16 Dec 2016
I can’t quite believe we’re all here today, mourning the departure of Alex.
He was such a big figure, not just in the Scottish Conservative party, or the North East, but in the parliament and in Scottish public life.
He was so solid, so sturdy, so vital – it seems almost absurd to think that he won’t be on Reporting Scotland at 20 past 10 tonight, or that his laughter, along with his fists hitting his desk in mirth, won’t be heard on our Holyrood corridor again.
We’re all here today at Alex’s express instruction. He mandated that his funeral be held on a Friday when the parliament wasn’t sitting, so the SNP wouldn’t win any votes while Tories were here. And that was Alex all over. A team player. Political and partisan, but practical and thoughtful with it.
He was a proper true blue Tory who would go into bat for the team but never fell out with anyone while doing so. A Labour blogger said you could disagree with him without ever finding him disagreeable. The First Minister said he was never afraid to stand up robustly for the causes he believed in – but always did so with good humour and respect for his political opponents.
And it’s hard. It’s hard even for a cricket lover like Alex to stride out onto the crease and flay your opponents over the boundary; and never make an enemy amongst them.
And I think it was his humanity, his decency and his sense of fun that meant that he never met a person without gaining a friend.
And Alex loved having fun. He was forever concocting stunts with his trusty sidekick, Jim Millar. Whether it was rehabilitating King Macbeth from the scurrilous slurs of Shakespeare (and having some bard afficionados deal out death threats in the process) to dressing up as knights in armour in a bid to win UNESCO heritage status for Arbroath abbey, there was nothing those two wouldn’t do to make a headline – or in the case of Macbeth get up at 4 in the morning to do Australian radio.
And that friendship was the bedrock of his time in parliament. And Alex was a great friend to have.
He didn’t vote for me to be leader and he backed his decades-long friend Murdo for the gig. But as soon as I was in place he put his shoulder to the wheel. Sitting one row behind and a seat to my left every Thursday in parliament to act as a physical – and vocal – barrier between me and Alex Salmond to bark away at his responses. When I asked him to take on the added role of welfare spokesman, he didn’t hesitate, knowing it would be a tough shift but never taking a step back once.
He used to joke that he was the spokesman for late nights and early mornings, doing the shifts that others wouldn’t because the party needed represented and it was the right thing to do. I know it drove Linda mad sometimes, that he’d get back to his beloved North East late after parliament and have to go back out again to do one of the late night TV shows. But he always said that it needed doing so he’d get it done. I can say, without hesitation, that he was the favourite MSP in the Tory press office and the favourite Tory in newspaper offices across the country.
Because it wasn’t just that he was prepared to put in a shift, but that he was prepared to tell a tale. A good quote from Alex could make a story. And turn a half page a third of the way into the paper into a front-page splash.
And that’s the thing about Alex. Lots of people thought first and foremost of his stature – which he would use to his advantage, whether that was tackling a knife wielding maniac in a pub, anchoring the multi-award-winning and undefeated Conservative Holyrood tug of war team or accompanying me to a meeting with a well-known political protestor and disruptor which we held in the tiniest room in the parliament so Alex was practically sitting on his knee and he had to behave as good as gold.
But he had so much more to him than his bluff exterior. Alex wasn’t just reliable – he was good. He wasn’t just solid, he was able. He’d walk into that Holyrood chamber with little more than a couple of headlines scribbled down and give a full speech without pausing for breath.
His love of technology and gadgets was matched only by his appreciation of history and the breadth of knowledge only gained through voracious reading and an enquiring mind.
He might have enjoyed playing the hail-fellow-well-met doric loon; but he was passionate, nimble, skilled.
And he made friends easily. Too often in this job, you get excited by the story of the day and then the story moves on and you feel you have to, too, in order to keep up.
That wasn’t Alex. His stunts and campaigns weren’t one-offs. It wasn’t a case of hit and run.
I’m not sure if I’m allowed to tell this tale, but I hope Jim doesn’t mind. Alex became a passionate supporter of the links between North East of Scotland and Japan. He was the first MSP to give a speech in Japanese in the chamber and to get the Japanese cricket team over to Scotland on a tour. His work through the years earned him the Consul General of Japan’s Certificate of Commendation.
But his interest started off as a way to back his great mate. Jim had met a woman who worked in the Consul general’s office at an event and fell for her. He wanted to engineer more meetings and Alex was only too happy to get involved to help out. His interest started as a way to back his pal – who, incidentally, went on to marry her and had Alex as his best man. But the interest didn’t stop there.
As with so much with Alex, the spark of an idea led on to something more, and another and another.
And that’s what set him apart. He didn’t hit and run. He didn’t send a press release and forget. He built friendships up over years and decades. Knife crime, veteran’s housing, Scottish-Japanese relations, championing Arbroath, the Abbey and the declaration; Farming and his beloved North East.
All these things he championed, again and again, year after year – making contacts, helping out, finding new branches; and all the while being the best friend, the doughtiest parliamentarian and a true Tory.
I promised our minister today that in the division of labour, I’d speak only about Alex’s politics and leave the family life and personal history to him. But I feel I can’t leave Linda out of the narrative because the pair of them were indivisible.
Alex was the MSP, but it was a job share in the truest sense. He couldn’t have been the politician he was, he couldn’t have been the man he was, without Linda being there. I know many, many happy, supportive couples. But I don’t know any that are the indivisible unit they were.
And while I speak for everyone in the Conservative party when I say that we will mourn, we will miss and we will be poorer as a party without Alex Johnstone in our ranks. I know that we haven’t truly lost him, as so much of everything he was is part of who you are, Linda, and vice versa.
Please – on his behalf, accept our gratitude, our friendship, and our love. We only got to borrow Alex and yet we feel richer for the time he gave us.
He was – and is – yours forever. And we’re blessed that you shared him for a time.