Andy McMahon

Boilermaker MP for Govan
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The Independent Online

Election to the House of Commons can turn out to be a great personal misfortune for some individuals. Westminster is simply not their scene. Such a one was Andy McMahon, the first genuine boilermaker to enter the House of Commons. (As opposed to the unlikely trade-union-sponsored "boilermakers" such as Gerald Kaufman and John Smith, future leader of the Labour Party.) On failing to be reselected in 1979, he drifted away from the Labour Party in Scotland.

Andrew McMahon, boilermaker and politician: born Glasgow 18 March 1920; MP (Labour) for Glasgow Govan 1979-83; President, British-Iraqi Friendship Association 1986-89, Secretary General 1989; married (one daughter, and one son deceased); died Glasgow 26 April 2005.

Election to the House of Commons can turn out to be a great personal misfortune for some individuals. Westminster is simply not their scene. Such a one was Andy McMahon, the first genuine boilermaker to enter the House of Commons. (As opposed to the unlikely trade-union-sponsored "boilermakers" such as Gerald Kaufman and John Smith, future leader of the Labour Party.) On failing to be reselected in 1979, he drifted away from the Labour Party in Scotland.

McMahon was born into a shipyard family and, leaving school at 15 in 1936, went straight in to work at a number of yards, notably Alexander Stephen & Sons on the Clyde. Jimmy Airlie, later one of the leaders of the Upper Clyde shipbuilders and National Officer of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers, described him as a very hardworking and well- regarded engineer - exempted from war service on account of being in an "essential" occupation.

In 1971 he was chosen as Labour candidate, and therefore automatically elected as a district councillor. The internal politics of the city of Glasgow were a Byzantine mystery to east Scots like me and somehow or another McMahon was selected for the Glasgow Govan constituency electorate of 24,894. Because of inner-city depopulation and refusal to draw new boundaries there had been nothing quite like it since Old Sarum. In 1979 McMahon triumphed by winning 11,676 votes to the Conservative Jack Walker's 3,188 and the Scottish Nationalist Tom Wilson's 2,340.

The contentious circumstances in which he had been chosen, by various family and religious lineages in the city of Glasgow, put McMahon at odds from day one with some of his neighbours in Parliament. He hated the place. I became one of his few friends, partly because he consoled himself by accepting invitations from a number of Arab countries to visit them. He was Chairman of the Scottish Arab Friendship Association and later Secretary General of the British-Iraqi Friendship Association.

He asked me to go with him on one of his numerous visits to Baghdad to meet his friends of the Tulfah family of Tikrit, General Adnan Khairallah al-Tulfah, al-Bakr and the third of the Baath Party ruling triumvirate, a thrusting and impressive young vice-president, by the name of Saddam Hussein. In retrospect, I wish I had gone.

One thing slightly worried even McMahon. It was that Saddam Hussein had gone to France, seeking a way out of dependence on Russia, and that the French had reasons for wooing Saddam for both a steady supply of cheap oil and as an outlet for the export of their arms industry. Given Iraq's hugely expanding oil revenues in the wake of the 1973-74 Arab oil boycott and France's need to discover new markets abroad for its weaponry, France and Iraq were a natural fit.

While touring Provence with the French prime minister, Jacques Chirac, and the marketing director of Dassault, Hugues de l'Estoile, Saddam made a circuitous trip that few people paid much attention to at the time. On the way to the bullfights at Les Baux, Chirac decided to go 70km out of their way and take the young Arab to the Cadarache nuclear research centre, one of the most advanced in Europe. It was at Cadarache, this small Provençal town just north of Marseilles, that the French Commissariat L'Energie Atomique had set up its first experimental fast breeder reactor. They called this Rapsodi. It certainly enchanted Saddam.

McMahon, in possibly the shrewdest remark he was ever to make, wondered whether it was wise to whet the appetite of young Arab nationalists for things atomic.

Tam Dalyell

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