Michael Russell and some personal reflections of a period in Argyll & Bute

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By Russell Bruce

The news of Michael’s impending appointment as Chair of The Scottish Land Commission came as a bit of surprise but then again not totally. Michael has long been a supporter of the Commission and this is perhaps the right time for a new challenge in which to direct his energy.

In the 15 or so years my wife and I lived in Argyll and Bute we got to know two remarkable men. Michael Russell and the late Professor Sir Neil MacCormick. Argyll is the heart of a Westminster constituency that has seen many changes over the years. For most of the 20th century Argyllshire was firmly Conservative Unionist with the exception of the two elections in 1974 won by Neil’s brother Iain MacCormick with 49% of the vote but who lost by 5% to the Conservative John Mackay in 1979. In 1983 the Westminster constituency became Argyll & Bute won by John Mackay to be succeeded in 1987 by the ever persistent Ray Michie for the Liberals. Neil MacCormick stood for the SNP in 1992 and 1997 with 23% of the vote.

I mention this history because when we first became involved in Argyll and Bute the Lib Dems were the party we had to beat. Today Argyll and Bute is seen as an SNP stronghold with Brendan O’Hara taking the Westminster seat in 2015, 2017 and 2019. With the Lib Dem vote in 1997 17 points ahead of the SNP I realized something needed to be done to move the party forward at the first Scottish Parliamentary election in 1999. The answer was voter identification.

Friends sometimes disagree. Michael, then SNP Chief Executive, wanted us to use the party’s Activate system. Being Mac based we were not impressed by the MS DOS Activate system the party used. These were different times (pre GDPR) and we developed our own Mac based software, bought the telephone numbers and established a call centre in Dunoon that operated for at least 4 nights a week. We needed a system that my wife and I could record the feedback sheets from the call centre quickly when there was so much else to do.

Council elections were also held at the time of the 1999 election so we also had to produce all the election addresses for our SNP candidates in a tightly controlled campaign to ensure policy compatibility whilst allowing council candidates to stress local issues. My wife, Dorothy, produced all the campaign literature for Duncan Hamilton, the election addresses for the council candidates and several 8 page newspapers distributed by branches.

We didn’t win the constituency in 1999 but came within 2000 votes of Lib Dem George Lyon. I was campaign manager for our candidate Duncan Hamilton who was elected in first place as a list MSP for the Highlands and Islands to our new parliament. That was not the end of the story though. With just enough money left to keep the call centre going Argyll and Bute produced the highest vote at the EU elections a month later and Neil MacCormick was elected as one of the 6 MEPs from Scotland.

With the steady build up of the SNP vote the 2001 Westminster election was a major disappointment. I shocked other activists by predicting Agnes Samuel, the SNP candidate, was destined to be in third or fourth place but it was so close I could not predict whether it was 3rd or 4th. As it turned out it was unbelievable close with Agnes in fourth place, just 3 votes behind Dave Petrie for the Tories. It was Labour’s best ever performance, coming second with the well regarded Hugh Raven. Alan Reid for the Lib Dems won with a 5.4% majority, down -11.6% from Ray Michie’s vote in 1997.

It was not until 2007 that Jim Mather won the Holyrood seat for the SNP, followed by Michael Russell in 2011 and 2016 with healthy majorities. The SNPs Jenni Minto won in 2021 when Michael stood down.

All elections, national and at constituency level, have the capacity to spring surprises underlining the importance of a strong national campaign tied to efficient and coherent constituency campaigns.

By 2010 our period in Argyll and Bute was over and we returned to the Scottish Borders. My second term as an elected member of the Loch Lomond & Trossachs National Park board for Cowal and the Arrochar area had ended in 2008.

Three SNP elected members only served one term. Duncan Hamilton did not stand again and elected for a career in the law and is now a KC. Jim Mather only served as MSP for Argyll from 2007 to 2011 when Michael finally won his home seat as a long-term resident of Argyll and Bute. Neil MacCormick (Professor Sir Donald Neil MacCormick QC (Hon) FRSE FBA) only served one term in the European Parliament taking leave of absence from Edinburgh University.

Neil was the son of John MacCormick, one of the founders of the SNP. He was a delightful man it was a pleasure to have known. His commitment to independence was the reason for his many campaigns but it was as an academic he justly earned an international reputation, Neil had a special interest in the philosophy of law and was president of the International Association for Philosophy of Law and Social Philosophy, sadly cut short by his untimely death. He was an honorary fellow of Balliol College, Oxford and the recipient of honorary degrees from universities in Canada, Sweden, Italy and Germany. He died in on 5th April 2009 of inoperable cancer. He was just 67.

I still keep in touch with Michael Russell on issues of common interest. He is a fount of knowledge on an immense range of issues that are part of our history and Scotland’s place in the world far beyond the world of politics. In temporarily taking over the role of acting chief executive of the SNP while President he delivered the review of governance he promised. New horizons now beckon and I wish him well in his forthcoming role as Chair of the Land Commission.