How We Met: Alistair Carmichael & Richard Hughes

'We were equally blown away by the death-row experience'

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The Independent Online

Alistair Carmichael MP, 48

An MP for the Scottish seat of Orkney and Shetland since the 2001 general election, Carmichael (left in picture) is Deputy Leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, chief whip of the Liberal Democrats and Deputy Chief Whip of the Coalition. He divides his time between London and Orkney, where he lives with his wife and two children.

I have got to that age where I don't follow the music scene and its development as I once did. I'd heard their music and heard of Keane, but never put the two of them together when I first met Richard, in America in 2009. We were both there with Amnesty International, trying to save the life of [death-row inmate] Troy Davis [who was executed in September 2011].

When you're a professional politician you learn to work with all sorts of people, but I didn't start the trip expecting to build a friendship with Richard. He was easy company, though, and remarkably grounded.

We had a couple of days together in Washington, calling on various politicians on Capitol Hill, before going to death row in Atlanta, Georgia, to meet Troy.

In between we attended quite a lot of meetings with students and politicians, to talk about the case. I would tease Richard that he was the least rock'n'roll rock star that I'd ever come across: in four days he never threw a TV through the window.

My personality can be volatile – I go up and down emotionally – so he's the perfect foil. He controls his emotions more effectively, though that's not to say he feels less intensely. Yet we were equally blown away by the death-row experience. Troy himself was incredibly calm and graceful, yet at that stage he's was in danger of having his life taken away, and Richard was profoundly affected. We talked through the experience a lot after, which felt surreal, but goes to the heart of our friendship: rather than building connections with small talk, we went in at the deep end.

There was downtime on our trip, and we learnt a lot about one another: Richard is a committed vegetarian while I'm a hill-farmer's son, and I represent some of the best suckler beasts to be found anywhere: vegetarianism is not going to be part of my life.

I remember the night Troy was executed; Richard and I were both outside the American embassy in London, as part of a vigil. It was a very personal, emotional time, but the fact we were together at that point and had shared the experience helped. He doesn't need to do anything like this, so it's a mark of the guy that he prepared to make a difference.

We meet up for dinner when we can and now Keane is the sort of music I like to have around me: I put their CD on at home of a Sunday night while I'm reading the papers and sitting by the fire in my sitting-room.

Richard Hughes, 37

The drummer is also a backing vocalist for British piano-rock outfit Keane, who found success with their debut album, 'Hopes and Fears', in 2004. The band have since sold more than 10 million albums worldwide. Hughes is also a human-rights activist with Amnesty International. He lives in London.

I'd agreed to do an Amnesty International trip to meet Troy Davis in 2009, without putting too much thought into what the trip might encompass, or who else might be there.

The first time I met Alistair I'd just arrived at the bar of a hotel in Washington DC with an Amnesty lady called Kim. Alistair showed up and we sat down for a beer. I enjoy the company of Scottish people – my wife is Scottish – and Alistair was an easygoing, funny guy. I knew that he headed the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Abolition of the Death Penalty at the time. I was nervous at that point, and wondered how I would fit in among all these professional activists.

I've done a lot of road trips in the States on the Keane tour bus, but this was different. We flew from Washington to Atlanta and drove from Atlanta to Savannah and back, having various meetings along the way. During the political meetings I just took lots of photos and let Alistair do the talking – he was a prosecutor in Scotland before he became an MP.

Death row was the strangest experience: airport-style security, and more walls without windows than I have ever seen. We were locked in a holding cell to meet Troy, sweating buckets. And given the circumstances, he was incredibly normal. Alistair went to shake hands with him and he said to Alistair, "I don't shake hands, I do hugs." And this big, strong guy gave us all hugs. He was such a charming positive guy and by the end of it I felt positive that Amnesty was making so much noise about his case, that we had momentum.

Afterwards we went down to Martin Luther King's old church, Ebenezer Baptist Church [which advocated for Davis's release]. I'm atheist but we had an amazing three-hour service, with a proper gospel band. At one moment the preacher said, "Take the hand of the person next to you and pray." I was standing next to Alistair and we were holding hands for three minutes, though it felt like an hour – it was the weirdest thing, and I was like a little kid trying not to giggle.

Alistair is a passionate guy – it's one of the things that makes him so charming. And he's absolutely given me faith in the reason why some people choose to be MPs.

We stayed in touch after, though it was a terrible time when I saw him at the vigil we had for Troy in 2011. The fact that he was executed makes me angry now, but it still binds us together for having been through it.

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