I am saddened to write that former Scottish Labour MP Jimmy Wray passed away today after a lengthy illness. He was 75. Or perhaps 78. He was a lot like Satchel Paige in that respect.
Jimmy was elected to the British House of Commons in 1987 in the constituency of Glasgow Provan. Later renamed Glasgow Baillieston, Wray was re-elected in 1992, 1997 and 2001 before stepping down in 2005 following a stroke.
You might notice that I am referring to him by his first name. The reason for this is that I worked as an intern for him in the spring of 1995 during my final year as an undergraduate. Carleton University had an academic exchange with the University of Leeds. In the fall semester, students from Leeds came to Ottawa to work for Canadian MPs and then we went over the pond in January to work with British MPs.
Initially, I was assigned to Tessa Jowell, a close ally of Tony Blair and New Labour who later became part of his cabinet. Unfortunately, the placement did not work out as I had hoped and my work there did not meet the academic requirements of the program. So I requested a change in placement and soon found myself assigned to Jimmy Wray.
Jimmy was everything that New Labour wasn’t – bombastic, unrefined, politically incorrect and unabashedly socialist.
To say that James Aloysius Joseph Patrick Gabriel Wray was a character would be like saying Babe Ruth could call his shot. There was absolutely no pretension in the man.
How could there be? He had a grade school education and graduated from the school of hard knocks as a boxer. But this would serve him well as a local councillor in Glasgow, a regional councillor in Strathclyde and later in the Commons.
Although Jimmy was die in the wood socialist who believed that no man owned the sky or the soil, he did have some conservative views when it came to matters such as abortion and drug use. He also vociferously opposed the fluoridation of water going back to his days in local and regional politics. Jimmy successfully blocked implementation of fluoridation in court by arguing it violated the 1946 Water Act and the 1968 Medicine Act. Jimmy was no lawyer, but he possessed an intrinsic understanding of the law and could explain to the working man, preferably over a beer.
When I went to work for Jimmy he had three rules:
1. You’re the boss.
2. Don’t worry and don’t hurry
3. A man who never made a mistake is a man who never made anything.
I still remember that third rule when I find myself in the doldrums.
Needless to say, I thrived under those conditions and had some extraordinary experiences along the way.
The most memorable experience was the week we spent in Strasbourg, France attending a Council of Europe meeting.
I was supposed to spend Easter Weekend with Jimmy in Glasgow. However, that fell through when he initiated divorce proceedings against his second wife not long after meeting Laura, the woman who would become his third wife. Jimmy was smitten with Laura often singing, “Tell Laura I Love Her”.
In any case, Jimmy regretted I wasn’t able to come to Glasgow, “Comrade, I feel bad. How would you like to spend a week in Strasbourg with me?” To which I replied, “Uh, OK.” And yes, Jimmy did refer to me as Comrade.
So Jimmy and I drove from London to Dover, took the Chunnel to Calais, France, then drove to Reims while listening to his Leonard Nimoy album including his take on The Beatles’ classic “Michelle”. It was at this time that I introduced him to the music of Harry Chapin.
We spent the night at a hotel in Reims watching re-runs of Johnny Staccato, Music Detective starring John Cassavettes. Outside the hotel were Front du Nationale supporters chanting, “Mort de la Juifs.” That put some chills down my spine.
We left the car in Reims and took the train to Strasbourg where some Spanish youngsters called me “Gringo” because of the Canadian flag decal on my briefcase. The Canadian Coast Guard had just seized a Spanish fishing trawler in Canadian waters much to the delight of British fishermen. I managed to drive the Spaniards away when I made reference to their unpopular Socialist Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez.
The Council of Europe is essentially a holiday for European parliamentarians. A few take it seriously but for most it’s party time. So it was unusual for an MP to take a staff person along, never mind a lowly intern and a Canadian intern at that. The Labour MPs and Lords didn’t like it and several made a point of trying to make things as unpleasant as possible for me.
I didn’t take kindly to it and let Jimmy know. Well, I don’t know what Jimmy said to them but those MPs and Lords did a 180 and treated me with the utmost respect for the rest of the week. I can’t imagine any other MP doing that on my behalf and I am forever grateful for it.
There was also the time when Jimmy organized a luncheon in the wake of calls for boxing to be banned in Britain. Our luncheon attracted the likes of Frank Bruno, Prince Naseem as well as Frank Warren, Don King’s British partner and Jimmy’s old friend. This luncheon included a scrum with the press that I had organized. One of the Conservative MPs invited to the luncheon did some grandstanding and acted as if he had organized the thing. Jimmy looked at me and said, “Don’t worry, comrade. I’ll get him.”
Well, this Conservative MP wanted to speak at the luncheon and Jimmy said no. Not only that, but he had me speak instead.
I spent a little over two months with Jimmy, but they are amongst the best months of my life. We did not have much contact with each other after I had returned to Canada. He had hoped to bring me back to the UK following the ’97 election as a permanent staff member but EU rules rendered that infeasible and nothing ever came of it. Of course, I can’t imagine he would have been too pleased with my change in political inclination.
His health took a turn for the worse when he suffered a stroke in 2004 which forced his retirement from Parliament. I did correspond with one of his sons who told me that he had recovered and was making jewellery which had put him in better spirits.
I regret that we did not get together one last time, but I will always treasure the time we had together because my life is the better for it.