Most media are carrying fulsome obituaries of the former Scottish Secretary of State for Scotland Bruce Millan, who has just died at a ripe age of 85. Tribute to him was paid by Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, who said: “Bruce was someone of whom the Labour Party should be very proud. He was a great public servant and a very modest man.” Leader of the Labour Party Ed Miliband said: “Bruce Millan dedicated his life to service of our country and the Labour Party. I am very sad to hear news of his passing.”
A man clearly popular and respected among his colleagues, he was also someone able to balance life and career and his family has articulated their gratitude for his ability to do that among so many careerists. But, while acknowledging this achievement, accepting the sincere praise of his colleagues and reluctant as anyone should be to speak ill of the dead, I assert that he was, nonetheless, a disaster for Scotland.
He served under the legendary Willie Ross as Undersecretary of State for Scotland in the Wilson governments 1964-70, a pivotal time when Scottish heavy industry was under growing international competition and the Labour government was convinced that the mines, shipyards, steel mills etc that provided the economic lifeblood of the Central Belt (and therefore of Scotland itself) would nonetheless provide in the future as they had in the past.
Fifteen years Ross’ junior, Millan did not make waves around so strong a personality. Ross, in his turn, was given pretty much a free hand by Wilson. It was on his watch that the many ambitious social projects, including rehousing thousands in tower blocks, the provision of estates like Castlemilk and the clearance of the Govan slums took place. Millan represented Craigton, which became Govan in 1983.
It was also a time of major public investments in the new deep mines (Monktonhall, Longannet) with revolutionary fluorescent lights, underground railways and multi-storey cages promised efficient extraction of vast quantities of quality coal. Ross and Millan were not responsible for the building of the Bathgate or Linwood car plants, nor even the Ravenscraig steel complex, but they did push the Hunterston ore terminal and state-directed infrastructure like the now-defunct Kinlochleven and Alness bauxite plants.
Journalist Andrew Marr called Ross “a stern-faced and authoritarian Presbyterian conservative who ran the country like a personal fiefdom for Harold Wilson“. He opposed the 1975 referendum on Europe and coined the phrase ‘Tartan Tories” to insult the SNP. An example of ‘Oor Wullie’s’ titan status and his dismissive handling of mere mortals who dared to challenge him comes in a exchange from March 9th 1966:
Mr Gordon Campbell (Moray and Nairnshire) asked the Secretary of State for Scotland what effects the re-programming of investment by departments will have on his estimates for public investment in Scotland in the current year contained in paragraph 372 of the White Paperon the Scottish Economy, Command Paper No. 2864.
Mr William Ross (Kilmarnock) None, Sir. The estimates in the White Paper took full account of the effects of the policy which was introduced on 27th July last year and is now being continued in a more flexible form.
Mr Gordon Campbell (Moray and Nairnshire) Does not that mean that either the Chancellor’s statement on 8th February was a sham, or the figures in the Scottish White Paper which was published earlier are entirely meaningless?
Mr William Ross (Kilmarnock) No, Sir. I think it means that the hon. Gentleman is not capable of comprehending what was said.
The state direction of the economy, of which the Wilson government was particularly fond, ignored the rising threat of Nissan/Honda/Toyota to the likes of Linwood and Bathgate, the cheapness of Australian open-cast coal and the Daewoo or Samsung shipyards in Korea that were building cheaper, welded-hull ships while the Clyde was banging in another billion rivets.
But when Wilson—ever the canny politician—realised the dubious direction in which his decade of pseudo-socialism had led things: three-day weeks; constant strikes; an IMF bale-out; a deteriorating balance of trade, he resigned, handing the whole mess over to ‘Sunny Jim’ Callaghan. As his acolyte, Ross went too, leaving the far more mortal and human Millan to fill his shoes.
It’s fair to say that it would have taken a Titan bigger than ‘Oor Wullie’ to have fixed the Scottish economy in 1975. Not only were all the traditional heavy industries going to the wall (and few could have foreseen how completely they would disappear) but neither of the economic boosts from North Sea oil nor ‘Silicon Glen’ were yet making any significant difference. If once imperial Britain had lost her way, then Scotland was already in the woods and disoriented and without a compass too.
It was a time for bold leadership, for thinking the unthinkable, of thinking out of the box, or whatever glib management-speak you want to use. But Bruce Millan, for all his undoubted attributes, could not provide any. He was a good and loyal apparatchik. And, as long as Callaghan thought he could negotiate with the unions to stop spiraling wages and inflation that set off further rounds of strikes, Millan wasn’t the man to rock the boat. So in 1972 £1 could buy DM8. By 1977, it was DM4 and the German economy was roaring ahead, derisive of this ‘English disease’ of strikes.
Could Millan have done more to take a different direction within a Labour Scotland? He could have tried. But that he did nothing more than turn the handle 1975-1979 is reprehensible. His main achievements appear to be to approve Torness nuclear station and to open Glasgow Royal Infirmary. With no Scottish Parliament and the ‘football team’ of 11 SNP MPs snapping at his heels, his department was Labour’s main political weapon to fight them off. In one of his few weaker moments Ross had confessed to Winnie Ewing: “It’s not the eleven wins that frighten me, Winnie, it’s your thirty-five second places“.
But, when that threat resulted in Callaghan scheduling the 1978 Referendum, most of Scottish Labour, including Millan declined to join the ‘Yes’ side, despite Home Rule for Scotland being part of the Labour Manifesto since before WWI. During the passage of the Act, the MP for Islington (of all places) amended it by adding a further requirement that the approval at the referendum be by 40% of Scotland’s total registered electorate, rather than by a simple majority.
Leave aside that half the House of Commons would not have been elected if this had been applied to them, Millan the viceroy in charge of the country in question, made no protest, didn’t stmp his foot, charge into Callaghan’s office or show the least outrage—meaning the amendment stood. This resulted in the only election in British democratic history where a clear majority voted ‘Yes’ (51.8%) but the minority who voted ‘No’ (48.4%) won on a turnout of 64%. Note this is considerably more than ANY turnout since devolution.
Say what you like about independence, everyone but the Tories spent the next 20 years arguing for at least some form of Home Rule and that Labour is still outraged that the SNP got angry enough to bring down the staggering Callaghan government as a result. Millan continued on in a Shadow role but no-one was paying attention to Scotland any more. Despite promises from Sir Alec Douglas-Home to vote ‘no’ and get a better deal from the Tories, Thatcher’s arch-unionism made a cruel joke of that and the focus moved to the Falkalnds and the Miners’ Strike.
Perhaps it is symbolic that when the by-then-senior but still-invisible Bruce Millan took the Chiltern Hundreds in 1988 to become an EU commissioner that the resulting by-election in his Govan seat lost it to a barnstorming campaign from the SNP’s Jim Sillars, husband to Margo who had taken it fifteen years before. Though there is no doubt of Millan’s humanity, nor of loyalty and dedication to his party, it could be fairly claimed that the present demise of Labour in Scotland has its roots in the rudderless post-Ross years when his hand was on the tiller of Scotland at decisive times when courage and action were needed.
And he effectively did nothing.