My Tribute To David Cairns

Me with David in his office at the Scotland Office, 2008

I’ve been asked to share the words of the tribute I gave to the late David Cairns at the recent Lambeth Council meeting, two days after his death. Because of David’s three years as a priest in the borough, Lambeth councillors felt we should pay our respects in the formal setting of the council chamber. Because I was a friend of David, I was asked to speak about him. The entire council stood afterwards and observed a minute of silence for David, and also Cllr Tayo Situ, the late Mayor of Southwark.

Here is what I said about David.

Thank you, Madam Mayor.

I am grateful to have this opportunity to pay tribute to a man whose life, he admitted, was altered by his years in Lambeth. David Cairns was the Member of Parliament for Inverclyde from 2001 until his tragically early death on Monday night at the age of 44 after a cruel and sudden illness.

But David’s working life started on a different course. He was a Catholic priest at St Mary’s in Clapham from 1991 to 94, serving a parish that includes both Clapham wards, and parts of Ferndale, Larkhall and Thornton.

Clapham, David said, is “the kind of place where the very rich and the very poor live next to each other”. He recognized the problems such proximity of wealth and poverty, of conspicuous success and social deprivation, can present, saying: “It became clear that political action was going to be part of the solution.”

So he left the priesthood, finding expression for his religious and political beliefs as director of the Christian Socialist Movement.

He then became parliamentary researcher to Siobhain McDonagh, the MP for Mitcham and Morden, a job I inherited from him, which is how our friendship started. In 1998 he was elected as a Labour councillor in Longthornton ward in Merton, which borders Streatham South and shares a similar demographic. He later shared much good advice about representing an area like Streatham Vale, including his political theory of conservatories – which is that you can never be a good political representative if you can’t understand why anyone might want a conservatory. I hope Cllr Mark Harrison, who has been David’s parliamentary researcher for the past few months, has taken the conservatory theory on board as a guiding principle for his political career. 

David was as able a councillor as he was a diligent researcher, helping residents with the compassion he had once brought to the priesthood. Though a very strict Chief Whip in Merton, as Cllr Kingsley Abrams may remember from his previous life in our neighbouring borough, David was unafraid to throw the occasional cat among the pigeons on behalf of constituents, as when he publicly compared Merton’s Planning Committee to the Taliban over its uber-dogmatic adherence to an outdated Unitary Development Plan. My constituents in Streatham Vale would probably thank him for characteristically standing up for common sense, resulting as it did – eventually – in the regeneration of several large derelict eyesores near the borders of my ward.

David was elected to Parliament in 2001 in the constituency where he was born. He would serve Inverclyde with distinction, and was a respected minister in the Blair and Brown governments, before resigning in 2008 for reasons which are well known. He championed an array of causes in Parliament, from a local campaign to stop the closure of the Clyde Coastguard to the global scourge of HIV-AIDS.

David was highly intelligent without arrogance, warm, witty, wise; great company, a born storyteller but also an enthusiastic listener. His knowledge on myriad subjects ranging from Brixton-born David Bowie to Abraham Lincoln (no known connection to Lambeth) was encyclopedic.

He had much more to give to politics, not just to his party, but also to re-establishing politics as a vocation for good people to serve others. His early death is deeply sad and unjust on so many levels. 

Bearing in mind the significant effect that the life of Lambeth had on David’s life, I know we will all wish to express our condolences to Dermot, his partner of many years, and his brother Billy and father John.

Thank you.

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