Tribute: Lord Martin of Springburn
Speaker Martin was a man of humble origins who rose to hold one of the highest offices in the land – but most of all he should be remembered for his kindness, writes George Foulkes
Speaker Martin was one of the kindest people ever to grace the Palace of Westminster. You would not know this from the obituaries in some of the mainstream media which rehash the innuendo and half-truths that he had to endure during his term of office.
The low tone was set by the nickname “Gorbals Mick” given him by the despicable diarist, Quentin Letts, clearly alluding negatively to the fact he was the first Roman Catholic Speaker since the Reformation and showing his ignorance of the districts of Glasgow since Michael was neither born, nor lived, in the Gorbals.
He did come from a humble and difficult background in Glasgow but the way he advanced from leaving school at 15 – sheet metalworker to union organiser, Glasgow City Councillor and MP – to one of the highest offices in the land showed he was able, determined and, above all, liked by his fellows.
He entered Parliament in the talented Labour intake of 1979, which included Jack Straw, Frank Dobson, Frank Field and Martin O’Neill. Michael was soon chosen by our Deputy Leader, the great intellectual Denis Healey, as his Parliamentary Private Secretary because he needed someone who could look after his interests in the Members Tea Room and other gathering places of the PLP. The two were firm friends and an effective team.
It wasn’t long before Michael saw his career outside the front bench, first as a Committee chair, then Deputy Speaker and, after a masterly campaign, as a relatively surprise choice as Speaker.
Right from the start, he had to contend with the snobbery of the elite at Westminster who found any excuse to undermine his position. But he was liked, even loved, by the ordinary staff in every part of the Commons.
Sections of the media turned against him when he barred them from the Terrace where they were overhearing private conversations for their gossip columns and they then found any opportunity to attack him. But he opened the Speakers’ Apartments to Members and when he was told by officials that protocol would not allow him to have a leaving party in the State Apartments for Frances Kennedy – who had worked for decades in the Members’ Tearoom – he held it in the Speaker’s Bedroom over which he had control.
Since his death, I have been approached by policemen, tearoom staff and others around the Palace of Westminster recalling with warmth their memories of Speaker Martin.
He was a good friend to me. He often came to Girvan, in my constituency, to visit his elder brother, Owen, and I saw him there regularly. As Speaker, he made an official visit and joined in the fundraising for the Girvan Lifeboat. I helped him organise Burns Suppers which he started in the Speaker’s Apartments and at which he played the bagpipes. I much prefer the pipes on a hillside a mile or so away but wouldn’t dare tell Michael. Our Jacobite Lords Chief Whip, Tommy McAvoy, tells me Michael also played the pipes to lead a march for the Jacobite 250th anniversary of 1745 for the local MP for Tilbury, Andrew MacKinlay.
Michael was a dedicated family man with a close loving and working relationship with his wife Mary and took great pride in his two children, Mary and particularly Paul, when he was elected as MSP for the same constituency, and in his grandchildren.
All during his time as Speaker he was concerned for the interests of backbench Members and Speaker Bercow praised him greatly in his tribute. Others have commented on the manner of his departure as Speaker and most of it is greatly overstated. He served a good term, carried out his role in the Chair, and out with it, well and should be remembered above all for his kindness.
He contributed helpfully from the Crossbenches in the Lords and would have done so a lot more but for poor health. We shall miss him greatly but should remember his contribution to our lives with gratitude and pride.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock is a Labour peer