Phil Gallie: Populist MP who revelled in his role as a parliamentary outsider

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The contrast between Phil Gallie and his Conservative predecessor as MP for Ayr could hardly have been more dramatic. George Younger, who held the Ayr seat by the skin of his teeth, and by respect for his personality, from 1964-1992, was educated at Winchester and New College, Oxford, saw distinguished service with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in Korea and went on to be Secretary of State for Scotland and Secretary of State for Defence at the epicentre of the Tory party. Phil Gallie was a populist outsider with a cheerful and engaging personality and with no illusions about his political longevity in Westminster.

In 1992 the first thing he said to me – we were friends and sparring partners in a number of debates in Scotland, as he was in favour of a Scottish Assembly long before the notion was popular in the Scottish Conservative Party –was, "I'm surprised to be here at all!" And well he might have been: he had beaten Sandra Osborne of Labour in the general election by 22,172 votes to 22,087.

This determined his performance at Westminster, where he was something of a jack-in-the-box on every conceivable subject. He explained that he didn't pretend to be a "universal expert", but to have any chance of retaining his seat he had to take every possible parliamentary opportunity to get into the local papers. Eventually, in 1997, Osborne beat him by 6,543 votes; Gallie had seen it coming throughout his five enjoyable years on the back benches of the House of Commons.

Philip Roy Gallie was born in Portsmouth, the son of a naval artificer who on promotion was transferred to another naval base, at Rosyth. After Dunfermline High School, to which he always paid tribute for having given him a sound education in technical subjects, Phil went to Kirkcaldy Technical College. From there he was lucky enough to get an apprenticeship at the excellent training course given by HM dockyard in Rosyth; as a local MP I knew at first hand of the high-quality training provided by the Ministry of Defence there.

After working as an electrical fitter Gallie got a job with Ben Line Steamers, many of whose ships sailed out of the port of Leith. Throughout his parliamentary career Gallie was to speak with authority on the problems facing the merchant navy.

Joining the South of Scotland Electricity Board, Gallie began his political career as a councillor for the district of Cunninghame. Having contested Cunninghame South in the 1983 general election and Dunfermline West in 1987, he was chosen as George Younger's successor, though the Conservatives expected to lose the seat. It said a great deal for Gallie's style on the stump that he squeezed into Westminster when Conservatives were falling in Scotland all around him.

He used his experience to good effect. For instance, in July 1996 he was pestering the Ministry of Defence as to their plans to upgrade the maritime patrol aircraft fleet (all James Arbuthnot, the Defence Minister at the time, could say was that the competition to find a replacement for the Nimrod had been launched in 1995). Gallie also used his practical experience as a manager of major power stations such as Inverkip and Kincardine to make useful contributions to the Commons energy debates.

One recurring theme was the need to be tough on crime. In the debate on the Queens Speech on 28 October 1996 he told us: "On combat knives I wonder whether political opportunism rather than reality might not be the message of the day. It is already illegal to carry on the streets a blade more than 3in long. When I hear of deaths through crimes of violence I have to ask whether the perpetrators are using combat knives, or kitchen or industrial knives. I would suggest that the majority of attacks with knives are made with domestic, not combat knives. Over the weekend, five people became victims of extremely serious knife attacks in the west of Scotland. We have legislated and banned the carrying of knives but still such things happen. What would happen with handguns? I suggest the situation could be the same: we ban handguns and that drives them underground to the extent that the situation is more dangerous than under the limited controls that the government intend to put in place."

Gallie urged his ministerial colleagues to be tough.

His many friends were deeply moved by the care he took of his wife, Marion, who was to die in 2006 from crippling disease. After leaving Westminster, Gallie, ever-resilient, was delighted to be elected through the list system as a Member of the Scottish Parliament, where he made a serious contribution as his party's spokesman on home affairs. Some Westminster MPs were resented like hell for what was seen as a patronising attitude towards those newcomers to parliamentary life in the Scottish Parliament. Gallie was not one of them. MSPs of all parties have told me how helpful he was – perhaps because he could laugh at himself.

"He leaves a gap in our lives," Annabel Goldie, leader of the Tories at Holyrood, told me. "I have lost a friend, and Scotland has lost a shining example of the true public servant, someone who cared deeply about people and his country."

Tam Dalyell

Philip Roy Gallie, electrical engineer and politician: born Portsmouth 3 June 1939; District Councillor, Cunninghame 1980–84; contested Cunninghame South 1983 general election, Dunfermline West 1987; Conservative MP for Ayr 1992-1997; MSP for Scotland South 1999-2007; married 1964 Marion Whyte (died 2006; one son, one daughter); died East Kilbride 24 January 2011.