Lord Russell-Johnston

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The Independent Online

In 1971, I responded to a Liberal party political broadcast, writes Jim Wallace [further to the obituary by Lord Wallace of Saltaire, 29 July]. The Scottish Liberal HQ sent me a copy of Russell Johnston's pamphlet "To Be a Liberal". I read it, and promptly joined the party. The examples used to illustrate points may be dated, but read the text today, and the statement of core Liberal values resonates with all the clarity and relevance that it did almost four decades ago.

By the time I came to know Russell, some years later, I regarded his words as the touchstone of Liberalism. His closing speeches to Scottish Liberal Party conferences enthralled his audience. They had humour, laid down challenges, analysed issues at home and abroad through Liberal eyes – and even if later textual analysis took away some of the gloss (how do you "climb the Matterhorn of human cupidity"?), at the time they were spellbinding and provided the inspiration to go back to our constituencies with renewed determination.

As fellow MPs in the Highlands and Islands, Russell, Robert Maclennan, Charles Kennedy, Ray Michie and I would occasionally undertake a summer recess tour of the area. Apart from the fact-finding benefit, these tours were fun because of the exchange of banter and genuine camaraderie. I recall a meeting in Shetland which went well beyond its scheduled time. Dispensing with the usual niceties, Russell said, "Isn't it time this meeting finished, so we can all go for a 'toot' [a dram]?" He was good company.

Russell's internationalism, not least his passion for the European ideal, was an important part of his Liberalism. Having been an appointed member of the European Parliament, he had set his heart on becoming an elected MEP. He missed narrowly in 1979, and by a much wider margin in 1984. I accompanied him to the count that day; his disappointment, indeed devastation, was palpable.

As the Parliamentary Assembly's President, Russell paid an official visit to Scotland in 2001. As the acting First Minister, I had to welcome him officially to the First Minister's residence. It was a special moment. I reflected then, as I do today, how much I, and my generation of Liberal Democrats, owe to the commitment and idealism of the author of "To Be a Liberal".