezia Dugdale (Lothian) (Lab)

On behalf of Scottish Labour, I extend my condolences to Alex Johnstone’s family and friends.

As members have heard and will hear many times today, Alex was a larger-than-life character. He was in the Scottish Parliament from the very start. He was an elder statesman with a permanent twinkle in his eye. He was one of the 1999 intake who had the task of lifting this place from the dry words of an act of Parliament to a living, breathing part of Scotland’s political landscape, and he fulfilled that task admirably. I was incredibly moved to hear Willie Rennie’s tribute when Alex passed away, in which he recalled the warmth that he brought to the chamber.

Those who were in my job before me found that they were often in Alex’s eye line during a daunting session of First Minister’s question time, but he did not try to put people off their stride or resort to faux outrage to make his point. Instead, he listened politely and intently and always cheerfully laughed along whenever a joke, or an attempt at a joke, was cracked.

Despite his vast experience as a parliamentarian, Alex never sought to belittle those who were new to the job. That was the mark of the man. When he spoke in the chamber, he often made his argument with humour rather than malice, and when he spoke in committees, he took the same approach. He was always confident and would make his argument with absolute—and sometimes brutal—clarity, using humour to great and devastating effect.

Alex sometimes found himself as the lone Conservative representative, but sitting in silence was not for him. He made sure that his views were heard, and he always looked to have a laugh with colleagues from other parties after the formalities were complete. He really was a true team player. That was never more the case than during the independence referendum campaign, when he was heavily involved with better together in the north-east. After the referendum, Alex took time out specifically to thank people in the Labour Party for their contribution and their efforts. Such kindness and generosity were the measure of the man.

Alex was passionate about not just the values that he stood for but the community that he represented. A son of the soil, he was intensely proud of the traditions and cultures of the north-east. His farming background brought a great deal of expertise to the Parliament, and the industry that he worked in before politics has much to thank him for.

The north-east has truly lost a local loon and one of its finest champions. However, Alex’s influence extended far beyond these shores. As has been mentioned, he was the convener of the cross-party group on Japan and was passionate about his work to boost the relationship between our two countries. He taught us the story of Thomas Blake Glover, a 19th century Scot who brought the first steam locomotive to Japan, introduced modern coal-mining methods and founded the first modern shipyard there, which later became Mitsubishi. In losing Alex, Holyrood has lost its very own Scottish samurai.

Alex will be missed by his colleagues here in Parliament, by his community and by those he met on the international stage, and I know that he will also be missed by his many friends in the media. As Ruth Davidson said, he was legendary for his quick—and, indeed, quick-witted—responses to requests for a quote. A slick and carefully choreographed political spin machine did not quite fit with Alex. He would say whatever he wanted to say or, indeed, whatever the journalist needed him to say.

We all knew and loved Alex as a parliamentarian, but first and foremost he was a family man. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Linda, their two children and their six grandchildren. Everyone who knew Alex remarked on the strength of his marriage and his love for Linda. I hope that the knowledge that Alex has left an indelible mark on the Parliament will give her and her family some comfort. On behalf of the Scottish Labour Party, I extend our deepest condolences this Christmas. [Applause.]


Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) (Green)

I am grateful to be able to add on behalf of the Scottish Green Party some thoughts to our debate on the motion of condolence, and to add our sincere sympathies for Linda, Alex Johnstone’s wider family and all his friends and colleagues here in Parliament and around the country.

A lot has been said already about the need to disagree in good spirit and Alex Johnstone’s ability to do that consistently. It is important not just because it makes our job more agreeable, but because on this stage that we share, we can demonstrate that Scotland is capable of disagreeing in good spirit and respectfully, which was always Alex Johnstone’s style. He and I were on different sides of a great many debates over the years, with very little chance of convincing one another outright to change our minds, but on more than a few occasions both of us left those arguments with a deeper understanding of an opposing perspective.

I want to add a few thoughts about a specific issue that we worked on together: the Climate Change (Scotland) Bill in session 3. At the beginning of that process, Alex talked about some of his concerns about target setting. They were valid and justified concerns—given that all Governments find it easier to set targets than to reach them. His emphasis on trading mechanisms might not have found agreement with all of us, but always through those early disagreements he was willing to listen, to understand and to explore what common ground existed. When members show that behaviour, they generally find that it is reciprocated.

When the then Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee organised a trip to Brussels to understand climate change policy there, I managed to make sure that no one was allowed to fly, so we all went by train—and that smile of humour that we all recognised on Alex Johnstone’s face became a smile of disbelief. He managed then to spend a good part of the journey winding me up about Eurostar’s contract for electricity from Europe’s biggest generator of nuclear power. [Laughter.]

However, by the end of that long process of trying to understand one another’s differing viewpoints, he called the day of the stage 3 debate on the bill “a great day”. He emphasised the work that he had done to speak with those who did not fully accept the climate science, and his willingness to ensure that consensus was achieved. Partly thanks to Alex, we managed to avoid the confrontation and lack of agreement that beset many countries on climate change. All five parties in Parliament did things to strengthen rather than to undermine that legislation. Alex Johnstone is due credit for that.

In the final debate on the bill, he mentioned that he had been outside with the campaigners in front of Parliament. He said:

“I managed to get myself photographed beside two people ... one was dressed as a panda and the other as an orang-utan.”—[Official Report, 24 June 2009; c 18793.]

I regret that Google images at the moment can find no copy of that picture, but I do not think that Alex would want me to leave it without its being found again. Sometimes that smile could be mischievous and sometimes, in response to some of my arguments, it could be a smile of incredulity, but most often it was a smile because he was just having fun. That is probably how I would like to remember him. [Applause.]


Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

On behalf of the Liberal Democrats, I support the motion of condolence. I shall miss Alex Johnstone for his humour, his steadfast loyalty and his generosity.

I was a frequent debating partner of his at the University of Aberdeen debater—the debating society there—alongside Kevin Stewart, Mark McDonald, Lewis Macdonald and Richard Baker. On one particular occasion when we were defending the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition, my colleague the MP Sir Robert Smith said that the country had a choice between coalition with the Liberal Democrats or “unbridled Alex Johnstone”. Alex absolutely loved that and he thumped the table, as he would do—I do not know how many tables have survived Alex’s punishment of them—in absolute delight, and he wore with great honour the badge of being the “unbridled Alex Johnstone”. That is the Alex Johnstone whom we all loved.

I first met him at a housing conference a few years ago. It was not necessarily a sympathetic audience for a Conservative speaker, but that was of no concern to the likes of Alex Johnstone. When he was asked why the Government was recklessly abandoning the practice of paying housing benefit directly to housing associations, he paused and then responded. He asked: if landlords could not be bothered to collect the rent, why should the Government be bothered to pay it? There was a sharp intake of breath around the room, until people spotted the twinkle in his eye. That was the unbridled Alex Johnstone whom I liked.

Ruth Davidson described Alex as her “Praetorian Guard” at First Minister’s question time. I need to tell her that he was mine as well—we had our own coalition agreement for five years. He told me that no matter what I said and how much he disagreed with what I was saying he would thump his table in approval, and he did that for five years. No matter how offensive I was about the Conservatives, he would—true to his word—bang his table. He expected nothing in return, but he got a lot more than that: he got respect from everyone in the chamber.

Nicol Stephen told me at the funeral on Friday that he had had some bother during his by-election back in 1991 with stake boards going missing. After the by-election was over, Alex Johnstone sidled up to Nicol and said with a big grin on his face that he might know something about where they had gone. That was the kind of Alex Johnstone that I liked: the smile on his face, the twinkle in his eye and the mischievous humour.

Alex Johnstone looked like a Tory bruiser, but he was far more than that. He was intelligent, sharp, witty, loyal and principled. I shall miss the “unbridled Alex Johnstone”.

The Presiding Officer

I thank all members for their thoughtful and moving contributions. I am now going to suspend Parliament. We will resume at 14:45.

14:28 Meeting suspended.  14:45 On resuming—