It’s a standard question in candidate application forms. Do you agree to support all of the party’s policies at all times (or similar)? Yes, most aspiring politicians say.
Yet in 1998, Stephen Maxwell did not. He was asked to explain himself during the selection process and honestly and candidly, said that there were aspects of party policy which troubled him. That if elected, he could not – hand on heart – say that he would always support party position without at least questioning it. He failed.
On appeal, the same issue was explored. Stephen tried to explain. He wasn’t trying to be difficult and he could not actually think of areas where he might disagree with the whipped line in the group – Europe aside – but still, he did not want to say that he never would. If he were to disagree with some policy or position, which he thought was not in his constituents’ interest nor in Scotland’s interest, he might not be able to vote with his group.
Needless to say – much to everyone involved’s frustration at the time – Stephen Maxwell failed to be selected to stand in the first Scottish Parliament elections for the party he had supported for most of his life. But that was Stephen through and through. A man of such astonishing integrity and principles that he could not compromise them even with a wee white lie to get him through a selection process. Honest to a fault.
I was privileged enough to get to know Stephen better when I took on a role in charity fundraising and he was the Scottish member of the UK organisation’s board. At the time, he had experienced another health scare but faced it with stoicism and optimism. He had beaten it once, he did so twice, for shame, he could not do so a third time and live to see his life’s work come to fruition with the referendum in 2014.
Stephen was not just an SNP man, he was a man of the left, committed to social justice, to equality and fairness. Much of his professional life was spent in Scotland’s voluntary sector and to the development of policy, particularly social policy, which worked. He was well read, funny, erudite, astute, thoughtful, intelligent and compassionate. And especially, gentle and generous, of his time and talents. He was a joy to have a conversation with because he loved debating ideas and finding solutions.
No doubt in his youth, he was a firebrand and there was a thrawn streak, as evidenced above. And thanks to all these traits and more, he would have made a first class MSP.
But he was never tribal in the way so many of our politicians are. If any man was made for the new politics devolution was supposed to herald, it was Stephen. Consensus-building was a real strength, bringing together disparate views and talents and forging common ground. It is what he excelled at in the voluntary sector, and it made him one of the towering strengths of the Scottish Independence Convention.
In later life, he was excited by localism, by the power of communities, by the gain to be had from giving power away and of investing in people. That was the optimist in him, the innate belief in self-determination driven by his love of his country, his land and his people, evidenced by his many and varied personal interests – hillwalking and music among them.
We had lunch shortly after the SNP won the 2007 election and enjoyed a glass or two in celebration of a moment in time. Of how – knowing what we both knew about civic Scotland – the world had suddenly been turned on its head. Scotland was on the move, the game had changed for ever, we were on our way.
His mind never rested, always seeking enlightenment. From books, policy and from others. And he was a great writer. I recall the big chicklet coming home with Higher English tasks to read media articles and find sentences of particular construction. We pored over Scotland’s quality press, looking for the sentences each exercise required. They were not to be found, but in Stephen’s Analysis articles for Third Force News, the voluntary sector newspaper, there were always several. He was wonderful at discursive pieces, taking difficult and complex ideas and distilling them so that ordinary readers could get to the heart of the matter, without in anyway coming across as condescending. That is a rare skill indeed.
Yet, while he was a thinker and a communicator, he was also a do-er. His appetite for work – and the diligence with which he applied himself to each and every task – was rare.
After his retirement, I often used to see him, walking across the Meadows, swinging the brown briefcase, on the way to “work” at peak commuter time. Maintaining a range of interests in the voluntary sector, and commitment to political causes like nuclear disarmament and Palestine, but at last, giving so much more of his time to the cause he believed in above all others.
For years, membership of the Scottish National Party has required commitment to two aims: independence and the furtherance of all Scottish interests. Few have contributed so much to both as Stephen Maxwell.
Today, Scotland has lost a titan.