MP who switched from Labour to SNP

MP who switched from Labour to SNP

Born: January 4, 1932; Died: May 3, 2014

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DICK Douglas, who has died aged 82, was a Labour and Co-operative MP (mostly for Dunfermline West) for 17 years before jumping ship and joining the SNP in 1990. His defection was a major boost for the Nationalists just when they needed it, bringing them from four to five seats in the House of Commons. Only one more seat, but its significance was greater than that: it was a stepping stone towards what Douglas had long believed in: independence for Scotland.

A Labour and Co-operative party member since he was a 16-year-old apprentice on the docks of Govan, Douglas went on to achieve degrees at the universities of Strathclyde, London and St Andrews. Having become a Glasgow councillor, he ran unsuccessfully as Labour candidate for Glasgow Pollok in 1967, losing to the Tory Esmond Wright. He also ran unsuccessfully as would-be MP for South Angus, and later for Edinburgh West.

It was in 1970 that he finally sat in the Commons as Labour MP for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire, later Dunfermline West after bureaucratic boundary changes. He would lose that seat in 1974, turning his mind to the growing Scottish oil industry as a much sought-after adviser both to the oil giants and the UK government.

In 1979, he was back at Westminster as Labour MP for Dunfermline West, where he would stay until he had what friends called a wee epiphany. He fell out with the Labour party over Margaret Thatcher's new poll tax. And so, in 1990, he crossed the floor of the house, as the saying goes. "Actually, since he was in opposition, he didn't have to cross the floor, just slide along the bench," according to his old friend Tom Carberry, Emeritus Professor at Strathclyde University.

Highly popular among not only his supporters in the constituency but among his political opponents, Douglas's career on the back benches had been tranquil until the poll tax raised what he and many others considered its ugly head. Announcing that he was quitting Labour, Douglas said the party had become too centrist. He criticised the party's attitude to Mrs Thatcher's poll tax, which he believed was a despicable, particularly as imposed on Scots who had no say in the matter. Advocating a Don't Pay the Poll Tax campaign, he was spurned by his own Labour Party while noting that the SNP agreed with him.

Douglas was a marathon runner for most of his life, right into old age. To make his point, already in his late fifties, he jogged from Dunfermline to Buckingham Palace to tell the Queen what he thought about the poll tax and where Mrs Thatcher might best put it (although he was too polite to express that to the monarch in the way he might have done in a Glasgow pub).

After he was faced with legal action for not paying his poll tax - by then 800 Clydesdale Bank notes - he rose to his feet in the Commons and cited (though paraphrased) his compatriot Rabbie Burns. "They break our backs for Maggie's tax, such a parcel of rogues in a nation." He updated the Bard by adding: "The people of Scotland will not accept this unfair, undemocratic tax they did not vote for.'"

Speaking at an SNP rally at Bannockburn, beneath the statue of Robert the Bruce, Douglas made his most memorable speech: "Bruce won a decisive battle but he wouldn't have completed .... the struggle for independence had he not won the hearts and minds of the Scottish people."

By now in the SNP, Douglas opted not to stand in Dunfermline West, the seat he had held for 13 years, but was nominated to take on the high-profile Labour candidate Donald Dewar (at the time Shadow Scottish Secretary) in Glasgow's Garscadden constituency. Dewar won comfortably and Dunfermline West also went back to Labour. By then 60, Douglas quit parliamentary politics but remained an active and popular SNP member.

He continued to run marathons and half-marathons all his life. After his family and supporting those most in need, marathons were his lifeblood. And he became known among fellow politicians across the spectrum for his integrity.

When he defected from Labour to the SNP in 1990, he had been highly influenced by the Jim Sillars' victory for the SNP in the Govan by-election of 1988 when Sillars derided the Scottish Labour MPs at Westminster as the Feeble Fifty. These, of course, included at the time Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling, John Reid and John McFall, of whom one writer famously wrote: "those of them who don't die will end up in the House of Lords," a prediction whose accuracy remains to be seen.

Richard Giles Douglas was born in Govan and went to Govan High School, perhaps better-known for a slightly older pupil called Alex Ferguson. He became an apprentice in the shipyards, where, according to friends, he was only 18 when he led fellow shipworkers out on strike. He later qualified as an engineer and eventually got on board those great ships as an engineering officer, sailing down the Clyde, past the old Erskine ferry and Dumbarton Rock, to places far away.

He retired first to Fife, in Auchtermuchty, but moved south to be closer to his daughters in rural Gloucestershire. Suffering from dementia, he died in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire. By then, he had written an autobiography of former SNP leader Dr Robert McIntyre, entitled At the Helm. He died in Chipping Norton after suffering from Alzheimer's disease. He is survived by his wife Jean, daughters Louise and Clare and grandsons Giles and Edmund.