Tributes paid to ‘hugely respected’ Labour peer Lord Murray Elder

The politician was one of Labour's 'intellectual big hitters' and a 'humorous and engaging' companion, Bernard Ponsonby writes.

Tributes paid to ‘hugely respected’ Labour peer Lord Murray Elder Houses of Parliament

Murray Elder, the Labour peer and highly influential party and government advisor has died at the age of 73.

Lord Elder of Kirkcaldy was a lifelong friend of the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Brown said Lord Elder’s life had been a “study in personal courage”, while Sir Tony Blair described him as “one of the most important back-room architects of devolution in Scotland” and a “hugely respected” party official.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the peer was a “consummate professional” who had a “long and lasting impact”.

Brown added: “As Sarah and I mourn the death of my close friend Murray, who I have known since our Kirkcaldy schooldays together, I also cherish that his life was a study in personal courage and of great achievement against the odds.

Lord Elder went to the same Kirkcaldy school as Brown and studied at the University of Edinburgh.

He worked for the Bank of England between 1972 and 1980 where he would have developed much of his intellectual rigour.

He had a studious manner in his approach to policy which was always thorough. He had an aversion to lazy thinking and the kind of kamikaze electoral tactics which Labour has been known to embrace.

In 1988, he became the Scottish general secretary of the Labour Party, where he was a close confidant of Donald Dewar.

He played a key internal role in shaping the party’s stance on the introduction of the poll tax and of Labour taking the historic decision to participate in the 1989 Scottish Constitutional Convention.

He then worked as chief of staff for the late Labour leader John Smith. Smith had succeeded Neil Kinnock as Party Leader in 1992 and the politically savvy Smith turned to his fellow Munro bagger for advice.

Donald Dewar would go on to become the Scottish Secretary in the Blair landslide in 1997, piloting the historic devolution settlement through the House of Commons. He chose Murray Elder and Wendy Alexander as his two special advisers.

Dewar was a careful politician who thought in a measured way. Elder’s intellect and temperament complimented that of his boss.

Dewar would become Scotland’s first-ever First Minster in 1999. That same year Elder was enobled as Baron Elder of Kirkcaldy.

He was an active member of the upper chamber and combined that with being chancellor of the Al-Maktum Institute based in Dundee. It promoted higher educational opportunity.

Lord Elder battled ill health for much of his life. He had a heart transplant whilst being a comparatively young man. It is understood his health was not great in the final year of his life.

Insight Bernard Ponsonby STV special correspondent

It is difficult to overstate the influence that Murray Elder wielded at key points in the recent history of the Labour Party.

Some of the party’s big intellectual hitters were attracted by his meticulous thought process and by his ability to see obvious pitfalls in policies and strategies which had come from colleagues over- emoting.

Murray could never be accused of being overly emotional in his politics but that should not be taken as a sign that he did not feel or have sympathy with those on the margins of society.

He was a deeply loyal servant to those to whom he was close, which is probably why many in the Labour movement felt him aloof and unapproachable.

He was always a figure of the Labour Right, which quite naturally meant that he was regarded with some suspicion by those who wanted the red meat of socialism served every morning for breakfast.

He was the original safe pair of hands and was risk averse in embracing anything that looked like a flirt with knee jerk leftism.

Lord Elder was also a private man, but his closest friends will testify that he could also be a humorous and engaging companion.

Despite giving the impression that everything was a state secret, he could be gossipy when the mood took him, and he could even chortle loudly when delivering a line with the driest of deliveries.

Like his close friend Dewar, he could be impressive and occasionally prickly and awkward. Like Dewar he was utterly committed to what his friend would refer to as ‘rewriting the social arithmetic’.

He lived in the West End of Glasgow where he enjoyed a life he split between his adopted City and attending the Lords in London.

He was also a lover of Glasgow curry houses.

When I think of him an image of Elder and Dewar comes to mind, huddled over the pakora, putting the world to rights and having the kind of scurrilous conversation about colleagues that would make a gangster blush.

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