Profile: Gus Macdonald - Lord of the roads

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The Independent Culture
When Lord Gus Macdonald, the new transport minister, teams up next week with his boss, John Prescott, they should discover plenty in common. Cars for a start - just as the environment secretary loves his gas-guzzling Jag, so the new traffic controller prefers a four-wheel drive Range Rover for short journeys.

There will also be ships to discuss. While Mr Prescott began his career as a steward serving drinks on them, Lord Macdonald was on Clydeside with his blowtorch fitting those ocean-going liners. Wry smiles may greet each man's memory as a rabble-rousing union leader, leading his colleagues out on strike. Mr Prescott may congratulate his colleague on his acclaimed recent success in securing the future of the Govan shipyard in Glasgow. And finally, before they work out how to fix London's Tube and Britain's jammed roads, this colourful couple may relax enough to reminisce on unhappy school- days: how John's were blighted by failing the 11-plus, and Gus became so miserable at his school that he left for the shipyards when he was 14.

These then are both big men born around Britain's great ports, Liverpool and Glasgow, good networkers, full of charisma, who enjoy the trappings of power, but who still bear some psychological scars of under-privilege. Yet anyone imagining that they are natural political allies would be mistaken.

Whereas Mr Prescott is heralded as the conscience of the left struggling to be heard in Tony Blair's cabinet, Lord Macdonald is now the Clyde-built capitalist, a Trot turned Thatcher fan, a self-made millionaire, the only member of the Government to have run a large public company. As chairman of Scottish Television, he is remembered for having sacked half the workforce, rooting out a moribund unionised culture and turning the company into the success it is today.

This persona represents a dramatic shift for a man who back in 1962 attended a famous meeting in Glasgow's Queen's Park, where Hugh Gaitskell spoke about reforming the Labour party. At the meeting, which persuaded Donald Dewar, now Scotland's First Minister, to go into politics, Gus Macdonald and his Trotskyite colleagues tried to drown out Gaitskell with heckling.

Mr Prescott will also now find his new colleague quite different from himself in political style. Whereas the Deputy Prime Minister hides behind an image of the ordinary bloke with a blundering lack of sophistication, Lord Macdonald, an intense autodidact, boldly displays his intellect. John Prescott confesses that he has never read a book for pleasure. His new colleague is passionately, eclectically literate and, worse still, a policy wonk. Mr Prescott may be appalled to learn, given his suspicion of Blairist acolytes, that when Geoff Mulgan, now head of the No 10 Policy Unit, published Connexity, his hymn to modernity, Lord Macdonald bought multiple copies and sent them to his friends.

In short, Mr Prescott knows that the appointment of this can-do businessman to the transport post, which provides a seat but no vote in Cabinet, is a mark of his own failure. And Lord Macdonald recognises that his task, after Labour's poor showing in the European elections, is to deliver quickly on the Blair pledge to sort out transport, an issue which could otherwise plague Labour in the General Election.

Of course many of us remember him just as plain Gus Macdonald back in the 1980s, fronting Channel 4's Right to Reply, a tough-talking chance for viewers to have their say about programmes they disliked. Who could not admire that robust Scot, who hauled in programme-makers for a roasting? Never patronising, he was on our side. Yet then, for many people, Macdonald disappeared until he suddenly turned up this week as the most important promotion in Tony Blair's reshuffle.

Up in Scotland, there can, however, have been few people unaware of Gus Macdonald's extraordinary rise. By the mid-80s, after a long gritty career with Granada, where he edited World in Action and presented What the Papers Say, he came north. As director of programmes for Scottish Television, then managing director and chairman, Macdonald became a chieftain figure in Scottish life.

"I think he saw his role as kick-starting Scottish politics when Scotland hit the doldrums after failing to get devolution in the 1979 referendum," says George Rosie, who presented some of Macdonald's most controversial outputs. "Programmes were made which would never have been allowed under previous management."

The Englishing of Scotland questioned the allocation of top jobs north of the border. Scotching the Myth claimed the south-east of England, rather than Scotland, was the most tax-featherbedded part of the UK.

A thistle was placed in STV's logo and "Scottish" replaced the abbreviated "S". There was a nod to nationalism even in lighter broadcasting such as the title of the travel programme, Scottish Passport. All this amid a major shift, engineered by Macdonald, into tabloid television in which the rising entrepreneur devoted himself to "providing eyeballs for advertisers". As Gus Macdonald slashed the workforce, the mainstays of British popular television, such as Kirsty Young and Carol Smillie, were being developed on his network.

In a period when Scotland set itself firmly against Thatcherite ideology, Macdonald uniquely demonstrated that tough market economics need not be anti-Scottish, a lesson that the Scottish Labour Party still finds hard to accept. It is this track record which attracted him to Tony Blair, who plucked him from his plans to retire last year, ennobled him and made him a minister last year in the Scottish Office.

Macdonald's friends were amazed. "He was telling everyone that he planned to cut his commitments down to half a dozen board memberships and then play golf and fish," says Malcolm Clark, who was born in the same street as Macdonald and has remained friends ever since. "I got the shock of my life when he went back in the saddle."

So what drives on a man who is 59 next month, with a long working life already behind him? It's clear that he has an inordinate ego and is very status-conscious. He appears driven to prove himself, and deep down he does not enjoy much serenity. But he has a great skill: he understands how the power game works and what can be achieved. "He can be quite Machiavellian," says a former colleague." Until recently, many people thought he might end up backing the Scottish Nationalists. But he is too old. If Gus was a bit younger and the SNP looked like they could pull it off, then I'm sure he would be a key player for them. But Gus is someone who wants to get things done and he wants the laps of honour so the Labour party is his game."

When asked himself to explain his driving ambition, Macdonald typically chose a book for help. "There's a character," he said, "in the William Burroughs novel Cities of the Red Night who is described as 'insane with purpose'. It's a wonderful phrase. I'm very purposeful but I hope not to any illogical extent."

That drive to achieve goes right back to childhood, when Mr Clark remembers his friend growing up in Weir Street, part of Glasgow's Gorbals. "They were three-storey tenements with three or four families to a floor. Half of them had an inside toilet, half of them didn't. Gus's father was a tall Highlander, a smart, very insular man, someone who would not have felt part of Glasgow culture. He was a fairly austere disciplinarian, on the left politically and worked as a stevedore, organising the loading of ships. His mother was a bright, attractive lady who cleaned to earn money."

Macdonald always stood out. An only child, he excelled academically, winning a scholarship to Allan Glen's, a top-class, fee-paying technical school, where Macdonald recalls being introduced "to the rough pleasures of rugby, which induced instant respect for the toughness of the unlikeliest toffs."

Mr Clark recalls: "He was tall for his age and very aggressive. He was the sort of kid that other kids would want to take on, but didn't because he wasn't just smart and intellectual. He was also tough." His good looks also made him a favourite and he eventually gained the nickname "Trewsers Macdonald". Mr Clark recalls: "He was into taking care of his libido and the hormones, but he never got into trouble."

However, a promising academic career faltered at 14, when the headstrong Macdonald left school. Unlike other gifted trade unionists of his generation, he never went to university as a mature student, an omission which has left him always trying to prove his intellectual ability.

Instead, he went into the shipyard as a marine fitter for eight years, achieving early fame for leading 300 apprentices out on strike when still only 18 to win a rise on the pounds 5 and 10 shillings a week. Union activism led him into the Young Socialists and eventually into his first job in journalism when Michael Foot hired him as circulation manager on the left- wing paper, Tribune. From there he moved on to The Scotsman, Sunday Times and Granada.

Yet, though Macdonald has shifted his ideology to the point of being called unprincipled (He once told a journalist: "As you mature, your views change"), his life is still firmly rooted in his past. He is still married to Teen, his wife of 36 years. "They met at the Skegness Miners' Camp, when he was 21 and she was 18," says Mr Clark. They have two daughters and two grandchildren. The family were on holiday together in the Canaries when they heard the reshuffle news.

Macdonald, given his Protestant roots, remains a Rangers fan. "He is a 'blue nose' but not a bigot," says one friend, recalling how he filled the top ranks of Scottish Television with Catholics. And being a great networker, friends from the shipyards are still close - like Sir Alex Ferguson and Billy Connolly. When the Govan shipyard was threatened with closure earlier this yard, Macdonald, then a Scottish Office minister, turned to his old union boss Sir Gavin Laird, and Malcolm Clark (who helped lead the 1959 Apprentices strike) to form a task-force to organise the yard's sale.

Nor does he forget his friends. Last year, he threw himself into organising a trust fund for the family of another shipyard worker turned journalist, Bobby Campbell, who died suddenly. Macdonald took his grandchildren on holiday with Campbell's triplet sons, whose mother also died nearly 10 years ago.

This ability to gather friends and contacts has served Gus Macdonald remarkably well over the years. His charisma has allowed him to shift his politics without making too many enemies. It also enabled him to pull off two remarkable business coups in Scotland. The first was to win the broadcasting licence for Scottish Television during Margaret Thatcher's auction, despite submitting a bid of only pounds 2,000. Secondly, he managed to expand Scottish Television's empire considerably by merging with Grampian and buying the Herald newspaper. "Down south, such concentration of ownership would never have been allowed," said one former STV employee. "But everyone trusted Gus and, in any case, he had cleverly nobbled all the opposition before they had a chance to object."

Lord Macdonald has likewise been careful to cultivate Gordon Brown, and his hill-walking friendship with Donald Dewar has opened many doors. However, he will be exposed as never before in his new job. His Scottish connections will be of little use, perhaps even a liability. He is the fourth Scot in two years to be sitting in this sensitive ministerial post covering a vital English issue. The fact that he is a peer will be taken as an insult by the Commons, making him a target for Opposition vitriol.

All that toughness and drive that Gus Macdonald learned at Allan Glen's school will be needed in the Palace of Westminster. But friends do not expect him to stop at transport. "It wouldn't surprise me if he has his eye on being Minister for the Isles, when Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland all have one secretary of state," said one friend. "You have to remember that the sky's always been the limit for Gus."

But before that he'll have to sort out the congestion that is clogging Britain's roads and railways. It may be an insoluble task, but if anyone is primed to succeed, it is Gus Macdonald. His entire career has been that of a wheeler-dealer between the public and private spheres: the perfect background for finding that elusive Third Way to get you to work on time.

Life Story

Born: 20 August 1940 in Larkhill, Lanarkshire.

Family: Father, Colin, a stevedore. Mother, Jean (nee Livingstone), a cleaner. Only child. Married Theresa "Teen" McQuaid in 1963. Two daughters, aged 31 and 33.

Education: Scotland Street Primary School, Glasgow. Allan Glen's fee- paying school, Glasgow, left at age 14.

Business career: 1963-67: Journalist with Tribune, The Sunday Times and The Scotsman. 1967-86: Joins Granada Television, edits World in Action, presents Right to Reply, What the Papers Say. 1976: Founds the Edinburgh Television Festival. 1986-98: Moves to Scottish Television, eventually becoming chairman.

Political career: 1998: ennobled as Baron Macdonald of Tradeston, CBE. July 1998: appointed Business and Industry Minister in the Scottish Office. July 1999: appointed Transport Minister.

He says of his primary school: "Blood-curdling blue-nose choruses would echo off the red sandstone building designed by the altogether more aesthetic Charles Rennie Mackintosh."

Friends say: "I don't know what he finds exciting about Blair's lot at all. But he is fiercely loyal to his old pals and comrades. He's got a hairt." Gordon McCulloch, communist folk singer when he first met Macdonald.

No 10 says: "He's a real achiever and gets things done. He has great drive and huge experience."

The papers say: "Screaming Lord Sutch may be dead, but at least we still have Scheming Lord Gus." The Herald, Glasgow