Shock at death of Biggar Councillor Tom McAlpine

Ron Harris looks back on the life of a great man

THERE was shock and sadness last week at the death of the man many regarded as the elder statesman of Clydesdale politics, Tom McAlpine (pictured right,

The veteran Biggar councillor was 75 years old and died in a quick but apparently peaceful end.

Born in Wishaw, he was brought up in a Conservative household but, despite this, his personal left-wing sympathies led him to join first the Labour Party and then, in 1967, the SNP.

He was educated at Dalziel High School, Motherwell and graduated with a degree in electrical engineering from Glasgow University.

An early and keen membership of the Boys' Brigade later led to him chairing the Christian Youth Assembly and being the Church of Scotland's man on the Council of Churches Youth Conference.

Tom McAlpine was one of the country's pioneers in the field of workers' co-operatives and, inspired by New Lanark's Robert Owen and the Iona Community, opened a co-operative electrical heating business in Glasgow in 1963 called 'Factory for Peace' when such a concept was almost unheard of; he later started a similar business in Wales for disabled ex-miners.

He later formed a partnership with by-then SNP colleague William Wolfe to form the high-tech Chieftain Industries. This brought him appointments as an expert member of the Scottish Council (Development and Industry) and the Standing Commission for the Scottish Economy.

He was a born politician, serving as a young man briefly as a Labour councillor in Hamilton before joining the then fast-growing SNP, rising to be its national vice-president in 1981 and spending five years as the party's vice-chairman for administration.

He stood for parliament five times, once each in Bothwell and Dumfries but, most famously, three times in Clydesdale, the nearest to success when he caused a political shock by in a matter of months, boosting the SNP's poor third place showing in the constituency to almost topple Labour's Dame Judith Hart, then a respected government minister, missing out by less than 700 votes after recounts in the second of the two general elections of 1974.

Many, if not most, ambitious politicians coming so near to victory and then losing it (he tried again, unsuccessfully, in Clydesdale in 1979 and 1983) would have walked away, embittered and demoralised. Not Tom McAlpine; if he couldn't be one of Scotland's best Members of Parliament, then he was determined to become one of its best local councillors. Little could he have known that night of his parliamentary 'near-miss' 32 years ago that his most useful political years were still in front of him.

It was in 1988 he first became Biggar's councillor, serving on Clydesdale District Council and then, from 1995, its successor South Lanarkshire Council (a change he fought tooth-and-nail, leading the SNP's part in the all-party referendum campaign to keep Clydesdale 'independent'.)

On paper, Tom McAlpine was nothing but an opposition backbench councillor but he fought Biggar's case so skilfully behind-the-scenes that the improvements he won for his town were the envy of many councillors from Labour-controlled wards in South Lanarkshire. In the 18 years he represented Biggar, it transformed from a rather sleepy and sedate rural backwater into a jewel in the crown of Scottish tourism with one of the most attractive town centres in Lanarkshire.

Tom, of course, didn't achieve this all on his own but he was adept at drawing together all the town's different talents and concentrating them to achieve a single aim; that a town the size of Biggar had men of the abilty and drive of Tom McAlpine, Biggar Museum Trust founder Brian Lambie and local businessman and Tom's former Tory opponent Arthur Bell all in the same generation seemed to outsiders not only very lucky but almost greedy!

In his latter years Tom noticibly distanced himself from internal nationalist politics at the top levels; indeed, there were some who thought that he was representing a Biggar National Party rather than a Scottish National Party!

Still, he was the recognised mentor for the later generation of SNP councillors and his faith in Scottish independence never wavered. Enormously full of humour and always game for harmless mischief, he was, however, stubborn as a mule on issues where he thought he was in the right. A small example was Tom's insistance on wearing fading purple and white rosettes during council elections, the SNP colours from the 1970s. Tom explained that he'd merely disagreed with the later change to yellow and black party colours and so decided to keep using the old ones himself!

Tireless hardly sums him up; despite an accident several years ago that left him with a nagging, painful injury, he was active to the very end; only days before his death he was giving the Gazette chapter-and-verse on the latest Biggar issue.

He had the great good fortune to meet and marry a political and personal soul-mate in Isobel Lindsay, who survives him along with his three sons and two daughters.

His funeral, attended by a packed congregation of friends from all walks of life, was held at Biggar Kirk on Tuesday morning after which he was buried in the town cemetery.

The death of Tom McAlpine brought to mind a line from a certain song he knew very well: 'When Will We See Your Likes Again?'