By Kenneth Roy
No sooner has an ungrateful nation disposed of Sir Fred than another less than perfect knight lines up for the chop. It would be impossible to strip the mysterious Craig Whyte of his knighthood since no one has given him one, so the knighthood-stripping industry has turned its attentions to another hate figure from Rangers Football Club, its former owner, Sir David Murray.
Andrew Neil has already Tweeted on the subject, as people do. Likewise, Professor Tom Devine has indicated to the Scotsman that the question of Sir David's honour needs to be looked at. A knighthood for Professor Devine should be conferred without further delay; Andrew Neil, on the other hand, has offended so many people that he may die without the simple prefix to which he is entitled. Few have contributed more to the enjoyment of the people than Professor Devine and Mr Neil, though not quite in the same way. But, on the subject of Sir David, they are mistaken.
I once spent an interesting morning in the company of Mr Murray (as he then was). It was 1989, my year of calling on the rich and famous for the book, 'Conversations in a Small Country', and the native entrepreneur had just acquired Rangers. He had not initially wanted to buy Rangers. He had wanted to buy Ayr United, the clapped-out little team of his native town, with its clapped-out little stadium, and put in an offer that no sensible board of directors would have refused. But that is not to reckon with the misplaced pride of small-town Scotland. The board rebuffed Mr Murray and the jilted lover bought Rangers instead.
We met in his office on an industrial estate on the outskirts of Edinburgh. Good-looking and pugnatious, he might have stepped straight from the pages of Burns. He was informally, even carelessly, dressed and sat in a featureless room behind a big, tidy desk with a blotter covered in squiggles and figures. Within minutes of my arrival he was rattling off the facts of his business success. He was at that stage employing 1,200 people in a company 92% owned by himself. He was still in his 30s.
As he was wheeled back to the ward at half past one in the morning, having just been given 13 pints of blood, he sat up and called Louise from a public pay-phone. He still didn't know he had lost both his legs.
Mr Murray told me with a remarkable absence of sentimentality of the tragedies in his life. (His wife Louise was still alive then. She was to die young, of cancer). At the age of 15, he was uprooted from Fettes College – he claimed to have been the only Scot there; anyway, they called him Jock – when his father, a businessman with an addiction to horses and booze, went bust. 'Kaput', as Mr Murray put it. He finished his education at Broughton Secondary, a state school in Edinburgh, where he survived because he was good at sport. Academically undistinguished, he began his working life as a trainee in a small metal business. 'A £7 a week trainee' he added helpfully.
He had been running his own business for less than a year – he was 23 years old – when he was bombing along the dual carriageway to Edinburgh one evening after a rugby match in Dalkeith. A tyre exploded, his car hit a tree at 80 miles an hour, and he was thrown through the door. A rugby friend was the anaesthetist; his best man’s wife was one of the nurses who treated him. They amputated that night. As he was wheeled back to the ward at half past one in the morning, having just been given 13 pints of blood, he sat up and called Louise from a public pay-phone. He still didn't know he had lost both his legs.
'Can you imagine that?', he asked me suddenly. I couldn't. I could only ask him a feeble question. I asked him how he’d coped.
'I just got on with it,' he replied in his matter-of-fact way. 'I didn't think about it.'
I must have looked disbelieving for then he said: 'Well, I couldn't fail then, could I? It couldn't get much worse, could it? Well, it could, but I don't think about that.'
'Are you a religious man?'
'Not really. My faith was in my own ability.'
Tragedy was the spur: he worked harder and harder. He told me that working hard was a way of life for him; and, of course, one saw in this amazing character the personification of the Protestant ethic, acutely aware in his presence that it was not quite dead.
'What's the point of all this work?', I asked.
'Pride,' he said with unexpected passion. 'Pride in what I'm doing, pride in what I've built up. It's a Scottish success story. It's not about how much I'm worth, and all the rubbish that's written in the papers. It's a Scotsman that's doing this, and doing it in Scotland'.
And then he bought Rangers. He ought to have been allowed to buy Ayr United and the story might well have ended happily. But he told me he wanted to make Rangers 'the greatest football club in Europe' and, for the first time in our conversation, David Murray became less than convincing. There was now a sense of the Master Builder at work.
He was not to be stopped. He threw a slice of his personal fortune at this hopeless ambition, and the club embarked on its spendthrift ways, becoming for a while the greatest football club in Scotland. A mistake. A bad mistake. But it doesn't sound to me like the crime of the century. Am I missing something? If no one else is prepared to do it, I'll salute his personal courage.
Courtesy of Kenneth Roy - read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review