Douglas Henderson

SNP MP and deputy leader
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The Independent Online

Douglas Henderson, management consultant and politician: born Edinburgh 16 July 1935; MP (SNP) for East Aberdeenshire 1974-79; married 1960 Maureen Ferguson (four children; marriage dissolved); died Edinburgh 15 September 2006.

Douglas Henderson was a member of the House of Commons for only five years, between the first of the two elections of 1974 and March 1979. His greatest achievement, if achievement is the right word, is the defeat, arguably single-handed, of the Labour government led by James Callaghan.

Henderson was in the pivotal role of the Scottish National Party's 12 members as Chief Whip. I was told by the late Margaret Ewing, Margaret Bain as she then was, MP for Cumbernauld, that it was Henderson, against the views of his more cautious colleagues, who prevailed in persuading the SNP to put down a censure motion against the Government after the failure of the referendum vote on devolution on 1 March 1979.

Hansard, column 583, for 28 March 1979 publishes the division list recording that the ayes for the censure motion had 311 votes and the noes (for the Callaghan government) 310. It was after this division that Callaghan said: "Mr Speaker, now that the House of Commons has declared itself, we shall take our case to the country. Tomorrow I shall propose to Her Majesty that Parliament shall be dissolved as soon as its essential business be cleared up, and I shall then announce as soon as maybe, and that shall be as soon as possible, the date of dissolution, the date of the election, and the date of meeting of the new Parliament."

Had it not been for Henderson's obdurate determination - or recklessness - those historic words would not have been uttered, and the Thatcher era (if it were to be) might have been ushered in in different circumstances. Henderson's name appears in the alphabet of that Hansard division list sandwiched between Edward Heath and Michael Heseltine.

In his 1987 autobiography, Time and Chance, Jim Callaghan writes, "The result was in effect decided when the SNP decided to put down their own vote of censure. The Conservative Party greatly latched on to it, recognising that this would make it impossible for the SNP to back off, and the stage was set for a debate on the 28th of March. The few days pre-ceding the debate were full of rumours and offers. It was even suggested by the Ulster Unionists that they would support the Government if they would agree to build a gas pipeline across the Irish Sea between England and Northern Ireland, but I ruled that out."

Donald Stewart, MP for the Western Isles, told me that he deeply regretted caving in to Henderson's impetuosity since, in effect, the SNP had been "turkeys voting for Christmas" - only two of them were left to represent the party's interests in the 1979-83 Parliament.

Henderson as a whip had been a very skilful negotiator. He extracted from the Labour government in 1976 a place on the first House of Commons delegation to the indirectly elected European Parliament which would normally have been allocated to the Liberals. He thus made it possible for Winnie Ewing to establish her reputation in Brussels, Luxembourg and Strasbourg as "Madame Ecosse" - to the huge irritation of Labour sages.

Personally, for all his abrasiveness, I liked Henderson, because he was very blunt and forthright, and I admired the way that he stuck up for the fishermen of Buckie in the same way that his predecessor Sir Robert Boothby had done, and Alex Salmond, his successor, was to do.

He won the seat in February 1974, succeeding the Conservative Patrick Wolrige-Gordon, Dame Flora MacLeod of MacLeod's grandson who had been elected to the seat when he was just 23, in 1958. In 1974's second election, in October, Henderson defeated the Conservative candidate by 16,304 to 11,933 with Labour gaining 3173 and the Liberals 2,232. He was unlucky to lose his seat to the civil engineer the Conservative Albert McQuarrie by 16,827 votes to 16,269 with the Liberals gaining 6,201 and a Conservative majority of 558.

After leaving the House of Commons Henderson pursued a successful career in business. He had been Senior Vice-Chairman (deputy leader) of the SNP in 1970-72 and served in the post again from 1979 to 1981, when he left the executive for health reasons. He contested East Aberdeenshire in the 1983 general election, again losing narrowly to Albert McQuarrie.

Two decades elapsed before he then returned to active politics, after a successful operation for cancer in 1998. He stood as a candidate for the European Parliament in 2004, became a member of the SNP executive in 2005 and was the adopted candidate to fight the Falkirk East constituency, deemed by the SNP to be winnable, at next year's Scottish Parliament elections.

Alex Salmond, the present SNP leader, says: "Douglas Henderson was a trailblazer in the north-east of Scotland. Henderson combined with Hamish Watt, elected in Banff, and Winnie Ewing, elected for Moray and Nairn, in what they called "Operation Clean Sweep". "

Those swept away were the old-fashioned patrician Conservatives Patrick Wolrige-Gordon, Wilfred Baker (Banff) and Edward Heath's distinguished Secretary of State Gordon Campbell, the late Lord Campbell of Croy (Moray and Nairn).

Salmond reflects: "It was Henderson's credibility and excellent personal contacts, on a no-nonsense basis, with the fishermen that made it possible for me as an SNP candidate to win the seat for the first time. Even today I'm constantly asked by fishermen how Douglas Henderson is getting on. This is a remarkable tribute to their friend who had ceased to be their Member of Parliament for a quarter of a century."

Tam Dalyell