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'Passionate, diligent and intellectually honest': Lord Foulkes pays tribute to Ernie Ross

Ernie Ross, February 1999 | Alamy

3 min read

A man of real political skill, Ernie Ross was great fun to be with, a good friend and a great Member of Parliament

It was a bitter-sweet victory in 1979 for the young Ernie Ross, taking over from Peter Doig in Dundee West.

While he increased the Labour majority from under 3,000 to over 10,000, he was to be returned to Westminster with Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister and to 18 frustrating years on the opposition benches.

Ernie had been one of the young Turks who, with a great degree of bravery, ousted the corrupt Labour administration in Dundee, led by the infamous James “J.L.” Stewart, and he had built a formidable reputation as a result.

He came to Westminster, along with fellow Dundonian activist, Willie McKelvey, who had been returned to succeed Willie Ross as MP for Kilmarnock, with a reforming zeal.

Together they had produced a pamphlet on “Attracting the chemical industry to Dundee,” so he was already a seasoned campaigner for the city.

They were appalled at the casual way the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) operated with neither an agenda nor minutes and launched a difficult but an ultimately successful campaign to put it on a more formal footing

I recall Ernie arguing that even his ward party was better organised than the PLP.

This was just the start of the changes they helped to bring about to get the party at Westminster better organised.

Ernie was also keenly interested and very knowledgeable about foreign affairs and particularly the plight of Palestinians, which he espoused with deep and genuine concern and real political skill.

It is a measure of how he managed to put his views on Palestine strongly, passionately, but without rancour that Baroness Meta Ramsay, an officer of Labour Friends of Israel, commented that Ernie was “intellectually honest,” and they remained friends in spite of considerable policy differences.

Like all Labour MPs, particularly those of us from Scotland, Ernie rejoiced in the return of a Labour government in 1997.

His close friendship with Robin Cook, then foreign secretary, was, however, to be the cause of the one black mark against his name.

I recall Ernie arguing that even his ward party was better organised than the PLP

Ernie, a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, alerted Robin to the contents of one of its reports. This is seen as a major sin by the House of Commons’ authorities and so he was censured. It was, however, done with the best of intentions.

As well as his work on the select committee Ernie served as a very distinguished Chair of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, championing its work promoting democratic development, particularly in the Balkans, Africa and Indonesia.

Above all, Ernie was great fun to be with, a good friend and a great Member of Parliament, taking up causes he believed in locally, in the UK and overseas with passion and diligence.

One of the other few remaining ‘79ers, John Maxton, who knew Ernie well,  described him as “a good honest friend who was incredibly loyal to his friends and to his beliefs.”

Ernie had not been in great health for many years. He was seriously ill and had major stomach surgery which meant he had to eat very selectively for the last few decades. He coped with this with great fortitude and nevertheless continued with his many interests.

Throughout his career Ernie was supported in every way by his wife, June, to whom he owed a great deal and to whom we send deepest condolences, as to all his family.

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock is a Labour peer and former MP for South Ayrshire 1979-83, and for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley 1983-2005

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