Rosamund McCarthy: In memory of Blair Thomson - a model leader of the local voluntary sector

The example set by the former chair of the Cornwall Voluntary Sector Forum is one that others would do well to follow, says our columnist

Rosamund McCarthy
Rosamund McCarthy

On 29 January, Blair Thomson, a voluntary sector leader in Cornwall, died suddenly of a heart attack, aged 71.

Blair held numerous voluntary roles, including chair of the Cornwall Voluntary Sector Forum and the Cornwall Strategic Partnership, and was a director of the Cornwall Economic Forum. He was also a model of voluntary sector leadership that others would do well to follow.

Before retiring to Cornwall, Blair's distinguished career as a journalist had included imprisonment in Ethiopia while covering the fall of Haile Selassie. He also served as editor of BBC Radio 4's The World Tonight. He was a larger-than-life Scotsman, a mixture of a grizzly Indiana Jones and an Old Testament prophet.

I first met him eight years ago when I moved to Cornwall, and we were the first trustees of the newly independent CVSF. The forum could have been strangled at birth by naysayers, but Blair saw off the threat with eloquence and a metaphorical fist. He was a leader, not because he jockeyed for power but because he was a giant and a bountiful giver.

Although Blair always challenged injustice, we had different views on politics and equal opportunities. The notion of positive discrimination for women had steam coming out of his ears. But you would not end up having a row because he didn't impose his views on you.

Blair was the opposite of those politically correct leaders whose vanity and inner demons propel them to chase the trophy jobs and chairmanships. He had an enormous capacity for love and cared about people and individuals. As chair of the Cornwall VSF, he inspired me to be his faithful lieutenant, secure in the knowledge that, with him leading the way, all would be well. As chair of the Cornwall Strategic Partnership, he knocked statutory and voluntary sector heads together. He was one of the best negotiators I have ever met because he could see everyone's point of view.

After moving back to London, I saw Blair less often and we last met over dinner before the election. It was a lovely occasion at which Blair rendered an almost biblical excoriation of the iniquities of the Labour government. Instead of defending the record as a Labour party member, I was overawed by the power of his oratory. This was partly because I would make a hopeless politician, but mainly because Blair was completely secure in himself. There was no compulsion to believe what he believed.

In a way, Blair's sudden death was no surprise to me. Two days before, Tarn Lamb, chief executive of Cornwall Neighbourhoods for Change, urged him yet again to slow down. But this was like trying to stop a JCB from digging. For someone with so much love to give, it is an irony that his heart stopped. His wife of 49 years, Fay, his three children, his eight grandchildren and the people of Cornwall mourn his loss.

Rosamund McCarthy writes in a personal capacity.

Rosamund McCarthy is a partner in law firm Bates Wells & Braithwaite

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