Remembering Anna McCurley as former politician dies aged 79

Anna McCurley fought for constituency interests as a Tory MP before joining the Lib Dems in 1998.

Anna McCurley: Bernard Ponsonby remembers former politician following death aged 79

Former teacher and politician Anna McCurley has died aged 79 after a long battle with ill-health.

She was a Strathclyde Regional Councillor who won the West Renfrew and Inverclyde constituency for the Conservatives at the general election of 1983.

She lost it four years later and, following a series of fallouts with her party, joined the Scottish Liberal Democrats in 1998. 

She fought the Eastwood seat for her new party at the Holyrood election in 1999 and whilst she remained active in her new home for years afterwards, protracted and increasingly serious ill health ensured that her days as an activist and public figure had come to an end. 

McCurley was vivacious company. Gossipy, flirty with a tremendous sense of fun, she was always grounded, evidenced by a keen line in self-deprecation.  

Her frankly hellish ill-health never got the better of a truly extraordinary spirit for life, which earned the enormous respect of friends who simply didn’t know how she coped.  

That spirit was a shining example of the defiance of the human condition against being dealt a cruel hand in life’s stakes. 

She was born Anna Anderson Gemmell on the January 18, 1943. Her father was the general manager of the now defunct More’s Hotel in India Street in Glasgow and her mother was known as the ‘seafood Queen of the Barras’, selling fish at the famous market in the city’s east end. 

Her parents sent their daughter to the Glasgow High School for Girls. At Glasgow University, she was convener of the Liberal Club at the Queen Margaret Union, where contemporaries recall that she was immaculately dressed for a student of the time.  

She studied too at the University of Strathclyde and at Jordanhill College of Education before teaching history for six years in secondary schools. By this time, her political allegiance had shifted to the Conservative Party. 

She was part of a large group of Tories on the old Strathclyde Region, led by Leonard Turpie, having won the Camphill/Pollokshaws division on Glasgow’s south side at the Regional Council elections in 1978.  

It was the pre-Thatcher age when a benign One Nation Conservatism dominated the party’s thinking and indeed chimed with a large section of the Scottish electorate. 

At the watershed general election of 1979, she fought the West Stirlingshire constituency. Her ‘rising star’ status led her to fight the Glasgow Central by-election in 1980 in what was a safe Labour seat.  

McCurley was well groomed and blessed with natural good looks, she was highly telegenic and for more than a decade an instantly recognisable face in Scottish politics. 

She won West Renfrew and Inverclyde in 1983 and was a conscientious MP. She served on the Scottish Affairs Committee for the entirety of her short parliamentary career.  

Much of her time was taken up with arguing for the future of the Scott Lythgow shipyard on the lower Clyde. 

The neighbouring Labour MP for Greenock, the late Dr Norman Godman, regarded her as a principled and tenacious advocate of constituency interests. 

McCurley admired Mrs Thatcher’s single mindedness in making it in politics in what was then a man’s world. However, she had little regard for the Iron Lady’s refusal to be more proactive in the shipbuilding industry. 

Her seat was the tightest three way marginal in the UK, and in 1987 she faced one time Labour minister, the formidable Dr Dickson Mabon, standing for the SDP-Liberal Alliance and Strathclyde councillor Tommy Graham, who was the Labour standard bearer. 

Graham won. Mabon’s distinguished career ended and McCurley privately wept as she knew the cold chill of Thatcherism was unlikely to see her return to Westminster, at least for a seat in west central Scotland. 

She had two further high-profile bids within the Scottish Conservative party. In 1990, the president of the party’s voluntary wing Ross Harper resigned following lurid tabloid headlines about his private life.  

McCurley ran for the presidency, but was defeated by the former Strathkelvin and Bearsden MP Sir Michael Hirst. By this time, she was harbouring doubts about the direction of the Conservative Party. 

In 1997, following the resignation of the Scottish Office minister, J Allan Stewart, as the candidate for Eastwood, McCurley decided to make a bid to return to Westminster.  

Her ambitions were thwarted, and Paul Cullen was selected for the ostensibly safe seat. It fell to Labour in the Blair landslide that year. 

McCurley always possessed an independent streak which was sometimes interpreted as stubbornness by some and attention seeking by others. If you spent time with her, there was little doubt her views were always genuinely held. 

After parliament, she served on the board of the Horserace Betting Levy Board (known as the Tote) and worked in public affairs alongside John Bercow, who would go on to become the speaker of the House of Commons. 

She would amusingly regail how she had to spurn the advances of Woodrow Wyatt, the eccentric, bow-tie wearing, and one-time Labour MP-turned-Thatcher apostle who chaired the Tote. 

In fact, she was a fund of frequently scandalous stories about the great and the good. These were rarely told nastily or in anger, for her desire to laugh at life was one of her great traits. 

She was then dealt a double blow. A flat she owned in London became unsellable and it floored her financially. And then her health started to falter badly, despite only being in her 40s.  

The spinal condition which was first diagnosed as a young girl would degenerate rapidly and, by the late 1990s, she was incapable of work.  

She relocated to a National Trust-rented property in Linlithgow and she enjoyed her time in her beautifully decorated flat, complete with grand piano. 

But McCurley was a woman of the west coast and following her defection to the Scottish Liberal Democrats in 1998, she relocated to a flat on Glasgow’s south side. 

In the last 20 years of her life, she moved with difficulty and frequently in great pain. She took an interest in the benefits system as that was now her principal source of income. 

Her social concerns led to an articulate stream of consciousness, exasperation and anger reserved for the welfare policies pursued by her former party. 

Despite her mobility issues, she was a gracious lunch host, a fantastic cook and wonderful company.  

She was helped greatly by Liberal Democrat members in East Renfrewshire, particularly the estate agent and businessman, the late Roy Slater and the GP, Dr Allan Rennie. 

Anna McCurley married and divorced the psychiatrist, John McCurley. They had a daughter Honor, who sadly died some years ago in another cruel twist in her life. 

That life started with enormous promise which looked to be fulfilled before ill-health and bad luck struck. That double dose of misfortune could never beat her and something of her radiant air always followed her. 

She lost elections and she lost her health, but she never lost the essence of herself which was an example to all on how to cope, live with and ultimately defeat adversity. 

Anna Anderson McCurley, teacher and politician. Born: January 18, 1943. Died: October 31, 2022.

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