I was very sorry to hear today of the death of Stephen Maxwell. He was one who I came across during my most active days in the SNP, around the time he was elected as councillor in Wester Hailes in Edinburgh. A leading light in the party and with a formidable intellect, it was almost inevitable he would be one of those hunted out of the party for being members of the 79 Group. His later work – in the SCVO and with the Independence Convention only served to reinforce that early knowledge that here was an intelligence, an emotional intelligence, that would have served the party and the country well. Like all the best politicians, he was motivated not by personal gain, but by what was best for the people and the nation. Had he won the party leadership after the resignation of William Wolfe. I don’t think there’s much doubt that the party would have developed differently to the way it did under the leadership of Gordon Wilson. Like all the best nationalists, he was not only a democrat but also a committed internationalist.
Though I met him several times, there was only one occasion when I had the pleasure of an extended discussion with him. My girlfriend and I were invited to a meal by friends in the party, Arve and Louise Johannsen; Stephen was the other guest. I was very young and hugely naive then; it was years later that it occurred to me that Arve and Louise were giving us an introduction to progress in the party should we want it.
Sadly it was far too early for me to take proper advantage. His mind was brilliant without being overwhelming, his arguments incisive without being dense, and his enthusiasm greatly uplifting. I felt in awe of him and wondered if I had been prattling – part wine, part immaturity. If I had, he showed no sign of noticing – he wouldn’t, kindness and sensitivity being among his many admirable traits. I was, however, old enough to realise I was in the presence of one of Scottish nationalism’s finest minds.
That evening, all of three decades ago, remains one of my most treasured and affecting political memories. He inspired in the best way – not with demagoguery or flash and spin, but with wit, knowledge, intelligence and integrity. His vision was clear and practical, his ideals rooted and not for compromising, his words passionate and urgent.
I learned that night, for politics to have integrity, it has to be practised with intelligence, without patronising or obfuscating, and for the good of the people, not the political classes. They are simple messages, but in his arguments and demonstrations he made it clear, to a young man just out of university, they are not ideals, but protocols for getting involved; the modus operandi of decency in political action.
I’ve never forgotten that night, and I won’t forget Stephen Maxwell. As I write this, our politicians are flinging mud at each other, each keen to demonstrate that the other side has supped more deeply with the devil. Meanwhile our country waits for a reasoned argument on our future and the interests of our people.
How we need a Stephen Maxwell approach – to dignify the process and match the best of Scotland’s aspirations.
Thank you, Stephen, for the example and the inspiration; I shall keep trying to get near to your standards.