SPEECH TO ROTARY CLUB OF GIRVAN ANNUAL DINNER
MALIN COURT, TURNBERRY, AYRSHIRE
SATURDAY 7thNOVEMBER 2015
I started my career in Girvan District Council at the age of 22 and then went on to join Kyle & Carrick District Council, where I remained for 22 years. I remember around 1980 when my eldest son was only 3, I had been carrying him on my shoulders around Ayr town centre and I handed him back to my wife and went into Burns House in Burns Statue Square, the Council HQ, to Chair a meeting of the Leisure & Recreation Committee. They were usually a pretty unruly mob, but this day they all seemed strangely subdued. They all just sat staring at me in silence. It was only after about half an hour that I leant back in my chair and clasped my hands on top of my head when I discovered to my horror that I had a huge toffee stuck to my hair! I tore it off and gingerly laid it on the table in front of me, where it sat like a big hairy hedgehog for the rest of the meeting!
On another occasion, when I was leader of the Administration in a hung council...12 Labour, 12 Tory and Provost Gibson MacDonald holding the balance of power, I was going to my office on the top floor of Burns House when I saw the Labour Leader, Keith MacDonald, go into Gibson MacDonald’s office. Gibson’s office was in the middle between my office and Keith McDonald’s and long before, I had discovered that the ventilation system that ran around the external wall of the building, just under the windows, acted as an amazing amplifier. If you stuck your ear to it you could hear every word that was being spoken next door.
I raced across to the window and clamped my ear to the vent and sure enough, listened in as Gibson and Keith plotted to unhinge some key items in the Tory budget. Then I heard Keith say, I saw Struan go into his office earlier, so I will go in to see him and feed him some rubbish about the budget that will throw him off the scent. I quickly retreated back to my desk and when Keith knocked on the door I called “Come in” and pretended I was hard at work on some papers. Keith proceeded to spin me a line, but I wondered why he kept staring at me in a strange way. It was only later when I went to the loo and looked in the mirror that I saw to my horror that I had six, concentric black lines down one side of my face! A couple of days later the engineers arrived and blocked up all the ventilators!
I can tell that I’ve been around for a long time when they begin tearing down buildings that I opened! Together with Provost Sandy Paton from Troon, and George Younger, when he was MP for Ayr, I opened the Burns Interpretation Centre in Alloway. They’ve just torn it down to make way for a new one! I’ll bet the poor ratepayers haven’t even finished paying for the first one yet! I also opened the Swimming Pool in Girvan, which was pulled down years ago. My greatest pleasure, however, was giving the order to dynamite the old school building at Cambusdoon in Alloway, where I had been a pupil for five unhappy years. When it became derelict and a danger to the public, I was the Convener of the Planning Committee and was able to fulfil every schoolboy’s dream and order my old school to be blown up.
But it’s canvassing that really gets you to face the facts. I remember canvassing one day in Dumfries during the 1997 general election, when I was the Tory Candidate and I knocked on the door of a council flat in Georgetown. This young woman opened the door and stared at my blue rosette and blue leaflets. I launched into my spiel. When I finished, I said to her “Can I count on your vote on Thursday.” She said “What Party did you say you were from?” and I said “The Conservatives.” “Oh, O.K.”she said, “I’ll likely vote for you. Anything to keep the effin Tories oot.”
In the 2009 Euro elections I was canvassing in Stonehaven. I knocked on a door and it was opened by a wee boy of around 6 or 7 years of age. “Is your Mum or Dad in?”I enquired. Just then a woman’s voice echoed down the hallway. “Who is it?”she said. “It’s Struan Stevenson, the Conservative Candidate for the European elections”,I replied. The woman’s voice replied: “I’m in the bath. If you were from any other party you could come in and scrub my back, but you can f**k off!”The wee boy politely said; “Good bye,” and closed the door!
Or the time I stood for the general election in Edinburgh South in 1992. I was leafleting a high-rise block of flats in a fairly deprived area of Gilmerton. It was a roasting hot day in May and my agent had told me to go in the back door and start at the top flats then work my way down, because if you start at the bottom and work your way up, there will be a lynch mob waiting for you when you come down again. So I went around to the back entrance and there was a wee woman sitting on the steps in the sunshine, with her stockings rolled down to her ankles. She stared at me in disbelief, taking in my blue rosette and my bundle of blue leaflets. “Where the hell dae ye think yoor goin?” she said. “I’m just canvassing for the Conservatives in the general election,”I replied. “Ach, yoor wastin yer time,” she said. “Why’s that?”I enquired. “Huv ye no seen the Tory Candidate,” she said, “He’s a bampot!”
But the other potential minefield is the speaking engagement. As an MEP, I had to do a lot of these, from one end of the country to the other. On one occasion I had to address a Conservative dinner in the Marine Hotel, Brora in Sutherland on a Friday evening. I flew from Brussels to Edinburgh and caught a connecting flight to Inverness, which was delayed, so that by the time I reached Inverness I was running really late. I hired a car and as I raced off past the Moray Firth and past the Dornoch Firth, I telephoned ahead to the Conservative Chairman and said "Listen, I'm running late, so just start the dinner and even if you are at the coffee stage when I arrive, it's no problem, I'll come in and make my speech".
I arrived at the hotel around 9pm and rushed up to my room, straightened my tie, combed my hair and then plunged back downstairs and into the packed dining room. I started going around the tables thanking everyone for coming to the dinner and apologising for my late arrival. I was half way down the dining room when the Hotel Manager grabbed me. "Are you Struan Stevenson?"he asked and when I nodded in agreement he said"The Tory dinner is in the basement downstairs!" I'd been disrupting his guests in the main hotel restaurant, most of whom thought I was Basil Fawlty or an escaped lunatic!
But I should tell you I recall another occasion when I had been invited to speak at a Conservative Ladies Luncheon in the Glynhill Hotel in Renfrew on a Monday. I arrived early and there were only two other, rather elderly ladies in the room, sitting together at one of the tables. I went over to them and said hello and thanked them for coming and one of the ladies said to me "Can I have a gin and tonic please and a glass of white wine for Maisie?"I wondered for a moment what I should do, but anyway decided to go to the bar and purchase the drinks. When I came back with the two drinks, the pair had been joined by another two elderly women and the one who had originally asked me to get the drinks then proceeded to ask the new arrivals what they wanted to drink. Enough was enough, so I said "Listen, I'm not the waiter, I'm the guest speaker”. The lady gave me a long disparaging look and said: "But we usually get good speakers on a Monday!"
I recall on another occasion, during the 2009 European election campaign when I decided it would be a great idea to travel to the island of Unst in Shetland, which is about as far North as you can go in the British archipelago. I booked the local Unst community centre for a public meeting, organised adverts in the Shetland Times and then set off on a wet and gray Saturday in May. It was a tortuous journey. I flew from Glasgow to Sumburgh. Hired a car and drove the full length of the main island and caught a ferry to Yell. I drove the whole length of Yell and caught a ferry to Unst.
It was a further ten miles through driving rain to the community centre and when I arrived there, the place was set up with chairs and even a speaker's lectern, but there were only two women present, a middle aged lady and a younger lady. Disappointed, I said to them, "Well as there are only the two of you, there is no point in me standing at the lectern and making a formal speech, it's best that we just sit down together and have a chat."The older of the two said "I don't care what you do. I'm the hall keeper and this is my daughter and we're here to close up after you leave!"So not the biggest meeting I've ever addressed. There was another little twist to this tale. On my way back to Shetland the skipper on the ferry from Yell came over and introduced himself and asked me how my meeting in Unst had gone! Everyone knew all about it, but had stayed away anyway!
In fact campaign setbacks were not unusual either. In the 2004 European elections we had a really gruelling time. I remember one Monday morning I had agreed to meet the Tory Election Team in Fortwilliam at 10.00am and, having set out from Ballantrae at 5 am, I found that I had arrived an hour early. So I went into McTavish's self-service restaurant and ordered a coffee. I was decked out with my blue rosette and carrying a large bundle of blue Tory leaflets. When I took my coffee to the young girl at the checkout and asked her how much it would cost, she stared at my blue rosette and said "For you, its half price!" I thought 'Wow, I've been recognised', but when I said: "Why's that?"she replied "Because you're a coach driver, aren't you!"
On another occasion I was invited to Police Headquarters in Inverness with a group of local politicians to meet the Chief Constable and discuss the escalating drugs problem. When we were ushered into the conference room at Police HQ, we were confronted by a table covered in samples of Tamazepan, heroin, cannabis, cocaine, amphetamines and ecstasy, obviously intended as an illustration of the drugs, which blight our society. I said to the small gathering of senior police officers “You shouldn’t have bothered, I was just expecting coffee and biscuits!” Nobody laughed!
Of course I was a Member of the European Parliament and we had some weird and wonderful colleagues there as well. Silvio Berlusconi was an MEP until he became Prime Minister of Italy. I was on the front bench in the chamber the day he came to address the parliament as Prime Minister of Italy and accused Martin Schulz, leader of the Socialist Group of reminding him of a concentration camp guard! This caused outrage in the chamber, as you might expect! We also had Daniel Cohen Bendit as Leader of the Greens – (Some of you may remember him better as Danny the Red – the firebrand leader of the French student riots in the 1960’s.) And we had John Hume and the Rev Ian Paisley as MEP’s representing Northern Ireland. In my first term as an MEP I had to sit right in front of Ian Paisley in the Strasbourg Parliament. Normally he was a courteous, well-mannered man, but when he got his dander up, my God I sometimes felt that I needed an umbrella! On one occasion during a debate on an equality Bill, he rose to his feet and thundered: “There is no legislation in the world that will force me to employ a homosexual in my church!” The saliva was flying over my head!
Nigel Farage and the UKIP MEPs initially had to sit with Alessandra Mussolini, grand-daughter of the Italian Fascist dictator, as well as Jean-Marie Le Pen and his daughter Marine. Now they have their own Eurosceptic group.
It was an exciting job being an MEP and we got to meet some interesting people. On one occasionI joined a small delegation from the presidency of the EPP-ED Group to travel to Moscow to meet Russia’s then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in the White House. After tight security checks we were shepherded up to the fifth floor and taken down imposing corridors of marble, with grand chandeliers. Our place-names had been arranged around a long table and interpretation booths were situated at one end of the meeting room with English, French and Russian available. Mr Putin speaks fluent German from his time as a KGB spy in East Germany!
Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin swept into the room and shook each of us by the hand in turn. Unlike his customary press image, which portrays him as un-smiling and sullen, he was smiling, tanned and fit-looking. His hand-shake was firm. I was seated directly opposite him at the narrow conference table and immediately noticed his distinctive and famous Piaget designer-watch, worth an estimated $700,000!
Putin’s steely gaze settled unnervingly on me. It immediately brought to mind the statement by John McCain who claimed: “George W. Bush said that he looked into the eyes of Putin and saw an honest man, but I looked into his eyes and saw a K, a G and a B!”A recent biography claims that he is the direct descendent of Rasputin and shortened his name to disguise the fact. His hypnotic stare could certainly help to validate this claim.
Let me tell you one final anecdote and maybe this is one that I'll never forget. My wife and I had been invited to a reception at Buckingham Palace for MEPs and MPs. We were standing chatting to a bunch of Labour MPs from Scotland when Her Majesty came over to our group and started going around the circle asking each person which constituency he represented. One by one they were answering "I represent Govan, Ma'am" or "I represent Lanark, Ma'am"and then she got to me and said "And which constituency do you represent." I said: "I represent Scotland, Ma'am." "No, which constituency IN Scotland do you represent,"she asked. "Well, I'm a Euro MP", I replied, "so I represent the whole of Scotland." "Nobody represents the whole of Scotland,"she said. "Well you do," I pointed out. "Oh do shut up,"she snapped! Needless to say the whole episode appeared in Private Eye magazine, no doubt courtesy of one of the Labour MEPs! The article suggested that 100 years ago I would have ended up in the tower!