Mackie, George Yull, Baron Mackie of Benshie
- David Torrance
Mackie, George Yull, Baron Mackie of Benshie (1919–2015), farmer and politician, was born on 10 July 1919 at North Ythsie, by Tarves, Aberdeenshire, the fifth of six children and youngest of three sons of Maitland Mackie (1884–1975), a dairy farmer and one-time president of the National Farmers’ Union of Scotland, and his wife, Mary Ann, née Yull (1882–1971). He went to Tarves school, then started his secondary education at Methlick school before finishing his schooling at Aberdeen grammar school. At the age of sixteen he enrolled at Aberdeen University to study agriculture, but being ‘a pushing young lout, who hated authority’ (Mackie, 10), left early to became a grieve (farm manager) on his father’s estate.
After two years Mackie finished his training as a stock manager at a farm in Norfolk, and in February 1940 he joined the Royal Air Force. Following a year of routine postings in the south of England, he flew Wellington bombers over Germany, later moving to Malta and the Middle East. In 1943 he joined Air Marshal Arthur (‘Bomber’) Harris’s raids over Berlin. ‘The sight of great cities burning,’ he reflected in his memoirs, ‘the ack ack, tracer, flares and searchlights, with bombs bursting on the target, is one which I will never forget’ (Mackie, 77). In May 1944 he was withdrawn from flying operations as a squadron leader, having flown more than eighty sorties, his bravery rewarded with a DFC and DSO. He was then posted to bomber operations in London. Meanwhile, on 26 May 1944, in the chapel of King’s College, Aberdeen, he married Lindsay Lyall Sharp (1920–1985), an assistant principal in the Ministry of War Transport, whom he had met at a Conservative Party dance; she was the daughter of Alexander Sharp, advocate, of Aberdeen, and his wife, Isabella, née Lyall. They had one son, who died in infancy, and three daughters.
When the war ended, Mackie’s father found him a 520 acre farm at Benshie in Angus, where he farmed (mainly dairy) for the next twenty-five years, only dispersing his herd ‘with a sigh of relief’ in 1970 (Mackie, 103). In 1953 he also purchased a 23,000 acre estate near Spean Bridge called Braeroy, where guests included Aneurin Bevan and his wife, Jennie Lee.
Politics had long engaged Mackie, although he was initially a Labour supporter. He first voted Liberal in 1945, joined the party in 1949, and, motivated by the Suez crisis, contested South Angus at the general election of 1959, where he came a good second. Thereafter he became vice-chairman of the Scottish Liberal Party (and chairman from 1965 to 1970), which mainly involved fund-raising. Mackie was known, as David Steel later put it, for being ‘blunt and to the point’ (Mackie, x). In the middle of one by-election, the Liberal candidate asked how he had performed at a public meeting. ‘What you said was perfectly good,’ replied Mackie, ‘but … it would help if when you are speaking you did not hop from one foot to the other as though you had just shat your breeks’ (ibid.).
In 1961 the Liberal leader, Jo Grimond, urged Mackie to fight Caithness and Sutherland, so he sold Braeroy and ploughed £12,000 of his own money into the campaign. A general election was not called for another three years, but in the election held in October 1964 Mackie beat the Labour candidate by 1275 votes. In the Commons he concentrated on highland development and farming issues (he had published his Policy for Scottish Agriculture in 1963), which led to regular jousts with his brother John Mackie, the Labour MP for Enfield East and a junior agriculture minister (their brother, Sir Maitland Mackie [1912–1996], also a Liberal, did not make it to parliament despite several attempts). When Harold Wilson called another election in March 1966, however, Mackie lost to the Labour candidate (and future Social Democratic/Liberal Democrat MP) Robert Maclennan by sixty-four votes.
Out of parliament Mackie concentrated on farming and other business interests, which included Caithness Glass, of which he became chairman in 1966, a self-service butcher shop in Dundee, and several hotels, including the John O’Groats Hotel. He remained politically active, opposing Jo Grimond’s efforts to reach an electoral accommodation with the Scottish National Party and contesting Caithness and Sutherland for the third (and last) time in 1970. He considered the Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe to be ‘a magnificent campaigner’ but also ‘lightweight and too fond of the tinsel’ (Mackie, 152). Nevertheless, he gratefully accepted Thorpe’s offer of a peerage in 1974, becoming Baron Mackie of Benshie (later, he was joined in the upper house by his brother John, Baron John-Mackie). He had been appointed CBE in 1971.
Unsurprisingly, Mackie reckoned Thorpe ought to resign after he became engulfed in a personal scandal, a stance that cost him an internal election as president of the Scottish Liberal Party (whose members approved of Thorpe). He supported David Steel as leader when Thorpe finally resigned in 1976, and led negotiations on the Scotland and Wales Bill during the short-lived ‘Lib–Lab pact’. For many years he served on the House of Lords’ EEC Scrutiny Sub-Committee D, which examined proposed agricultural and environmental legislation. During 1979 he was busy in Scotland as a surrogate campaigner for David Steel in his Borders constituency and also as a candidate in the first direct elections to the European parliament in 1979 (he had previously served as an appointed representative). He stood in North-East Scotland but was beaten into a respectable second place by the Conservative candidate, James Provan.
In 1980 Mackie was elected rector of Dundee University, serving until 1983, although the following year he was defeated by Nancy Seear to lead Liberal peers in the House of Lords. He finally became president of the Scottish Liberal Party in 1983, and valiantly opened proceedings at the Scottish Liberal Assembly in Dundee in 1985, even though his wife was dying of leukaemia at a nearby hospital. In 1986, at the suggestion of the Liberal MP Stephen Ross, Steel appointed Mackie a member of the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe; Mackie’s wartime experience had made him, like others of his generation, a passionate believer in European unity. He was active in European affairs for more than a decade, taking a close interest in agricultural matters while in Strasbourg.
On 29 April 1988 Mackie married Jacqueline (Jacqui) Lane, née Rauch (b. 1929/30), antique dealer and hotelier, daughter of Colonel Marcel Gustav Rauch of the French air force, and widow of Mackie’s former business partner, Andrew Lane. They retired to the hamlet of Oathlaw, by Forfar (he had sold Benshie in 1989). They travelled widely on behalf of the Inter-Parliamentary Union and Mackie remained active in the House of Lords until 2000, although he disapproved of attempts to reform it. ‘The House of Lords must be an appointed House,’ he declared in his memoir; ‘an elected one would be a replica of and a rival to the Commons, which must always have the last word’ (Mackie, 198).
A towering presence at 6 feet 4 inches, Mackie was a patrician farmer–landowner of the old school, exuding geniality, good humour, and a sense of duty throughout his long life. He died following a stroke at Ninewells Hospital, Dundee, on 17 February 2015, survived by his second wife, Jacqui, and the three daughters from his first marriage, Lindsay, Diana, and Jeannie (two of whom, Lindsay and Jeannie, had married Guardian journalists).
- G. Mackie, Flying, farming and politics: a liberal life (2004)
- Aberdeen Press and Journal (18 Feb 2015); (20 Feb 2015)
- The Herald [Glasgow] (18 Feb 2015)
- The Scotsman (18 Feb 2015)
- Daily Telegraph (18 Feb 2015)
- The Guardian (18 Feb 2015)
- The Times (19 Feb 2015); (21 Feb 2015); (24 Feb 2015); (3 March 2015)
- The Independent (20 Feb 2015)
- WW (2015)
- photographs repro. in Mackie, Flying, farming and politics: a liberal life (2004)
- photograph, 1987, Keystone/Getty Images
- photograph, 1987, Featureflash
- seven photographs, 1997, UPPA/Photoshot
- obituary photographs