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Tribute to Lord McAvoy

Lord McAvoy: 14 December 1943 – 8 March 2024 | Image courtesy of UK Parliament

3 min read

A tough but fair whip, the former Labour MP for Rutherglen served in the Commons and then the Lords for a total of 37 years. Working class and Catholic, he had friendships from across the House – there was only one Tommy McAvoy

Tommy McAvoy was unique in many ways.

His political career was, however, fairly typical of a Scottish working-class Labour man of the time.

First as an Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU) shop steward in the Hoover factory, a community activist in his home town of Rutherglen, a councillor on Strathclyde Regional Council and then elected as the local MP in 1987.

As such he was one of a large number of active Labour MPs from Scotland in the 1980s – and one of the group that contributed a great deal both to Scotland and to their constituencies which was forgotten in the Nationalist wave.

But Tommy also had some special attributes. He was a tough but fair whip in the Commons and he was a Rutherglen nationalist, pointing out to everyone, whether they asked or not, that Rutherglen was a separate burgh and definitely not part of Glasgow. Indeed in the early 90s he organised a referendum to take the historic burgh out of Glasgow and back into Lanarkshire.

So when an aggrieved MP (who was refused a “pair” by Tommy as Pairing Whip in the Commons) described him as a “nasty Glaswegian thug”, Tommy replied that he was from Rutherglen, not Glasgow, ignoring – maybe even relishing – the rest of the description.

When an aggrieved MP described him as a ‘nasty Glaswegian thug’, Tommy replied that he was from Rutherglen

Tommy was also probably the only Jacobite in Parliament. He knew all about King James II and his descendants, could entertain you at length about every aspect of the Jacobites, and if you weren’t careful could trick you into toasting “the King over the water”.

But paradoxically he was one of the greatest admirers of Queen Elizabeth and as comptroller of the Household saw her frequently and presided at the palace and at garden parties on behalf of the Labour government wearing smart morning dress and carrying his wand of office.

And she later recognised his achievements as the longest serving Labour whip, in both the Commons and the Lords (ultimately as chief whip) by appointing him as a Knight of the British Empire (KBE) when he retired.

Tommy was also a devout Catholic, regularly attending mass at Westminster and was part of a strong support group of peers, including Don Touhig, Paul Murphy, Willie Haughey and Lord Speaker John McFall who helped him in the last difficult months of his life.

And he was totally devoted to his wife, Eleanor, who has been in poor health for a number of years, throughout more than 50 years of marriage. He was also very proud of his four sons, Steven, Michael, Brian and Thomas – notwithstanding challenging them from time to time.

Tommy was a good mate of mine throughout his whole career despite our different views on Europe and on devolution, and similarly his friendships spanned all parties and views.

He will be greatly missed in the House of Lords but, of course, even more so in Rutherglen and by Eleanor, his boys and the extended family. If he was a footballer rather than a politician the crowds at his beloved Parkhead would be singing, “there’s only one Tommy McAvoy”.

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock is a Labour peer

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