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Veteran Highlands MSP says a fond farewell to 'The best job in Scotland'

By Louise Glen

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David Stewart.
David Stewart.

An MSP made an emotional retirement speech in parliament today, after decades of service to the Highlands and Islands.

Veteran Scottish Labour stalwart David Stewart is retiring after three decades of service to constituents in the Highlands as a councillor, MP and MSP.

Mr Stewart became the first Labour MP to represent the previous constituency of Inverness East, Nairn and Lochaber in 1997, doubling his majority in 2001 before losing his seat to Lib-Dem Danny Alexander in 2005.

In 2007 he re-entered politics as a Highlands and Islands Labour MSP on the regional list, and was elected for a further two terms, the latest ending at the election.

Mr Stewart will be 65 the day before polling day.

During a speech on Scotland’s recovery through a Highlands and Islands lens, the MSP told his colleagues this afternoon: “This will be my final speech in parliament after 14 years of service as an MSP – I am conscious some members will react with relief on this news! But I have a sense of sadness, humility and pride.

“Sadness, because any parting is such sweet sorrow. A sense of loss in leaving the best job in Scotland – representing my home and birthplace – the Highlands and Islands.”

Mr Stewart paid homage to Donald Dewar, describing him as “a visionary with a wicked sense of humour and an appetite that seemed to defy nature and indeed gravity”.

He described former Scottish Lib Dems leader Jim Wallace as “one of the great understated players in the foundation of devolution”.

And he celebrated “The class of ’99 – the original MSPs and the excellent officials led at the time by Sir Paul Grice”.

Mr Stewart also praised the Parliament’s “personalities”.

He said the late SNP MSP Margo MacDonald was a politician who was “greatly-missed and widely-admired” – and he would always remember her fondly as someone “who could start a party in an empty room”.

He described Banffshire and Buchan Coast SNP MSP Stewart Stevenson as “The Boer War veteran, inventor of the wheel and discoverer of penicillin” – adding: “Maybe not – but he had me convinced.”

And he mentioned First Minister of Scotland from 2001 to 2007, Jack McConnell, and described him as “a man of action and ideas who really understood rural disadvantage”.

David Stewart MSP.
David Stewart MSP.

He went on: “He gave me a job as a whip in my first week here – and he said it was all downhill from here!”

Mr Stewart said he was proud of the Scottish Parliament and of devolution.

He said: “Devolution is just a shade younger than my daughter Kirsty but what they both have in common is that they grew stronger through conflict, experience and rebellion.”

The retiring MSP who is perhaps best known for his award-winning campaigning work on road safety, initially becoming involved in fighting for a Graduated Driving Licence for young drivers after the death of two 17-year-olds in a tragic accident in Inverness in 2010, spent eight-years campaigning and securing cross-party support from the Scottish Parliament and was delighted when the UK Government finally decided to pilot Graduated Driving Licences. MPs calling on government to reconsider those limits for new drivers gives room for further optimism.

Winding his speech to a close, Mr Stewart thanked his wife Linda, his son Andrew and his daughter Kirsty for their “unwavering support”.

He also thanked his Labour colleagues and members over the years – “particularly Peter Peacock and MSP Rhoda Grant for their support and putting up with my bad jokes”.

He paid tribute to his staff in Inverness and Stornoway - Olivia, Gemma, Laura, Donna, John and Chris, led by Andrene Maxwell. And he said thanks to his researcher Kate Fry in Edinburgh – “for, among many other things, being able to decipher my hieroglyphic handwriting”.

Addressing Scotland’s recovery, particularly within the Highlands and Islands, Mr Stewart said: “Before I joined Parliament in 2007 I worked for The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations. I was privileged to meet hundreds of people in the voluntary sector throughout rural Scotland. The work they do – some of it paid, some of it unpaid, is the lifeblood of rural Scotland – delivering services locally and building the social capital that sustains real rural communities. That does not happen by chance.

“It is not an inevitable by-product of economic success. The work these people do in their communities needs to be recognised, valued, and, most importantly, needs to be given the funding to make it sustainable.”

He went on: “Of course, Presiding Officer, some will ask: What did the Labour Party ever do to help recovery in rural areas?”.

“I would take them back to the 1940s, when Tom Johnston, the Labour Secretary of State for Scotland, nationalised hydro power giving electricity to poor Highlanders for the first time.

“I would take them back to 1965 when Willie Ross, the Secretary of State for Scotland, created the Highlands and Islands Development Board and turned around a massive population decline in the Highlands and Islands.

“I would take them back to 1999 when Tony Blair created the first national minimum wage. It was my privilege to vote for that legislation as a Highland MP.

“The votes continued all night and I left at 9am. I have to confess that it unwashed and unshaved crossing Westminster Bridge heading for my Waterloo flat I was happy – although not in a self-serving, party-political way; I was glad to protect the waiters in Fort William, the bar staff in Galashiels and the security guards in Inverness.”

And touching on the issues facing the area, he concluded: “We all know the rural development challenges in the Highlands and Islands and beyond – distance, remoteness, peripherality, low population density, lack of access to services and low GDP. My great personal concern is the loss of young people from remote and rural areas.

“However, there are great opportunities for renewal and recovery. It is better to light one candle than forever curse the darkness. Let us build on the competitive advantage of the culture and the environment. Yes, the hills and the glens are important, but it is as much about the character of the people.

“Renewal and rural development must have the intelligence and individuality of the people – but we need to develop life sciences, create green jobs in green ports, build clusters of renewables, stimulate research and development in areas like spaceports and link industry with universities such as UHI.”

The veteran MSP finished his speech by saying: “I have a great love of American political and military history – maybe soon I will have time to read all the books gathering dust on my bookshelf at home! I read the other day the valedictory speech of General MacArthur at West Point. He referred to a 1920s American ballad which said, ‘old soldiers never die – they just fade away’.

“In a few short weeks my parliamentary political career will come to an end – the torch passed to a younger generation

He closed his six minute speech, by saying: “Perhaps veteran politicians never die – they just fade away. A Highlander who loved his job and tried to do his duty.”

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