Monday, July 31, 2006

Lord Pentland

I'm not one for prowling around graveyards but I was in the beautiful Dean Cemetery in Edinburgh on the weekend and noticed that the final resting place of John Sinclair (1st Lord Pentland) had been tidied up by the yard's caretaker. Sinclair was Secretary for Scotland from 1905-12 and I first tracked down his grave when I was researching his career earlier this year. Then it was quite overgrown and difficult to make out the inscription on the stone, but now it is quite clear. 'Secretary for Scotland' is proudly emblazoned, as is his later spell as Governor of Madras.

Noel Skelton, who was under-secretary of state for Scotland from 1931-35 also has a memorial stone in the Dean Cemetery.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Douglas Alexander II

There's an interview with Douglas Alexander in today's Scotland on Sunday. His interrogator is the journalist Catherine Deveney, who seems to have composed her article on the premise that Mr Alexander isn't very interesting. Judge for yourself by reading it here.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Douglas Alexander

The current Secretary of State for Scotland (and Transport), Douglas Alexander, launched the opening salvo of Labour's summer strategy for tackling David Cameron yesterday evening at Labour HQ in London. The timing is obvious. We're now into the silly season so it was gauranteed to get coverage, while there are the all-important elections to the Scottish Parliament next May. Alexander used some nice lines, but it's difficult to think of another Scottish Secretary who occupied a similarly strategic position within their party. The last Conservative Scottish Secretary, Michael Forsyth, was a noted campaigner, but as far as I know he was never involved in UK-party strategy.

Alexander's speech focussed on three Conservative proposals (Europe, Scotland and Transport) which mirror his former brief as Minister for Europe, and his current twin brief of the Scotland Office and the Department for Transport. On English Votes for English Laws, the Scottish Secretary warns that "naive Notting Hill nationalism...could end up breaking up the United Kingdom".

You can read the full text of Alexander's speech by clicking here.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Secretary of State for Scotland

Today marks 80 years since the post of Secretary of State for Scotland was created. From 1885, when the Scottish Office was created, until 1926 the department was headed up by a 'Secretary for Scotland', a kind of poor man's secretary of state. But when the prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, visited Glasgow's slums in 1925 he became convinced that Scotland's minister should be upgraded.

The Wilson Committee on the Remuneration of Ministers had proposed in 1920 that the Scottish Secretary be ‘raised to first class rank’, and in 1921 Lord Birkenhead urged the Cabinet to do the same, declaring that ‘the Secretary for Scotland represents not a Department but a country’. By 1925 the Convention of Royal Scottish Burghs had also begun lobbying the prime minister, and together with mounting pressure from backbenchers, Baldwin finally promised to give the matter further consideration.

It seems that Sir John Gilmour, Baldwin's Secretary for Scotland since 1924, remained aloof from such developments, although the former Scottish Office permanent under-secretary Reginald MacLeod of MacLeod told him ‘It is preposterous that this should be denied’. Finally, on 17 December 1925, Baldwin announced that Gilmour was to become Secretary of State for Scotland, news which the Scotsman greeted as ‘extremely gratifying’.

On Monday 26 July, Sir John presented himself to His Majesty at 11am and took the oath of the Secretary of State for Scotland. The Scotsman regarded him as successor to the Marquis of Tweeddale, who resigned as Secretary of State in 1746, just before the office was abolished as payback for the ’45 uprising. But this time, said the newspaper, ‘There will be no Jacobite troubles or Malt Taxes to upset the new arrangement, and Sir John Gilmour will be able to secure for Scotland a consideration which was not obtained in the troubled days after the Union.’ The ebullient MP Walter Elliot, parliamentary secretary for Health since November 1924, was also upgraded to a full under-secretary of state, and congratulated the government on giving the ‘country a status unknown since the ‘45’.

Friday, July 21, 2006


The next few weeks sees the 50th anniversary of the so-called Suez Crisis in the Middle East. Commentators are keen to draw parallels between that and the war in Iraq; there are many, although I suspect the Labour leader of 50 years ago, Hugh Gaitskell, would have been appalled by Tony Blair's actions as a future leader of the party he famously said he would 'fight, fight and fight again' to save. The Suez debacle also precipitated the retirement of James Stuart as Scottish Secretary.

Stuart was actually absent when Sir Anthony Eden told the Cabinet he was resigning, and his stand-in Lord Strathclyde ‘was told to get Mr Stuart down as quickly as possible because his opinion would be required’. Ironically, the Scottish Secretary had actually backed Eden over Suez until he announced, under overwhelming international pressure, that British and French forces were to be withdrawn from Egypt. ‘I did not object to our going IN,’ Stuart recalled. ‘What I did object to was our coming OUT.’ He told Eden this in plain terms, saying that troops could have reached the canal without any trouble, but Stuart accepted that Eden’s decision was irreversible. ‘It did, however, break my political heart,’ he said, ‘and I was glad when it became possible for me to quit the Government in the following year. I had lost interest and was tired.’

Stuart’s relationship with Eden had always been ambivalent, Churchill’s successor having never shown much interest in Scotland, and he saw the prime minister’s ignominious climb-down as a good excuse to retire.

[James Stuart, Within the Fringe, 177]

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Gordon Brown

I have just bought an interesting book from ebay written by Gordon Brown (in 1989). It's called Where There Is Greed... and details all that was wrong with Thatcher's Britain. It's actually extremely well written for a polemic, although some of the chapter headings (such as 'Privatisation: Who Benefits' and 'Unequal Britain: How the Rich Became Richer') are now a little ironic. He also refers to Scotland:

'Within days of Mrs Thatcher's coming to power hopes of a Scottish Assembly were betrayed. A majority referendum vote was ignored, the promise that ministers would bring forward new proposals was forgotten and all-party talks on devolution, also pledged, never took place.'

This is a little disingenuous, as it was a Labour MP's amendment which scuppered devolution, not Mrs Thatcher. And the all-party talks did take place, although admittedly not in any substantial fashion.

'The Scottish Office lost power and influence,' he says of the department during the Thatcher years. Again, this isn't entirely fair, as George Younger - and to a lesser extent Malcolm Rifkind - generally got what they wanted. 'Scotland became a laboratory of social engineering, with the Poll Tax, a formal abnegation of the concept of fairness, being exacted as this book goes to press...In Scotland Mrs Thatcher has always governed without support.'

Interestingly, the book's foreword thanks Paul McKinney, who worked with Brown in the House of Commons. McKinney was later head of news and current affairs at Scottish TV when I worked there as a reporter, and is now at Al Jazeera Television in the Middle East.

[Gordon Brown, Where There Is Greed...Margaret Thatcher and the Betrayal of Britain's Future]

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Scotland Office

I spent part of this evening
at a British Council Scotland reception at the Scotland Office on Whitehall. I'm sure the British Council does fine work but I have to confess that I only went along to nose around the home of the Scottish/Scotland Office for the past 121 years. It is, on first impressions, a very fine building with a Regency rotunda as you enter and an elegant staircase. Some of the decor, however, looks a bit tatty but then presumably it isn't a budgetary priority these days. The fine oil paintings of former Scottish Secretaries which used to hang on the main landing have also been moved downstairs. These (courtesy of the Government Art Collection) are to constitute the cover of my book, The Scottish Secretaries, and certainly look quite striking. They have been replaced with some modern works, as have those in the main reception room, while officials wait for three Stuart portraits to arrive from the GAC.

One of my fellow guests was the Earl of Dundee, whose father - James Scrymgeour-Wedderburn - was an under secretary at the Scottish Office in the 1930s and '40s. It's a shame I didn't interview Lord Dundee for my tome as he remembered a lot of useful things his father told him about his time as a Minister, including the fact that Sir Godfrey Collins (Scottish Secretary from 1932-36) was quite senile during his last year as Secretary of State.

The Scotland Office is a curious entity as it now lies within the Department for Constitutional Affairs, although has some degree of autonomy. The elegance of the building does not quite match the department's diminished responsibility, but beyond 10 Downing Street must be one of the most pleasant Government buildings in Whitehall.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Joseph Westwood

One inevitably of writing political biography, it seems, is that after the book is finished you start stumbling across valuable sources which somehow did not crop up during the research process. A good example is a biography of Clement Attlee I picked up last weekend in a Bloomsbury bookshop. It describes Attlee's infamously insensitive method of dismissing Cabinet ministers, particularly that of Scottish Secretary Joseph Westwood. This gets a mention in my chapter on Westwood but Francis Beckett's biography contains a lot more detail:

'Morning, Prime Minister,' said Westwood, 'I know what you're after, you want my job.' Clem said: 'Well, Joe, as a matter of fact, you know, you are getting on a bit and we have to make room for the young ones.' Westwood said: 'That's all right by me. You'll find I shall be just as loyal on the backbenches as on the Front Bench.'

And Arthur Woodburn, Attlee's second Scottish Secretary, fared little better.

'Good t'see you,' said the prime minister, 'I'm carrying through Government changes. Want your job for somebody else. Sake of the party, y'know. Write me the usual letter. Think of something as the excuse. Health, family, too much travelling, constituency calls. Anything will do. Good fellow. Thanks.'

When Woodburn pressed the prime minister for a reason, Attlee said: ''Cos you don't measure up to your job.'

[Francis Beckett, Clem Attlee, 270-71]

Monday, July 03, 2006

Bob Boothby

Bob Boothby is a colourful figure in Scottish political history but now largely forgotten. He was promiscuously sexual (and not fussy when it came to gender) and even fathered a child with Harold Macmillan's wife Dorothy. In later life he kept rather careless company with London 'characters' like the Kray twins. But he was also a romantic and wrote several books, one of which was given to me by my flatmate this weekend. One passage from My Yesterday, Your Tomorrow (which is dedicated to the students of the University of St. Andrews) gives some sense of his peculiar take on Scottish politics:

A political revival is urgently required. I believe it can be achieved with the material at present available. We need a greater conceit of ourselves; and a less parochial outlook. If I had ever been offered the Scottish Office - and at one moment, long ago, it was conceivable – I should have asked for an official residence in Edinburgh; and with the assistance of my old friend Sir Compton Mackenzie, striven to revive the pristine glories of a society which once commanded the attention of Europe. I should have driven round Scotland in an enormous black car, with the rampant lion flying proudly in the wind, and – if possible – outriders on motorcycles. I should have steamed round her coast every year in the fishery cruiser, rechristened a yacht for the purpose, with more flags. And all this not for the purpose of self-aggrandisement; but just to show that the Secretary of State for Scotland is, in his own right, a tremendous political figure whose presence at the British Cabinet table must be counted an honour to them. The offer would, of course, have been precipitatedly withdrawn when I made my terms. But something very real, and very necessary, lies behind them. Without Scotland the English would be sunk.

Boothby wrote this in 1957. He was prone to hyperbole but writes colourfully. I wonder what he would have made of relations between Scotland and England nearly 50 years later?

Donald Dewar

I've recently finished writing a book called 'The Scottish Secretaries'. If that weren't evidence enough of my obsessive personality, I've now started collecting memorabilia associated with former holders of that post. The latest addition was a rather expensive, but very nice, set of the Waverley novels previously owned by Donald Dewar. Inside one volume I found the following note from the late Gordon McMaster MP:

20 December 1990

Dear Donald,

This is a short & belated note to thank you for the role that you played in my by-election victory. It was substantial, and I will be eternally grateful for it.

You should never under-estimate the tremendous respect & affection that people have for you - I am sure you must have felt it on the streets of Paisley, Renfrew, Elderslie & Johnston during the campaign. People trust your judgement & sincerity - and, of course, they are right to do so. I will try to deserve the support that you have given me.

Best wishes for Xmas & Ne'erday.

Gordon McMaster

It's a touching note but all the more poignant because within a few months of the 1997 general election McMaster committed suicide. He left a note accusing two fellow Labour MPs of smearing him in a whispering campaign. Commenting at the time, Dewar described his death as a "tragedy" and said: "I came to respect his judgment and enjoyed his friendship over the years. He is a great loss to parliament and to the Labour Party in Scotland."