Academic and politician;
Born: January 16 1939; Died: July 28, 2012.
Dr Alistair Smith, who has died aged 73, was a politician and academic. It fell to him to introduce Margaret Thatcher at her first public engagement after the 1979 General Election. She was scheduled to speak at the Scottish Tory Party's annual conference in Perth and Dr Smith – recently elected President of the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Association (SCUA) – said simply "Prime Minister" followed by a pregnant pause. It was filled, as he knew it would be, by rapturous applause.
Dr Smith served as President of SCUA (then the party's voluntary wing) for two years. Although ideologically a "wet", in the early Thatcher era the party – particularly in Scotland – was a broader church, while Dr Smith's good humour and organisational ability were widely regarded as assets. In May 1981 Mrs Thatcher appointed him deputy chairman of the Scottish Conservative Party, a post he held for four years.
This was not without controversy. Since 1963 Dr Smith had juggled his academic and political careers without too much fuss, but when – in March 1982 – he was also appointed head of a new development trust at Aberdeen University (which faced a £2 million deficit), local trade union officials and a Labour MP alleged a conflict of interest.
Dr Smith calmly rejected any such problem, telling the Glasgow Herald: "In the same way, my academic and political lives have always been distinct."
Edward Alistair Smith was born to Archibald Smith, manager of the Clydesdale Bank in Inverurie, and Jean Milne Johnston. Educated at Aberdeen Grammar School and the city's university, at which he completed both an MA and his PhD, he also studied at the University of Uppsala in Sweden. In 1963 Dr Smith was appointed a lecturer in geography at his alma mater, a position he held for the next 25 years.
Concurrently, he pursued an active political career within local Conservative politics. Aged only 28 he became chairman of the party in the West Aberdeenshire constituency, held since 1966 by a Liberal but expected to return a Tory at the next General Election. Dr Smith presided over the selection of the colourful Lt Col Colin Mitchell, known as "Mad Mitch", formerly of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and a folk hero as a result of his irregular (but successful) command in Aden.
Although Lt Col Mitchell won the seat, he did not take to Westminster life and Dr Smith often found himself having to save the MP from his political inexperience. Lt Col Mitchell's first public utterance upon his election was the indelicate: "The Argylls are saved" (there had been a high-profile campaign to save the regiment from abolition). Aberdeenshire, of course, was home to the Gordon Highlanders. Calmly, Dr Smith steered the MP back on to more local turf.
Lt Col Mitchell served just one term as an MP, but Dr Smith remained chairman of the West Aberdeenshire Conservatives throughout the nine-year tenure of Russell (later Sir Russell) Fairgrieve. As vice-president of the SCUA, Dr Smith's counsel was also sought prior to the 1979 referendum on establishing a Scottish Assembly. Instinctively pro-devolution, he helped keep the party united during a difficult period, his diligent service recognised with election to the SCUA presidency in 1979 and a CBE in 1982.
Dr Smith also remained busy academically. In 1979 he published (with R E H Mellor) Europe: A Geographical Survey of the Continent and – during the course of his career – many articles on Scandinavia, Europe and Scotland. As a lecturer he was popular with students (one of whom, Brian Adam, later became an SNP MSP) and colleagues, while remaining chairman of the University of Aberdeen Development Trust until 1990.In 1990 Dr Smith became director of Aberdeen University's International Office, a position that played to his administrative strengths as well as satisfying his love of travel. Gradually, however, he grew detached from the Conservative Party, backing Labour in 1997 ("The Tory Party now is not the party I once worked for") and Liberal Democrat in 2001.
Paradoxically, he remained supportive of the surprisingly large Aberdeen University Conservative and Unionist Association, encouraging students (including this writer) to become active politically. Convivial and intellectually sharp, his brutal observations on contemporary politics (he was scathing, for example, about the performance of the Scottish Parliament he had long supported) enlivened many an Association dinner.
Dr Smith moved to Sri Lanka on his retirement in 2002, settling in the township of Bentota. He died there following a short illness. His brother Dr Forbes Smith, and a niece and nephew, survive him.
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