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The narrow win that started it all for Lord Maclennan


By Alan Hendry


Robert Maclennan, aged 29, outside the Assembly Rooms in Wick after winning the Caithness and Sutherland seat at the 1966 general election. Picture: J McDonald Photographers
Robert Maclennan, aged 29, outside the Assembly Rooms in Wick after winning the Caithness and Sutherland seat at the 1966 general election. Picture: J McDonald Photographers

ROBERT Maclennan had not yet turned 30 when he won the Caithness and Sutherland seat for Labour at the 1966 general election. It was hardly an overwhelming victory – he defeated the sitting Liberal member, George Mackie, by just 64 votes after a recount – but it was the start of a long and rewarding relationship with the voters of the far north.

Mr Maclennan – later Lord Maclennan of Rogart, but always Bob to his close friends and colleagues – would go on to win nine successive elections. Over the course of those 35 years he built up a strong personal following that stood by him through his move to the new Social Democrat Party and ultimately to the Liberal Democrats. When he was awarded the Freedom of Caithness he remarked that the electorate had shown “exceptional magnanimity of spirit” in making him the longest-serving MP ever to represent the northern counties.

And yet, had that tight 1966 result gone against him, life would have turned out very differently for Lord Maclennan. He would have given up on the idea of a career in frontline politics altogether.

“I wouldn’t have gone into politics because I wanted to be the MP for Caithness and Sutherland, and if that had been denied to me by the electorate I would have followed a different career,” he told me in an interview for the John O’Groat Journal in 2001, the year he stepped down as Lib Dem MP for the expanded constituency of Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross and was elevated to the House of Lords.

“I would have worked in public international law. I would have tried to get into the United Nations or one of its agencies, possibly the World Bank, and my life would have been focused upon international affairs.

“The week before I was adopted as the candidate for Caithness and Sutherland, I was offered a lectureship in public international law at Manchester University, which I declined in order to become the candidate. But I would have picked up where I had left off if I had not been elected.

“It would have been a political career of a different kind – one focused on trying to extend the efficacy of the rule of law in international affairs, probably focusing upon development in the developing world. These were the sorts of areas I was interested in."

Over those three-and-a-half decades he earned a reputation as a dedicated, diligent, hard-working constituency MP, while at national level he was a powerful and progressive voice on issues such as European integration and constitutional reform.

His style was studious, measured and respectful.

By 1987 his majority had risen to 8494. “It was quite flattering that people would give me an enhanced majority when I was actually standing under different colours,” he said in that 2001 interview. “I have to say that, despite all, I’m perhaps not a party man in quite the same sense as many other politicians. I have been elected with three different labels by this constituency and that is perhaps a reflection of the fact that I am not deeply embedded in party. I have always found it possible to work with people of other parties, or indeed of no party, and that has been one of the characteristics of public life in the north.”

Robert Maclennan didn’t engage in soundbites or insults or the kind of ill-judged outbursts that have become all too common in politics. His style was studious, measured and respectful.

Whether in a face-to-face setting or at an election meeting or in any other public forum, he would take time to consider each question carefully and to choose his words wisely. Electors responded to that, and his tenacity on behalf of his constituents played a huge part in that long run of election successes.

Lord Maclennan of Rogart was elevated to the House of Lords in 2001.
Lord Maclennan of Rogart was elevated to the House of Lords in 2001.

There were many heartfelt tributes after his death was announced at the weekend.

John Thurso, who in 2001 succeeded Lord Maclennan as MP for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross and who is now Lord-Lieutenant of Caithness, said: “On the national stage he was one of the main architects and a founding father of the Liberal Democrats, but here in the north he will be remembered as an outstanding constituency MP who fought for individuals and communities with great skill and compassion and who was much respected by everyone across the political spectrum.”

The present Liberal Democrat MP for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, Jamie Stone, said: “Be they lord or labourer, he treated everyone just the same, and he would go to the ends of the earth and back to help a constituent. He was an example to us all.”

Ed Davey, acting leader of the Liberal Democrats, called him considerate, honest and hard-working with a rare ability to reach out and find common ground. As he put it: “Bob made our politics and our country better.”



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